Wednesday 23 May 2007

Attitudes towards science and freedom

Häxan [Witchcraft Through the Ages] (1922), directed by Benjamin Christensen

One can’t help feeling that Häxan couldn’t have been made without Freud. A short introduction to psychoanalysis later and this feeling becomes justified. A better-informed review would probably psychoanalyse the film, interpret its symbols and draw out its repressed assumptions, attempt to make sense of its free-association-style imagery and conclude that whoever made it was seriously sexually obsessive and well fucked-up. Maybe Benjamin Christensen – its Swedish writer and maker – would like that. Maybe he wouldn’t. The point is that we’ll never know. And that point sums up the film.

Häxan, first released in 1922, is one of the first – and perhaps only – films of its kind. The unfortunate problem with this is that it makes Häxan difficult to judge. There are almost no comparisons to be made with other films around at the time, and few accepted standards for commenting on a one and half hour high velocity blast of dramatised stories constructed from diary entries and historical reports (with a fair amount of artistic license), interspersed with semi-weighty academic posturing, mechanised montages of old paintings and real-life real-time clips of contemporary living. And that’s before considering the content of the film. This includes the publiciser’s dream of filmmaker Christensen dancing around in a devil costume (no doubt to get the young witches to kiss him on the ass – the osculum infame – it’s what they all did at witches’ sabbats), a none-too-implicit accusation that the medieval Church was led by power-obsessed impotent tyrants, torture scenes, floating pieces of silver and psychotic nuns.

And not being able to say anything about the film en bloc is what makes Häxan so beguiling and yet so frustrating. Viewed as a simple documentary about the history of witchcraft, it lacks the sweep of vision necessary to do justice to the topic. There’s no mention of the Salem witch trials, of alchemy or paganism and no discussion of the role of the witch figure in mythology and fable. Viewed as a work of fiction meant to provoke and entertain, the film has too many scholarly parts to sustain a proper narrative and its multiple surrealist gaffs can become wonderfully unfunny. Häxan could be viewed both as factual documentary and as creative fiction, when really it’s neither, or else it’s both.

It’s better to think of Häxan as a live performance – a crazed surrealist experience that shouldn’t be repeated too often. Geoff Smith, who provided musical accompaniment at this screening on three hammered dulcimers (one was microtonal), sums this up brilliantly, saying it ‘feels like swimming underwater for 105 minutes’. And after his precise performance of ‘pure synthesis of rhythm and melody’ he was allowed to be a bit out of it. His three hammered dulcimers look like overgrown xylophones from outer space and emit a pure shivery tone which creates a distinctly alien sound. Smith’s scoring is a free-rhythm, multi-textural cross-rhythmic bonanza that feels like improvisation, and the sort which only comes from an impressive technical control. The main theme slips more conservatively into a pulsing three-four rhythm with a supernatural sustained humming floating over icy chords. This theme is warningly demonic but slightly sad and gets the tone of the film just right. Overall, the music suggests Häxan is about power: the power to oppress, the power to harm and the power to shock.

The film itself is split into seven chapters. The first and last deal with the more academic issues explicitly through a mix of models, texts and subtitles (read in the 1968 version by literary bad boy William Burroughs). The beefy middle sections provide a narrative account of a medieval village seemingly teeming with devil-worshippers. This is where most of the rudely provocative things happen: a woman gives birth to demons, men have grotesque pigs’ heads, a baby is set alight. Yet the really inflammatory stuff is not in the stark visual images but in the message of the film itself.

Although Christensen quite rightly pokes fun at the utterly unscientific methods of witch-testing, what’s surprising is that he seems to think science needs defying. The two references to mechanisation in the film equate it straightforwardly with being ‘bad’. Commenting on a gloriously detailed depiction of Hell, the subtitles imply it is all the more evil because it is mechanised: ‘look at the way the demon eagerly blows the billows up and down to stoke the fire that burns the sinners’, says the subtitle. Showing the iron torture instruments employed to wring confessions from the accused, the onus is on the withering precision of the devices. One especially gleeful number boasts an iron collar inlaid with thick inwardly pointing spikes. Ropes are attached to hold it fixed around the prisoner’s neck and a large fire lit under his chair. As the prisoner jumps violently to escape the heat of the flames the spikes jab hard into his neck. Ah, the oppressive forces of scientific instruments. Utterly missing is a courteous nod to any of the useful and more humane devices developed by science.

