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Book Review

The Story of Häxan, the World's Strangest Film,
and the Man Who Made It

by Jack Stevenson

by Jack Stevenson
is published by FAB Press, Godalming
128 pages illustrated
ISBN 1 903254 42 6
RRP: £6.99
First Published in UK November 2006

American Jack Stevenson emigrated to Denmark in 1993 and soon began to explore local subject matter, resulting in a number of books on Danish cinema alongside his other research interests in exploitation cinema. This first book in FAB Press' exciting new Cinema Classics Collection brings together both interests nicely.

The range itself is a great idea. Small books at a budget price which offer studies of historically important movies, genres and directors. Easily digestible, their size is reminiscent of the BFI's Film Classics range, and ideally suited to introductory studies of directors, movements or individual films.

Witchcraft Through the Ages promises a study of the highly acclaimed and controversial 1920s Danish documentary/horror Häxan, made by Benjamin Christensen, and banned for many years in its complete form across the world. The book's author Jack Stevenson, points out on several occasions that there exists only one previous study of Christensen's work and that book is in Danish. As such Stevenson essentially argues for a full-length English-language study of the Danish director, and it might well be Stevenson who provides that tome. The Cinema Classics Collection tome however can be viewed as merely an introduction. Disappointingly the book really only deals with Häxan as a film text in only the vaguest terms. The tome lacks the substance of a full-length textual analysis, its background details are informed but sketchy, and the context of later revivals is somewhat brushed over.

The press release which accompanied my copy of the book asks the following questions: "Was Häxan the first and most perverse exploitation film, replete with Satanic debauchery, or the original classic of documentary cinema? Who was this mysterious man, Benjamin Christensen, and what really drove him to create this extraordinary epic?" It seems then appropriate to evaluate the text in response to these questions.

What Stevenson does do, is to provide us with an informed biographical background to the Danish director. The context of his private life, his earlier works and thematic interests are explored, but to me there seemed to be an abrupt forcing of Häxan into the evaluation. Stevenson seems to suggest that the occult was a preoccupation for the film's director, but its an issue that is never satisfactorily pursued. In addition Stevenson at times assumes too much of his readership and omits to investigate his categorisation of the film as documentary - making mention of Flaherty's influential Nanook of the North but without articulating the paradoxes involved with a documentary that was to all intents and purposes staged. Häxan was similarly operating under the banner of documentary but is a fictional piece of work, albeit one that uses non-actors (like for example the Italian neo-realist movement).

Stevenson's book is a tempting text, and at a reasonable price, but I fear that it attempts too much, and misses out on an opportunity to fully explore Häxan itself. It will be interesting to see how FAB's new series develops and I hope Stevenson himself takes the opportunity to develop his research and interests into a much longer piece (possibly even for FAB!).

©RJE Simpson 2006



© Robert J.E. Simpson 2006
page posted 5 November 2006



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