Collecting Criterion – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

There’s something inherently spooky about silent cinema.  Perhaps it’s the lack of sound itself that becomes so jarring, or the limitations of the technology of the day leading to many films of that period looking so high contrast in it’s mix of light and dark.  But regardless of the content of the movie itself, we look back at silent cinema with this detachment that makes movies of that era take on this almost ghostly character.  Even the light-hearted films feel like lost relics that are so separated from what we know about movies today.  And I think that this is why the horror movies of this particular period have retained their macabre appeal for so long.  The horror films of the silent era are still to this day some of the most disturbing and viscerally chilling movies ever made, and they have not lost any of their potency after nearly a century.  These movies in particular seemed to be even heightened by the limitations of their time, as the lack of dialogue and sound adds to the chilling atmosphere and the high contrast photography allows gives the darker shadows a whole lot more menace to them.  A major influence of the silent era was also the embrace of German Expressionism.  Led by many Weimer Era cinematic pioneers like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, the expressionist movement utilized new techniques like impressionistic set design, trick photography, as well as the latest advances in visual effects.  You can see these utilized brilliantly in iconic horror movies out of Weimer German Cinema like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and most vividly in Murnau’s still chilling Nosferatu (1922).  Many of these films, even 100 years later, still have the power to create unease in modern day viewers, and some of that may be due to the detachment that comes with their old age but it’s also due to the incredible artistry of the filmmakers who knew exactly what it would take to frighten their audience.  But, it wasn’t only German filmmakers who had mastered that skill, as a few auteurs from neighboring Denmark would also demonstrate in these early years of horror cinema.

Danish cinema has it’s own incredible early past, one which has been spotlighted by the likes of pioneers such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Benjamin Christensen.  Though sharing a lot of similarities with German Cinema at the time, Danish cinema carved out a name for itself through a strong emphasis on performance.  You can see a heavy influence of the Danes on cinematic acting, as it was far more reserved and natural than what we were seeing from the far more operatic performances we were seeing from the cultural hubs of Hollywood and Berlin.  The Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in particular is seen as a masterclass of silent film acting, with incredibly poignant and subtle performances that transcend even without the aid of dialogue.  Of course, Danish cinema had a heavy influence on Horror as well, with just as much a sense for the macabre as their German counterparts.  Though Car Theodor Dreyer had delved into the horror genre as well with his film Vampyr (1932), it was his fellow Dane, Benjamin Christiansen, who would leave a far more lasting mark on the genre as a whole.  A medical student turned filmmaker, Christiansen approached the horror genre from a rather unexpected angle.  He was less interested in treating audiences to a story but rather wanted to use the medium of film to inform.  This would be the case with what is considered his masterpiece, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), which is part documentary, part historical recreation.  Though, as viewers will note, his film is set up as a lecture about the history of witchcraft lore and it’s influence on hysteria throughout culture, Christiansen as a filmmaker still manages to let his creative mind run wild and as a result we get some of the most vividly arresting scenes of macabre imagery that’s ever graced the screen.  And it’s heavily influential visuals is what garnered the attention of the Criterion Collection, who have given it an honored place within their library (Spine #134); and also making it one of the oldest films in the Collection too.

Haxan of course is the Danish translation for Witch, which of course is the primary subject of what is essentially Benjamin Christiansen’s scholarly lecture on the connections between people accused of practicing witchcraft in the Middle Ages and the women suffering through hysteria as a medical condition in his time.  Presented in seven parts, Christiansen breaks down the history and folklore of Witchcraft as it’s been understood throughout Europe.  In the first part, he uses artwork to demonstrate how artists in the Middle Ages documented the practices of Witchcraft and how it was responded to by Inquisitions by the Church.  After the early cinematic equivalent of a Power Point presentation, the second part begins with portrayals of what witches in the Middle Ages might have been like, often old crones granting spells and remedies to their neighbors, including love potions.  He also shows how people working in the art of science often would be falsely branded as witches in this time.  In the next three segments, Christiansen delivers the most narrative driven section of the film, showing how hysteria and suspicion about Witchcraft often leads to a disastrous outcome.  After their father grows mysteriously ill, two wealthy maidens suspect that it was an old crone named Maria the Weaver (Emmy Schonfeld) cast a spell on him, and they turn her over to the local Monks who run the Inquisition on Witchcraft.  After subjecting Maria to torture, they wring a confession out of her, where Maria names other witches of her village and describes for them an event known as the Witches Sabbath.  Without much proof other than Maria’s own confession, the Inquisition begins rounding up women all across town, including the maidens who accused her in the first place, and we see many lives destroyed very quickly out of a case of rampant suspicion and out of control authoritarianism by the Church.  The last two segments focus on the connection between belief in the power of Witchcraft, and the malady of hysteria that is observed as a medical condition in present time.  Christiansen uses these segments to demystify the stigma of mental illness and show that people suffering these conditions have no connection with the supernatural but instead are in need of the right kind of care that’s grounded in science, or at least the science that was understood then.

