Häxan (Danish: Heksen; English title: The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages) was completed in 1920, and released in 1922. The film is a Swedish-Danish documentary-style silent horror film written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. Based partly on Christensen's study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German guide for inquisitors, Häxan is a study of how superstition and the misunderstanding of diseases and mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. The film was made as a documentary but contains dramatised sequences that are comparable to horror films.
Swedish release poster
|Directed by||Benjamin Christensen|
|Screenplay by||Benjamin Christensen|
|Edited by||Edla Hansen|
|Distributed by||Skandias Filmbyrå (Sweden)|
|105 minutes (Swedish Film Institute restoration)|
74 minutes (1968 version)
|Language||Silent film with Swedish intertitles|
|Budget||SEK 2 million|
With Christensen's meticulous recreation of medieval scenes and the lengthy production period, the film was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, costing nearly two million Swedish kronor. Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered at that time graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion. It is now considered to be Christensen's finest work.
A scholarly dissertation on the appearances of demons and witches in primitive and medieval culture, a number of photographs of statuary, paintings, and woodcuts are used as demonstrative pieces. In addition, several large scale models are employed to demonstrate medieval concepts of the structure of the solar system and the commonly accepted depiction of Hell.
A series of vignettes theatrically demonstrating medieval superstition and beliefs concerning witchcraft, including Satan (played by Christensen himself) tempting a sleeping woman away from her husband's bed and terrorizing a group of monks. Also shown is a woman purchasing a love potion from a supposed witch, and a sequence showing a supposed witch dreaming of flying through the air and attending a witches' gathering.
A long narrative broken up into several parts; set in the Middle Ages, it concerns an old woman accused of witchcraft by a dying man's family. The narrative is used to demonstrate the treatment of suspected witches by the religious authorities of the time. The old woman, after being tortured, admits to heavy involvement in witchcraft, including detailed descriptions of a Witches' Sabbath, even going so far as to "name" other supposed witches, including two of the women in the dying man's household. Eventually, the dying man's wife is arrested as a witch when one of the clergymen accuses her of bewitching him.
The final part of the film seeks to demonstrate how the superstitions of old are better understood now. Christensen seeks to make the claim that most who were accused of witchcraft were possibly mentally ill, and in modern times, such behavior is interpreted as a disease. His case revolves around vignettes about a somnambulist and a kleptomaniac, the implication being that these behaviors would have been thought of as demonically-influenced in medieval times whereas modern societies recognize them as psychological ailments. There is heavy irony, however, in the observation that the "temperate shower of the clinic" i.e. the treatment of "hysterical women" in a modern institution, has replaced medieval solutions such as burning at the stake.
- Benjamin Christensen as the Devil
- Ella la Cour as Sorceress Karna
- Emmy Schønfeld as Karna's Assistant
- Kate Fabian as the Old Maid
- Oscar Stribolt as the Fat Monk
- Wilhelmine Henriksen as Apelone
- Astrid Holm as Anna
- Elisabeth Christensen as Anna's Mother
- Karen Winther as Anna's Sister
- Maren Pedersen as the Witch
- Johannes Andersen as Pater Henrik, Witch Judge
- Elith Pio as Johannes, Witch Judge
- Aage Hertel as Witch Judge
- Ib Schønberg as Witch Judge
- Holst Jørgensen as Peter Titta (in Denmark called Ole Kighul)
- Clara Pontoppidan as Sister Cecilia, Nun
- Elsa Vermehren as Flagellating Nun
- Alice O'Fredericks as Nun
- Gerda Madsen as Nun
- Karina Bell as Nun
- Tora Teje as the Hysterical Woman
- Poul Reumert as the Jeweller
- H.C. Nilsen as the Jeweller's Assistant
- Albrecht Schmidt as the Psychiatrist
- Knud Rassow as the Anatomist
After finding a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum in a Berlin bookshop, Christensen spent two years—from 1919 to 1921—studying manuals, illustrations and treatises on witches and witch-hunting. He included a lengthy bibliography in the original playbill at the film's premiere. He intended to create an entirely new film rather than an adaptation of literary fiction, which was the case for films of that day. "In principal [sic] I am against these adaptations... I seek to find the way forward to original films."
Christensen obtained funding from the large Swedish production company Svensk Filmindustri, preferring it over the local Danish film studios, so that he could maintain complete artistic freedom. He used the money to buy and refurbish the Astra film studio in Hellerup, Denmark. Filming then ran from February through October 1921. Christensen and cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne filmed only at night or in a closed set to maintain the film's dark hue. Post-production required another year before the film premiered in late 1922. Total cost for Svensk Film, including refurbishing the Astra Film Studio, reached between 1.5 and 2 million kronor, making Häxan the most expensive Scandinavian silent film in history.
Häxan has had numerous different live scores over the years. When it premiered in Sweden, its accompaniment was compiled from pre-existing compositions. Details of the selection, which met with the director's enthusiastic approval, have been lost, but it was probably the same documented music as for the Copenhagen premiere two months later. In Copenhagen, it was played by a 50-piece orchestra, and this score, combining pieces by Schubert, Gluck, and Beethoven, was restored and recorded with a smaller ensemble by arranger/conductor Gillian Anderson for the 2001 Criterion Collection DVD edition.
The film premiered simultaneously in four Swedish cities — Stockholm, Helsingborg, Malmö and Gothenburg — on 18 September 1922, unusual for Sweden at the time. It received its Danish premiere in Copenhagen on 7 November 1922. It was re-released in 1941 in Denmark with an extended introduction by Christensen. The intertitles were also changed in this version. In 1968, Metro Pictures Corporation re-edited and re-released Häxan in the US as Witchcraft Through the Ages. It had added narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score by Daniel Humair, which was played by a quintet including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin.
