Häxan is a Danish silent film, directed by Benjamin Christensen in 1922. It’s a part documentary, part cultural and historical view of satanism, witches and their persecution during the middle-ages.
At the time of its release, with scenes of devil worship, torture and sexual deviancy, the film caused outrage and protest from both the general public and religious groups. Häxan was eventually banned in Denmark and many other countries, heavily censored in the ones that did release the film. It wasn’t until 1941 when the film was re-released that Christensen earned fame and respect. Further praise came when the film was re-released as Häxan – Witchcraft Through the Ages, in 1968 with the support of the writer William Burroughs, who narrated the re-release. The film was remastered in 1991 by Criterion, with a new score by Gillian B. Anderson, who specialises in the restoration of silent film soundtracks.
Filmed in seven chapters, the first chapter is an introduction to the history of witchcraft and superstitious religious beliefs using a series of drawings, paintings, woodcuts, as well as diagrams and models depicting quaint religious cosmology.
The rest of the film is mostly in drama form, the next five chapters illustrating the terror of the Burning Times in Europe, in this case in Germany where many women were falsely accused of being witches. We are shown the different types of people who were accused of witchcraft, such as two medical students who dug up a corpse to perform a dissection, and an old woman who casts an evil spell on a man who cursed her. This leads to the main story in the film, the trial of Maria the Weaver, who has been accused of being a witch simply because she’s old, desperate, and homely, or as the subtitles amusingly quoted ‘During the witchcraft era, it was dangerous to be old and ugly.’ Stripped of her dignity, tortured for days, she couldn’t endure any more pain and confesses. She retaliates by confessing that the women who implicated her are witches as well, you can imagine what happens next. Whilst watching the moving close-up scenes of Maria, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities with ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ by Carl Dreyer which was made in 1928.
Some of the tests used by the church to detect a witch were so ludicrous you just had to laugh. One example was binding young women and throwing them into a river, if they float then they must be a witch, if they sank then thank God for the blessing of their innocence! In another example, if a woman didn’t cry from being harassed and tortured then it was proof that they were a witch!!
Christensen presents the historical facts in many memorable and entertaining scenarios, often done with a dark sense of humour. A personal favourite is a scene where women queued in line to kiss the devils bottom as a sign of respect! Some of the acting was over the top but perfectly in keeping with acting of the silent era, one particular scene with nuns being possessed in a church wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python sketch.
I’m not convinced the score fits comfortably with this film, it does in some sections but just doesn’t work for most of the film and proves to be more of a distraction. The sets, costumes, and especially the lighting was superb. The remastered version of the film used sepia tones for internal shots and this was well done, and the dark blue tones for the night shots was stunningly effective. Most of the scenes were shot at night, Christensen certainly has an eye for composition and imagery with dozens of memorable shots, some of the demonic scenes in particular were beautifully filmed. The photographer Joel-Peter Witkin’s work comes to mind, perhaps Häxan was an influence?
I was particularly impressed with the imaginative special effects, considering this film is nearly 90 years old, in particular the witches on broomsticks flying in the night sky. I was also surprised at some of the more dramatic scenes and rituals which i would have assumed to be cut from the film upon release as it was made such a long time ago, especially in a gruesome scene where a demon sacrifices a child, blood pouring down the child’s leg over a boiling pot.
This film documents the irrational fervour and murder committed by the Medieval Church in the middle ages. I was stunned to learn that over 8 million women were killed due to the witch hunts in Europe, a simply staggering act of gendercide. However, many historians have since calculated the number of women murdered to be anywhere between 60,000 and 300,000, still an unimaginable loss.
In the final chapter, an examination of some of the horrific devices and means used to torture and extract confessions from the victims is shown, many of which made me squirm. Christensen also attempts to make a correlation between the strange behaviours and disfigurements of the women attributed to witchcraft, and the diagnosis of hysteria and related psychiatric and neurological disorders. This seems to be the film’s weak point, his views may be as questionable as the people who murdered the women.
However, the whole point of the film was to question the validity of the witch trials, which he has done very effectively. Christensen also shows that although science could cure or at least diagnose a problem, people of his generation were still using ancient beliefs such as astrology and religion to shape their assumptions on life.
Benjamin Christensen also makes a pertinent observation about mans continual inability to deal with the odd, the eccentric, and the unusual. Each generation simply legitimises new ways of stigmatising and punishing those who cannot conform, as is still the case in many countries today. Häxan is quite unlike any film i have seen, a thought-provoking film that combines dark humour, stunning imagery and a perceptive commentary on human nature.