Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mark of the Witch

The 1922 silent film, Häxan, or Witchcraft Through the Ages, is an inventive and rollicking history of witchcraft, by Danish director Benjamin Christensen. The film is structured in chapters like a book and imitates a documentary composed of Medieval engravings, animation, and live action sequences. Christensen illustrates the spells, potions, and often absurd legends of sorcery. He portrays the cruelty of the church in its relentless pursuit to root out evil, believed to be lurking, most often, in the female body. In the final chapters, witches are alined with 19th century patients of hysteria. The priest is replaced by the doctor as culture shifts from the church  to one devoted to science. In both cases, women are subject to the assaults of patriarchy against any indication of "odd" or "suspicious" behavior.

Häxan is hauntingly prescient in its depiction of torture. Christensen shows young and old women alike, cracking under the pressure of abuse to release a litany of falsehoods. He shows the hypocrisy and violence of the practice and demonstrates the fallacies inherent in "enhanced interrogation techniques." 

Häxan is a complex critical work, and a cinematic masterpiece due to Christensen's adept use of lighting, composition and imagery. He shifts fluidly through a range of visual techniques and relishes in the humor of the abject, as he illuminates the history of the witchcraft through his unique and compelling vision.

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