When Benjamin Christensen found a copy of the treatise, “Malleus Maleficarum”, in a local bookstore, he was immediately inspired, creating a documentary film entitled Häxan on the subject of witches and witchcraft, with fully realized dramatic reenactments. It was a totally original undertaking, unlike anything that had been seen or experienced before. The film contains elements of horror that would influence other filmmakers in years to come, and is thoroughly entertaining.
Häxan is the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made. It was funded by Svensk Film, as Christensen wanted total artistic freedom on the project. Häxan is broken up into four sections. The first section gives a brief history of superstition throughout the ages, using pictures of woodcuts, scale models, and ancient statues as illustrations. It is clear during these scenes that Christensen is approaching the material as a skeptic, and is making the argument that the belief in witches, witchcraft, and demons stems from ignorance, and that many of the people accused of witchcraft were suffering from some sort of mental illness.
The second and third segments of the film are dramatizations which explore these superstitions. We begin by visiting a witch’s lair, as an old woman prepares a kind of love potion which a young woman purchases in order to earn the affections of a morbidly obese monk. We will also follow an old drunkard, as she is carried away to a dream world by Satan himself (played by an uber-creepy Christensen) and rides through the night sky on a broomstick to join in a satanic Witches’ Sabbath. We are then taken to the house of an elderly spinster who is accused of witchcraft. The religious authorities harshly interrogate her and use many torture devices in order to get her to confess. We see many other women as they are accused and taken through the same agonizing process. Eventually, the women begin to confess to sorcery and devil worship. We will also meet a possessed nun, in one of the more unsettling moments in the film. Christensen insists that the confessions were fabricated in an attempt to prevent further torture.
The forth segment attempts to explain the ways in which the many advances in modern science and medicine have debunked ancient beliefs in witchcraft, stating that mental illness was likely the cause of behaviors that were considered questionable or demonic in medieval times.
The film closes with one final and haunting image of an accused woman burning at the stake.
Häxan is an informative, disturbing, and darkly humorous horror classic. It is a true original which contains unforgettable images, and has provided much inspiration for filmmakers since its release. The performances are fantastic, especially from Benjamin Christensen as Satan and the 78 year old Maren Pedersen, in the role of the witch. Häxan was released in 1922, and the aged look and feel of the film add to the experience, which is like flipping through an old album of dark and macabre photographs that have come to life right before your very eyes. The score is also memorable, featuring preexisting compositions from the likes of Schubert, Beethoven, and Saint-Saens.
Häxan was re-released in the sixties under the title, Witchcraft Through The Ages, which was narrated by William S. Burroughs, and featured a jazzy score from Daniel Humair.
Both the original uncut version and the 1968 version can be found on the DVD release from The Criterion Collection.