Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen
Plot: This is the original 1922 Danish silent film (not the 1968 re-release) about black magic, witches, satanism, and the persecution of those subjects during the middle-ages, which attempts to make a connection between the ancient phenomena and the modern study of hysteria (“modern” circa 1922).
More commonly known as “Witchcraft Through the Ages”, this is definitely one of the most bizarre, visually arresting movies of all time, even nearly 80 years later. It starts out as a documentary, detailing medieval superstitions and folklore while showing ancient woodcarvings of witches and demons in various forms. Then we move on into the dramatic portion of the film. In one scene we see witches concocting potions using the body parts of corpses from the gallows. One witch walks in carrying a bundle of sticks, and undoes the bundle revealing a decomposed human hand hidden inside. (Fans of “The Blair Witch Project” should take notice, especially considering that the Danish title of this film is “Haxan”, also the name of the movie company that created “Blair Witch”.)
Director Benjamin Christensen appears as a leering, tongue-wagging Satan, with very realistic makeup. The witches are shown with the Devil and his minions performing various acts of sacrilege and perversion that must have been extremely shocking at the time the movie originally appeared, and would be offensive to many people still. The film was banned for many years because of the depiction of these acts (not to mention the occasional nudity), as well as sacrileges performed by nuns and monks. There are some stop-motion animation sequences (pre-Harryhousen, no less) that are very good, especially for the time. This is a difficult movie to describe. It really is something that you’ll have to see for yourself.
Based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German guide for inquisitors, HÃ€xan is a study of how superstition and the misunderstanding of diseases and mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. The film was made as a documentary but contains dramatized sequences that are comparable to horror films. With Christensen’s meticulous recreation of medieval scenes and the lengthy production period, the film was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, costing nearly two million Swedish krona. Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered at that time graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion.
The first part of the film is a scholarly dissertation on the appearances of demons and witches in primitive and medieval culture. A number of photographs of statuary, paintings, and woodcuts are used as demonstrative pieces. In addition, several large scale models are employed to demonstrate medieval concepts of the structure of the solar system and the commonly accepted depiction of Hell.
The second part of the film is a series of vignettes theatrically demonstrating medieval superstition and beliefs concerning witchcraft. These include Satan (played by Christensen himself) tempting a sleeping woman away from her husband’s bed and terrorizing a group of monks. Also shown is a woman purchasing a love potion from a supposed witch, and a sequence showing a supposed witch dreaming of flying through the air and attending a witches’ gathering.
The third part of the film is a long narrative broken up into several parts. Set in the Middle Ages, it concerns an old woman accused of witchcraft by a dying man’s family. The narrative is used to demonstrate the treatment of suspected witches by the religious authorities of the time. The old woman, after being tortured, admits to heavy involvement in witchcraft, including detailed descriptions of a Witches’ Sabbath, even going so far as to “name” other supposed witches, including two of the women in the dying man’s household. Eventually, the dying man’s wife is arrested as a witch when she admits that she falsely accused the old woman of witchcraft.
The final part of the film seeks to demonstrate how the superstitions of old are better understood now. Christensen seeks to make the claim that most who were accused of witchcraft were possibly mentally ill, and in modern times, such behavior is interpreted as a disease. His case revolves around vignettes about a somnambulist and a kleptomaniac, the implication being that these behaviors would have been thought of as demonically-influenced in medieval times whereas modern times recognizes them as psychological ailments.