When I think of the cinema’s silent era, the first thing I picture is the legendary Nosferatu in all its brilliant glory. However, films like Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages were those that could serve as reminders of just how influential F.W. Murnau’s classic is. However, as we’ve come to learn over the years, just because something serves as influence, that doesn’t mean every spin-off deserves our time of the day. This is not to say that my time with Häxan wasn’t well spent, but it was something I look back at with a raised eyebrow as I contemplate the final product.
More of a hypothesis than a film with a plot, Häxan melds documentary with short film theories about witchcraft throughout time. We wrap our heads around seven chapters of supernatural history that show us sacrifice techniques, common beliefs, spells, pacts — you name it, it was probably addressed in here.
This is one of the most odd films I’ve ever laid my eyes on, and I’ve flirted with both Davids, Lynch and Cronenberg. Häxan has but one purpose: to address that idea that people in the middle ages might have been suffering from hysteria that may have caused them to be declared witches. However, this is a minor part of the film. We more often see examples of history, such as sacrifices and reenactments of odd rituals. I found the film to be informative yet extremely cheesy. I’ve very little knowledge of witchcraft myself, so I can’t say how accurate the whole thing was. What I did know was in there, and I’d consider that some pretty basic stuff (mostly how witches were identified and dealt with).
For a silent film, I’d say that the make-up effects were great and the sets authentic. People were disfigured, killed, and possessed before our very eyes. The overall effect was mildly humorous, though. The way people bumble around, overact, make ridiculous faces — there’s always something to giggle at and be bewildered by. The makings of a classic silent cinema are there, but the effects very often become cancelled with sudden, but necessary, interruptions of the documentary format. The biggest problem is that without our documentary text, the film has no purpose. But sometimes that text drags on to seemingly no end. Still, once we get to the juicy reenactments, we have a series of shorts that delight us as well as any good silent flick can.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is a piece that requires patience but can be considered a classic for its time; heck, even as horror or a documentary. The film does a good job with both, but by the end I’d rather have had just one or the other; the problem is that we need both in order to get a coherent story. Take Häxan with a grain of salt. It’s worth a watch, especially because of its influence, but don’t strain yourself to rent it.