Someone going into Haxan for the first time expecting it to be a wall to wall fright fest may be underwhelmed by Benjamin Christiansen’s more scholarly presentation here, as the movie is a documentary first and foremost.  But, once Christiansen does begin to delve more into the more imaginative side of what he can do with the medium of film, he really lets loose.  There is a lot of creepy imagery throughout the movie that has long been influential on the horror genre.  In particular, his portrayal of the Witches Sabbath is a particular stand-out, and one that is shockingly provocative even to this day.  Christensen utilizes ever cinematic trick in the book, including playing around with camera speeds, reversing footage, and even stop-motion animation to create unsettling moments of witchcraft that looks like it came straight from the Devil.  And speaking of the Devil, Satan himself makes quite a few shocking appearances throughout the movie, played by non other than Benjamin Christiansen himself in a grotesque, tongue-lashing performance.  Though the movie’s more grounded historical re-creations have their own interesting moments, it’s the movie’s disturbing depictions of satanic and the macabre that really makes the film memorable.  I’m still shocked that they managed to get away with as much as they did in this movie given that this movie is almost a century old.  You see characters kissing the ass of the Devil, stomping and walking over a cross on the ground, and even cooking human beings in a pot, including a baby.  The movie does not shy away from things that’ll shock most viewers, even in it’s more scholarly parts.  A segment of the movie even delves into the torture devices used on the accused during the middle ages.  He even demonstrates one (the Thumb Screw) on one of his poor actresses in the movie.  The film says that the demonstration was consensually granted and that the actress was not seriously harmed, but we’re just going to have to take Christiansen’s word for it.

Despite the shocking nature of some of the film’s content, Christiansen never once suggests any anti-religious stance.  His main argument is against the misuse of authority and the dangers of hysteria that’s not backed up by reason and science.  Though Christiansen intended to give a scholarly account with his film, I don’t think he would have ever anticipated the long lasting impact his wildly imaginative depiction of witches and satanic practices would have on the culture beyond the film.  I’m sure that quite a few heavy metal bands have borrowed their aesthetic from the imagery of Haxan, both in album cover art as well in their general live presentation.  There are other surprising areas in which Haxan became a major influence.  The scene where the witches fly on their broomsticks as ghostly white figures across a dark nighttime sky to their Witches Sabbath was a direct inspiration for a similar image used in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia (1940).  More than anything, Haxan would prove influential as a catalyst for pushing the boundaries of taste through the genre of horror.  It shocked audiences in ways that few other films of that period would, and in turn it allowed the horror genre to flourish outside the confines of acceptable standards of violence, gore, and even sex in cinema.  Like all the best horror films, it is a movie that challenges it’s audience to test their character while watching the film, and see what they themselves recognize as over-the-line.  It may not be shocking as what we see today, but Haxan was a very scandalous movie for it’s time, and often was subjected to censorship, especially after the outbreak of Fascism in Europe, which cracked down hard on movies with the kinds of suggestive themes that Haxan presented.  Despite this, Haxan survived through the years and continues to find an audience so many years later.  Subsequent re-releases have returned much of the film back to it’s original cut, and some have featured new soundtracks from metal bands that claim the movie as an influence.  Despite it’s age, and it’s original intent as an examination of mental illness, Haxan remains as beloved in horror and counterculture circles as it has ever been.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection devotes just as much attention to classics of the horror variety as any other within it’s library.  The challenge with something like Haxan is the sheer delicate nature of it’s original film elements.  Subsequent restorations over the years have given Criterion a good starting point to work with, but restoring them into a new digital master requires a great deal of expertise, because you’re essentially cleaning up a patchwork quilt of a movie.  Because the original camera negative has been lost to history, the restoration team has to work with the best possible surviving elements to restore a complete film, and those elements may be in varying states of condition.  Thankfully, the majority of Haxan has survived censorship edits and massive deterioration over time, so Criterion can preserve a version of the movie that does match Benjamin Christiansen’s original vision.  The difficult task of the restoration involves taking all the elements together, cleaning them up to the same level, and then trying to make every element look like a complete whole with the same quality of picture from beginning to end.  In this regard, Criterion has done a masterful job, as the movie is consistently strong in it’s entire presentation.  It indeed is amazing how much clarity they managed to get out of the picture, considering that the movie is 98 years old.  On the blu-ray, it is given a 2K transfer, which really spotlights the amazing detail of the film.  If anything, the transfer is almost too good, because those high contrast shadows that were so spooky before don’t hide as many details as they used to.  The soundtrack is recorded from a surround sound recording by the Czech Film Orchestra back in 2001 for Haxan’s then DVD release, based on the original 1922 playlist, which includes recognizable tunes from Richard Wagner and Camile Saint-Saens.  This too has been given digital fine tuning, and sounds fantastic on any sound system.

