Witchcraft Through the Ages
Sweden / Denmark, 1922
Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 14 April 2009
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Reviews Haxan (by Cullen)
Narrative film is still a relatively young medium. Because the conventions of storytelling on film weren’t yet standardized, some early movies can feel somewhat amateurish, with erroneous edits or awkward depictions of the passage of time. I think this is partly why relatively few people are willing to watch old films the way we’re willing to look at old paintings or watch performances of old plays—unlike more established art forms, many early movies don’t yet speak what we’ve come to know as film’s language. But in some cases, if the director’s vision is powerful enough and his style is intuitive enough, an early film can seem not half-formed and amateurish, but innovative and non-traditional. One little-known silent film that shows this marvelous ability is 1922’s Häxan.
In fact, Häxan offers not one, but two astonishingly compelling, entertaining, and truly weird films. The first is Danish director Benjamin Christensen’s original silent “documentary.” The second is a 1968 re-release featuring a score by experimental jazz composer Daniel Humair and unbelievable narration by William S. Burroughs. Purists almost always insist that the original is best, but I’d never want to deny anyone the bizarre and hilarious joys of the re-release, titled Witchcraft Through the Ages. They are really two separate films, with two profoundly different impacts. Neither should be missed.
Christensen began researching Häxan when he stumbled upon a copy of the medieval publication the Malleus Maleficarum, (literally, “hammer of witches”). The Malleus Maleficarum was the handbook of the witch hunts of the Inquisition, detailing both the supposed crimes of witches during their sabbaths (consorting with the Devil, profaning religious symbols, and casting spells) and the techniques used to elicit confessions and further accusations of other witches (torture, torture, and torture). The book offers an appalling vision of the bigotry, fear, and rampant persecution of the Middle Ages. But Christensen tackles the subject with humor and verve as well as the necessary empathy. His devil and the witches’ deeds look like a smashing good time, and are filmed with wit and creativity, even when the persecution that follows is heartbreaking.
The film opens with a slideshow of medieval engravings. Christensen, in his intertitles, has a very modern European humanist’s skepticism, even as he lays a plausible background for the medieval Catholic beliefs we’re about to see dramatized. The slideshow then switches to scenes from the home of a supposed sorceress in the 13th century. Christensen’s photography echoes the composition of the crude wood engravings, but with the richness of a Rembrandt, dark yet warm, of ordinary things yet with extraordinary skill. His “special effects” are simple (stop-motion animation, puppetry, double-exposure) but employed cleverly and to great effect as we follow the witches to their demonic sabbath. Even when the inquisitors come to call, Christensen’s skill with characterization and empathy flesh out the monks, who are bound to the merciless rules of the Inquisition almost as tightly as their victims. The final act of the film takes place in the present (1922), and provides a modern interpretation that the women accused of witchcraft are those we now consider physically or mentally ill, though it doesn’t let modernity off the hook for its treatment of undesirables. Christensen’s film is powerful, touching, and frank, with realism and an eye for detail often missing from the melodrama of many silent films. He is also a master of visual storytelling, mixing middle- and close-up shots, reactions, and details with intuitive timing that feels thoroughly modern. Near the end of the film, he breaks the fourth wall and introduce elements of meta-film, recounting with a sly note how he tested a “mild” medieval torture device on a curious actress. Though Häxan’s ambiguous genre may have been the product of a film industry so young that it didn’t actually define genres yet, Christensen’s skill makes it feel more like the expansive vision of a modern director.
Watching Häxan side by side with 1968’s Witchcraft Through the Ages is a tutorial in the power of a well-done score. The arrangement of music played during the original theatrical screenings of Häxan has been lost. The Criterion Collection DVD pairs it with relatively soothing, familiar classical music that accompanies but does not really enhance the action. Humair’s score was written specifically for the film, and its chaotic energy and spot-on timing bring a very different experience out of Christensen’s footage. Drums crash as Christensen himself, in an unforgettably ass-kicking performance, appears as the lagging-tongued Devil. Chaotic percussion and discordant organ play as the Devil watches witches and demons frolic during the dark Sabbath, wielding a butter churn exactly how you’d hope. Weird hooting during a monk’s mortification play up the already substantial ambiguity he seems to feel toward the flogging. The jazz brings out Christensen’s playfulness, his dirty sense of humor, and the horror-movie surreality of the demons, devils, and creatures that populated the dark medieval imagination.
And then there’s the narration. The credits don’t specify whether Burroughs wrote his narration or only reads it (I can’t imagine they would have hired him simply for his reedy squawk, as intriguing as it is), but either way it gives a very different slant on the film than Christensen’s intertitles. Christensen’s anthropological remove is replaced with an odd matter-of-factness. The narration casts the narrative scenes as both more realistic (Burroughs does not, as the intertitles do, preface them with a disclaimer that they are fictional re-imaginings) and more poetic (with narration, the surreal scenes feel more like a direct product of the Christensen’s vision than like an enactment of medieval theology). After watching Witchcraft Through the Ages, one wonders whether the filmmakers may have actually believed there were real witches in the Middle Ages—a strange and perhaps incorrect impression, but one that gives the reenactments a certain eerie power they didn’t have when the intertitles explained them away as pure fiction. There are also points when the narration is just weird without explanation, with information that matches nothing in Christensen’s more sober original. Burroughs narrates:
Satan assumes many forms. He has been seen as a prince, a peasant, a friar, a dog, a pebble, a pitchfork—but, as legend has it, never as a fount of holy water.
Good to know. Founts of holy water: trustworthy. At the end of the film, Burroughs also seems predictably dismissive of early 20th-century “mental health.” Perhaps he relates better to a time when the compulsive and the odd were accused of consorting with lecherous demons, rather than being coolly diagnosed and treated by clinicians. It speaks volumes of Christensen’s vision that when his film is treated more literally, it ends up feeling more strange and powerful. It’s also worth noting that even when the frazzled score and slightly twisted narration play up the dirty and the weird, the pathos of the persecuted witches and the brutality of the Inquisition feel just as raw as in the original.
Ultimately both Häxan and Witchcraft Through the Ages are unique, beautiful, and fascinating works of art, whether seen alone or in succession—I would have a hard time recommending one over the other. Though each is clearly a product of its respective time, both read as striking and strange today as they must have upon their first release.