Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition.” — Variety review, 1923
Häxan is the unique vision of writer-director-actor Benjamin Christensen. The narrative blends fact and fiction, taking the audience on a bawdy romp from ancient times to the early 20th century as it explores beliefs surrounding witches, demons and their assorted familiars.
Even in 1922, when the horror genre didn’t exist and filmmakers were still figuring out the rules of the new medium, Häxan was an oddity. As well as mixing documentary and fairy tale-telling, it’s peppered with gore, nudity and other highly explicit imagery (women lining up to kiss the Devil’s arse). Perhaps that’s why Christensen places his elaborate sequences of flying witches, demon births and out-of-control nuns within an ostensibly anthropological framework? He knew he wouldn’t get away with it otherwise.
After the First World War, Christensen, a singer and actor who’d directed two well-received movies — Det hemmelighedsfulde X (Mysterious X) 1914 and Hævnens nat (Blind Justice) 1916— turned to researching the history of witchcraft and necromancy in Europe. In 1921 he was ready to turn this material into entertainment and persuaded a Swedish production company (Svensk Filmindustri) to pay for him to film in his favorite Danish studio, just north of Copenhagen. He insisted on working at night so he could capture a more sinister authenticity in his cast:
The film…deals with the dark side of human nature. And when the sun was shining during the day, it was not possible to bring out this side in the actors.”
Svensk Filmindustri stumped up the cash, not only for the movie and all its ambitious special effects, but to update the studio’s technical facilities. With an eventual budget of 1.5-2 million kroner, it’s probable that Häxan was the most expensive silent movie ever made in Scandinavia.
It was also one of the most technically challenging, utilizing a range of techniques to bring the fantasy sequences to the screen. Christensen used elaborate makeup to create the devils and stop motion for the demon birth scene. He also made effective use of double (and triple and quadruple) exposures. For the flying witches, the crew constructed a giant carousel containing more than 250 model houses. It took twenty men to crank it as the camera filmed the moving landscape for the lower part of the screen. The witches were filmed separately, more than 75 of them bouncing around in a breeze generated by an airplane turbine. Christensen then combined the shots using a specially designed optical printer.
Unable to resist such a fun role, the director also cast himself as the tongue-wagging Devil who lures the witches into temptation and presides over their midnight revels. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of scandalous rumors about what was going on behind closed studio doors during those late nights on set.
Häxan is structured into seven chapters, linked together by a running commentary on cards and subtitles.
Christensen takes a lot of his inspiration from the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a how-to guide written by a couple of German Inquisitors in 1486. Chapter One is a semi-academic review of witchcraft lore: a wooden pointer taps across a red-tinted parade of models, prints and woodcuts as though the audience had front row seats at a history lecture.
Chapters 2-5 weave together a series of live-action vignettes from a medieval European town where witches like the crone Karna operate with impunity, mixing love potions for maidens in a skeleton-festooned kitchen, keeping a hanged man’s hand in the woodpile (and removing fingers as required), cursing a rude passerby so that his “mouth shall remain open for all eternity” and in “poor, old and miserable” Apelone’s case, flying with the Devil to a dream castle in the sky where he makes her dreams of wealth and comfort come true — albeit temporarily.
Unexpectedly, as usual, the Inquisition shows up in Chapter Three, determined to put the debauchery to an end. The tonsured monks use every trick and gadget at their disposal to compel townswomen into confessing to their union with the Devil. It takes a while to get Maria the Weaver to crack, but after she’s stripped naked and tortured, she snitches on all her witchy friends.
Her account of what the townswomen get up to after dark is lurid in the extreme. She tells of their frenzied rides through the air on broomsticks to wild parties hosted by hooved and tailed demons — at one point a skeleton horse also shows up and ambles through the revelry — that culminate in the aforementioned Osculum Infame (‘the shameful kiss’) upon the grinning Devil’s plump backside. She also admits complicity in murder: two witches squat over pots outside a neighbor’s front door and then fling their piss against his wall, precipitating his death that same evening.
Chapter Five follows the attempts of the Inquisitors to round up all the women Maria named in her testimony. The monks aren’t without flaws— they’re a little too fond of flagellation and aren’t above using a newborn baby to trick its mother into confessing — but they get their job done before moving on to the next town.
Chapter Six takes a step back, noting the craziness of witch confessions correlates to the viciousness of the torture instruments used upon the penitent. It also explores the idea that the Devil is an infection that spreads, especially in an isolated community like a convent. One sequence, based on events in Loudon in 1634, shows that all it takes is for one nun to be “overtaken by sanity” long enough to let the Devil through the doors. After he’s inside, it’s inevitable that nun after nun will fall victim to the contagion.
Chapter Seven co-opts contemporary psychiatric theory to suggest that these women were hysterics, not witches, who should have been given mental health care rather than burned at the stake. This is the weakest section — the narration laments the misogyny in witch hunts, but is unable to grasp that a blanket diagnosis or hysteria is equally pernicious.
Christensen’s authorial voice comes across clearly in the narration throughout, demonstrating sympathy for the innocents caught up in witch hunts (he claims eight million men, women and children were slaughtered). He points a definite finger of blame at the Catholic Church for getting caught up in such ridiculously superstitious tomfoolery and draws some general conclusions about the interference of ‘Authority’ in individual’s lives. There is humor too. He obviously relishes the fantasy sequences showing the Satanic Sabbath. The commentary is by turns salacious and serious, pointing out lurid details on a medieval woodcut, listing the ingredients of Karna’s feast (“toads and unchristened children”), or describing how the “Devil penetrated the convent” and turned all the nuns stark raving mad.
Unsurprisingly, Häxan was banned outside Sweden for decades, outraging censors with its anti-Catholicism, sexual themes and violence. Even the Swedish censors demanded changes: an infant held over a cooking pot, the removal of a dead finger, urination on a cross and close-ups of torture instruments all hit the cutting room floor. The horrified reaction meant that Svensk Filmindustri failed to make their money back, and for many years it was difficult to get hold of a print of the movie.
People still saw it, however, marveling at the scope of Christensen’s imagination and responding to his call to arms against oppression. It maintained its avant-garde reputation through the years especially as nothing like it was ever — or could ever be —produced again. Christensen had intended it to be the first part of the trilogy, but after the disaster at the box office he fled to the USA and sold his soul to MGM as a studio player.
Antony Balch, an experimental filmmaker, got hold of a print in 1968, added a soundtrack (composed specially by Daniel Humair) and switched all the title cards for voiceover spoken by William S. Burroughs. This cut the running time to around 75 minutes. He re-released it as Witchcraft Through The Ages and it became a cult favorite, the licentious, nudity and overarching disregard for social mores fitting neatly into those rebellious times. Its influence on later movies about witchcraft, from The Witchfinder General (1968) to The Witch (2015) is clear.
Balch’s version is still in circulation, but in the 1990s the Swedish Film Institute commissioned a restoration of the original with a score by Gillian B. Anderson based on the music selected for the 1922 Danish premiere. This is the version released by Criterion in 2001. The SFI also created a brand new digital transfer from the original camera negative in 2007.
- San Francisco Silent Film Festival – program notes
- Realizing The Witch: Science, Cinema and the Mastery of the Invisible by Richard Baxstrom (Fordham University Press, 2015)
- Witchcraft Through the Ages: The Story of Haxan, the World’s Strangest Film, and the Man Who Made It by Jack Stevenson (FAB Press, 2015)
- Electric Sheep – review
- TCM – round up of notes