Häxan

Director: Benjamin Christensen
Screenplay: Benjamin Christensen
Stars: Benjamin Christensen (Satan), Astrid Holm (Anna, The Scribe’s Wife), Karen Winther (Anna’s Sister), Maren Pedersen (Maria the Weaver), Wilhelmine Henriksen (Apelone), Oscar Stribolt (Friar)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1922
Country: Sweden
Häxan
Häxan

Pioneering Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s name doesn’t appear in a lot of general film histories, even though it should. He made 14 films from the 1910s through the early ’40s, including his first two, The Mysterious X (1913) and The Night of Revenge (1915), which are as technically innovative and stylistically advanced as anything American directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were doing at the time.

Without doubt Christensen’s most notorious films is his 1922 “documentary” Häxan, a bizarre silent-film oddity that explores the nature of witchcraft and diabolism from ancient Persia through then-modern times using a variety of cinematic approaches, from still images, to models, to vivid, dramatic reenactments. It is a hard film to pin down, and it defies any boundaries of genre, especially that of the documentary film, which in the early ’20s was still amorphous and undefined. Part earnest academic exercise in correlating ancient fears about witches with misunderstandings of mental illness, and part salacious horror movie, Häxan is a truly unique work that still holds the power to unnerve even in today’s jaded era.

Divided into seven sections, Häxan delves deep into the world of religious superstition and paranoia. It begins in an educational lecture format, cutting together shots of ancient wood carvings, paintings, and engravings with numerous, lengthy intertitles explaining the origins of the belief in witches and devils. The images have an undeniable potency, especially when the film shifts to dramatic reenactment, and we realize that Christensen’s visual approach is based on giving those still images three-dimensionality and motion. This exploration of past fears that is often tinged with condescending enlightenment-oriented scientism, but one can’t completely fault Christensen’s point of view, as his film is a direct product of its time, when the wonders of the modern era were still rich with the naïve beliefs that scientific rationality could explain everything. Christensen sometimes tempers this tendency with fleeting suggestions that perhaps there is something to the belief in demons and witches, even if it is firmly rooted in the minds of those who fear them.

The surface of Häxan is deadly earnest, even if the startling visuals border on the pornographic, in the sense that they exist for their own salacious appeal. Christensen fills the frame with every frightening image he can conjure out of the historical records, often blending fact and fantasy in a way that makes the two inseparable. We get images of a haggard old witch pulling a severed, decomposing hand out of a bundle of sticks and snapping off one of the fingers in order to brew a potion. There are shocking moments in which we witness a woman giving birth to two enormous demons, see a witches’ sabbat, and endure tortures by inquisition judges. We see an endless parade of demons of all shapes and sizes, some of whom look more or less human (including one played by Christensen himself) except for their excessive hair and horned scalps, while others are almost fully animal—pigs, twisted birds, cats, and the like.

While many silent-era movies look hokey and fake to today’s audiences, the make-up effects used in Häxan are startlingly realistic and effective. Christensen employs a number of in-camera devices to suggest the supernatural and the fantastical, including an excellent and too-brief bit of stop-motion animation, multiple exposures to create the image of witches flying through the air, large and detailed models, and the kinds of prosthetic make-up effects that were thought to have been brought to perfection in the horror films of the 1970s, but here look just as good in hand-tinted black and white.

Christensen was certainly a cinematic visionary, and he had a keen notion of the powerful effects of mise-en-scene. While Häxan is often cited as a forerunner of the devil-possession films of the ’70s like The Exorcist (1973), I found myself constantly reminded of Tobe Hooper’s effective use of props and background detail in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to create an enveloping atmosphere of potential violence. Häxan is a film that needs to be viewed more than once to gain a full appreciation of the set design and decoration—the eerie use of animal skeletons, cauldrons, and human skulls, as well as claustrophobic sets and chiaroscuro lighting to set the tone.

It is not surprising, then, that the surrealists and later the followers of the avant-garde found so much to admire in this film. Bordering on the incoherent but also deeply engrossing, Häxan is a film made to shock and outrage, to challenge and subvert, even if its all-too-easy psychoanalytic correlation of witches and female hysteria seems as dated and silly as the ancient superstitions themselves.

In fact, Häxan has circulated most widely since the late 1960s under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages, which is a shortened version edited and produced by British filmmaker Antony Balch that features a dry narration by Beat novelist William S. Burroughs and a funky, wholly unsuitable jazz score. This presents a fascinating case history of the way in which a film has transcended both time and meaning, its creepy imagery reimagined in different times as camp and parody.