Restoration and home video
The Swedish Film Institute has carried out three restorations of Häxan:
- 1976 tinted photochemical restoration
- 2007 tinted photochemical restoration
- 2016 tinted digital restoration
The 1976 restoration was released on DVD in the US and UK in 2001 by Criterion and Tartan Video, along with Witchcraft Through the Ages, while the 2007 was released on DVD in Sweden by Svenska Filminstitutet. In 2019, the 2016 digital restoration was released exclusively on US Blu-ray by Criterion.
Academic James Kendrick writes that initial reviewers of Häxan "were confounded by [its] boundary-crossing aesthetic." Its thematic content stirred controversy as well. A contemporary critic in Variety, for example, praised the film's acting, production, and its many scenes of "unadulterated horror", but added that "wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition." A Copenhagen reviewer was likewise offended by "the satanic, perverted cruelty that blazes out of it, the cruelty we all know has stalked the ages like an evil shaggy beast, the chimera of mankind. But when it is captured, let it be locked up in a cell, either in a prison or a madhouse. Do not let it be presented with music by Wagner or Chopin, [...] to young men and women, who have entered the enchanted world of a movie theatre." Conversely, a critic for The New York Times wrote in 1929, "The picture is, for the most part, fantastically conceived and directed, holding the onlooker in a sort of medieval spell. Most of the characters seem to have stepped from primitive paintings." The film also acquired a cult following among surrealists, who greatly admired its subversion.
In the years since its debut, Häxan has become regarded by critics and scholars as Christensen's masterpiece. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film currently has an 88% approval rating, with an average rating of 7.4/10, based on 16 reviews. In PopMatters, David Sanjek wrote, "The dazzling manner in which Haxan shifts from illustrated lecture to historical reenactment to special effects shots of witches on their broomsticks to modern-dress drama pointed to ways the documentary format could be used that others would not draw on until years into the future." Peter Cowie similarly argued in Eighty Years of Cinema that it established Christensen as "an auteur of uncommon imagination and with a pictorial flair far ahead of his time." Time Out London called it a "weird and rather wonderful brew of fiction, documentary and animation". Film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film three out of a possible four stars, lauding it as "visually stunning" and "genuinely scary". He additionally praised the director's performance as Satan. It is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which says "Part earnest academic exercise in correlating ancient fears with misunderstandings about mental illness and part salacious horror movie, Häxan is truly a unique work that still holds power to unnerve, even in today's jaded era."
- Scheider, Steven Jay (2013). 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Murdoch Books Pty Limited. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-7641-6613-6.
- The Swedish Film Database: Häxan (1922) Linked 2015-04-01
- Brownlow, Kevin (1968). The Parade's Gone By . . . U.S.A.: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 511. LCCN 68-23955.
- Pilkington, Mark Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages Fortean Times, Dennis Publishing Ltd., October 2007
- Tybjerg, Casper, Et lille lands vagabonder 1920–1929, 100 Års Dansk Film, Rosinante Forslag, 2001, p. 68. ISBN 87-621-0157-9.
- Christensen, Benjamin, "from a published letter", Kinobladet 9. No.17, August 5, 1921
- "Gillian Anderson: Häxan: About the music". Criterion Collection.
- "Häxan score requirements". Gillian Anderson.
- Bourne, Mike Häxan / Witchcraft Through the Ages: The Criterion Collection The DVD Journal, 2001
- "Om Häxans digitala restaurering". Svenska Filminstitutet.
- Rivero, Enrique (August 17, 2001). "Silent Movies Make Noise on DVD". hive4media.com. Archived from the original on September 11, 2001. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
- "Häxan (1922) DVD comparison". DVDCompare.
- "Häxan (1922) Blu-ray comparison". DVDCompare.
- Kendrick, James (October 13, 2003). "A witches' brew of fact, fiction and spectacle". 3 (11). Retrieved January 11, 2017. Cite journal requires
- "Haxan". Variety.com. Variety Staff. Retrieved 11 February 2016.
- Wood, Bret (ed.). "Yea or Nay (Haxan)". Turner Classic Movies, Inc.
- Mathijs, Ernest; Mendik, Xavier (2011). 100 Cult Films. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 109. ISBN 1844575713.
- Stafford, Jeff. "Haxan". Turner Classic Movies, Inc. Retrieved January 11, 2017.
- "Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (The Witches) (Haxan) (1929) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes.com. Flixter. Retrieved 11 February 2016.
- Sanjek, David. "Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922/2001)". PopMatters. Retrieved January 11, 2017.
- "Witchcraft Through the Ages, directed by Benjamin Christensen". TimeOut.com. Time Out London. Retrieved 11 February 2016.
- Leonard Maltin; Spencer Green; Rob Edelman (January 2010). Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide. Plume. p. 753. ISBN 978-0-452-29577-3.
- Scheider 2013.
- Häxan at the Swedish Film Institute Database
- Häxan at Danish Film Institute (in Danish)
- Häxan on IMDb
- Häxan at AllMovie
- Häxan at Rotten Tomatoes
- Häxan (with tint and subtitles) is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- Häxan at Silent Era
- Häxan an essay by Chris Fujiwara at the Criterion Collection
- Häxan: About the Music an essay by Gillian Anderson at the Criterion Collection
- Evocative lobby poster