Two themes prefi gured in this fi rst chapter and foregrounded later in the fi lm deserve treatment in terms of the visual strategies they employ: the Wild Ride and the hysteric. Our claims as to the methodological ele ment of Christensen’s image- making practices become clearer if we temporarily skip ahead to Häxan’s depiction of the violent moral disorder of the Wild Ride of the witches to their Sabbats. This scene appears in Chapter 4 of the fi lm and is presented as a visual account of the old woman Maria’s confession to the “crime” of witchcraft. We will fully analyze the density of this scene in the corresponding chapter of the book, but for now we will focus only on Christensen’s complex use of works of art that originally appeared in fi fteenth- and sixteenth- century texts by Hans Vintler and Johann Geiler42 in the course of creating new cinematic images in Häxan. Christensen’s pre sen ta tion of the Wild Ride is thrilling by any standard.43Order now
Making use of the special effects available to him at the time, the fury and terror of Häxan’s female wild riders stands out as one of many highlights of the fi lm. By the early sixteenth century, the Wild Ride had become a standard ele ment of both demonological and pop u lar literary accounts of the activities of witches, folding older legends of wild hunters, the restless travels of the dead at night, and tales of the Furious Horde into the standardized script of the Ride. Particularly strong in what is today southern Germany and Switzerland, variations on the myth of the night people retained their durable immediacy deep into the twentieth century.44 Charles Zika claims that in its vari ous tellings the Furious Horde consisted of “cavalcades of demonic spirits and souls, especially of those who died before their time and enjoyed no peace— soldiers killed in battle, young children, victims of violent acts, and so on.” 45 Folded into the exegesis of the ninth- century text Canon Episcopi, regarding the power of demonic illusion to deceive women into imagining that they could travel great distances at night, often in the com pany of the goddess Diana, the Wild Ride violently collapsed a multitude of characters and beliefs into a par tic u lar time and a singular image of the witch in sixteenth- century Eu rope. Christensen’s own image of the Ride compels the same collapse, though one that assumes fi delity to empirical evidence in the time of the witch hunts. This is characteristic of Häxan’s cinematic naturalism. There are many classic examples of images of the Furious Horde and the Wild Ride; two in par tic u lar stand out in relation to Häxan’s own visualization of the spectacular event.
First is a clear correspondence between a woodcut from Hans Vintler’s Buch der Tugend titled Wild Riders on a Wolf, Goat, Boar, and Stool (1486) and the special effect of Christensen’s image of his witches fl ying through the air as part of Maria’s confession in Chapter 4. This woodcut refl ects its origins as a portrayal of Waldensian heresy (the subject of Vintler’s text), depicting the riders, men, and vehicles as mostly animals.46 While Christensen’s image substitutes iconic objects such as brooms and cooking forks for beasts and refl ects a discourse of the witch (found in Kramer in 1486) as being almost singularly female, it nevertheless takes direct inspiration from the classic woodcut in its perspective, its positioning of the riders in the frame, and the emphasis of the subjects that suppress depth of fi eld against the void of an empty background. Vintler’s woodcut, modifi ed naturalistically to mirror the seemingly unnatural and impossible Wild Ride of the witch, moves in the fi lm.
