From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Häxan is a 1922 Danish black-and-white silent film directed by Benjamin Christensen. It is a documentary about witchcraft, but contains numerous dramatized sequences that are reminiscent of horror films. Benjamin Christensen casts himself as Satan. A sabbath depicting a baby slaughtered, and a devil receiving kiss after kiss on his buttocks, are only two of the reasons why this film was been rated X in the United Kingdom. The 1968 edit Witchcraft Through The Ages, an abbreviated version of the film (77 minutes as opposed to the original's 104 minutes) was produced and released by Antony Balch and featured an eclectic jazz score by Jean-Luc Ponty and dramatic narration by William S. Burroughs.
The film is a documentary of witchcraft and a study of how human superstition, coupled with a lack of understanding of the causes of things such as mental illness and disease, may have led to the witchcraft hysteria of the early modern period.
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 mentally ill, and in modern times, we recognize that people are not possessed by the devil but suffering from 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.
Most of the film was shot at night, ostensibly to enhance the sinister mood of some of the scenes. Such a technique was unheard of at the time of filming.
The film was re-released in 1941 in Denmark with an extended introduction by Christensen. The intertitles were also changed in this version.
In 1968, an abbreviated version of the film (77 minutes as opposed to the original's 104 minutes) was released, entitled Witchcraft Through The Ages. This version featured an eclectic jazz score by Jean-Luc Ponty and dramatic narration by William S. Burroughs.
On October 16, 2001, Häxan was released on DVD by The Criterion Collection. This release features a restored print of the original version of the film, as well as the 1968 Witchcraft Through The Ages version. Also featured are extensive production notes, a re-recorded musical score, commentary by Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg, a gallery featuring the images used in the film's first section, and the introduction Christensen recorded for the 1941 re-release.
The British group Bronnt Industries Kapital have composed an electro-acoustic score for the film which is being performed throughout the UK and Europe in 2007. A DVD of the film featuring their soundtrack is being released by Tartan Films on June 11, 2007.Template:Fact
In popular culture
Haxan Films, the studio that produced The Blair Witch Project, took their name from this film. Norwegian industrial metal artist Mortiis used excerpts from the film in a promotional video for the re-mix of the song "Marshland", from his album The Smell of Rain.