Benjamin Christensen, 1922
Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Clara Pontoppidan, Oscar Stribolt, and Astrid Holm
"The belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naive notions about the mystery of the universe."
Unusual, macabre, blackly humorous, insightful, and unsettling, Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922) is an inspired landmark of early satanic horror. Directed by Benjamin Christensen and starring Christensen, Clara Pontoppidan, Oscar Stribolt, and Astrid Holm, Häxan is an incredible documentary-style silent film about Satan, evil, and witchcraft. This Swedish/Danish film is based partly on the Malleus Maleficarum, as well as other medieval books about witches and witch hunting, and is a brilliant and original film. Häxan essentially aims to show how superstitious interpretations of psychiatric illness can be perceived as occult phenomena, leading ultimately to torture and genocide. Though some segments are shot in a documentary style, others are like short horror films. There is an interesting mixed media feel, where Christensen inserts still of photographs, paintings, and other art work.
The film is split into seven parts. The first, an essay on witchcraft in Early Modern and Medieval culture, is comprised of text and stills. Christensen includes photographs of statues and woodcuts, paintings, models, and some medieval mechanical art. The second section uses dramatic vignettes to explain Medieval beliefs about Satan and witchcraft. Christensen’s Satan (gleefully played by Christensen himself) is hairy and potbellied, a sort of diabolically sexualized prankster, while his witches are portrayed flying on brooms, making brews out of babies, kissing Satan directly on the ass as part of a greeting ritual, and gracing the doors of their neighbors with fresh urine. Satan’s other minions, devils and demons, are shown as as perverted versions of farm animals, such as pigs and cats, or as writhing insects birthed by a witch.
Part three has a more cohesive narrative structure and relates the story of an old woman falsely accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. She is tortured and confesses her experiences at a Sabbath, but is eventually released. Part four examines witchcraft trials, part five explores the torture practices used to coerce alleged witches into confessing, and part six wraps up the exploration of hysteria, witchcraft, and Medieval torture methods. The seventh and final section explores how superstitions are understood in contemporary times. Like academics and films many years after him (such as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist), Christensen hypothesizes that occult behavior was really misunderstood mental illness. While he praises the fact that these people currently receive treatment instead of being sent to the rack, he laments that modern mental health treatments are appallingly similar to Medieval tortures.
The film has surprisingly shocking subject matter despite the fact that it came out in 1922 and was initially banned in the U.S. for nudity, perversion, sexual content, and torture, which is not surprising considering the many depictions of grave robbing, possessed nuns, a satanic rite, and Satan tempting a number of people. There is also an impressive amount of sexual content for the time period, expressed both in the witches’ relationship to Satan and the depictions of torture. Somewhat surprisingly, this was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made and received positive reviews in its home territory. Christensen sought funding from both Sweden and his native Denmark, which allowed him more creative and financial freedom.
With Häxan, Christensen delivers a serious commentary about Medieval superstition that provides insightful parallels to modern times and influenced nearly all subsequent satanic horror films. Chris Fujiwara wrote an essay for Criterion about the film, where he stresses the its importance and influential nature. He writes, “Häxan also has ties to F. W. Murnau’s Faust and later films based on the Faust legend, to demonic-possession movies like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and to the many movies in which the devil comes to Earth in human form, of which George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick (1987) is a pertinent recent example.”
Häxan is available freely on the internet, because it is now in the public domain, but the Criterion DVD release is the most superior edition available. It includes the full 104 minute version, as well as a shorter version that was recut in the late ‘60s and includes a jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs. The fantastic special features include lengthy notes, a new score from the Danish premier, a restored print, commentary by a Danish scholar Casper Tybjerg, Christensen’s original introduction, outtakes, and more. Tybjerg’s insightful commentary explores Christensen’s life and career, the early Scandinavian film industry, studies of hysteria and witchcraft, representations of the Devil, connections to contemporary films, and more. The original soundtrack, which included classical pieces from Schubert, Wagner, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Gluck, and Beethoven, among others, was also restored and arranged by music scholar Gillian Anderson.
The film is clearly a labor of love from an innovator of cinema who deserves to mentioned alongside greats like Pabst and Griffith, but unfortunately many of his films are lost or in poor condition. According to James Hendrick from Kinoeye, “Häxan was intended to be the first entry in a trilogy of films that would explore the history of superstition. The two other films in this proposed trilogy, however, The Saint and The Spirits, were left unrealised.” It is a shame these never got to see the light of day, because Häxan is an important part of early world cinema and easily one of the most influential and still-relevant silent films, worth seeing simply because of its unforgettable visuals, editing techniques, and special effects, as well as its progressive views of medieval witch hunts and the evils of religious superstition.
Also of interest for lovers of Satanic cinema are two of Christensen’s other films that deal with the devil, but remain unavailable on DVD: Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), about a young couple who are kidnapped and brought to a mansion full of of high society Satanic cult members; The Devil’s Circus (1926) concerns a trapeze artist and pickpocket who get involved with a diabolical lion-tamer and his crazy wife.