Christensen also modifi es and brings to life characteristic repre sen ta tions of the Furious Horde, a super natu ral band that was not originally associated with witchcraft at all. Again, this conjoining of witch image to demonological discourse refl ects an empirically verifi able invention in the late medieval period and the Re nais sance. In par tic u lar, Christensen’s long shots of the witch’s Sabbat, unfolding in the twisted chaos of the deep forest, recalls the woodcut The Furious Horde that appears in the 1516 version of Johann Geiler’s Die Emeis. As with the echo of the Vintler woodcut in the Wild Ride, the perspective, framing, and composition of the image of the Sabbat in Häxan updates and transforms The Furious Horde, much as demonologists transformed the meaning of the Horde in the invention of the sixteenthcentury witch. Again, Christensen is not only “inspired” by Geiler’s image; he has in his creative activation of the image si mul ta neously produced an effect that corresponds to the empirical evidence of the witch’s coming into being and exhibited what Charlie Kiel has termed “the oscillating value of the non- fi ctive.” 47
Documentary elements can support, contradict, or even wholly become the narrative in early cinema; Häxan in this sense is consistent with other contemporary works in the oscillating value of its discrete artifacts. Visually, Häxan offers innovation to the repre sen ta tion of demons that were commonly circulated in woodcuts, broadsheets, and paintings at the time. While the depiction of vari ous lesser demons and fallen angels was quite common, they tended to be rendered as smaller versions of the horned Satan or as hybrid human– animal creatures with each “natu ral” species being traceable within the complete appearance of the demonic creature (such as in the Geiler woodcut just mentioned). Häxan does not simply reproduce these stereotypic images. Instead, Christensen at times broadens his regional frame of reference, drawing on works referring to witchcraft produced outside of German- speaking Eu rope such as Agostino Veneziano’s painting The Carcass (ca. 1518–35) in relation to the Sabbat, or images that portray super natu ral creatures that appear in negative sixteenth- century “guides” to pre- Christian Norse myth, particularly some of the woodcuts that accompany Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalbis (in numerous printings from 1555), which appear to provide the inspiration for the “demonic children” Maria claims to have given birth to, revealed in her confession. Maria’s confession in Chapter 4 of the fi lm provides additional examples of the breadth of Christensen’s visual assemblage of the witch and her activities.
As with the discourse of the witch in the early modern period, fi gures from antiquity such as Saturn and Circe are also alluded to in the repre sen ta tion of the Sabbat in Häxan. In order to clarify our argument here, it is necessary to briefl y analyze Christensen’s composition of a series of brief shots in the Sabbat that refer to sixteenth- century repre senta tions of Circe and the link they made between the Roman goddess and witchcraft. In Maria’s confession, Circe is indirectly named as “Satan’s grandmother.” 48 Images associated with games of chance, gambling, tricks, slight of hand, and illusion were often part of Circe’s repertoire. The logic here was that such games, seemingly minor performative elements of pop u lar tricks and entertainment, were actually rooted in the same demonic power of illusion as more obvious forms of malefi cium. Elements of Christensen’s image here appear to be directly referring to a number of well- known visual repre senta tions of Circe in the sixteenth century, particularly a woodcut from the workshop of Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff and tentatively attributed to Albrecht Dürer that appeared in the Liber Chronicarum, titled Circe and Her Magical Arts Confronting Ulysses and His Transformed Companions (1493). Although the literal confrontation depicted in this woodcut between Circe and her assistant on the shore and Ulysses and his companions on a boat is absent in Häxan, the fl owing beauty of Circe herself is echoed in the fi lm’s image and the table cluttered with instruments of chance and magic directly corresponds to the association Christensen is intending to make here. Other surviving images from the time echo Häxan’s meaning here as well, albeit less directly.
These would include the 1473 woodcut Circe with Ulysses and His Men Transformed into Animals from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Buch: Von den hochgeruemten frowen, and the pen- and- ink drawing The Children of Luna from the House book Master or Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet (1480). The hybrid animal– human forms of the demons dancing around the “grandmother,” the woman’s surprisingly young and beautiful appearance, the wind whipping around her, her elevated position in frame as if she is fl oating in the air (she is actually positioned on a ledge, but this is very diffi cult to discern until the “grandmother” is shown in medium shot, entering a door), and the array of objects and instruments she wields all point to the refi guring of the mythological fi gure of Circe as a power ful witch in the ser vice of Satan.49
Visual Strategies: Hysteria
A key component of Häxan’s thesis is that the power of the witch is reanimated in modern times through the signature of hysteria— something foreshadowed in the fi rst section of the fi lm, and reinforced in Christensen’s complex strategy of tacking between painting, photography, and moving cinematic image in Häxan. The “historical framing” in the longue durée of his thesis in the fi rst chapter is carried throughout the entire fi lm. There are a number of scenes in Häxan that activate unconscious associations in the viewer between melancholia, witchcraft, and possession. For example, while none of these paintings is explicitly displayed in Häxan, Christensen appears to have taken direct inspiration for a number of his shots from Lucas Cranach the Elder’s famous Melencholia series of paintings. Produced between 1528 and 1533, these four paintings that depict the super natu ral environment haunting a female melancholic bear many similarities with elements that Christensen brings to life in Häxan, including the Wild Ride, terrifyingly unnatural children, and a general sense of sexual and societal disorder swirling around a placid, passive female protagonist.50 It makes sense that Christensen would evoke Cranach as the paintings refl ect an empirical strain of the discourse of the witch that highlighted the susceptibility of the melancholic to the Dev il’s illusions and hence to witchcraft and especially possession.
