Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) Director: Benjamin Christensen
The occult makes its odd and unsettling debut on the world stage in Haxan, a Danish-Swedish horror film released in 1922. Part-documentary and part-horror film, this silent production is considered one of the creepiest horror films of the silent era – along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu. It was censored and/or banned in Western Europe, but was celebrated within the Nordic countries. Director Benjamin Christensen initially intended for two sequels to be released, but they were never completed. He worked at his own pace on the film, often at night, and rumors circulated about strange rituals during the filming and editing process –the standard fodder of horror films.
Haxan is an innovative and important film to both the documentary and horror genres, but it is such a trial to sit through this grotesque and troubling picture. It is disturbing in many ways, even for an all-too-desensitized modern audience. While various versions of the movie exist with sound and voice narration, it can also be just as haunting to turn off your sound and watch a bit of Haxan in silence. I appreciate Haxan’s ability to still strike a certain degree of terror into the minds of its viewers.
The first ten minutes or so are scenes of paintings and wooden figures, delivering a rudimentary history lesson of Satan and witchcraft throughout the middle ages. It takes a noticeably progressive point-of-view, denouncing the past as barbaric and infantile. Following this introduction, are a series of disturbing scenes, detailing the various ways the devil tempts people. The costumes, sets, and lighting are all impressive, however it also features nudity, shocking props, the occult, and scenes of rape and torture.
The Director, Benjamin Chistensen played the Devil in the movie. At the time, he was studying “Malleus Maleficarum” (Hammer of Witches), a 1482 German guide for Catholic inquisitors. It was a popular book in its medieval heyday, though it was largely rejected by German Academia and theologians for its unethical calls to exterminate witches. The controversial legal argument was to consider witchcraft as equivalent with heresy, and thereby punishable by torture and death. At any rate, Christensen was a medical school drop-out who initially got into music and theatre, but after his voice failed him, he worked for a champagne company. He eventually stumbled into films, a medium he did not consider a viable artistic option in the way theatre was. His films were privately financed in the early days, and they were racy like much of the Swedish-Danish golden age of cinema in the 1910s. Haxan was the most expensive Swedish film released to date. In later life, he struggled until the government offered him a pension to run a small cinema near Copenhagen, which he did until he died. Haxan was his magnum opus – it both simultaneously made his career and also destroyed it. He later starred in a celebrated role in Carl Theodor Dryer’s film Mikael where he played an artist destroyed by his male protege’s infidelities.
Later versions of Haxan include an edited and narrated version. One version released in the United States was narrated by William S. Burroughs with an odd jazz score.