Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne; Starring Benjamin Christensen; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (Sealed Orders aka The Mysterious X, 1914)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.

It’s probably quite difficult to properly appreciate a film that is almost 100 years old (or it may be exactly 100 years old, as some sources list it as produced in 1913; however, I am taking the date from the Danish Film Institute DVD I own, as they seem like they’d be a trustworthy source on matters of Danish cinema). There are sequences here that seem deeply clichéd with such long hindsight, but must have been the height of cinematic sophistication at the time. Yet whatever its flaws, this is a wonderfully crafted piece of filmmaking.

The plot is a fairly straightforward one. As war is declared, Lieutenant van Hauen (played by the director, Benjamin Christensen, most famous for Häxan) is called up to command a battleship and is handed sealed orders by his father, Rear Admiral van Hauen. However, these orders are intercepted by an enemy spy who has inveigled the affections of van Hauen’s wife (played by Karen Sandberg). And here’s where the high melodrama kicks in: Lt van Hauen is accused of treason, so his wife and blond-curled son must race against the clock to save him from the firing squad. In the course of this, there’s a bit of to-and-fro regarding a mysterious “X” (as in “marks the spot”, one imagines) that the spy has left on a document, the decoding of which leads to the smoking gun evidence.

It’s all run through with brio, although I must confess I did get a bit lost in the plot at points. What Christensen has, though, is a sure sense of visual style. There’s a particularly breathtaking shot of figures moving up a hill to a windmill, filmed into the sun so that everything is in ghostly, mysterious silhouette (you can see the image in the ‘poster’ attached to this review), but this is just one shot amongst many others of similar worth. Christensen’s cinematographer Emil Dinesen doesn’t seem to have any other credits, which is all the more surprising given the inventiveness shown in many of the beautiful and richly contrasted black-and-white set-ups.

Indeed, for every scene of hokey melodrama or frankly silly plotting (the army intercepts the spy’s secret communication by shooting his carrier pigeon), there’s some real visual — cinematic — intelligence on display, to surprise you at what a debut director less than 20 years into the medium’s history could come up with. The interruption of a vital communications link by the spies is illustrated by showing the words of a phone message being scrawled in bright, shining letters along telegraph wires, just prior to it being blown up (cut to the Rear Admiral, looking with shock at his now-silent phone). Mrs van Hauen’s fevered dreams fixating on the meaning of this “X” are economically conveyed by the image being drawn slowly over her sleeping figure, another early use of special effects by drawing directly onto the film. There are also early attempts at building suspense through cross-cutting between different storylines, which work rather well in the context of the period.

There’s still the matter of that labyrinthine plot, and I did find my attention wandering at times. Yet there’s enough here to make for a fascinating film, quite aside from its great age.

Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Emil Dinesen; Starring Benjamin Christensen, Karen Sandberg; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 13 June 2013.