1922/ 1.33:1 / 105 min.
Starring Benjamin Christensen
Directed by Benjamin Christensen
Fine art joins forces with the dark arts in Häxan, an impeccably crafted docu-drama with the lurid kick of an exploitation film.
The influence of Benjamin Christensen’s silent horror show can be found far and wide, from movies as beloved as The Wizard of Oz and reviled as The Devils. Variety was certainly conflicted when Häxan was turned loose in 1922 – “Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition.”
It’s not Intolerance but Häxan boasts both a sizable cast and elaborate settings (at the time it was the most expensive film ever produced in Denmark). Yet the credits suggest it was something of a one man show – Christensen wrote and narrated (his hypnotic glower is the first thing the audience sees) and he acts up a storm – he plays the devil who literally pops up at the damnedest moments, including a Dracula-like appearance in a drowsy wife’s bedroom.
Häxan unfolds over seven chapters beginning with a scholarly presentation of arcane woodcuts before transforming into a different kind of creature altogether, relying on a mix of animation, primitive shadow play, puppetry and crudely effective optical effects. A veritable epic of antediluvian depravity, Christensen drew from a multitude of inspirations, in particular the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch whose pestilent imagination shivers to life with the help of cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne and art director Richard Louw.
The film strays into a more conventional narrative when it dramatizes the workaday life of a card-carrying witch – from hexing street corner bullies to whipping up remedies for lovesick village girls. The comparatively lighthearted aspects of those Bell, Book and Candle moments are replaced with revulsion when we see just how those potions were made – chopping up corpses into bite-sized portions for the cauldron.
Though those gruesome displays have a queasy sideshow punch, Häxan‘s unsettling power comes from Christensen himself – he directs with the self-satisfied demeanor of a realist but his handiwork betrays the anxieties of a true believer – for a silent film the terror feels fresh and immediate, like it’s just now invading our world. Nevermore so than in the movie’s show-stopper, a re-enactment of the witch’s sabbath.
Sprung from the collective nightmares of a superstitious populace, this is how you visualize debauchery; an army of broom-riding hags blot out the sky – you can practically hear them cackling – before landing in the midst of a clearing alive with medieval nymphos, smirking goblins and a towering horror known as the devil’s grandmother. Urging on the festivities is a grimacing gargoyle furiously pumping a butter churn – there’s no mistaking the metaphor. The gyrations of these 13th century party animals recall Penelope Gilliatt’s dismissal of Ken Russell’s The Devils as a continual “spasm.”
After that phantasmagoric eruption, the film seems to have spent itself as well – the tone turns from orgiastic to moralistic.
In the tradition of Day of Wrath and Witchfinder General, Christensen foregoes his ambiguous approach and exposes the real devils of these tales, the inquisitors themselves. It all culminates in Häxan‘s most shocking passage in which a sisterhood of nuns is overwhelmed by madness, a sequence based on the same epidemic of delirium described in Aldous Hurley’s The Devils of Loudon and Russell’s 1971 adaptation (it’s also ground zero for the dozens of possessed nun films from Italy in the 70’s.)
Häxan‘s finale is a comparatively sober affair, flashing forward to 1922 where hysteria is presented in a Freudian context – a nice pushback against superstition but the denouement carries the same ennui as Simon Oakland’s explainer at the end of Psycho. We don’t remember Häxan for its sober analysis but the ghouls it lets loose in our nightmares.
After the enormous success of the film Christensen was offered work in Germany where he appeared in Carl Dreyer’s Michael in 1924. He had a brief stay in Hollywood where he directed Norma Shearer in 1926’s The Devil’s Circus and Lon Chaney in the 1927 potboiler, Mockery. His passion for movies never waned even though his career did – he lived out his life operating a movie theater in Copenhagen.
Were we not living in the age of reason (well, most of us), we might accuse Criterion of relying on black magic for their stunning new transfer of Häxan. The clarity and detail is positively supernatural – one of the most vivid representations of a silent film yet released.
The extras are no slouch either, beginning with an introduction Christensen filmed for Häxan‘s re-release in 1941. No longer the stern professor, the jovial director hits the main points of his thesis while commenting that sound would spoil the illusion of the film.
Sound makes the difference in another of the extras, Witchcraft Through the Ages – that sound is made by its narrator, William Burroughs. The 1968 film is a drastically cut version of Häxan but due to the Missouri-born poet’s nasal twang the movie takes on a comically creepy veneer.
Here’s the complete list of supplements:
• Audio commentary from 2001 with film scholar Casper Tybjerg
• Witchcraft Through the Ages with a score featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty
• Benjamin Christensen’s introduction to the 1941 rerelease
• Bibliothèque diabolique, an illustrated look at Christensen’s historical sources from 2001
• PLUS: An essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, remarks on the score by Anderson, and (with the Blu-ray) an essay by scholar Chloé Germaine Buckley