HAXAN – WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES

Haxan is a silent horror film made in 1922 that was written and directed by Swedish/Danish director Benjamin Christensen. Mr Chrsistensen was in Berlin when he found a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer), written in 1486. The book is arguably one of the most infamous books ever written mainly because it serves as a treatesie on the middle ages on Witchcraft. It was also a commentary by Christensen on how superstition and the misunderstanding of disease , especially mental illness, could lead to the hysteria of witch hunts and the unrelenting pursuit and persecution of innocent people. The book clearly outlined the Churches position on the subject and served as a guidebook in for Inquisitors during the inquisition. It was basically designed to aid them in the identification, prosecution, and dispatching of witches. While there were many individuals in the Church and the Cathoulic faith that doubted the existence of witches, The Malleus Maleficarum made the position of the church clear, undeniable, and unavoidable:

“Whether the Belief that there are such Beings as Witches is so Essential a Part of the Catholic Faith that Obstinacy to maintain the Opposite Opinion manifestly savors of Heresy.” 

Mr Christensen studied the manuals, illustrations, and guidelines on witches and witch-hunting for two years from 1919 to 1921. He put that knowledge into a lengthly biography in the original playbill at the film’s premiereWhile the subject matter intrigued him he saw it more as an important opportunity to create an entirely new film instead of an adaptation of library fiction. Instead he sought a way forward to creating new and original films.

Mr Christenen obtained funding from Svensk ( Sweadish Film) which he preferred over the local Danish studios so that he could maintain complete creative freedom. He purchased the Astra Film studio in Hellerup, Denmark filming from February through October 1921.Christensen and cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne filmed entirely at night or in closed sets in order to maintain the films dark mood. Post production required another yearend the film premiered in late 1922. Cost of the film, including refurbishing the AstraFilm Studio, reached 1.5 to 2 million kronor, making Haxan the most expensive Scandanavian silent film in History. The film won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, however it was banned in the United States or heavily censored because of the graphic depictions of nudiy, and sexual perversion.

The film is divided into four vignettes each advancing the story line of the development of witchcraft. It begins showing witches preparing brews, potions and talismans that are passed onto local customers and devotees. The film depicts people afflicted with diseases that are are attempted to be cured by the brews and ointments but to no avail. As each installments is made the the crescendo builds as preparation for a celebration are made. Witches fly to the spot as devotees and pilgrims walt in throngs to a clearing in the forest where a circle with a pentagram and an alter are placed. The bacchanal begins and demons and animals come to life all building to the ultimate appearance of Satan himself. The devil, played by Christensen himself, works to corrupt various monks, nuns and clergy. He also seduces many women who succumb to him sexually in spite of his sinister appearance.

Below are two versions of the film: first the original and following is a version with English subtitles. We do this to maintain the feeling of the original, which provides a certain sinister and unsettling throughout the film; the second is for the obvious reasons of translation.

Haxan is an extraordinary film in many ways. Considering the date it is was made it is shockingly explicit. It is also darkly creepy and is in may ways more horrifying than modern films as you feel as though you are watching something that you shouldn’t, that you are viewing something forbidden on a moral level that just may cost you your soul. As the film progresses it transfers the medieval practices of burning witches at the stake to cold showers and various treatments at then modern clinics for the treatment of the mentally ill.

The film has be released and rereleased many times over the years. Below are two of this releases. One is the original version in black and white with english subtitles to help advance the story while another is has no translation but is graced with eerie color plated panels of blue and red that punctuate the film and help create the inescapable creepy mood that envelopes the film.