Witchcraft Through The Ages (Häxan) 1922

Director: Benjamin Christensen
"Burn me at the stake, pious fathers! Can't you see what the Devil forces me to do??"
Copenhagen tabloid BT demanded, "Get This Film Off Our Screens!". Variety declared: "Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition". This Swedish masterpiece of diabolism combines scholarly sobriety with twisted, hallucinatory imagery worthy of Goya or Bosch. "Cultural history lecture" or celebration of blasphemous perversity? You be the judge!


Chapter One of Häxan is an illustrated lecture on witchcraft and demonology, from ancient Persia and Egypt through to Europe in the middle ages.

Chapter Two takes place in 1488, and dramatises prevalent beliefs about witchcraft. The witch Maria uses the hand of a hanged man to make a love potion that the Old Maid gives to a lusty Friar -- two anatomists are accused of sorcery for stealing a corpse -- women are drawn by demons to a sabbath -- and Apolone, an old crone, dreams of a castle in the sky where all her desires become real.

Debauchery at the witches' Sabbath
Chapter Three concerns the witch-hunts in Europe. Anna believes her husband, the scribe Jesper, is bewitched. Maria the Weaver is accused and taken prisoner by the Witch Judges.

Chapter Four: Maria confesses under torture. She tells the judges of flying through the air to a sabbat in Brocken, where witches cavort with hideous demons, eat "a meal of toads and unchristened children", and the cross is desecrated. Maria condemns her accusers.

Chapter Five sees Anna and the printer's family arrested and interrogated. The young monk sees his desire for Anna as evidence of sorcery; she is tricked into a confession.

Chapter Six details the methods of torture used to extract confessions, and shows an outbreak of hysteria in a convent.

Chapter Seven moves to the present day, where modern science and psychology provide a rational explanation for diabolical possession. 'Hysterical' illnesses manifest as sleepwalking and kleptomania. 

Director Christensen as Satan
There isn't another film quite like Häxan. Director Benjamin Christensen called it "a cultural history lecture in moving pictures". Nowadays we'd call it a docudrama, a dramatic re-enactment of historical events, except that the term is inadequate as Häxan ('The Witches') conforms neither to the conventions of drama nor those of documentary.

We see no actors at all for the first fifteen minutes or so. Instead, Christensen shows us ancient texts and illustrations, as though we are watching a history book. Afterwards, he illustrates his ideas with invented scenes from history, and a kind of narrative eventually emerges involving the Inquisition's treatment of Maria the Weaver and the scribe's wife Anna. But he also re-creates the imaginary world that surrounds his characters, intermingling dream sequences, hallucinations, fantasies and mythological archetypes with the supposedly 'true' events, and all with the same vivid attention to detail.

Ex-opera singer Christensen had always taken an idiosyncratic view of his chosen subject matter. "Shouldn't it be possible", he asked, "for film to approach a problem in another way than through the social drama?" His two previous films as director, The Mysterious X (1914) and Blind Justice (1916), had been lifted above the conventional by Christensen's creative flair. Over in the USA, Vitagraph had taken note and offered him the post of the studio's Supervising Director. By then Christensen had taken Häxan by the horns, and the creative freedom promised by Svensk-Filmindustri's production head Ernest Mattison proved too appealing to give up.

For Häxan, Christensen threw out all his preconceptions in pursuit of his own unique form. "I would like to know", he wrote, "whether a film is able to hold the public's interest without sentimentality, without unified narration, without suspense, without heroes and heroines, in short without all those things on which a good film is otherwise constructed." Seeking to educate as well as entertain his audience, he tried to enlist the aid of historians and scholars in creating his screenplay. When no help was forthcoming, he took on the daunting task of researching it all himself, ultimately spending over two years bringing Häxan to completion. 

Flight of the witches
It became Sweden's most expensive film so far, costing almost two million kronor. Christensen, in trying to bring out "the darker side of human nature", insisted on filming only at night wherever possible, incurring overtime expenses for his cast and crew. Bringing the nightmarish sabbaths to life meant elaborate make-up and costumes and costly stop-motion sequences. Scenes of flying witches (up to 75, in Christensen's own estimate) required the invention of a new optical printer to combine the multiple layers of imagery required.

