I’d need to consult an early-cinema historian, but Benjamin Christensen’s silent curiosity Häxan (1922) (a 1966 re-release featured a wretched free-jazz score and dead-serious, director-derided voice-over narration by William Burroughs; both cuts have been sturdily enshrined on DVD by Criterion) is almost certainly the first feature-length movie to feature boiled babies. The little dumplings are being prepared in honor of a midnight meeting between Satan and a coven of broomstick-riding witches. Said confab is just one of several spectacularly realized, vintage-woodcut style friezes dotting Christensen’s well-and-truly certifiable pseudo-documentary, one of the most visionary – and lethally pointed – horror-comedies ever made.
Not only does the film, a portentous-on-purpose tour of occult lore featuring overwrought, beautifully detailed “dramatizations” of “witchcraft through the ages,” have it both ways, but it does so with such nimble-fingered skill (it fairly teems with Expressionist-ish brio) that those ways have no choice but to take it and like it. Its contents – artifacts, paintings, breathless descriptions of the black arts, nude nymphos, moonlight Bacchanals, corrupted priests, Christensen himself as a fork-tongued, dirty-minded Devil whose ass is literally kissed by his disciples – are gloriously lurid, but the director is callow like a fox.
As the straight-faced tone crinkles into a barely suppressed grin, it’s evident that this peep-show inventory has a very real subject: the hypocrisy of fear-mongering religious institutions that loudly decry the very hysteria they’ve helped to massage in their constituency. Häxan goes into exacting detail about Inquistion-era torture devices, explicating their effects on the human anatomy in clinical detail. It’s a prurience born of empathy – the unmissable point is that the countless “witches” murdered and mutilated in the name of religious purity were victims of force-fed misogynist panic and pulpit-sent communal naiveté. (As if these Church-baiting postulations needed reinforcing, the film presents the clergy as either smiling sadists or weak-kneed slaves to temptation.)
Christensen organizes the final segment of the film around the thesis that the poor wretches previously taken for witches were in fact sufferers of garden-variety “female hysteria.” Whether or not Christensen’s heart is in this specious sociology (surely the superimposition of a classic broomstick-riding witch onto a photograph of a female aviator is done with tongue so firmly in cheek as to produce choking), the underlying suggestion that we’ve merely refined our intolerance (much is made of present day’s society’s compassion in incarcerating, rather than incinerating, its outcasts) has some sting to it.