the witch influences

So let’s move on to Häxan. I hope I’m saying that correctly. Hacks-an?

Most people say hacks-an but I think it’s hecks-an, but no one in the world is going to be upset with you for saying hacks-an.

Of the films we’re talking about today, this is the one I hadn’t seen before, but I had certainly heard of it. I love how it’s very clearly wanting to be educational and refute the idea of witches, but it’s clearly reveling in the supernatural stuff. Other than the basic subject matter, what else drove you to this movie?

I’m a big fan of silent cinema and I think that before I got into the canon of European arthouse cinema, the  first interesting films I liked as a kid were German expressionist silent films. I saw a picture of Orlock [from Nosferatu] in a book about vampires in my elementary school library and was totally obsessed with the image. I needed to find a video cassette copy of that movie at all costs. That became how I got into silent cinema.

Häxan is really cool. There are a lot of things about it that are just great. I think part of it… I think the thing that is most influential about Häxan is the casting of the witches as just old women and the strength of that. There’s an old woman who is being tried and tortured who was a homeless woman that the director found and her face is extremely compelling. I know that similar face is the kind of archetypal face we see in Goya and Hans Baldung Grien. That’s the witch face. There was something about her face that was very sad, but that could be exploited in a way that was also very scary.

Funnily enough, it was actually the close-ups in that movie that inspired Carl Dreyer to really get into close-ups. We see this in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Dreyer’s subsequent work. Weirdly, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers may not be what it was if it hadn’t been for that film! Häxan by way of Dreyer.

Also, there’s something about silent films that I really like, which is that they don’t have sound! The witches’ sabbath and the images of the devil in that movie… they’re campy and I don’t know which version you saw [NOTE: I watched the Criterion Collection’s restored cut that is streaming on Hulu]… Usually when I watch movies like that, I don’t watch whatever crappy synth score is on there. I usually put on some drones or some minimal classic music. Something that will just wash over it. By not having the sounds of the witches doing their witch thing, you’re finishing it with your imagination in a way that can make those primitive flying scenes and special effects really scary.

I don’t think Häxan was directly responsible for this choice, but in The Witch there are many scenes which are going to emotional places that we don’t go to every day. It’s so extreme that the only way I could possibly articulate that was with music, so there’s no diegetic sound [in those scenes]. It’s like a silent film with music in those moments.

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