Few films could ever get away with the explanation that extreme violence and imagery is required to tell its narrative correctly, and “Häxan” (Swedish for “The Witch,” and pronounced “haexen”), looking at the history of mysticism and the occult, is one of the rarer cases that invented a new type of film to do it. Introduced as “a presentation from a historical and cultural point of view, in 7 chapters of moving pictures,” “Häxan” is one of the first examples of documentary, one with historical reconstruction too, but the events retold were so horrifying it was heavily censored around the world, and was banned outright in the United States for many years.
I had always got the impression “Häxan” was a bit like “Nosferatu,” in that the producer was involved with the occult in some way - in fact, the money was provided by Svensk Filmindustri, later Ingmar Bergman’s employer, and still running today. The idea for the film did come from its maker, the film and stage actor/director Benjamin Christensen, buying a copy of the 15th century treatise on witchcraft “Malleus Maleficarum” (“Hammer of the Witches”), written by an expelled German Catholic clergyman, which provided the legal and theological basis for witch trials – the reconstructions in the film essentially dramatize what the “Malleus Maleficarum” said you should do with witches. However, there is no evidence that Christensen took this interest beyond it being a good subject for his film, although he would play the plum role of the Devil himself, horns and all.
The film begins by laying out its academic credentials: ““Benjamin Christiensen wrote the script and produced the film between the years of 1919 and 1921... My main sources are mentioned in the theatre’s playbill...” What does begin as a necessary lecture of lantern slides and woodcut pictures, dioramas where a wooden stick appears to point out details, and a lot of reading, even for a silent film, the action really picks up when all that cinema could do is then thrown at you: sumptuous Medieval sets; people dressed in animal costumes, having been transformed by the devil; cannibalism of human babies at night, the film stock tinted blue; cavorting nuns in a church; medieval jump scares as the Devil appears; reversing film as money disappears out of a room, to tempt someone to chase it; double exposure to show witches flying on broomsticks; and even very early stop-frame animation, portraying a tiny demon appearing through a wall.
As explained in the film, there are a great many contemporary accounts from women that can be drawn upon for how they thought they were possessed, and what happened in their minds, and the last part of “Häxan” explains this through the more “modern” and psychological understanding of hysteria, now known as conversion disorder. Modern instances of pyromania and shoplifting are deliberately reconstructed using the same actress from the medieval scenes, because we are told that is what and why they are doing it. A shot of a woman under a “temperate” shower at a clinic fades to a woman burning at a stake, highlighting an undercurrent in how the same illness has been dealt with, even by the film’s release in 1922.
Even if the United States would not show “Häxan,” Christensen would be in Hollywood within two years, directing films for MGM and Warner Bros., although he would be back in his native Denmark by 1930. His only other horror films were in a trilogy of short feature films co-written with Cornell Woolrich, two of which are now lost. Ironically, Christensen did work with Lon Chaney, but it was in a 1927 film about the Russian Revolution called “Mockery.”
“Häxan” would be reworked into “Witchcraft Through the Ages” in 1968, featuring a highly distracting jazz score, and narration by William Burroughs, the author of “Naked Lunch,” reworking Christensen’s intertitles, but Burroughs’ voice almost speaks of experience when, as a woodcut picture is shown, he says, “...whilst another old biddy has maliciously cast a spell on a man’s shoes.” She was then captured and taken to Interzone...