And all this grows out of a deeper – and unexplored – assumption the film makes, that a rational scientific approach and ‘irrational’ impulsive imagination cannot exist side by side, that we must take either one or the other. And obviously the scientific approach is the bad one and the imaginative approach the good one. That’s why most of the accused witches in the bulky narrative section are portrayed as freethinkers, subversives, people connected to their Freudian ids. One woman seeks a potion to seduce a particularly corpulent member of the clergy, others are obsessed with the idea of power – over other people, the weather, themselves, or crave riches and luxury. Whilst Häxan makes the sympathetic point that most Europeans in the Middle Ages had little freedom to purse their own desires or ideas and most peasants had no taste of the sweetmeats – literal and metaphorical – enjoyed by the rich and powerful, blaming the entire situation on the oppressive ‘organisational’ forces of science and the Church seems a little extreme.

The situation must have been a bit more complicated than that. For instance, two monks are depicted about to perform an autopsy on a grave-robbed corpse. They pray for their desecration to be forgiven on the basis they’re only interested in finding cures for diseases. Their curiosity and illegal activity would eventually contribute to the development of medical practice, and is certainly motivated by a desire to do good. And in fact it was often the Church, with its resources and knowledge, that historically was able to fund and advance scientific understanding. In the end the monks are caught because a scared women overhears and tells tales on them. Whilst the film neatly comes down on the side of innovation and the individual in the face of shortsighted legislative forces (and the flooziness of women), it annoyingly sidesteps the positive role large organised bodies can – and did – play in bettering conditions for society. The monks are part of the Church after all, and the Church harboured many progressive thinkers.

If anything, the way Häxan presents human beings is a bit bleak. We are impulsive, greedy, thoughtless, easily fooled and unable to distinguish between what’s good for us and what’s not. And this cuts across all sectors of society – the peasants, the monks and nuns, the upper classes and ultimately, the present day audience. The real punch of this idea comes at the final chapter of the film, when Christensen suggests that human beings need an idea of the mysterious, the quixotic, the alien. He seems to suggest that contemporary medicine (methods of treating the ‘insane’ in 1922) is mistaken because it’s based on the views of society that hasn’t yet matured to the point where it can properly accept the strange appearance and behaviour of some of its members. People still stigmatise old women with humps, for instance, or those with squints. Whilst this is a well-mannered cry for reform in the treatment of many marginalised sectors of society, and may be part of the reason Häxan was banned in every European country on its release, it is in no way ‘proved’ by the film’s examination of witchcraft.

A simple dichotomy between Church and society, between the restraint of science and the unfettered freedom of imagination, between sanity and madness or oppression and freedom doesn’t do justice to the issues Häxan explores. And in this, Häxan is more a film about the attitudes towards science and freedom in 1922 than a documentary about the history of women and witchcraft. The most worrying thing about Häxan is that it seems to endorse a full on Freudian analysis of human desires and actions: everybody is a bit repressed, obsessed with their deepest darkest desires and fantastically sexual. A closeted church-life or a law-abiding existence in 1922 leaves no space for the pure expression of impulses we are all supposed to share: a sort of bloated wish-fulfilment represented on screen as nothing more than the immediate gratification of our most greedy and gruesome urges. But shown like this, human beings are unfree in the most basic sense: unconscious forces determine our behaviour and beliefs in a way we can’t control, and will never be able to. Christensen seems to be saying that we all need to loosen up and let ourselves go a little; but then all we really want is at root chaotic, erotic and despotic. And so how would everybody acting like this make anything better, and how does vetoing any project of self-determination make us more free ?

The thing to realise about Christensen’s generalised psychoanalytic theory is that its method is no better than the one he mocks which tests for witches; it is equally unfalsifiable. Häxan recognises and condemns the ‘bald assertion’ method when it comes to witches, on the grounds it is authoritarian and demoralising, but then goes on to employ the same method to supposedly prove that human beings are flighty Freudian fandangos and that nothing can change them!

And despite this analysis the question still remains, what of Häxan as a film? Does it exist in too much of a confused surrealist nightmare for this sort of criticism to ring true? Not at all. But this isn’t to say 105 minutes of creative sensory assault has no value of its own; just that it’s not in intellectual content. And as for Christensen, who knows?

Part of the Silent Film and Live Music series shown at the Barbican, London, with a new soundtrack by Geoff Smith on hammered dulcimers.

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