In the Melencholia series Cranach composes the face of his female subject as a mask, the swirl of activity around her signifying what lay behind her placid, deceptively beautiful façade. Interestingly, there are several points in Häxan where Christensen selfconsciously composes similar faces, si mul ta neously concealing and revealing the turmoil that lay behind them. In par tic u lar, later in the fi lm we fi nd Brother John’s troubled reverie in the face of his repressed, possessing desire for the Young Maiden and the mask/face of the unnamed hysteric that is the subject of most of the fi lm’s concluding chapter. In both cases, Christensen draws a link between these carefully framed faces and possession, a mobile ele ment moving between the pact of the witch and the obsessed state of the hysteric. Reversing Aby Warburg’s assertion that donning a mask constitutes an active attempt “to wrest something magical from nature through the transformation of the person,” Christensen’s fi gures invert this polarity by appearing to be worn by the mask.51 Thus, the re- membered face of Cranach’s melancholic in these shots works as a relay between Christensen’s moving images of the witch/hysteric and unseen, but obviously pre sent, iconic images of Charcot’s hysterics. This is entirely consistent with Charcot’s belief that artistic works of demonic possession and melancholia were reliable evidence of hidden and misdiagnosed mental disease.
As Avital Ronell has put it, “The scientifi c imperative, the demand in the nineteenth century for an epistemological reliable inquiry in the nature of things, derives part of its strength from the power ful competition represented by fascination for the freak and the occult, which is always on the way to technology.”52 By formally constructing “the witch” through a cinematic iteration of metoposcopic naturalism, Christensen could not agree more. Although left unsaid in the opening chapter, the imperative Ronell cites is progressively etched on the face of the images the director produces, be they explicitly “photographed” icons or evoked as echoes and memories. Using a strategy similar to that famously deployed by his closest fi lmmaker contemporary, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Christensen will build from the elements of this opening chapter to a complex, expressive interplay of face and tableau in order to bring the witch to life in Häxan.
What Is This Thing?
An image is strong not because it is brutal or fantastic— but because the association of ideas is distant and right. Pierre Reverdy, “L’image” (1918)
The fi rst chapter of Häxan draws to an abrupt close, its tone descending from the overwhelming affective force of images of explicitly sexual acts with Satan. Christensen actively avoids taxing the audience with any further explanation or lecture. We fi nd images of witches fl ying (this time “returning home” after a “merry dance”) as a fi nal set of title cards blandly state that images such as the ones the audience has just seen “are often found on famous witch Sabbath pictures from the Middle Ages and the Re nais sance.” Three more dense images then fl ash in secession (it is unclear if they show Sabbats, hell, or some combination of these on earth) and then a fi nal title card appears and is held several beats longer than those immediately preceding it, having the effect of a door held for a moment before slamming close this chapter of the fi lm. Häxan gets off to an undeniably peculiar start. In our view this is due to the formal, methodological ambition of the work, particularly in regard to the conscious triangulation of ontologically distinct image- objects arising out of paintings/woodcuts, photographs, and cinema.
