Häxan (Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages) (1922, 1968)

Häxan (Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages) first published by Film4 in 2007

Summary: Benjamin Christensen’s pioneering 1922 semi-documentary account of ‘witch madness’ just will not stay silent. 

Review: The year 1922 was to be a landmark in the history of cinema. Not only would it see the release of both Robert Flaherty’s proto-documentary Nanook of the North and FW Murnau’s influential horror Nosferatu, but a third film, Häxan (aka The Witch), though less known, would break even more ground by combining these two nascent genres to disarmingly strange effect. 

Directed by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen (who also appears in it as the Devil and Jesus), Häxan is a genuine cinematic oddity. Announcing itself as “a presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in seven chapters of moving pictures” on the subject of witchcraft, it blends pedantic, at times condescending didacticism with more sensationalist dramatisations of diabolism, and boasts maquillage and special effects that would long remain without parallel. 

If its first chapter is a dry lecture in intertitles with accompanying iconographic slideshow, uncovering quaint beliefs from the Middle Ages about the cosmos, religion, demons and sorcery, then the following chapters will vividly realise these histories and ideologies before our very eyes – all in the service of illustrating the persistent yet illusory grip of ignorance on the imagination. For Christensen’s film itself, like the medieval paintings, statuary and engravings that it initially documents, can inspire irrational terror through the sheer power of its imagery. 

Christensen deploys all the smoke and mirrors available in the filmmaker’s arsenal – stop-motion effects, superimposition, film shown in reverse, amazing make-up – to bring medieval conceptions of witchcraft to celluloid life; but at the same time he imbues his more supernatural sequences with an absurd, oneiric quality that would make Häxan a favourite of the French surrealists. This faint air of the ridiculous, far from being an accident, is a central aspect of Christensen’s strategy: for him, after all, the details of witchcraft, as construed by the medievals, are and should be “totally insane”. 

In fact Häxan is a deeply rationalistic piece of humanism, exposing the horrors of superstition and hysteria rather than of witchcraft itself. Every scene of witchcraft here is carefully framed as a dream, a delusional hallucination, or the content of a false confession extracted under torture; and while we see body-snatching anatomists mistaken for sorcerors, women denounced in error (or malice) as witches, and repressed, neurotic monks and nuns convinced they are possessed by the Devil, the closest that the film comes to a ‘real’ witch is a crone (Maren Pedersen) who concocts and dispenses obscure pharmaceutical philtres and unguents – for money, of course. 

Still, if Christensen always contextualises his diabolical content as mere fiction – and in the end reduces witch-like behaviours to recognisable pathologies calling for understanding rather than persecution – he is at pains to stress the grim historical realities of witch trials, inquisitional process and the instruments used to ‘encourage’ confession. Viewers are left in little doubt that the devilry at large in the Middle Ages was all too human. 

With its graphic visions of devilish seductions, black masses, monstrous births, flying hags, cannibalistic feasts, orgiastic nuns, and rampant satanic worship – not to mention its presentation of the clergy as hypocritical, treacherous and sadistic – it is hardly surprising that Häxan provoked such a furore upon its initial release, seeing it condemned by various religious authorities and banned outside Sweden for years. Häxan was re-released in 1941 with an extended introduction by Christensen, but the version of the film that would gain the widest audience was re-cut by Antony Balch in 1968 under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. The Danish dialogue intertitles have been replaced with English-language ones, and gone altogether are the chapter divisions and Christensen’s verbose (if charmingly mannered) commentary intertitles, so that the new film is shorter by a good half an hour while losing hardly any of the original footage. 

In this version, William S. Burroughs’ drawled voice-over offers a vibrantly updated (and less disruptive) substitute for Christensen’s missing text, and his presence, along with a howlingly discordant free jazz score by drummer Daniel Humair (featuring Jean-Luc Ponty on violin), transforms the film into a manifesto for the beatniks, hipsters and rebellious youth of the Sixties who, like witches, also enjoyed illicit medicaments and nocturnal gatherings – and felt equally misunderstood by the authorities.

Unsurprisingly, this snappier version was to become a fixture of the Midnight Movie circuit, bearing witness to the durability of Christensen’s themes and images, which, for all their shocking weirdness, have an undeniable resonance – whether amidst the anxieties that followed the Great War and the influenza pandemic, or for the countercultural movements of the Sixties, or indeed even today [2007], when again we see people, many no doubt innocent, being imprisoned and tortured in the name of a crusade. A part of us, it seems, will always be living in the Middle Ages.

Verdict: Rationalism and superstition collide in this compelling genre experiment from the early 1920s that exposes the medieval mentalities that persists in us all.

© Anton Bitel