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How to best describe the 1922 Swedish film Haxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages), directed by Benjamin Christensen? While not a conventional documentary by anyone's standards, it is not a traditional narrative film either and straddles several genres in its exploration of witchcraft and the black arts from the Dark Ages up to 1921. It begins as a richly illustrated lecture complete with woodcuts, paintings and sketches but soon segues into nightmarish historical reenactments and eventually full-blown horror scenarios with enough demons, devils and unholy creatures to populate numerous fantasy films. At the same time, it succeeds brilliantly as a scathing anti-clerical critique of Europe during a time when mostly women were demonized, tortured and executed by men of power, usually priests, judges and self-appointed witch-hunters. There are moments of macabre humor as well in this unique oddity and the surreal imagery on display often transforms Haxan into a frenetic folk-art fever dream.
Presented in seven parts, Haxan opens with the chapter "Sources," which presents the human conditions that allowed witchcraft hysteria to grow and run wild during the Middle Ages, and moves on to Chapter 2, "1488," which explores and dramatizes numerous rituals and myths about witches with the aid of some striking special effects. Chapter 3, "The Trials," and Chapter 4, "The Torture," have a disturbing intensity due to Christensen's unsparing depiction of how a villager's family is systemically destroyed by false accusations of witchcraft. While many of the persecuted were elderly women whose greatest misfortune was being infirm, mentally ill or physically repulsive, the young were no less suspect and just as likely to be tortured or burned at the stake as we learn in Chapter 5, "Sinful Thoughts." One also shudders at the insidious devices on display and put into action in the name of drawing confessions from so-called witches in the section entitled "Techniques." In the final chapter, Christensen draws parallels between this dark time when ignorance and superstition reigned and his own, supposedly more enlightened era. Viewers will also be interested to know that the director himself appears as His Satanic Majesty in the movie.
The effect and influence Haxan exerted on future filmmakers is obvious and pervasive. The great Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath (1943) was clearly influenced by it but you can also see Haxan's DNA in Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General (1968, aka The Conqueror Worm), the torture-porn exploitation drama Mark of the Devil (1970) and Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), in which a nuns' convent becomes a coven of self-flagellating madwomen.
Christensen spent his time between 1919 and 1921 researching the history of witchcraft, drawing in particular from Malleus Maleficorum (The Hammer of Witches), an infamous 15th century handwork on how to identify and effectively neutralize the powers of Satan's followers. The director clearly intended for Haxan to push the boundaries of film art and it did in ways he may not have foreseen at the time. A 1923 review in Variety stated, "Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition," and indeed, the film was banned outside Sweden for many decades due to its anti-Catholic bent and explicit representations of devil worship (a baby being bled to death for a potion) and various tortures.
Christensen's virtuosity as a director was certainly noticed by Hollywood and not long after Haxan, the Danish director crossed the Atlantic to work for MGM, which also attracted such renowned Swedish expatriates as Victor Sjostrom (He Who Gets Slapped, 1924) and Mauritz Stiller (The Temptress, 1926). Unfortunately, few of Christensen's American films have survived though Mockery (1927), a historical epic set during the Russian Civil War and starring Lon Chaney, is still available on DVD and Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), a mystery thriller starring Thelma Todd, exists in a silent version with Italian intertitles on the internet. What should have been a great and promising career in the film capital of the world never happened and Christensen moved back to Denmark in 1935 where he directed four more features but none of them had the impact or lasting power of his landmark 1922 film, Haxan.
In 1941, Haxan was re-released with Christensen appearing on camera in a spoken prologue where he emphasizes the film's pedagogical intents. Even more famous - and the one contemporary audiences are probably more familiar with - is the 1967 version of Haxan, edited down to 76-minutes and retitled Witchcraft Through the Ages. It was the brainchild of British exploitation filmmaker and distributor Anthony Balch, who enlisted the services of Beat author William S. Burroughs to provide the narration and French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to compose the score. This version and a new digital transfer of the 104 minute version from the Swedish Film Institute were released by the Criterion Collection in 2001.
Most film scholars agree that Christensen's original version of the film is his finest achievement with Peter Cowie in Eighty Years of Cinema proclaiming Christensen "to be an auteur of uncommon imagination and with a pictorial flair far ahead of his time." He also notes that "in many respects it is more Teutonic than the average German film of the twenties, deriving much of its visual style from medieval paintings - Durer, Bosch, Cranach, Breughel - while its spirit is unmistakably Nordic...Christensen's technique is immaculate, and the establishment of period detail is meticulous." Among those who share this opinion is Chris Fujiwara, whose liner notes for the Criterion Collection edition of the film state, "Haxan endures because of Christensen's tremendous skill with lighting, staging, and varying of shot scale. The word "painterly" comes to mind in watching Christensen's ingeniously constructed shots, but it is inadequate to evoke the fascination the film exerts through its patterns of movement and its narrative disjunctions. Christensen is at once painter, historian, social critic, and a highly self-conscious filmmaker. His world comes alive as few attempts to recreate the past on film have."
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Screenplay: Benjamin Christensen
Cinematography: Johan Ankerstjerne
Art Direction: Richard Louw
Music: Launy Grondahl; Emil Reesen (1941); Daniel Humair (1968); Matti Bye (restored version: 2006)
Film Editing: Edla Hansen
Cast: Maren Pedersen (Heksen/The Witch), Clara Pontoppidan (Nonne/Nun), Elith Pio (Heksedommer/Witch Judge (The Young Monk)), Oscar Stribolt (Graabroder/Doctor (The Fat Monk)), Tora Teje (En hysterisk kvinde/Modern Hysteric (The Kelptomaniac)), Johs Andersen (Chief Inquisitor), Benjamin Christensen (Djaevlen/The Devil), Poul Reumert (Juveler/Jeweler), Karen Winther (Anna), Kate Fabian (Gammel jomfru/Old Maid).
by Jeff Stafford
Eighty Years of Cinema by Peter Cowie (A. S. Barnes & Co.)
The Museum of Modern Art program notes
"Master of His Craft," article by Elliott Stein in The Village Voice, Sept.. 1999
"A Witches' Brew of Fact, Fiction and Spectacle," article in Kinoeye: New Perpectives on European Film (website: www.kinoeye.org/)
The Criterion Collection DVD liner notes of Haxan by Chris Fujiwara