The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #9

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages Buy now from Movies Unlimited! 

David Christenson


Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages DVD released 2001 by The Criterion Collection; includes 1922 and 1968 versions, unrated, 104 minutes, color (tinted), 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound, newly recorded score arranged by Gillian Anderson; includes optional commentary by Casper Tybjerg, the director’s filmed introduction to the 1941 re-release, outtakes, stills, Bibliotheque Diabolique (text exploration of original research sources for film); retail price: $39.95.

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Satan may have been more of a public figure in the Dark Ages, but he’s still around today. The contemporary Devil long ago gave up his hobbies of drying up cows and wilting crops, delegating those crude tasks to his favorite minions, the microorganisms. Now he attacks us in more subtle ways. He distracts us with worldly possessions, sows doubt with science, nags us with reminders of all of life’s little betrayals. He’s the hippest guy around, post-Freud and post-faith, but when he gets down to business, the serious business of your soul, he’s the same old fallen angel, lurking, almost visible, in your darkest hour. I suppose those of us raised in the fundamentalist Christian sects carry that image of Satan with us our whole lives, along with the image of the hovering, judgmental God. Even when we’ve excised those childhood versions of the throne-sitting Yahweh and the pitchfork toting Satan, or edited them into something more sophisticated, the originals are still hanging around at the periphery, along with the other powerful figures from childhood: fairy tale characters, super-heroes, athletes, dead presidents, deities.

With that kind of upbringing, it’s easy enough for some of us to imagine a society where superstition governed laws and lifestyles, and you defied the status quo at risk of your life. In the Europe of the middle ages, tens of thousands of innocents—mostly women—were tortured and executed for what amounted to nonconformity. In the contemporary Christian church, the three centuries of hysteria over witches is not much talked about, except when Protestant sects need evidence to bash the Catholics. I suppose that made Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922) a revealing document to average Christians of the 1920s who, unless they were readers of history, probably had no idea their church engaged in such atrocities. This silent film can still shock and disturb, with its unexpectedly explicit images of sacrilege and torture, and also with its unstinting depiction of life under a regime convinced that its religious ends justify any means.

Häxan, a Danish production, was banned in some countries and reedited in others to soften the effect. In theaters it was re-released in 1941, then again in 1968 under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages with a jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs. In the home video era its availability has been spotty. Now comes The Criterion Collection to the rescue of this silent-era survivor, with another exemplary DVD package, reproducing the original uncensored film, along with the 1968 version, on a feature-crammed disk with a new commentary by film scholar Casper Tybjerg.

The narrative feature film was well established when production began on Häxan, but the feature documentary was still unknown; the seminal documentary Nanook of the North was also released in 1922. At a time when the movies were dominated by simple, sentimental tales and burdened by the clichés of 19th century fiction, Christensen saw the educational potential of a more experimental cinema, and he undertook Häxan as a “cultural history lecture.” (Personally I think the 1968 narration and score, though well executed, undercuts Christensen’s original intent by emphasizing the movie’s shock value.)

The opening sequence is as close to an actual lecture as you’ll see in the movies, with stills and animated slides, and even a lecturer’s pointer—the ancestor to a Ken Burns documentary. (This illustrated history of Satanic belief can be explored at a more leisurely pace in one of the DVD supplements.)

Don’t be put off by the academic opening, because the best is yet to come. Later chapters turn to reenactments of 15th century life and myths, in scenes that rival German expressionism in energy and daring. Body snatchers prowl a shadowy street; a woman seduces a monk with a witch’s potion; the devil (played by the director himself) appears to tempt or torment his prey. There’s a long sequence exploring the dreams of an old peasant woman lured by Satan’s promise of wealth and earthly love. The heart of the film is a long narrative of what might have been a typical witch trial, from the first accusation to the final sentence, including some of the most controversial material to illustrate the forced confession of the accused. In this fantasy, women consort with demons, spit and trample on the cross, and cook up a brew of toads and dead babies (a scene that would be too strong for today’s horror films, I suspect). But Christensen is not out to merely shock; through his unstinting depiction of the clergy’s treachery and the skillful use of close-ups (unusual for his time) to show the anguish of the accused, he is promoting an enlightened view of a terrible period of history.

The following chapters aren’t as strong. Christensen takes us on a tour of a torture chamber in the film’s most exploitive sequence, then spins a story of Satan invading a convent, then bring us to 1921 to draw a parallel between witch hunt victims and contemporary sufferers of mental illness or “hysteria.” Interesting material, but a letdown after the impact of his longer narrative sequences.

The movie is a collage, but what holds it together is Christensen’s authorial presence, an innovative technique for its time and still uniquely effective. Though shifting suddenly between drama and direct address to the audience, he appears as a guiding hand that is learned, compassionate and humanistic.

It’s probably unnecessary to remind serious movie collectors that Criterion puts out a good product. This is one of the best projects I’ve seen from them, with an essential critical commentary and an impressive cache of supplementary material. The transfer is from an excellent speed-corrected restoration done by the Swedish Film Institute, a showcase for Christensen’s lavish sets and groundbreaking special effects. Serious in intent but not without humor, daring in content and accomplished in technique, this is one of the great silent films for fans and scholars of horror, fantasy and history.

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David Christenson is a journalist, photographer, dealer in used and rare books, ex-beekeeper and movie buff who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2002 by the author. All rights reserved.