So, this is a documentary about witches. It's a subject I'm fairly ignorant on, though I know my thaumaturgy from my theurgy. My limited understanding is that there are three main kinds of witch with nothing in common to one another: firstly the term is sometimes used to describe practicers of Wicca, a hippy religion that seems to have come to prominence as part of the same movement as the campaign for real ale and the revival of morris dancing, secondly people actually dabbling with demons to gain superpowers, and thirdly people accused of the second, usually without good cause (and fourthly fictional witches, of course, who rarely fit any of these classes at all).
From the film's subtitle, 'witchcraft through the ages', it sounds like it might feasibly encompass all of these in some measure. In actual fact, director Benjamin Christensen tells the sensational story of the second kind, replete with broomstick flights and kissing the bottom of the devil, under the pretence of telling us about the less lurid third kind, the false accusations.
The pencil of judgement!
Since this is superficially a serious documentary, rather than the exercise in schlock horror thrills it turns into, it starts out quite soberly with a proto-powerpoint presentation. We're shown pictures and diagrams of witches, familiars and hell, and a rather exciting animated model of the Earth-centred cosmos, with Sun, planets and stars all circulating, and God looking down from a photograph of Heaven. Into these images, a pencil (or, on larger models, something like a snooker cue) occasionally protrudes to point out details, presumably, in lieu of close-ups on relevant areas. This being a silent film, this sequence is accompanied by descriptive intertitles - though for some reason my memory keeps insisting that it was a voiceover.
The cosmos, yesterday.
I wonder whether, back in '22, this is what Benjamin Christensen thought would be the future of the movie documentary: a straight replacement for the text-book, with on-screen text broken by illustrations. After perhaps twenty minutes of this, however, we move to a set with actors, where we're shown a witch cooking up her brew. Just, you know, as an illustration. Or so it seems! In no time at all, this illustration grows into a plot, and educational intent takes a back seat. We're led into a story about a family in which everybody, deliberately or inadvertently, implicates everybody else as witches. The inquisition turn up, as fat as you like, and torture one unfortunate for so long that she has no option but to claim to be a witch (going into lots of detail on the kissing-the-bottom-of-the-devil thing, which seems to be Christiansen's favourite part of the whole venture, and which we get to see in a blue-tinged flashback). Of course, since she's been tortured at length and now is sure to be killed for her admissions, she drops in the names of everyone she dislikes, naming them as accomplices.
So, in short, everyone dies. Except the portliest churchmen, of course. And Satan, played by (you may have guessed it) director Benjamin Christiansen, who's having great fun throughout, and also turns in a wafer-thin cameo as a spectral Jesus. His Devil makes a terrifyingly sudden appearance (aided somewhat by Bronnt Industries Kapital's excellent new soundtrack), and spends most of his time leering through windows and flicking his tongue in and out with a comedic rapidity suggestive of all the sort of x-rated antics I'm unlikely to name on this ostensibly wholesome blog.
Christiansen makes a credible point about biology
So, everybody from the main plot dies or becomes irrelevant, but the film isn't yet over. There's still time for a convent full of nuns to totter about, jive and jitter in (no pun intended, but it sort of works here) mass hysteria. And then on to the modern day, where, in a lively attempt to reclaim academic credibility, Christiansen shows us a few short scenes about kleptomania, hysteria, sleepwalking - that sort of thing. The problem isn't the Devil, or so the intertitles tell us, it's that women have always been too hysterical, and the appropriate response isn't to burn them but to institutionalise them, locking them away in sanatoria for their own sake.
This seems almost as alarming, in its own way, and times have thankfully changed again since 1922, and locking people up to keep eccentricity out of society (and, we're clearly seen, out of women) is no longer seen as the wonderful modern answer. Had it been made nowadays, the documentary might have advocated medicalisation (which I'm keen not to stigmatise, but is still a very imperfect solution, as it can occasionally medicalise the social and drug away legitimate quirks of personality).
This is what supposed witches used to look like. Nowadays,
such enjoyably wrinkly people just get to play them in movies.
I'm not quite sure the documentary is entirely sincere on the locking-up-your-hysterical-daughter front, as by this point the intertitles have developed a dry sense of humour, which I'm tempted, without any real evidence, to describe as 'characteristically Scandinavian'.
I'll leave you with an enjoyably bizarre sequence from the torture room. We cut away from the narrative for a moment, as the intertitles (tidy, Swedish, Times New Roman) inform us that 'one of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew when we shot these pictures'. We see the actress in question, giggling away as the unseen director tightens the screws. Suddenly her mouth opens in an amused yell. Says Christiansen: 'I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady'.
P.S. My many thanks to Decline for the recommendation. Tune in again on the Ides of March, when I'll finally tackle a film from that most neglected of decades, the 1950s, with an obscure 'Julius Caesar' featuring a young Charlton Heston in some sort of loincloth, if that's what floats yer boat.
It's a visually delicious piece of work, and not quite as evil as the cover would suggest.