After seven years, I was able to see Haxan. Its images of witches and devils are striking--but while the scary pictures of Haxan are filled with shivers and groans, the film lays heavily on them a strange internal contradiction, at once disclaimer and progenitor, as Benjamin Christensen works phenomenally hard to make three different movies at once:
The first is a resounding denunciation of religion--at least as the film's "historical review" characterizes it: a self-serving, lubricious business campaign that both fulfills and creates desires, explaining complex problems with small-minded "ideas" (superstitions), all slopping around in a vile soup of retarded babbling and repressed desires--and expressed malignancy. Its opening section almost kills the film before it has a chance to live, by presenting professorial mini-lectures and presentations with static shots of woodcuts and statues, interspersed with models and tableaux. He even employs a lecturer's pointer, sweeping along the images, pausing here and there for emphasis. (I’m reminded of Edison’s “visual instructions” of the ‘teens.) Actually, in some ways it's kind of endearing, a dimly lit mini-museum of antique notions. The models of early conceptions of the universe and Hell are particularly captivating, evoking an earnest--and admittedly bizarre--child’s hand-made dioramas, like Méliès’ pasteboard astronomy. But this pseudo-scholarly treatise threatens to dampen spirits and quell all prickly anticipation, as the film calmly informs the audience how stupid everyone in the “Dark Ages” used to be.
In the second movie--composed of the middle sections of the film, at best a partial "history" of European witchcraft and a "case study" of a witch hunt/trial--Christensen finds his greatest strengths, both as a polemicist and film-maker. The polemics, as heavy-handed as they may be, compel the viewer to share his disgust with the fiends who unjustly accused, tried and executed elderly ladies and fresh-faced girls. The ridiculous "tests" for witchcraft, the "sentence-first-verdict-afterwards" mentality that trapped the accused--and, most of all, the sick minds that motivated the whole enterprise--combine to condemn the condemners with as little mercy as they showed their victims. The fact that the thing is often an exaggerated mess, narrow in scope and partial in understanding, made me as angry at Christensen as at the Inquisitors; but I can lay aside my ire, if only because this second movie delivers on its promise: the meticulous, crazed imagery of demonism and dementia, warty and glistening with sweat, eyeballs rolling in damned sockets while tongues dart, babbling the last promises anyone ever wanted kept. All told, he conjures about twenty minutes of unadulterated madness, true cinematic upheaval, in which he makes us all kneel to kiss Satan's unsettlingly convincing arse, while cold fires glow and impish faces loom. Something is happening here: the creation of an aesthetic, one powerful enough to generate its own memories, right there on the spot, and to give them to its viewers as if they had been their own all along.
Which leads to the inevitable conclusion, Christensen's third movie, in which he seeks to explain how the Dark Ages got that way: Superstitions were adopted to explain psychological illnesses, and opportunistic clerics took advantage of the resulting confusion, fear, and mistrust to cement their authority. And what were these illnesses? Aside from some nods toward physical deformities and the generally "witchy" appearances of old folks, mostly women--and again Christensen becomes the curator, having his hunchbacks and crones pose for the camera, while the pointer moves along their irregular outlines--the real problem was (here it comes) "hysteria," both personal and mass. Christensen is a True Believer who replaces one error--the ignorance and greed of Dark Ages witch-trials--with another: the Freudian misogyny that today labels middle-class female somnambulists and kleptomaniacs as "hysterics" with "nervous conditions.” To be fair, he does suggest an association between the methods of the witch-hunters and the modern psychiatrist: There are some neatly juxtaposed images of accused witches bound to the instruments of the Inquisition and female patients in their cold showers--
--But there it is, the final aesthetic dilemma, the contradictory heart of the film: Christensen's attraction toward the unwholesome image, the loving attention to the very impulses that literally put on the screws in the first place. Christensen wants all three movies to co-exist; but there's too much Grand Guignol in him to remain calm; in the end, his own Dark Age gets the better of him, and in his pity for those poor hysterical women he himself becomes the hysteric, and indicts himself: the male who, as he gazes at the female, never pauses to wonder why his diagnosis of her comes as easily as an witch-hunter’s accusation, albeit delivered in a condescending and simplistic tone that is calmly “modern.” I cannot forget that he decided to play Satan, and jokingly presented a female actress' giggling “Ouch!” as she tried on a thumbscrew.
I looked it up: The twelfth-century St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, “There are some who wish to learn for no other reason than that they may be looked upon as learned, which is a ridiculous vanity. ... Others desire to learn that they may morally instruct others; that is love. And, lastly, there are some who wish to learn that they may be themselves edified; and that is prudence.”
If Christensen had focused merely on his aesthetic urges, he would have avoided much vanity, and maybe even inadvertently spread some love; in any case, it would definitely have been the most prudent course.