Christensen is trying to make the power of the witch real in a way that seems impossible through a fi lm. Invading the domains of the human sciences, particularly those of the art historian and the ethnographer, Christensen will not remain content to faithfully reproduce traces of the past, devoting the remainder of Häxan to willing a new life into texts and images. The director’s “atlas of images at work” strategy is strikingly reminiscent of the methodological innovations of Aby Warburg, particularly in relation to Warburg’s unfi nished Mnemosyne pro ject.53 It is worth quoting Philippe Alain- Michaud’s summary of Warburg’s scheme at length:
In Mnemosyne, photographic reproduction is not merely illustrative but a
general plastic medium to which all fi gures are reduced before being arranged
in the space of a panel. In this way, the viewer participates in two successive
transformations of the original material: different types of objects (paintings,
reliefs, drawings, architecture, living beings) are unifi ed through photography
before being arranged on the panel stretched with black cloth. The panel is in
turn rephotographed in order to create a unique image, which will be inserted
into a series intended to take the form of a book. The atlas, then, does not
limit itself to describing the migrations of images through the history of
repre sen ta tion: it reproduces them. In this sense, it is based on a cinematic
mode of thought, one that, by using fi gures, aims at not articulating meaning
but at producing effects.
Heightened by the effect in cinema that everything in frame appears to be alive, the strategy will prove to rupture the very perceptions of “deadness” or “pastness” that allows the modern viewer to evade the power of the witch that Christensen will forcefully assert is still with us. The time of the witch, in all its multiplicity and exigency, will be brought out of the past and into the pre sent by appearing to register the form of life itself on fi lm.55 Thus, the alienating distance of both the objects presented in Häxan’s fi rst chapter and the characters they refer to is necessary to begin with, as the task of the fi lm now becomes the closing of this distance between the two- dimensional surfaces of photographs and celluloid and the threedimensional sense of lived experience. Similar to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) in this res pect, Häxan shows an affi nity with the Cubist art contemporary to its release in the tension it strategically heightens by ignoring or contravening the perceptive “rules” of formally distinct image artifacts.56 In later de cades, artists and fi lmmakers such as Gerhard Richter (Atlas, 2006) and Jean- Luc Godard (Histoire du cinema, 1988–98) have taken up Warburg/Christensen’s methodological logic in their own attempts to link the dimensions of the image with life.
Within the arc of this movement in Christensen’s fi lm, the objective knowledge of witchcraft is opened to the perception of otherness in the witch, the demonologist, the hysteric, and ultimately the scientist by way of a visible unity of the senses unique to the director’s method. “The ethnographic surrealist,” wrote James Clifford, “unlike either the typical art critic or anthropologist of the , delights in cultural impurities and disturbing syncretisms.”57 We are not claiming that Häxan is ethnographic in its formal approach, yet Clifford’s description does echo the links we are drawing here between radical approaches to the image in art and subversive methods deployed in documenting the real that were roughly contemporary to the fi lm.58 The transgressive approach to the archive, to classifi cation, and to expression that the fi lm exhibits also is akin to methods deployed in the journal Documents (1929–30) nearly a de cade later. Edited by Georges Bataille, Documents willfully transgressed institutional genres through its “subversive, nearly anarchic documentary attitude,” an attitude that Christensen plainly shared.59 What distinguished Documents from Warburg’s Mnemosyne and Häxan is that the former seizes clichéd objects and then systematically empties them out in the course of its own expressions. Bataille and his contributors sought to defamiliarize the clichés, disturbing the placidly deceptive surface of the mundane in their fragmentary, juxtaposing methods of critique and pre sen ta tion. In contrast, Warburg and Christensen begin by collecting mythological, fi gurative givens seemingly quite distant from the “ really” real. Starting at radically different places, the outcomes of these projects converge on the same nodal point— unsettling distances between myth and the everyday that in turn produce expressive works that are themselves quite unsettling.
