The Film Canon: Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 3.03.40 PMIn 1919, the Swedish film company Svensk Filmindustri invited a fresh young Danish director named Benjamin Christensen to come to their country and create a documentary on the subject of witchcraft. The task must have seemed to them to be a simple and straightforward one. But three years and 2 million kronor later (which, when compared with a 1922 financial report[1], would be around $5 million today), Christensen presented them with one of the strangest, most unusual films of the early twentieth century. A bizarre mixture of objective historical inquiry and lurid, subjective fantasy, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages shocked audiences and left a permanent mark on the development of both the documentary and the horror film.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 2.16.27 PMHäxan is divided into several sections, with the first perhaps being the most stringently academic. Detailing various world cosmologies, it examines woodcuts, photos, and illustrations of how primitive cultures viewed mankind’s place in the universe. One stunning tableau vivant reconstructs the medieval European belief that the earth was at the center of a series of celestial spheres with God and his choirs of angels occupying the tenth and final where they kept the “spheres revolving.” Witches, then, were believed to be conspirators with Satan who bent the natural order of the universe to their own evil ends. Therefore, their destruction was considered not just a pious duty, but a necessity to the welfare of mankind.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 3.06.32 PMThe last section of the film presents the hypothesis that many of the symptoms commonly identified as evidence of collusion with Satan would be recognized today as mental illnesses: hysteria, kleptomania, somnambulism, etc. In a fiendishly ironic twist, Christensen suggests that modern day treatments for mental illnesses such as the early twentieth century practice of “temperate showers” may not be too far removed from the ancient tradition of burning witches at the stake.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 3.08.15 PMBut where Häxan shines the brightest are the times when it abandons pretensions to scientific objectivity. It wasn’t enough for Christensen to show static facsimiles of witchcraft; he had to bring them to life with startling re-enactments. In sequences that owe more to F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene than to newsreels, grotesque crones are tortured for confessions during witch hunts, superimposed hags ride broomsticks over barren countrysides, and the Fallen One himself materializes in front of nuns, monks, and priests to drive them to sin and insanity. These scenes, many of which featured nudity and blasphemous content (such as a demonic ritual where servants of Satan kiss his rectum), have the power to disquiet even to this day. And passages that detail the cultural biases that led to accusations of witchcraft (“During the witchcraft era it was dangerous to be old and ugly, but it was not safe to be young and pretty either”) and the corrupt tricks used to ensnare, convict, and execute the falsely accused still have the power to enrage and infuriate.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 3.09.03 PMHäxan has survived the ages, being re-released every few decades to new audiences, each successive generation of which has taken something different away from it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the different soundtracks created for the film over the years. When first released in 1922 it was accompanied by the grandeur of live orchestras. In 1968 it was re-edited and shown with a new avant-garde jazz soundtrack featuring Jean-Luc Ponty and narration by William Burroughs. Since then, new soundtracks have been written and performed by such widely disparate talents as English hammered dulcimer players, Icelandic pop stars, and French jazz/rock fusion artists.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 3.11.56 PMBut my personal favorite soundtrack cannot be found anymore. I first discovered it years ago as a teenager on YouTube, where it has since been removed no doubt due to copyright infringement. No doubt inspired by such audio-visual mashups as Dark Side of the Rainbow, some enterprising young genius had synched the film to Black Sabbath records. The effect was uncanny. A moon-lit devil’s mass echoed to the vibrations of Planet Caravan, a hairy demon beating a drum in time with Bill Ward. And as an abbey of nuns convulsed, twisted, and danced under the influence of Satan, a 22-year old Ozzy Osbourne wailed: “All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy/Think I’ll lose my mind if I don’t find something to pacify.”

[1] http://books.google.com/books?id=vKpLAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA5538&lpg=PA5538&dq=kronor+to+dollar+1922&source=bl&ots=Z1WaGy0L4k&sig=gAYJImm-Ec_p9THQ9UMBTKy6xhE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=c7NTVKD5H4u0yAS8oYKoCw&ved=0CCkQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=kronor%20to%20dollar%201922&f=false. 2 million kronor would be worth approximately $380,000 in 1922. Adjusted for inflation, this becomes $5,384,034.52.

Nathanael Hood is a 27 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He graduated from New York University - Tisch with a degree in Film Studies. He is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and his personal film blog http://forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/. You can contact him via email at nathanael@theyoungfolks.com. Follow him on Twitter: @natehood257 and Tumblr: filmsfoodandfandom.tumblr.com