Directed By: Benjamin Christensen
Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen
Trivia: At the time, this was the most expensive film produced in any Scandinavian country
Directed by Benjamin Christensen, 1922’s Häxan : Witchcraft Through the Ages is a strange combination of documentary and horror, with plenty of dramatizations (both historically-based and fantasy) that chart the evolution of sorcery and witchcraft, while also exploring the superstition and religious indignation that condemned many so-called “witches” to death.
Separated into seven chapters, Häxan begins with a look at ancient beliefs, from what the heavens were made of to the "demons" that walked the earth. From there, the film moves into several dramatized segments, including a witch preparing a love potion for a woman who lusts after a monk (Oscar Stribolt) and even an appearance by the devil himself (played by director Christensen, in some effectively creepy make-up). There are scenes of a witch trial, where an elderly weaver (Maren Pedersen), who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is dragged before a religious tribunal and accused of putting a hex on a wealthy man. After being tortured, she confesses to bewitching the man, and then proceeds to “name” other witches in her “coven”. The film concludes with an exposé on mental illness, drawing the conclusion that what was once considered witchcraft is now seen as a treatable disease.
Admittedly, I was a bit concerned when Häxan first began. The film’s opening chapter consists of a series of prints, depicting ancient beliefs (like how the Egyptians were convinced the stars were simply lights hanging from the heavens by a rope), spirits, and the occasional demon. This entire sequence, which is nothing more than one still picture after another, is far too dry, and reminded me of the slide shows I was occasionally subjected to in school (and which always put me to sleep). The moment the second chapter got underway, however, my eyes were glued to the screen, partly due to the story being told (a witch at work making potions), but mostly because the imagery was so extreme (the witch, collecting ingredients for her latest concoction, pulls a finger off a decomposing corpse), giving many of these dramatized sequences the look and feel of a horror movie (one scene, in which the devil suddenly pops into view, is still an effective jump scare). Even the film’s various special effects, from stop-motion (including a scene where a small creature breaks through the door) to superimposed images of witches flying through the air on their broom, are pretty damned good. But it’s the movie’s tendency to shock and appall that will really stay with you (in one sequence, a pair of witches squat over pots, urinate into them, then throw their piss at the front door of a person they’re putting a curse on).
Despite its slow start, Häxan : Witchcraft through the Ages proved to be a singularly unique experience, a nightmarish journey into the world of magic and sorcery, as well as a diatribe on man’s inhumanity to man. It’s also one of the most unusual silent films you’ll ever see.