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Witchcraft through the Ages

1922 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 104m. / Witchcraft through the Ages
Starring Elisabeth Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen, Ella La Cour, Emmy Schoenfeld, Kate Fabian, Oscar Stribolt, Clara Pontoppidan, Else Vermehren, Alice O'Fredericks, Johannes Andersen, Elith Pio, Aage Hertel, Ib Schoenberg, Benjamin Christensen
Cinematography Johan Ankerstjerne
Set decoration Richard Louw
Film Editor Edla Hansen
Original Music Launy Groendahl (1922)
Written and Directed by Benjamin Christensen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Everything one reads about Häxan, stresses how shocking it is purported to be, sort of a pornographic / satanic combination of taboo subjects. It's an excellent silent documentary incorporating sophisticated and modern ideas. Some of the content might disturb a fundamentalist viewer, but all in all, this is a sharp docu that makes use of some imaginative and evocative 'recreations' of demonic activity.


Witches, devils and demonic possession have been a part of humanity since before recorded history, and haven't changed much in content or principle from the middle ages to the present (make that 1922 Sweden). European culture is rooted in the belief in a supernatural universe where God and the Angels dwell in the heavens and demons and devils infest the interior of the Earth. In the Middle Ages, organized religion in Europe unleashed a reign of terror on whole populations through organized witch hunts. Thousands of women were victimized simply for being old, ugly and misunderstood. Actually practicing folk medicine wasn't necessary, as being prosecuted, tortured and burned as a witch was a process begun by denunciation, with conviction a foregone conclusion. Witch hysteria would start with the initial denounced victim naming other 'witches' under torture (often her own denouncers) until scores of local women unlucky to be distrusted (for being old) or envied (for being beautiful) would die horrible deaths at the hands of merciless inquisitors. Nowadays, society has better ways to deal with women with real problems. Old people are tended to in clean and philanthropic homes, and young women suffering from 'hysteria' and other psychic disorders are better understood by modern psychologists.

Häxan is an excellent docu and a remarkably sophisticated one. Starting with a slide-show technique (graphics and other visual examples inter-cut with explanatory text), it soon brings its weird subject to life through convincing recreations. Some of these recreations show historical events, such as a witch hunt and the roles played by citizens and church officials. On convincing and large-scale sets, we see how repression and superstition are encouraged and exploited by the church to elevate its importance, through the eradication of unseen but very 'real' witches that seem to be at work everywhere.

Mr. Christensen's technique doesn't stop there, but instead jumps the fence to directly depict the supernatural things the people of the 1400's believe are going on all around them. Blasphemous and obscene rituals include all manner of desecrations of religious symbols. Ample nudity, sex and murder are shown. Christensen himself plays Satan as a potbellied, hairy horror constantly leering and waggling his obscene tongue. Besides the torment and rape of novitiate witches, the kinds of 'authentic' witch activity pictured are flights through the sky on brooms, boiling a meal of toads and un-baptized infants (pretty disturbing) and rituals where the witches must kiss Satan on his filthy-looking rump. Sickness is blamed on witches who throw pots of their own urine onto people's doors, and devils are shown parading as grotesque giant pigs and cats. The most horrific vision of all is an image of a woman giving birth to a succession of crawling, insectoid demons that would give Dario Argento or David Cronenberg the willies.

Despite the constant parade of vicious and monstrous church 'representatives' who officiate at the tortures and persecutions, Häxan concentrates on the cost in innocent lives. The old women that suffer may initially appear unpleasant, but by the time they meet their fates we see our own mothers or even ourselves in their agonized faces. The storm of accusations pulls in younger victims, some of whom were thoughtless accusers just days before. The inquisitors cruelly threaten accused witches with the idea that their children will perish if they don't confess, completing the impression of a supposedly life-affirming religion bringing about Hell on Earth.

In its modern section, Häxan becomes an outdated treatise on early Freudian attitudes toward 'female' problems described as emotional hysteria and depression. There's a factually credible if rather primitive sequence in which a woman has become a kleptomaniac seemingly because of irreconcilable tensions. Director Christensen is able to present his material in third, second, and first person, sometimes breaking the 'author's' wall to directly address the audience. He identifies one of his own actresses as a vivacious volunteer to undergo the experience of a medieval Thumbscrew.

As with the best of documentarians, Christiansen's personal agenda (against oppressive churches; for humanitarian principles) is expressed indirectly. He excels at proto-Buñuelian, surreal irruptions between the naturalistic and the superstitious: When Satan himself springs up unexpectedly to shock a monk working at his desk, Christensen succeeds in suggesting that, if we are foolish enough to believe in these satanic monsters, they are very, very real indeed. A relative of mine once sent me a letter asking me to refrain from celebrating Halloween because I was giving credence to demons and witches, etc. I wrote (and saved) a scathing reply, which my wife wisely bade me keep to myself.

Criterion has given an exemplary presentation to yet another classic, one that needs a lot of explanation. The extra material compliments and validates Christensen's already authoritative grasp of his subject matter. This is no jazz-age Chariots of the Gods-style trash docu but an academically precise document. Besides a commentary, the disc encodes two versions of the film: The beautifully restored 104-minute original feature, and the 76-minute 1968 reissue version, which substitutes an odd William Burroughs narration for Christensen's inter-titles and adds a strange Jazz score.

Savant gravitates toward the odd and the arcane, and Häxan certainly fits the bill. It disturbs more than an exploitative horror film because it deals directly with the images we carry in our own heads, placed there by our own culture. Surely, the more traditionally devout one is, the more disturbing the impact. Christansen's willingness, so long ago, to face right up to his 'taboo' subject makes Häxan the very soul of liberal filmmaking.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Häxan rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Music from the original Danish premiere, commentary from scholar Caspar Tybjerg, the director's talkie introduction to a 1941 re-issue, outtakes, a glossary of Christansen's historical sources, stills gallery.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 19, 2001


1. Believe in witches? Häxan is Swedish for witch. In French it's Sorciére. Spanish, Bruja. Italian, Strega. They're everywhere, man. Be nice to women of all descriptions. This must be the oldest and most insidious form of sex discrimination and harassment.

2.On diabolical pronunciations: "'Hexen" is the Danish pronunciation. Since HÄXAN is a Swedish title (and word) the most correct pronunciation is 'hexan' (or rather 'hehxan'). Translated it means 'the witch'; 'witch' is 'häxa' ('hehxa')." Savant extends thanks to reader Eyestein Strommen, Norway.

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