No Volume Needed November: Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

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On Halloween night I went to see the full 104 minute version of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages. Besides being special simply for the fact that it is the original version of the film shown with lovely color tint it was also accompanied by live music. The music was performed by Vancouver’s Funerary Call. I actually recorded some of the screening to give you an idea of what the music was like but there was coughing and talking in it that I could not edit. A real shame as my words can not really do the fabulous musical accompaniment justice. Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages’ haunting live score was extraordinary accompaniment that really added to my enjoyment of an already wholly fascinating and hypnotic film. Below are a couple of shots of Funerary Call

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Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages is more or less what its name suggests; a documentary about witchcraft through the ages. More accurately it is a documentary about how superstition and fevered religious beliefs poison the mind and cause human beings to act irrationally. There was certainly nothing rational about the witch hunts. Under torture a person could be provoked to agree to just about anything. The medieval instruments used in this torture were horrifying beyond comprehension. Every woman accused of witchcraft would finger several more. The middle ages were not easy on us ladies. The film ends with some thoughts on the medical condition “female hysteria”. Häxan is, “A presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in 7 chapters of moving pictures.” Benjamin Christensen wrote the script and produced this film between the years 1919 and 1921 with help from Johan Ankerstjerne who did the photography and Richard Louw who handled the art direction. Häxan was heavily edited or outright banned in just about every country in the world. My viewing of the full version on the big screen with live musical accompaniment prompted me to re-watch the truncated version with narration by author William. S. Burroughs. I really love Burroughs narration; I think the man has the most unusual voice that lends itself to the subject beautifully. I definitely prefer the color tint of the original; it isn’t unappealing in black and white it is just a bit lacklustre. I really dug the jazzy score by Daniel Humair in the Burrough’s version but I didn’t think it was the best choice for the material. Personally, I much prefer the longer version, but restless types may want to check out the shorter Burroughs version (which evidently is still awesome). The first six black and white images to follow are from the 1968 truncated re-released and re-titled Witchcraft Through the Ages (77 minutes) narrated by William S. Burroughs.

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Christensen spent two years pouring over countless manuals and other documents to learn as much as possible about witches. Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages consists of a series of images in the form of illustrations, models and re-enactments. The two images above are examples of some of the still imagery included.

The following are the accompanying subtitles for the above pictures from the Criterion print of Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages.

Top Picture: “Deep down in the earth’s core lies hell, where those tempted by the devil shall suffer forever. In the upper part of the picture (from the French historian Lacroix) the devils are stuffing the damned into large pots. A sinner is thrown straight into the fire burning under one of the cauldrons. A devil pours the nasty sulfur oozing from a horn down a man’s throat. Two monsters torment some of the damned with their sharp teeth.”

Bottom Picture: “Women who wanted to participate in the Sabbath sneaked away to the sorcerer where they could have their backs smeared with witch ointment. The witchcraft of the ointment would allow them to fly through the air.”

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Much of Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages’ runtime is made up of reenactments which are all extremely well done and beautifully shot. The film’s strange, amusing, horrific and haunting visuals really are quite spectacular. The above two pictures feature a woman who seeks the aid of a witch named Karna to concoct a love potion to win the heart of a friar.

“Karna can you perchance get me a love potion that has power over a pious man of the church?”

“Here young maiden, take a potion of cat feces and dove hearts boiled in the moonlight. A drop of this in a man’s drink will soften his heart at once.”

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The above two pictures are from one of my favourite scenes in the film. Director Benjamin Christensen plays Satan and what a fantastic Satan he is! I love his horns and long gnarly claws! What I love best about him though is his hugely cheeky attitude. The makeup and costumes is just another thing to admire about Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages. In this scene a young maiden licks her lips hungrily and awakes to the devil who is motioning at her to come hither. Next thing you know the two are embracing. The following is the accompanying subtitles for this scene…

“So it happens with witchcraft as with the devil; people’s belief in him was so strong that he became real. The devil is everywhere and takes all shapes. He shows himself as a nightmare, a raging demon, a seducer, a lover and a knight.”

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See the difference the color tinting makes? I think it livens the film up so awesomely. Satan is red and all is right with the world. I certainly have no issue with black and white; I really love black and white photography. But the color tinting adds a lot to the atmosphere as well as the visuals of this particular silent film.

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This re-enactment is the lengthiest of those included and focuses on the sick-bed of Jesper the Printer. Jesper the Printer is dying and the family are told that the cause is “atrocious witchcraft”. When an elderly lady called Maria the Weaver shows up minutes later one of the women of the house suspects her of being the culprit who cursed Jesper.

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Maria the Weaver is accused of witchcraft and the regular methods are used to evoke a confession. Every woman accused of witchcraft gives away several more.

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Pictured above are the implements of torture used to evoke a confession. This section pulls no punches with demonstrations of what each heinous instrument was intended for. There is no graphic crushing of thumbs or the like but it is nonetheless disturbing. For more images of torture devices in Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages’ click here.

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I am a total sucker for people in animal costumes. there is just something particularly disturbing about people in animal costumes. How fantastic is this image? I mean seriously! Best Halloween costume EVER! I don’t think enough good stuff can be said about the costumes in this film!

“There are witch confessions that are totally insane. Many woman for instance confess that transformed into cats they soiled the altar during the night while two devils in the shape of animals stood guard at the church door.”

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“Do you remember maiden that Jesper the Printer’s child is all alone in the world without relatives besides you?”

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“In the Convents during the middle ages, fear of the Devil escalated into an almost hopeless despair. The pious gave themselves up to many a regrettable self-punishment. Often a single nun was seized and suddenly thereafter the whole convent was overtaken by insanity; a mysterious, contagious insanity.” For more nun images click here.

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The devil bashes a nun with a bat!!

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Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages’ ends with a shoplifter and a sleepwalker; both ailments that might have been interpreted as devil possession or witchcraft in the middle ages. Christensen draws a connection between witchcraft and female hysteria which was a commonly diagnosed disorder when the film was made in the early 1920s. Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages’ is actually quite brutal at times and shocking even by today’s standards. At one point they bleed an unbaptized baby and throw it in a pot! The costumes, sets, props, art work, performances; everything about Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages’ is first-rate, not to mention incredibly informative. Häxan is without a doubt one of the most interesting and visceral documentary/docudramas I have ever seen. It was a one of a kind treat seeing Häxan on the big screen with live musical accompaniment. This is actually my second silent horror film I have seen with a live score; the first being Nosferatu. I can not recommend more highly checking out any silent film with a live score if you are lucky enough to have one play at your local theatre. Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages’ gets my highest of recommendations; a perfect score.

Dungeon Rating: 5/5

Directed By: Benjamin Christensen

Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt, Tora Teje, John Andersen, Poul Reumert, Karen Winther

6 Responses to “No Volume Needed November: Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)”

  1. conradw58 Says:

    Incredible review as always,Goregirl! 🙂 Pretty amazing film,with marvelous images. I love silent movies and look forward to more reviews!

  2. I hear you about Burroughs’ voice! I really enjoyed the times he would “sing” on Laurie Anderson tracks and his appearance in Drugstore Cowboy stole the show.

    And now I have another new movie – Haxan – on my Watchlist. Thanks, Goregirl! Your dungeon is full of awesome!

    • Love Burroughs, and his narration for Haxan definitely adds something special…but the thing kicks my ass all on its own. Haven’t seen Drugstore Cowboy in ages but loved that film once upon a time…and Burroughs appearance is both awesome and apropo.

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