Sunday, October 28, 2012

Witchcraft Through The Ages The Story of Haxan The World's Strangest Film, And The Man Who Made It by Jack Stevenson

This slim little book was a real Halloween treat to read. Since I discovered it many years ago, HAXAN (THE WITCH), also known as WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, has been one of my favorite silent movies and traditional Halloween viewing, so when I found out a book had been written about it there was no question that I would click the “Buy” button at Amazon.

HAXAN is the masterpiece of Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen. Born in 1879 to an affluent Danish family, the youngest of a dozen children, he wanted to be an opera singer, but severe anxiety and profound stage fright prevented him from realizing his dream. He drifted aimlessly through a number of jobs, trying to find his niche in the world, trying his hand at proofreading, exporting potatoes, and selling champagne until 1912 when he made his debut as an actor in silent films where the lack of sound and an audience allowed him to overcome his crippling stage fright. But acting was not enough, soon his attention moved behind the camera. The idea for HAXAN was born when he happened across a copy of the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM in a used bookstore. This witchhunter’s manual, with details and instructions for the detecting and prosecution of witches, was the big bestseller of the 15th century; its sales surpassed only by the Bible, and cost thousands of women their lives. Christensen was fascinated by the book and read it from cover to cover and a new ambition was born—to make a movie about the history of witchcraft, and to combine it with psychological theories relating to female hysteria prevalent in Christensen’s day and how they might be used to explain the behavior of accused witches, visionaries, and saints in less enlightened eras.

Another lucky coincidence followed when Christensen found the star of his film after a visit to the Tivoli Gardens amusement park when an elderly woman implored him to buy a bunch of violets. Her name was Madsen Pedersen, she was 78 years old and a former nurse, fallen on hard times, who lived in a nursing home that turned out its able residents to earn what meager living they could each day to pay for their room and board. In her wrinkled face, like an apple doll’s, and gray hair, Benjamin Christensen saw Maria the Weaver, the old woman accused of witchcraft and brought before men of the Church for interrogation. Tortured into confessing, her recollections of dalliances with the Devil, form the best sequences in the film, scenes of witches flying on broomsticks to rendezvous with the Devil, for dancing and debauchery with demons and imps at moonlit witches sabbats in the forest where Benjamin Christensen himself portrayed the Devil in a makeup job truly amazing for those early days of filmmaking. Other scenes included a woman giving birth to a demon, nuns in the ecstatic throes of possession, lustful monks, satanic ceremonies, and discreetly silhouetted nudity. Though to modern viewers these scenes may seem tame and even comical, they were shocking and state-of-the-art in 1922 when the movie was released.

Today HAXAN is considered a cult classic, and what many regard as the first documentary, as unlike most movies it does not have a cohesive plot running throughout or an established hero or heroine, it is more like an essay in moving pictures, but when it was first shown it provoked a storm of outrage and controversy. Protested by religious groups, including 8,000 nuns who assembled outside a theatre in France, there was talk of withdrawing it from general release and showing it only to doctors, psychologists, and those with academic credentials. For many years it was not shown in America or other English-speaking countries as it was considered far too offensive and shocking. The popular American entertainment paper, “Variety,” called it “not fit for public exhibition.”

After HAXAN, Benjamin Christensen was unable to find work in his native Denmark, only in Germany and later America where, if he wanted to work, he had no choice but to make purely commercial pictures that came out like assembly line products on time and under budget. Christensen sacrificed his genius and creativity to earn a living an eventually ended up making B-movies after making the mistake of casting then popular villain and horror star Lon Chaney in a sympathetic role. He directed a few early “talkies” and is even believed to have invented the overhead sound boom by attaching a microphone to a bamboo pole and extending it over the actors’ heads. He returned to Denmark in 1929, then again to Hollywood, an aimless drifter again who had lost his place in the world. He spent some years living as a near-hermit in a cottage on the beach in California and published a book of short stories, some of them perhaps autobiographical, including titillating scenes of skinny dipping with starlets, and in the mid 1930s dabbled in “social problem” films that were meant to be thought-provoking and encourage discussion and debate, including “Children of Divorce” and another about unplanned pregnancy, only to find his creativity hampered by the morally rigorous Production Code which stifled sensuality in films like an iron corset and chastity belt. By the time he was finally allowed to again make a movie that he wanted to make, it was too late, the magic was gone. THE LADY WITH THE LIGHT-COLORED GLOVES turned out to be a dull and clich├ęd affair about spies that made audiences laugh in all the wrong places.

Despite a re-release in 1941 with a slightly better reception, Christensen didn’t live to see his long-buried masterpiece’s reap its much deserved acclaim. Long thought lost and dismissed as an historical curiosity, a near pristine print was discovered and became a popular feature, soon achieving camp or cult movie status. Criterion has released a wonderful dvd that includes color tinting and the original score. An edited version with author William S. Burroughs supplying narration was even released in 1968 for those who do not like silent movies, but by then Christen, who ended his career managing a movie theatre, was nearly ten years in his grave. He died in 1959, after a lengthy illness, aged 79.

This is a short book, as by this late date many details are lost, but the author does a fine job of assembling and relating in a straightforward manner what is known about the making of the movie, its history, and creator, and even includes a few reminiscences from cast members. Whether you’re just curious about HAXAN or have an interest in silent films or depictions of witchcraft, this is definitely a worthwhile read.

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