An Analysis – Häxan (1922)
One of my contributions to the horrible festivities for October is a discussion of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922). As we’re still relatively far from the main event on the 31st, it feels apt to look at a film that rests at the edges of the horror genre, not fully committing itself to blood, gore or psychological tension, though never entirely breaking away.
The film is certainly strange and unique. Part documentary, part fiction and part anthropological exposition, the structure of Häxan‘s narrative is tough to pin down. While slippery and difficult to handle, it is precisely the form of the film that makes the picture so engaging and challenging: detailed realism often transforms into disturbing psychological caricature, while consistently being framed by documentary objectivity and metatextual nods to the audience and the filmmaking process.
Christensen opens his picture by telling us that it’s “A presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in seven chapters of moving pictures.” The first shot involves an iris-in to reveal a photograph of the director (labelled as such); he stares right back at us, creating a distance between the viewer and what is being watched. This film is, the inter-title and titled photograph suggest, an investigation on display rather than a fiction. The aesthetic of a lecture is continued in the first chapter, which is composed only of inter-titles and a number of engravings and models. A pointer is used to indicate specific areas of the illustrations that the inter-titles explain. Christensen uses the first person singular pronoun in this section and, at the same time, consistently refers to other sources, generating in the process a conversation between different authorities: he points out, for example, that “The picture of a pyre as well as the following are from ‘German Life in the Past in Pictures'” and, on one occasion, hands over to “The English scientist Rawlinson and French scientist Maspero.” Christensen’s lighthearted comments make clear the objective treatment of his subject matter: we could not, with such ease, “Observe the eagerness with which the devils tend to fire under the cauldrons!” if we were terrified we could, at some point, end up in them.
The reconstructed scenes of medieval witchcraft are viewed in the light of this opening chapter’s scientific presentation of the origins of belief. The scenes are remarkable, using low-key lighting and convincing art design to generate an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspicion, itself complimented by understated performances. We see Christensen’s invention in his editing decisions: he drives scenes forward with a confident use of close-ups, point-of-view shots and changes in the framing size and angle. In the scene in which Maria (Maren Pedersen), the elderly woman accused of being a witch, is interrogated by two priests (apparently playing good-cop bad-cop), use is also made of the space immediately beyond the frame. Each of the men has Maria by an arm, and they begin to engage in a tug of war. Christensen does not shoot this as a static three-shot, but instead shares the action between two static medium shots that each contain a man and Maria but frame out the third. With this construction, she is always partially filling the space beyond the frame, being pulled between the two shots. Instead of being at the center, she is at the edge: this arrangement reveals more accurately the distribution of power.
Christensen creates some terrifying locations. For example, the pain of the torture chamber is accentuated by a rare movement of the camera. As a body lies supine ready to be stretched, the camera begins to pan left, following the chains that are tied to the feet. With the camera preempting the painful movement of the chains, the shot is dynamically lengthened and therefore, in this case, effective in a way that a static shot would not be. But Christensen undermines his own atmosphere in the final chapter of the film. Here, locations are revisited and comments are made both about the psychological causes of witchcraft and the filming process. The tools of torture are transformed into hilarious reminiscences about the shoot: he tells us that “One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew when we were filming these pictures.” Interestingly, this inter-title is then followed by a close shot of the actress, out of costume, laughing and undergoing the process. This shot, then, is a reconstruction of a moment that happened when the camera was turned off. Christensen’s lighthearted tone returns, when he says, “I will draw a veil over the dreadful confessions that I forced the young woman to make in less than a minute.”
This short section is illustrative of the larger play between fiction and fact in Häxan. While chapter seven seems to be conclusively demonstrating that witchcraft is a social illusion—a misdiagnosis—of the Middle Ages, Christensen also makes comments that challenge our clear-cut conclusion. Again he turns to another authority, though in this instance she is the “lovely old woman who plays the role of Maria the Weaver in my film.” He tells us that, “during a pause in the shoot“ (my emphasis), she said, “The devil is real. I have seen him sitting at my bedside.” The juxtaposition of this inter-title with a close-up of the elderly woman’s face, so expressive with age, is moving. (The aesthetic and emotion achieved by the shot reminds me of the famous CU from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc.) I’ve emphasized the fact that this incident happened between takes because it seems that Christensen regularly goes to the borders of filmmaking—the edge of frame, the instances when the camera is off, the props and style of an anthropology lecture—for his important moments of problematized exposition.
As for other horror films, I’ve written elsewhere on how, for me, the most terrifying moments in Paranormal Activity (2007) are the pauses, rather than the bumps: the moments, in other words, when first-time writer and director Oren Peli decides to let his scene linger.