It is obvious in light of this shared methodological aspiration why the surrealists would take inspiration from Häxan, brazenly (and unfairly) advocating Christensen over Dreyer as the Scandinavian fi lmmaker of note in the 1920s.60 David Bordwell groups Häxan, along with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book (Blade af Satans Bog, 1921), Maurice Tourneur’s Woman (1918), and Fritz Lang’s Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921) within a tradition of “episode fi lms” in the classical period of silent cinema.61 This is consistent with our argument regarding Christensen’s fi lm, as all of these cinematic works weave together episodic fragments in order to draw parallels and correspondences across situations and characters. More explicitly than the others, however, Häxan also deploys the techniques associated with Warburg’s Mnemosyne and Bataille’s Documents for purposes of affectively emphasizing the dark, chaotic forces that lurk under the smooth surface of the everyday. The parallels Christensen draws are therefore not simply between characters or situations but across domains of sense that cut across time. Thus, the episodic structure of Häxan not only allows characters seemingly out of a dead past to live again, it also draws the phenomenology of the hysteric and the work’s own contemporary time to the surface.
Shadowed by the specter of an everyday fractured by mechanized global war, Häxan in turn brings its witches, inquisitors, and hysterics alive in the haunted now of the fi lm’s reception.62 In short, Häxan is promiscuous. It is neither wholly artistic nor scientifi c. It aspires to seize a quality Ulrich Baer granted only to photography when he wrote, “Films fail to fascinate in the same way as photographs do, because they invite the viewer to speculate on the future— even when irresistibly tempted to do so— only on the level of plot or formal arrangement. Photographs compel the imagination because they remain radically open- ended.” 63 Häxan calls Baer’s assertion into question. The opening chapter does not offer a speculation as to the future. It disorients the viewer, leaving her with the insistent, fundamental question, “What is this thing?” It compresses times past and future into a sequence of clichéd images that traverses the steep slope between past and future in the form of an event.
This is not a plot. Rather, it is a strategy to “compel” the viewer, although we would not limit this compulsion to the imagination alone. In other words, the inability to automatically categorize Häxan emerges out of a formal strategy rooted in an epistemic virtue. In science, such virtues demand that the subject know the world and not necessarily the self; Häxan’s demand is greater in its own way as it demands both.64 Thus, while Christensen never backs away from his claim that Häxan offers a truthful examination of the witch that can stand up to the test, he also deploys strategies of evidence making that would have been familiar to the subjects of his fi lm. As Joseph Leo Koerner puts it: “In the later Middle Ages, in practices ranging from persecuting witchcraft to meditating on Christ, techniques were developed to draw distinctions among visual phenomena, differentiating, say, physical objects from fantasies, dreams, and diabolical or artful deceptions. Some of the best testimonies of this sorting operation come from artists. This is not surprising given that image- makers specialized in manipulating one thing (their materials) in order that a viewer should see something else.” 65 While Christensen’s materials might have been radically different than those of an artist in the late Middle Ages, his aim to manipulate these materials in order to make something invisible visible is consistent with his aims. This description, of course, could also be applied to experimental scientifi c techniques without much alteration to the stated aims of tests taken under the signature of such disciplines.
For Christensen, objective knowledge itself has been possessed by the uncanny, rendering “imagination” or “reason” alone inadequate to bringing the witch to life, to forcing her to speak to what is already known in her pathological language of diabolic proofs. The witch must be experienced in her own milieu, a satanic biome that we will presently argue is one that Christensen represents as her state in nature. As it moves from the fi rst chapter to the second, Häxan constitutes an extension from the techniques and virtues of Mnemosyne to those of the nature fi lm. In other words, the fi rst chapter of Häxan is the pre sen ta tion of a series of clichés— visual clichés and ste reo types of the witch, fragments which were most likely already familiar to the viewer. This is hardly a waste of time, however, as these clichés (what Deleuze terms fi gurative givens) will not only provide the empirical evidence for Christensen’s thesis but will also provide media from which the director will conjure the power of the witch. It is im por tant to note that Deleuze discusses fi gurative givens in reference to painting, not cinema; thus, the concept would not seem to readily apply here.66 Yet we suggest that Christensen is attempting to do something quite paradoxical, which is to release the movement of the painting and the woodcut through the cinematic image. Indeed, as we move through the fi lm, we cumulatively gain the sense that Häxan is a living tableau. This is by no means an accident. The fi lm excels in providing the ground for this sense, possessing the spectator through the immediacy regardless of whether the viewer logically knows that the represented event is already in the distance. This quality sets Häxan apart.