collections

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922)

Referred to in English as The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages, Häxan is a Swedish-Danish film, a curious and groundbreaking mix of documentary and silent horror cinema, written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. Whereas most films of the period were literary adaptations, Christensen’s take was unique, basing his film upon non-fiction works, mainly the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century treatise on witchcraft he found in a Berlin bookshop, as well as a number of other manuals, illustrations and treatises on witches and witch-hunting (a lengthy bibliography was included in the original playbill at the film’s premiere). On literary adaptations Christensen commented: “In principal [sic] I am against these adaptations… I seek to find the way forward to original films.” Instead Häxan was envisaged, as stated in the opening credits, as a “presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in seven chapters of moving pictures”. While the bulk of the film’s format, with its dramatic scenes portrayed by actors (including Christensen himself in the role of the devil), would have been familiar enough to cinema-goers at the time (although shocking in content), the first chapter, lasting 13 minutes, is a different story. With its documentary style and scholarly tone — featuring a number of photographs of statuary, paintings, and woodcuts — it would have been entirely novel — a style of screened illustrated lecture which wouldn’t become popular till many years later. Indeed, the film perhaps could make a decent claim to being the first ever documentary (an accolade normally reserved for Robert J. Flaherty’s ethnographic study from 1922 titled Nanook of the North). Reportedly the most expensive film of the Swedish silent film era, Häxan was actually banned in the United States, and heavily censored in other countries. In 1968, an abbreviated version of the film was released. Titled Witchcraft Through the Ages, it featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair and dramatic narration by the wonderfully gravel-toned William S. Burroughs.