Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages) [DVD]
Screenplay : Benjamin Christensen
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1922
Stars : Benjamin Christensen (Satan), Astrid Holm (Anna, The Scribe's Wife), Karen Winther (Anna's Sister), Maren Pedersen (Maria the Weaver), Wilhelmine Henriksen (Apelone), Oscar Stribolt (Friar)
Pioneering Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen's name doesn't appear in a lot of general film histories, even though it should. He made 14 films from the teens through the early '40s, including his first two, The Mysterious X (1913) and The Night of Revenge (1915), which are as technically innovative and stylistically advanced as anything American directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were doing at the time.
One of Christensen's most talked-about films is his notorious 1922 "documentary" Häxan, a bizarre silent-film oddity that explores the nature of witchcraft and diabolism from ancient Persia through then-modern times using a variety of cinematic approaches, from still images, to models, to vivid, dramatic reenactments. It is a hard film to pin down, and it defies any boundaries of genre, especially that of the documentary film, which in the early '20s was still amorphous and undefined. Part earnest academic exercise in correlating ancient fears about witches with misunderstandings of mental illness, and part salacious horror movie, Häxan is a truly unique work that still holds the power to unnerve even in today's jaded era.
The film begins in an educational lecture format, cutting together shots of ancient wood carvings, paintings, and engravings with numerous, lengthy intertitles explaining the origins of the belief in witches and devils. The images have an undeniable potency, especially when the film shifts to dramatic reenactment, and we realize that Christensen's visual approach is based on giving those still images three-dimensionality and motion.
Divided into seven sections, Häxan delves deep into the world of religious superstition and paranoia. The majority of the film is an exploration of past fears that is often tinged with condescending enlightenment-oriented scientism. One can't completely fault Christensen's point of view, as his film is a direct product of its time, when the wonders of the modern era were still rich with the naive beliefs that scientific rationality could explain everything. Christensen sometimes tempers this tendency with fleeting suggestions that perhaps there is something to the belief in demons and witches, even if it is firmly rooted in the minds of those who fear them.
The surface of Häxan is deadly earnest, even if the startling visuals border on the pornographic, in the sense that they exist for their own salacious appeal. Christensen fills the frames with every frightening image he can conjure out of the historical records, often blending fact and fantasy in a way that makes the two inseparable. We get images of haggard old witches pulling a severed, decomposing hand out of a bundle of sticks and snapping off one of the fingers in order to brew a potion. There are shocking moments in which we witness a woman giving birth to two enormous demons, see a witches' sabbat, and ensure tortures by inquisition judges. We see an endless parade of demons (one of whom is played by Christensen himself as a lascivious, tongue-wagging fiend) of all shapes and sizes, some of whom look more or less human except for their excessive hair and horned scalps, while others are almost fully animal--pigs, twisted birds, cats, and the like.
What makes these scenes so disturbing is how well done they are. While many silent-era movies look hokey and fake to today's audiences, the make-up effects used in Häxan are startlingly realistic and effective. Christensen employs a number of in-camera devices to suggest the supernatural and the fantastical, including an excellent and too-brief bit of stop-motion animation, multiple exposures to create the image of witches flying through the air, large and detailed models, and the kinds of prosthetic make-up effects that were thought to have been brought to perfection in the horror films of the 1970s, but here look just as good in hand-tinted black and white.
Christensen was certainly a cinematic visionary, and he had a keen notion of the powerful effects of mise en scene. While Häxan is often cited as a forerunner of the devil-possession films of the '70s like The Exorcist (1973), I found myself constantly reminded of Tobe Hooper's effective use of props and background detail in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) to create an enveloping atmosphere of potential violence. Häxan is a film that needs to be viewed more than once to gain a full appreciation of the set design and decoration--the eerie use of props such as animal skeletons, cauldrons, and human skulls, as well as claustrophobic sets and chiaroscuro lighting to set the tone.
It is not surprising, then, that the surrealists and later the followers of the avant-garde found so much to admire in this film. Bordering on the incoherent but also deeply engrossing, Häxan is a film made to shock and outrage, to challenge and subvert, even if its all-too-easy psychoanalytic correlation of witches and female hysteria seems as dated and silly as the ancient superstitions themselves.
In fact, Häxan has circulated most widely since the late 1960s under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages, which is a shortened version edited and produced by British filmmaker Antony Balch that features a dry narration by beat novelist William S. Burroughs and a funk, wholly unsuitable jazz score. This presents a fascinating case history of the way in which the film has transcended both time and meaning, its creepy imagery reimagined in different times as camp and parody.
