September 18, 1922 - Haxan
Häxan (Swedish: [ˈhɛksan], “The Witch”; Danish: Heksen; English: The Witches; released in the US in 1968 as Witchcraft Through the Ages) is a 1922 silent horror essay film written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. Consisting partly of documentary-style storytelling as well as dramatized narrative sequences, the film charts the historical roots and superstitions surrounding witchcraft, beginning in the Middle Ages through the 20th century. Based partly on Christensen’s own study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German guide for inquisitors, Häxan proposes that such witch hunts may have stemmed from misunderstandings of mental or neurological disorders, triggering mass hysteria.
Häxan is a Swedish film produced by AB Svensk Filmindustri, but shot in Denmark in 1920–1921. With Christensen’s meticulous recreation of medieval scenes and its lengthy production period, the film was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, costing nearly two million Swedish kronor. Although it received some positive reception in Denmark and Sweden, censors in countries such as Germany, France, and the United States objected to what were considered at that time graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion, as well as anti-clericalism.
In 1968, Metro Pictures Corporation re-edited and re-released Häxan in the US under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. This version includes an English-language narration by William S. Burroughs. The original Swedish-language version of Häxan has undergone three restorations by the Swedish Film Institute, carried out in 1976, 2007 and 2016. Since its initial release, Häxan has received praise for its combination of documentary-style and narrative storytelling, as well as its visual imagery, and has been called Christensen’s masterpiece.
This geocentric model of the universe, similar to a model used in the film, depicts the Earth at the universe’s center, surrounded by layers of air and fire, the Solar System, the stars, and finally God with choirs of angels.
A scholarly dissertation on the appearances of demons and witches in primitive and medieval culture, the first segment of the film uses a number of photographs of statuary, paintings, and woodcuts 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.
The second segment of the film is a series of vignettes that theatrically demonstrate medieval superstition and beliefs concerning witchcraft, including Satan tempting a sleeping woman away from her husband’s bed before terrorizing a group of monks. Also shown is a woman purchasing a love potion from a supposed witch named Karna in order to seduce a monk, and a supposed witch named Apelone dreaming of waking up in a castle, where Satan presents her with coins that she is unable to hold on to and festivities that she is unable to participate in.
Set in the Middle Ages, this narrative is used to demonstrate the treatment of suspected witches by the religious authorities of the time. A printer named Jesper dies in bed, and his family consequently accuses an old woman, Maria the weaver, of causing his death through witchcraft. Jesper’s wife Anna visits the residence of traveling Inquisition judges, grasping one of their arms in desperation and asking that they try Maria for witchcraft.
Maria is arrested, and after being tortured by inquisitors, admits to involvement in witchcraft. She describes giving birth to children fathered by Satan, being smeared with witch ointment, and attending a Witches’ Sabbath, where she claims witches and sorcerers desecrated a cross, feasted with demons, and kissed Satan’s buttocks. She “names” other supposed witches, including two of the women in Jesper’s household. Eventually, Anna is arrested as a witch when the inquisitor whose arm she grabbed accuses her of bewitching him. She is tricked into what is perceived as a confession, and is sentenced to be burned at the stake. Intertitles claim that over eight million women, men and children were burned as witches.[a]
The final segments of the film seek to demonstrate how the superstitions of old have become better understood. Christensen offers the threat of medieval torture methods as an explanation for why many supposed heretics confessed to being involved in witchcraft. Though he does not deny the existence of the Devil, Christensen claims that those accused of witchcraft may have been suffering from what are recognized in modern times as mental or neurological disorders. A nun named Sister Cecilia is depicted as being coerced by Satan into desecrating a consecrated host and stealing a statue of the infant Jesus. Her actions are then contrasted with vignettes about a somnambulist, a pyromaniac, and a kleptomaniac. It is suggested that such behaviors would have been thought of as demonically-influenced in medieval times, whereas modern societies recognize them as psychological ailments (referred to in the film as hysteria).
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 Fat Monk
Wilhelmine Henriksen as Apelone
Astrid Holm as Anna, wife of Jesper the printer
Elisabeth Christensen as Anna’s Mother
Karen Winther as Anna’s Sister
Maren Pedersen as the Witch (Maria the Weaver)
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 (called “Ole Kighul” in Denmark)
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