Usually a stickler for watching movies as they were originally presented, I nevertheless enjoyed the 1968 re-release version of Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. I had seen Haxan (1922) a couple times before in its 104-minute, silent version on the Criterion DVD release. Cutting the film to 77 minutes, and adding narration from William S. Burroughs and a jazz score by Daniel Humair actually enhances the experience, making it creepier than ever before.
In any version, the imagery is fascinating and, yes, sometimes scary. Early sequences during which Burroughs describes how “witchcraft has plagued the ages” over photographs of primitive drawings, paintings and woodcuts lend an air of authenticity to what is technically a documentary. However, Haxan then presents a series of vignettes that brings the artifacts to life. No expense is spared; Haxan is reportedly the most expensive Scandinavian silent film in history.
The first live scene brings a little humor to the experience when a woman asks a witch for a love potion that will make a member of the clergy fall in love with her. It doesn’t work at first, so she asks for a stronger brew. This results in the rotund friar chasing her through the woods and finally cornering her for a sloppy kiss. For her payment, the witch wants only for the woman to come to their Sabbath where, Burroughs tells us, they “have to show respect for Satan by kissing his ass.”
Haxan plants the remaining vignettes in the Middle Ages when “belief in the devil ran rampant and took many forms.” While delivering some interesting information about witchcraft, it relies on what we’d now consider stereotype. Burroughs says that witches “can be young and beautiful, but are usually poor and old and wretched and dirty.” He also mentions “the water truth.” If a woman floats, she’s a witch and is burned at the stake. If she sinks, they thank God (but she still drowns.)
When Burroughs announces, “You’re now going to see a witch-hunting,” a longer set of scenes follows telling a linear story. Maria the Seamstress (Emmy Schonfeld) is accused of witchcraft and her experience demonstrates the regular process through which suspected witches suffer. First, there’s a sort of “good cop/bad cop” interrogation. If they “persist in denial,” they resort to religious methods. Then, “if she is still obstinate,” they throw her into the torture chamber.
While being tortured, Maria confesses that she’s had children with Satan. In flashbacks, we see these creatures crawl from beneath her dress as she’s restrained on a table. Then, we see the most elaborate sequence of the film as witches fly across the sky on their broomsticks to attend the sabbath. Of the profane happenings occurring, we see a baby placed in a cauldron and a demon fervently… churning butter? I have a feeling it represents something else.
This all serves as the matter of fact acknowledgment that this was “the machinery of the law.” Burroughs says that over two centuries, there were eight million victims. Judges would arrive in one town to round up its witches, sentence them, and then move on to the next. This section ends with an examination of the instruments of torture (“…no doubt any of us would confess”) and some disturbing imagery of the devil penetrating a convent; crazed nuns with big ol’ knives, anyone?
Haxan ends in “present time,” 1920, as a connection is made between mental illness and supposed demonic possession. Beliefs may have changed, but Burroughs asks, “Is not superstition still ripe among us?” Women are still accused simply because of their appearance and physical deformities. “We don’t burn old women, but aren’t they still wretched?” This is perhaps the lesson of the film. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We’re doomed to repeat history.
We read a lot about early “horror” films, but when we find them to watch, they’re sometimes more about fantasy than scares. I wouldn’t say the intention of Haxan is to scare us; however, it is absolutely terrifying. This is because we as humans acted upon superstition and persecuted each other. We have evidence presented in this documentary. If this fact doesn’t remain with you after watching it, then the movie’s astonishing reenactments and its disturbing images certainly will.
Written by Benjamin Christensen
Directed by Benjamin Christensen
Starring Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt
Released Nov. 7, 1922 (Denmark)
RT 77 min. (1968 re-release)
Home Video Criterion Collection (DVD)