Benjamin Christensen started out as an actor in his native Denmark and won attention for directing a spy melodrama, The Mysterious X (1914). His skills impressed the powers that be in his line of business and paved the way for Häxan, one of early Scandinavian cinema’s groundbreaking films. After obtaining funds from a Swedish production company, Christensen bought a studio in Denmark in 1921; by then he had already spent two years researching the material he needed for his massive project. Häxan became one of the most expensive movies of its time – and a box-office failure. But it did win Christensen a contract in first Germany, then Hollywood, the world’s most exciting locations for a filmmaker at the time.
The film is divided into seven or four chapters, depending on how you see it. Beginning with illustrations of woodcuts, paintings and other images, the filmmakers teach us how Medieval culture portrayed demons and witches. Next we move on to a series of scenes where we visit a witches’ coven. The Devil (Christensen) makes an appearance, terrorizing monks and finding new followers. There’s even a dream sequence involving a witches’ gathering; as is customary, all the witches have to kiss the Devil’s behind. We stay on for a while in the Middle Ages where a woman is falsely accused of witchcraft, leading the Church to torture her and “name” others. Finally, the filmmakers take us to modern times where the behavior of “hysterical” women is compared to that of those who were accused of and burned for witchcraft a few hundred years earlier.
Having it both ways
So, what is this? Well, a little of everything. Starting out as a documentary, the film returns in the last part to a scientific ambition where the modern man of the 1920s looks back on the olden days with a bemused smile – and then comes up with a psychological analysis on women that will have the modern man of the 2010s look back on the 1920s with a bemused smile. The observation that we now cure “hysteria” with a good, hot shower rather than burning women at the stake is, well, amusing – but does provide for a great dissolve shot of the shower and the flames. The middle part of the film is a series of episodes where the documentary turns into a horror movie, a reenactment of Medieval times. Christensen himself is very effective as the Devil; this must be one of few occasions where the cast were obliged by the script to kiss the director’s ass in front of a camera. Confusion gets the upper hand, as the filmmakers first make us believe in the Devil and his witches, then show us how innocent people were persecuted by the Catholic Church. Christensen wanted to have it both ways, which is not a great idea. Still, Häxan is primarily remembered not for its story but for its technological prowess; the filmmakers build an eerie atmosphere in several dream-like sequences and the film’s most enduring scene involves a nice double-exposure shot of flying witches. There’s even a nifty stop-motion effect in another shot.
Several different soundtracks have been recorded for this film; the copy I saw (which accompanied the restoration of the movie) had Matti Bye’s quietly unsettling 2007 score, which brilliantly emphasizes creepiness without ever succumbing to cheap horror music clichés.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages 1922-Sweden. Silent. 104 min. B/W. Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. Cinematography: Johan Ankerstjerne. Cast: Benjamin Christensen (The Devil), Ella la Cour (Magician), Emmy Schønfeld (Marie the Seamstress), Kate Fabian, Oscar Stribolt, Wilhelmine Henriksen… Astrid Holm.
Trivia: Original title: Häxan. Alternative title: The Witches. Also available in 77-min and 87-min cuts.