But, viewing Christensen's full version today, one cannot wholly dismiss it as inadvertent humor and intentional gross-out. Rather, Häxan makes a bold statement using titillating and disturbing imagery, the power of which has not been completely diminished even after eight decades. Even if Christensen's conclusions are faulty, his cinematic techniques and understanding of the inherent power of the medium imbues Häxan with a rare timelessness. That is some kind of achievement and certainly is evidence that Christensen deserves a more prominent place in the history books.
|Häxan Criterion Collection DVD|
|This disc contains both the complete 104-minute version of Häxan as it premiered in 1922 and Antony Balch's 76-minute cut released in 1968 under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages, featuring narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround (Häxan)|
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Häxan)
Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural (Witchcraft Through the Ages)
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg|
Benjamin Christensen's introduction to the 1941 re-release
Outtakes and test footage
Bibliotheque Diabolique: photographic exploration of Christensen's sources
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Release Date||October 16, 2001|
| Considering the age of the film (almost 80 years), Criterion's new digital transfer of Häxan is absolutely stunning. Transferred in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio from a 35mm low-contrast print made from the Swedish Film Institute's recently restored fine-grain master struck from the original negative, the image on this disc allows for Häxan's eerie and grotesque beauty to emerge in all its twisted glory. The film's original red and blue hand tinting has also been restored, and the film was been transferred at the Swedish Film Institute's recommended 20 frames per second, thus giving it a more natural pace. |
Of course, after eight decades, there are scratches and speckles and a few major blemishes marring the image, but one could not expect more than what this disc offers. Many of the sequences are nearly pristine, and even those that betray their age are remarkably sharp and clear, with fine detail that really brings out Christensen's intricate use of mise en scene. Because most of the intertitles have been lost over the years, new electronic intertitles have been inserted with optional English subtitles. I had some trouble with some of the subtitles during one portion of the film, where they would flash at the wrong time or not appear at all, which may have been due to a pressing error that will be corrected in the future.
Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master, also looks remarkably good. Sharp and clear, it bears some traces of age in the form of scratches and speckles, but nothing distracting. This version of the film is not tinted, and therefore it offers an interesting counterpoint to Häxan and its effective use of color.
| Like all silent films, it is hard to determine whether or not there is a "definitive" soundtrack for Häxan. Criterion has gone the extra mile in determining how best to score the film, eventually settling on the most reliable historical research by using the program listing from the film's Copenhagen premiere in 1922. Film music specialist Gillian B. Anderson then conducted an 11-piece orchestra to record the soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.0 surround, giving the disc a rich, resonant musical accompaniment. The music sounds beautiful, and even though there is some ambiguity as to the order of the musical pieces, they work quite well with the imagery. |
Witchcraft Through the Ages is presented with its original Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural that features narration by William S. Burroughs and a strange jazz score recorded by a group led by percussionist Daniel Humair (it also features violinist Jean-Luc Ponty).
| This Häxan DVD has been a long time in the making, as it was announced at least two years ago and has been one of the more eagerly awaited Criterion releases of this year. The wait was definitely worth it, especially in the excellent array of eclectic supplements that have been rounded up. |
First up is an audio commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg, an associate professor of film studies at the University of Copenhagen. Tybjerg speaks excellent English and, even if his academic-in-nature commentary sounds a little stuffy at times (obviously read directly from a prepared manuscript, much like a lecture), it is thoroughly informative about both the history of witchcraft and the production of the film. Tybjerg starts off with a detailed history of Benjamin Christensen's life and career, and then alternates between discussing the specifics of the film and how they relate to the historical realities of witchcraft and diabolism. Like Christensen, he cites numerous scholarly sources in his discussion, rather humorously changing his voice when reading direct quotes.
In the section labeled Bibliotheque Diabolique, Criterion has isolated all of the woodcuts, engravings, and paintings used during the opening section of the film and offered them as still images with source information and a brief description compiled and written by Tybjerg. This section also includes an extensive bibliography for anyone interested in addition reading, including works used by Christensen in preparing the film and those used by Tybjerg in his own studies.
A particularly rare treat is a brief, five-minute selection of outtakes and test footage. Included are brief test shots of one of the sets and inadvertently hilarious footage testing the special effects used to show the flying witches, which consist of Christensen sitting on a chair with a cigarette dangling from his mouth wildly waving his arms while superimposed against travelling footage shot from a train. Another rare treat is a lengthy introduction by Christensen that accompanied the film's 1941 re-release, in which he talks about Häxan as representative of silent film art and also his own thoughts about witchcraft scares (including a long discussion of the various types of women routinely identified as witches).
Lastly, the disc includes a stills gallery of 41 black-and-white photographs taken during production, many of which are detailed images of the sets and props.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick