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.
If you liked this...
Please consider supporting us or subscribing to our fortnightly newsletter
We rely on your donations to keep the project going
Our latest content, your inbox, every fortnight.
Short film by Georges Méliès, released through his Star Film Company, featuring demons, flames, spectres, and a brilliant array of the film-maker’s usual arsenal …more
19th-century reprint, with additional introduction by James Crossley, of Thomas Potts’ The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, first publi…more
Deriving its title from the word for “ghost story” in Japanese this is a book by scholar and translator Lafcadio Hearn in which are compiled an array of ghost stori…more
The varied tradition of alchemy has given birth to a whole host of strange and wondrous imagery over the centuries. Here we pick out some favourites….more
Images from the Clavis Inferni or “The Key of Hell”, a late-18th-century book on black magic….more
A selection of pages from an 18th-century demonology book comprised of more than 30 exquisuite watercolours showing various demon figures, as well as magic and cabb…more
Have you been good this year? If not, being overlooked by the great benevolent Santa in the sky should perhaps be the least of your worries… let us introduce you …more
English translation of Phenomena of Materialisation, a book by German physician and psychic researcher Baron von Schrenck-Notzing which focuses on a series of séan…more