The line-up of extras also gives the set a nice compliment to the movie for all of us Criterion collectors.  First off is an audio commentary track from film scholar Casper Tybjerg.  An expert in Danish cinema, and in particular the works of the silent period, Tybjerg gives a nice overview of the film’s history, as well as it’s cultural impact, the many different themes discussed and some insight into Benjamin Christiansen as a filmmaker.  The blu-ray also features a film introduction made by Christiansen himself as an introduction for the film’s 1941 rerelease, which helps to give the director’s own take on the movie from his own words.  Perhaps the most substantial bonus feature here is a 76 minute version of the movie that was recut and given recorded narration back in 1968.  This shortened version basically takes all the title cards out and replaces them with a voice over done by beat generation author William S. Burroughs, accompanied by a minimalist soundtrack by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.  It’s an interesting artifact of it’s time on it’s own, and shows the appeal the movie had on the counterculture generation, who were a very important factor in helping to revitalize the film’s popularity.  Another remarkable inclusion on this set are some outtakes from the film.  Discovered during the many restorations of the movie over the years, Danish archivists have managed to collect several short clips that Christiansen left out of the finished film.  They are mostly either extensions of existing scenes, or an unused moment that carries little significance, but it is interesting to see here on the Criterion set, especially knowing how old this long unseen footage is and what it took for it to survive all these years.  Finally, there is an extended look at the historical sources that Christiansen cites within the movie, titled Bibliotheque diabolique.  In this, we get further information on all the different artwork that Christiansen showcases in the movie, and how much of it actually reflects the true history of Witchcraft during the Middle Ages.  It’s another solid collection of bonuses that you come to expect from Criterion, and it helps to flesh out even more the significance of Haxan as an iconic piece of horror and cinema in general.

Indeed, when you watch Haxan today, you can see the beginnings of so many other horror conventions that persist today.  Perhaps it’s greatest influence is the fearlessness that it displays in not shying away from the more grisly details of it’s subject matter.  Though not a horror film in the traditional sense, it’s imprint on the genre is nevertheless apparent.  It’s interesting that despite making such a profound impact on cinema early on, Benjamin Christiansen’s career in film was so short lived.  He would continue making movies for a few years more, moving to Berlin first and later making it out to Hollywood thereafter, mostly making gothic horror in the same vein as Haxan.  But none of his later work would carry the same boldness as Haxan, and eventually he began to stray away from making movies, all but giving it up during the war years, and he eventually retired to his native Denmark where he operated a movie theater during the last years of his life, in relative obscurity.  Despite his retreating from the limelight, Christiansen is to this day celebrated as one of the greatest Danish filmmakers of all time, spoken in the same breath even as his more prolific contemporary, Carl Theodor Dreyer.  And I think that has a lot to do with just how celebrated Haxan is in both Denmark and worldwide.  It is a movie that genuinely creates a feeling of terror that few films have managed to do, and it’s definitely a movie that has given the silent movie era it’s eerie quality.  It’s especially nice to see Criterion spotlight this film in it’s catalogue, which helps to bring more attention to it for a whole new generation.  I’m interested in knowing how young audiences will respond to a movie like this; as they will see many of the familiar tropes of the horror genre found today used first in this remarkably resilient film.  I would also like to see just how much of the film still manages to shock.  The most surprising thing to modern audiences when they see Haxan will probably be just the boldness to which it addresses it’s themes.  It is definitely not a movie that conforms to to the standards of it’s time, but rather pushes the boundaries of taste in a way that purposefully is meant to haunt us for long after we’ve seen it.  And for a movie that still survives in tact almost 100 years later, it’s amazing how much it still has the power to bewitch us.

Criterion Store: Haxan (1922)

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