For his cast, Christensen assembled a mix of established players, unknowns and non-actors. The amorous Friar was played by comic actor Oscar Stribolt and the role of Anna went to Astrid Holm, who had appeared in Victor Sjostrom's The Phantom Carriage the year before. In contrast, Maren Pedersen, who played Maria the Weaver, was a flower seller whose craggy features had impressed Christensen enough to give her one of Häxan's most prominent roles. In the background were Elith Pio, who had previously been seen in Carl Dreyer's Leaves From Satan's Book (1920), award-winning Danish actor Ib Schoenberg in his first film role, and Alice O'Fredericks, Häxan's script girl and later one of Denmark's most popular film directors.

A censor's nightmare - kissing the Devil's anus
Häxan's stunning imagery and unflinching depiction of violence and perversity still packs a punch today and not surprisingly the censors of the time took a dim view. Despite a few protests from the tabloid press (see top of page), the film was well received in Denmark having been passed by the censors uncut. Elsewhere it was not so lucky. Christensen's frequent (and then still unusual) use of close ups was frowned upon in those countries that still saw greatly enlarged faces as somehow indecent, especially when those faces expressed extreme suffering or lustful desire.

Many countries excised footage of instruments of torture and of blasphemous acts such as kissing the Devil's ass or spitting on an image of the infant Christ. The film's occasional nudity was also a problem, as was a shot of grease dripping from the cooked flesh of babies. Vociferous Catholic organisations in France took exception to Häxan's anti-clericalism, although Christensen's treatment of the medieval church was firmly rooted in fact. He took much material from the notorious witch-hunter's manual, the Malleus Maleficarum ('Hammer of the Witches'), naming his chief inquisitor Father Henrik after one of its authors, Heinrich Kramer. The more bashful American censors weren't having any of this, and Häxan was only released there in a heavily truncated form in 1930.

A feast of infant flesh
The only thing that really lets Häxan down is its final act. The sober 20th-century rationalisation of aberrant behaviour can't compare to the surreal exuberance of the preceding hour, even if it did illustrate the director's deeply-held views on criminal rehabilitation. 

After Häxan, Christensen's career had a similar sense of anticlimax. He'd proposed two sequels to Häxan: 'The Saint', which would deal with religious hysteria and ecstatic visionaries, and 'The Spirits', a study of spirit phenomena and mediumship. Neither came to pass; imported American films were flooding the Swedish market, and the money was no longer there. "The film companies avoided me for two years", Christensen lamented. "I was an experimentalist and therefore dangerous."

Benjamin Christensen
A domestic re-release of Häxan in 1941 (with a new filmed introduction from a lab-coated Christensen) proved a great success, and has been noted as a possible inspiration for Carl Dreyer's witch-hunt drama Day of Wrath (1943). The film got a third lease of life in 1968 when a new print was released by British film-maker and distributor Anthony Balch under its English title Witchcraft Through The Ages, with a jazz score by Daniel Humair and narration by William S. Burroughs. Häxan represented a high point that its director was never quite able to match, but as he later pointed out, "It is a great fortune for an artist, just once in a lifetime, to be allowed to do what he wants."  

End Credits:
Benjamin Christensen (The Devil), Maren Pedersen (Maria the Weaver), Kate Fabian (Old Maid), Oscar Stribolt (Friar), Knud Rassow (Anatomist), Wilhelmine Henriksen (Apelone), Astrid Holm (Anna), Karen Winther (Anna's Sister), Johannes Andersen (Father Henrik), Elith Pio (Johannes, Witch Judge), Aage Hertel (Witch Judge), Ib Schonberg (Witch Judge), Clara Pontoppidan (Sister Cecilia), Alice O'Fredericks (Nun), Else Vermehren (Nun), Tora Teje (Modern Hysteric), Albrecht Schnidt (Alienist), Poul Reumert (Jeweller).
Scenario: Benjamin Christensen, Cinematography: Johna Ankerstjerne, Art Direction: Richard Louw, Editing: Edla Hansen.
Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden.
Running time 104 mins.

Häxan (Criterion). Much of the above information was taken from the DVD's audio essay by Casper Tybjerg, including the quotes attributed to Benjamin Christensen.

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