AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages
“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan
DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen
FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen
PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
- Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan. He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
- The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors. Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
- In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
- Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
- In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery. The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts. This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.
Scene from Häxan (1922)
COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a cinematic genre, Häxan was already undermining its conventions. It’s a meticulously researched, intellectually credible film about science and historical fact, but it’s nonetheless replete with scatological humor, religious satire, and grotesque flights of fancy. It’s an utter anomaly for its time period, with an ambitious structure and outrageous content that looks as if they were pulled out of an avant-garde film from the 1960s. If one didn’t know better, it’d be easy to mistake Christensen for a time traveler who set down his roots in the silent era.
The film starts out in a relatively innocuous fashion with Christensen himself giving the audience a primer in medieval cosmology, followed by a rundown of how scholars and artists understood witchcraft. Pointing at models and woodcuts, he lays out a historical basis for the inquiries and reenactments that constitute the bulk of the film. The dry, pedagogical mode of the first chapter is functional (and informative) as actual documentary, but it serves an additional purpose within the film: to set up false tonal expectations which Christensen can eagerly overturn. At every opportunity, he undermines his straight-faced history lesson, first by lingering on spectacles like a giant clockwork mock-up of hell, and then by descending into a full-fledged dramatization where sincere sociological curiosity and lurid jokes coexist in an uneasy alliance.
For the rest of the film, Christensen—still narrating via intertitles in a first-person perspective—jumps from one macabre episode to another, vividly illustrating beliefs about witches, and then (in the film’s longest segment) detailing how those beliefs led to violent, institutionalized persecution. But he’s never restrained by these mini-narratives, readily interrupting them with montages of other, wilder satanic practices. A witch procures love potions, leading her client to fully visualized fantasies of being pursued by a horny monk. This scene leads, by and by, to a presentation of the devil’s many methods for seducing housewives, which features a rare example of pre-1960s screen nudity when one of them goes for an unclothed jaunt by moonlight. The devil, here and elsewhere, is played with transgressive glee by—who else?—Christensen.
This is just a taste of how far the film travels in its first half-hour. It’s hard to find an analogue anywhere to the tone and structure that Christensen employs: the only two I can really conjure up are Richard Linklater‘s Waking Life, which similarly blends documentary and fiction, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, whose refrain of “and now for something completely different…” could be Häxan‘s rallying cry. But, for all the radical ingenuity of the film’s genre-blurring structure, it’s the visual fragments that really stick with you. Like so many of the filmmakers whose works have been featured here—Tod Browning and Ken Russell, for example—Christensen’s many motivations are all tied up with his desire to show the audience something truly shocking. To put it briefly, he succeeds.
It’s ironic, and probably Christensen’s intention, that for a film proposing to debunk archaic beliefs about witchcraft, Häxan‘s depictions of evil magic rites are easily its most enduring moments. In the service of his feverish imagination, the director yokes together nudity, gore, torture, and monstrous disguises, which produce macabre tableaux that are striking in their visual originality, visceral repugnance, and ribald comedy. Early in the film, a drunken old woman falls asleep, then dreams of a mansion inhabited by the devil, who showers her in coins. The coins, in turn, come to life and attack her through stop-motion animation—a technique used again moments later as a goat-headed imp breaks through a door. Christensen’s use of stop-motion is reminiscent of Georges Méliès or Charley Bowers, and, like many of Häxan‘s techniques, anticipates horror films made 40-50 years later.
The only other scene to really match the old woman’s dream arrives when Maria, a beggar accused of witchcraft, is being tortured into confession. She suddenly gushes forth with one fantastic account after another, and the film visually tracks with her admissions, displaying demonic orgies, sacrilegious rituals conducted by the devil’s grandmother, and an eye-popping scene in which Maria gives birth to the devil’s children—children who look like a cross between the Mugwumps from Naked Lunch and something out of Star Wars‘ Mos Eisley Cantina. This infernal imagery really illuminates the gulf between Christensen and Hollywood cinema of the early ’20s, or even the admittedly weird German Expressionists, who still weren’t delving into the same kind of phantasmagorical, explicitly erotic visions.
If Christensen has any stylistic kin, it’s Carl Theodor Dreyer, who directed him as an actor in the queer drama Mikaël (1924), and later made The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which echoes the close-ups of grotesque monastic faces from Häxan‘s trial scenes. Film scholar Chris Fujiwara also cites Häxan’s influence on literary and cinematic surrealists like Luis Buñuel, whose L’Âge d’Or (1930) also juxtaposes documentary and twisted fantasy (and also has a healthy dose of anticlericalism). Like all good avant-garde masterpieces, however, Christensen’s magnum opus didn’t exactly spark any widespread changes in silent cinema. Instead, it remains confined to its own lonely corner of cinema’s ancient history, ready to be
revisited by cinephiles seeking out their weird heritage.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Häxan flows along like a waking dream. Alternating between hallucinatory nightmare, black humor, and straight faced documentation, the film is never less than visually stunning and contains more imaginative visuals than any ten Hollywood blockbusters combined.”–Mondo Digital (DVD)
“Ostensibly an exposé of religious persecution born from ignorance of science, Häxan can be easily classified as a masterpiece of silent horror — or, when filtered through the bong water of the psychedelic ’60s to become Witchcraft Through the Ages, as a trippy exercise in surreal pop filmmaking extravagance.”–Mark Bourne, DVD Journal (DVD)
“…boldly sensationalistic, it’s a session of medieval woodcarvings animated into a zesty parade of satanism, anti-clericalism and anarchic sexuality…a brimstone headtrip before they were fashionable.”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion.org (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Haxan: Free Download and Streaming – Häxan available to stream or download on the Internet archive, with a public domain classical score<
Häxan (1922): The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s homepage for the release includes an essay on the film by Chris Fujiwara and detailed notes on the recreation of the original score
Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible: Per the synopsis, the authors “reveal how Christensen’s attempt to tame the irrationality of ‘the witch’ risked validating the very ‘nonsense’ that such an effort sought to master and dispel.”
Witchcraft Through the Ages: The Story of Haxan, the World’s Strangest Film, and the Man Who Made It: 127 page biography of Christensen by Jack Stevenson, focusing on Häxan
DVD INFO: Häxan received an opulent DVD release from the Criterion Collection (buy) in 2001. In addition to some informative special features—including outtakes, a well-documented listing of the woodprints used in the film, an introduction recorded in 1941 by Christensen himself, and a commentary track by Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg—the DVD contains the abridged alternative version, Witchcraft Through the Ages. While its narration by William S. Burroughs would appear to enhance the film’s weird credentials, it’s actually more of a distraction, as is the cacophonous jazz score (featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty). This version makes for an amusing oddity, but little more, while the original conveys the full sense of Christensen’s dynamic authorial personality, and has a classical soundtrack modeled on the music played at the film’s Stockholm premiere.
The Criterion release supersedes the old Tartan DVD (currently unavailable), which may be interesting to some because it includes two alternate soundtracks for the film: an electronic/industrial composition by the band Bronnt Industries Kapital and a score performed on hammered dulcimer by Geoff Smith.
Because Häxan is in the public domain, it can be downloaded and viewed freely from the Internet Archive, youtube or other sources. The Witchcraft Through the Ages cut of the film with the jazz score and William S. Burroughs’ narration is not public domain, however, and must be purchased or rented.