But, viewing Christensen’s full version today, one cannot wholly dismiss it as inadvertent humor and intentional gross-out. Rather, Häxan makes a bold statement using titillating and disturbing imagery, the power of which has not been completely diminished even after nearly a century. Even if Christensen’s conclusions are faulty, his cinematic techniques and understanding of the inherent power of the medium imbues Häxan with a rare timelessness. That is some kind of achievement and certainly evidence that Christensen deserves a more prominent place in the history books.

Häxan Criterion Collection Blu-ray
This disc contains both the complete 104-minute version of Häxan as it premiered in 1922 and Antony Balch’s 76-minute cut released in 1968 under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages, featuring narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Casper Tybjerg
  • Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968), a 76-minute version of Häxan narrated by author William S. Burroughs, with a soundtrack featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty
  • Director Benjamin Christensen’s introduction to the 1941 rerelease
  • Outtakes
  • Bibliothèque diabolique, a photographic exploration of Christensen’s historical sources
  • Essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, remarks on the score by Anderson, and an essay by scholar Chloé Germaine Buckley
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateOctober 15, 2019

    COMMENTS
    Häxan has been through a number of restorations over the years, and the image on Criterion’s new Blu-ray derives from the Swedish Film Institute’s 2016 2K digital restoration from a 35mm duplicate negative. The resulting image is a noticeable improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD, which was itself derived from an earlier restoration. The increased resolution does wonders for bringing out the film’s eerie and grotesque beauty in all its twisted glory, and there have been some significant changes in the tinting, with harsh and red and blue tints discarded in favor of sepia and lighter blue tints, which are apparently in keeping with notes left by Christensen regarding the film’s presentation. All of the intertitles have also been recreated (the originals are long lost), and they look much better than the ones on the 2001 disc. In terms of overall quality, the image looks superb, with many of the sequences being nearly pristine. Even those that betray their age are remarkably sharp and clear, with fine detail that really brings out Christensen's intricate use of mise-en-scene. There is no mention in the liner notes or on the disc about the source for the transfer of Witchcraft Through the Ages, the shortened 1968 version of the film, but it looks to be the exact same presentation that was included on the 2001 DVD, which means that it was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master. It looks good, although it bears many more traces of age in the form of scratches and speckles. This version of the film is not tinted, and therefore it offers an interesting counterpoint to Häxan and its effective use of color.

    Like all silent films, it is hard to determine whether or not there is a “definitive” soundtrack for Häxan. Criterion has settled on the most reliable historical research by using the program listing from the film’s Copenhagen premiere in 1922. Film music specialist Gillian B. Anderson then conducted an 11-piece orchestra to record the soundtrack, which is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 surround, giving the film a rich, resonant musical accompaniment. The music sounds beautiful, and even though there is some ambiguity as to the order of the musical pieces, they work quite well with the imagery. Witchcraft Through the Ages is presented with its original monaural mix that features narration by William S. Burroughs and a strange jazz score recorded by a group led by percussionist Daniel Humair (it also features violinist Jean-Luc Ponty).

    All of the supplements on this disc previously appeared on Criterion’s 2001 Häxan DVD. First up is an audio commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg, an associate professor of film studies at the University of Copenhagen. Tybjerg speaks excellent English and, even if his academic-in-nature commentary sounds a little stuffy at times (obviously read directly from a prepared manuscript, much like a lecture), it is thoroughly informative about both the history of witchcraft and the production of the film. Tybjerg starts off with a detailed history of Benjamin Christensen’s life and career and then alternates between discussing the specifics of the film and how they relate to the historical realities of witchcraft and diabolism. Like Christensen, he cites numerous scholarly sources in his discussion, rather humorously changing his voice when reading direct quotes. In the section labeled Bibliothéque Diabolique, Criterion has isolated all of the woodcuts, engravings, and paintings used during the opening section of the film and offered them as still images with source information and a brief description compiled and written by Tybjerg. This section also includes an extensive bibliography for anyone interested in addition reading, including works used by Christensen in preparing the film and those used by Tybjerg in his own studies. A particularly rare treat is a brief, five-minute selection of outtakes and test footage. Included are brief test shots of one of the sets and inadvertently hilarious footage testing the special effects used to show the flying witches, which consist of Christensen sitting on a chair with a cigarette dangling from his mouth wildly waving his arms while superimposed against travelling footage shot from a train. Another rare treat is a lengthy introduction by Christensen that accompanied the film’s 1941 re-release, in which he talks about Häxan as representative of silent film art and also his own thoughts about witchcraft scares (including a long discussion of the various types of women routinely identified as witches). The only thing missing from the DVD is a stills gallery of 41 black-and-white photographs taken during production.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



    James Kendrick

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