Häxan (Sweden, 1922):

Like fellow Scandinavian pioneer Carl Dreyer, perennial subject-for-further-research Benjamin Christensen was fascinated by the superstitious hysteria and social oppression surrounding witchcraft, although where Dreyer is a transcendental brooder, Christensen suggests a vigorous smirkster way before Lars Von Trier was even a gleam in his mother's eye. Accordingly, the director's notorious opus plays National Enquirer to the Hawthornean augustness of Day of Wrath -- boldly sensationalistic, it's a session of medieval woodcarvings animated into a zesty parade of satanism, anti-clericalism and anarchic sexuality, all set to sumptuous UFA visuals. Basically a string of vignettes, the movie starts out lecture-like, dryly doting over tidbits of gruesome medieval ignorance, before unspooling the "illustrative" reenactments -- grave-robbing and possessed nuns abound, with the main course a horrific daisy-chain of Inquisition persecution, from accusation to torture to allegedly purifying death. Against the grotesquely gluttonous, deceiving, repressed order of the church depicted here, the witches' sulphurous bacchanalias (where Christensen, tricked up as Satan, complete with horns, tail and wagging tongue, presides gleefully) cannot help but carry the stamp of liberating transgression, or at least muddle up staunched borders separating purity and vice. Either way, Christensen catalogs occult romping with full-tilt sardonic drollery, from a bunch of Méliès critters emerging out of between a woman's legs to young maidens stamping out a flamenco over a cross before planting kisses on the Devil's fork-tailed ass. Whether or not intended as faux-documentary, the film is a brimstone headtrip before they were fashionable, a notion underscored by its 1968 resurrection (titled Witchcraft Through the Ages) amid hipster circles, revamped with percussion jazz score and narration by none other than beat vulture William S. Burroughs. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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