Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Uncanny Tales… Häxan (1922), with Reece Shearsmith and Stephen Horne, Phoenix, Finchley

“It is the satanic, perverted cruelty that blazes out of it, the cruelty we all know has stalked the ages like an evil shaggy beast, the chimera of mankind. But when it is captured, let it be locked up in a cell, either in a prison or a madhouse. Do not let it be presented with music by Wagner or Chopin, to a swanky audience in comfortable seats, or to young men and women, who have entered the enchanted world of a movie theatre." Berlingske Tidende, Copenhagen, 1922

All Hallows Eve and the streets of North London have an eerie feel, an extra edge of fear amongst the garish costumes and innocent trick or treaters… but tonight something altogether deeper and disturbing is happening on Halloween; the spirit of Benjamin Christensen is present in these leaf-blown streets and his astrally-projected image haunts the big screen at the Phoenix Cinema.

They don’t make films as grade-A strange as Häxan very often and from the age when the supernatural was still empowered with belief, as the reviewer’s quote above confirms, it sends a knowing message to the modern mind as we embrace faith over facts once more… It’s no surprise that the film was banned in the United States.

You may think Häxan deserves the Halloween-hype but in a shocking denouement the real villain of the piece turns out not to be Old Nick nor even his disciples on Earth, the witches of the title… no, it’s mankind, happy to proceed in ignorance and to, literally, demonise those who are different or eccentric or who just get in the way. Then there are those who chose to sacrifice others just to make themselves a little grander…

Reece Shearsmith was an excellent choice to read out the English translation of the film’s title cards as the voice we really hear is that of writer, star and director Benjamin Christensen. Reece injected humour and performance quality into the reading and interpreted Christensen’s intended tones as surely as Stephen Horne’s music. The real horror is in how people treat other people and for all the humour in the old witches’ tales, the closing shot of bodies burning – convicted on the no-win logic of witchfinders and inquisitions – is telling. Christensen quotes a figure of eight million dead from the witch purges and four years after the end of the Great War, that’s a telling statistic.

Mr Horne was not only at his interpretative best, he was playing the widest array of instrumentation possible, this being a bit of a “home match”… The Theremin was dusted off, the drums, multiple keyboards, bells, chimes, trumpet, samples… you name it. Stephen played them all in sympathy with the film also allowing Reece the space to articulate the story… a precision duet all played out in time with the action on screen.

The diversity of sound is not for mere affect, everything serves the film and there was not a single miss-step as Stephen improvised his way thematically and tonally, hopping between the instruments sometimes two at a time bringing richly satisfying textures to the episodic narrative.

For his part Benjamin Christensen held up his end of the trio with a film that develops almost like a detective story with a laugh-inducing set-up on the history of witchcraft and supernatural belief that ends up as a forensic examination of the actuality behind the fables.

We learned of the Egyptian’s conviction that the World is like a giant snooker table with a sky held up by metal pillars from which the stars are suspended like so many chandeliers. It’s a compelling theory if you were around five thousand years ago and the message, clearly, is that we have learned a lot since.

But it’s the ideas of Satan that are the most elaborate and, in their own way, doubly frightening: people attributed so much to this third party and he eventually became the excuse for all evil. But the need to demonise – to externalise our guilt, to triangulate and deny responsibility - is instinctive and ever present.

The rituals for Devil worship are elaborately explained and then played out including a fair share of old crones, ass-kissing witches (literally) and extensive nudity (did I mention that the film was banned in the States?).  It’s surprisingly graphic for 1922 but I think old Ben is lulling his audience into a false sense of security… he knows we’ll lap this all up and be all the more receptive for the serious stuff at the conclusion.

It works and Häxan is worthy of its reputation as uncanny horror-documentary but there is so much more as it shows our unlimited capacity for cruelty. Sensibilities change but that human aspect remains undiminished by centuries of civilization.

The Phoenix was rammed for this show and the cinema is to be commended for such a bold programming - take a bow Miranda Gower-Qian! There were many new faces and I look forward to more adventures in silent cinema at North London’s lovely old home of classic cinema!

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