How to best describe the 1922 Swedish film Haxan (also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages) by Danish director Benjamin Christensen? While not a conventional documentary by anyone’s standards, it is not a traditional narrative film either and straddles several genres in its exploration of witchcraft and the black arts from the Dark Ages up to 1921.
It begins as a richly illustrated lecture complete with woodcuts, paintings and sketches but soon segues into nightmarish historical reenactments and eventually full-blown horror scenarios with enough demons, devils and unholy creatures to populate numerous fantasy films. At the same time, it succeeds brilliantly as a scathing anti-clerical critique of Europe during a time when mostly women were demonized, tortured and executed by men of power, usually priests, judges and self-appointed witch-hunters. There are moments of macabre humor as well in this unique oddity and the surreal imagery on display often transforms Haxan into a frenetic folk-art fever dream.
Presented in seven parts, Haxan opens with the chapter “Sources,” which presents the human conditions that allowed witchcraft hysteria to grow and run wild during the Middle Ages, and moves on to Chapter 2, “1488,” which explores and dramatizes numerous rituals and myths about witches with the aid of some striking special effects. Chapter 3, “The Trials,” and Chapter 4, “The Torture,” have a disturbing intensity due to Christensen’s unsparing depiction of how a villager’s family is systemically destroyed by false accusations of witchcraft. While many of the persecuted were elderly women whose greatest misfortune was being infirm, mentally ill or physically repulsive, the young were no less suspect and just as likely to be tortured or burned at the stake as we learn in Chapter 5, “Sinful Thoughts.” One also shudders at the insidious devices on display and put into action in the name of drawing confessions from so-called witches in the section entitled “Techniques.” In the final chapter, Christensen draws parallels between this dark time when ignorance and superstition reigned and his own, supposedly more enlightened era. Viewers will also be interested to know that the director himself appears as His Satanic Majesty in the movie.
The effect and influence Haxan exerted on future filmmakers is obvious and pervasive. The great Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) was clearly influenced by it but you can also see Haxan‘s DNA in Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General (1968, aka The Conqueror Worm), the torture-porn exploitation drama Mark of the Devil (1970) and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), in which a nuns’ convent becomes a coven of self-flagellating madwomen.
Christensen spent his time between 1919 and 1921 researching the history of witchcraft, drawing in particular from Malleus Maleficorum (The Hammer of Witches), an infamous 15th century handwork on how to identify and effectively neutralize the powers of Satan’s followers. The director clearly intended for Haxan to push the boundaries of film art and it did in ways he may not have foreseen at the time. A 1923 review in Variety stated, “Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition,” and indeed, the film was banned outside Sweden for many decades due to its anti-Catholic bent and explicit representations of devil worship (a baby being bled to death for a potion) and various tortures.
Christensen’s virtuosity as a director was certainly noticed by Hollywood and not long after Haxan, the Danish director crossed the Atlantic to work for MGM, which also attracted such renowned Swedish expatriates as Victor Sjostrom (He Who Gets Slapped, 1924) and Mauritz Stiller (The Temptress, 1926). Unfortunately, few of Christensen’s American films have survived though Mockery (1927), a historical epic set during the Russian Civil War and starring Lon Chaney, is still available on DVD and Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), a mystery thriller starring Thelma Todd, exists in a silent version with Italian inter-titles on the internet. What should have been a great and promising career in the film capital of the world never happened and Christensen moved back to Denmark in 1935 where he directed four more features but none of them had the impact or lasting power of his landmark 1922 film, Haxan.
At the time he was making Haxan, Christensen acknowledged his experimental approach to the narrative in an interview, stating ““I would like to know at this time whether a film is able to hold the public’s interest without mass effects, without sentimentality, without suspense, without heroes and heroines—in short, without all those things on which a good film is otherwise constructed. My films consist of a series of episodes that—as part of a mosaic—give expression to an idea.” In a way, Christensen’s non-traditional approach to the documentary format might have been an inspiration for equally avant-garde creations such as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Jean Vigo’s short Taris (1931).
In 1941, Haxan was re-released with Christensen appearing on camera in a spoken prologue where he emphasizes the film’s pedagogical intents. Even more famous – and the one contemporary audiences are probably more familiar with – is the 1968 version of Haxan, edited down to 76-minutes and retitled Witchcraft Through the Ages. It was the brainchild of British exploitation filmmaker and distributor Anthony Balch, who enlisted the services of Beat author William S. Burroughs to provide the narration and French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to compose the score.
Most film scholars agree that Christensen’s original version of the film is his finest achievement with Peter Cowie in Eighty Years of Cinema proclaiming Christensen “to be an auteur of uncommon imagination and with a pictorial flair far ahead of his time.” He also notes that “in many respects it is more Teutonic than the average German film of the twenties, deriving much of its visual style from medieval paintings – Durer, Bosch, Cranach, Breughel – while its spirit is unmistakably Nordic…Christensen’s technique is immaculate, and the establishment of period detail is meticulous.”
Among those who share this opinion is Chris Fujiwara, whose liner notes for the Criterion Collection edition of the film state, “Haxan endures because of Christensen’s tremendous skill with lighting, staging, and varying of shot scale. The word “painterly” comes to mind in watching Christensen’s ingeniously constructed shots, but it is inadequate to evoke the fascination the film exerts through its patterns of movement and its narrative disjunctions. Christensen is at once painter, historian, social critic, and a highly self-conscious filmmaker. His world comes alive as few attempts to recreate the past on film have.”
There have been other documentaries on witchcraft and devil worship over the years but none have demonstrated the artistry or chilling potency of Haxan. Some of the more contemporary examples include Witchcraft ’70 aka Angeli Bianchi…Angeli Neri (1969), a Mondo Cane-like expose of satanic rituals around the world by Italian director Luigi Scattini and Malcolm Leigh’s Legend of the Witches (1970) and Derek Ford’s Secret Rites (1971), both of which focus more on modern practitioners of the black arts like high priest Alex Sanders and take a sexploitation approach to the topic with ample nudity on display. Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1970), directed by Ray Laurent, is a portrait of former lion tamer turned occult guru Anton Lavey, who launched his own cult in San Francisco in 1966. And a more recent example is Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? (2019), an entertaining portrait of the Satanic Church and its members, which opened their official headquarters in Salem, Massachusetts in 2016.
Haxan and its various versions have been available on VHS and DVD over the years but the definitive edition is the 2001 DVD release from The Criterion Collection. It includes a new digital transfer of the 104-minute version from the Swedish Film Institute as well as the edited 76-minute 1968 version from Anthony Balch with William Burroughs’ creepy narration and the lively free-form jazz score by Daniel Humair, Jean-Luc Ponty and others. Criterion released the Blu-ray edition in 2019.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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