Added 1975-10-11 10:08:38
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B.I.A. Films Ltd
Post Date:
2016-10-26 02:18:02

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Häxan (English title: The Witches or Witchcraft Through The Ages) is a 1922 Swedish/Danish silent film written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. Based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German guide for inquisitors, Häxan is a study of how superstition and the misunderstanding of diseases and mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. The film was made as a documentary but contains dramatised sequences that are comparable to horror films. With Christensen’s meticulous recreation of medieval scenes and the lengthy production period, the film was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, costing nearly two million Swedish krona. Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered at that time graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion.

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 possibly mentally ill, and in modern times, such behavior is interpreted as 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.

After finding a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum in a Berlin bookshop, Christensen spent two years — from 1919 to 1921 — studying manuals, illustrations and treatises on witches and witch-hunting. He included a lengthy bibliography in the original playbill at the film’s premiere. He intended to create an entirely new film rather than an adaptation of literary fiction, which was the case for films of that day. “In principal [sic] I am against these adaptations… I seek to find the way forward to original films.”


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