Haxan is a Danish film from 1922. Part documentary, part fiction, part classroom film, it explores the history of witches. The movie is interesting in its own way, but its view of witchcraft seems dated (especially compared to the new graphic-novel treatment of Jack the Ripper in theaters). In fact, Haxan seems almost quaint, which I don’t think was the director’s intent.
Still, the extras on Criterion’s DVD make appreciation of the film a foregone conclusion. If I had merely watched the movie, I might have dismissed and forgotten it. But having seen Criterion’s presentation, the film will live in my memory as one of the noteworthy silent movies to survive.
- Audio commentary by Danish scholar Casper Tybjerg
- Christensen's filmed into to 1941 re-release
- 76-minute version of the film, called Witchcraft Through the Ages
- Stills gallery
- Photographic explanation of stills used in the movie
- Outtakes and test reels
Haxan tells its story in seven parts (originally split up into seven reels, or 70 minutes of film). The first sequence introduces us to some early notions of witchcraft and the cultures that spawned them. During this first reel, Haxan looks like an educational film. Stills photographed from books and explanatory text fill the screen. Long pointers, such as you’d see in a classroom, come in from off-screen to point out important details.
One gets the feeling Christensen hadn’t quite mastered the language of film. Still photos and comically sterile pointers don’t make the most of the medium of moving pictures. His filmed introduction to the 1941 re-release of Haxan bears this out: he looks left and right, but never into the lens of the camera, as though he were addressing a classroom instead of the screen.
In the last reel, Christensen pulls us into modern times. He draws the conclusion that witch hunts were more evil than witchcraft, and that “witches” may have been women suffering from “hysteria” — a recognized mental disease in 1922.
In-between the quaint classroom setup and the dated modern coda, Christensen tells a good Halloween tale. Starting in the second reel, the film moves into re-enactments of scenes of medieval witchery and persecution. Christensen brings to life fantastic sequences depicting accusations, witch trials, and forced confessions. Fevered dreams of demonic and heretical acts fill the screen, sometimes tinted blue or red according to the mood of the scene.
A fat priest is obsessed with witches. He’s determined to root out every witch in town before moving on to the next town. He extracts confessions using the ol’ good cop/bad cop routine, or when it’s more convenient, simple torture.
An old woman, toothless and begging, finds herself accused of being a witch. She can’t stand up to the torture of the priest and his monks, so she confesses to all sorts of deviltry (depicted graphically on screen — including a scene in which the witch-initiates kiss the ass of Satan)
The Devil himself (played by Christensen) appears throughout, haunting the dreams of the terrified middle-agers, and coloring their fantasies and “confessions.”
Haxan, Take Two
The Criterion DVD includes another version of the film. The second version stays very close to the original. It keeps many of the same intertititles, and adds narration by William S. Burroughs. The new version, prepared by British filmmaker Anthony Balch, also features a beatnik jazz soundtrack by Daniel Humair. Although this version is slightly more hip than the original, it doesn’t change or add much. Looking at them both from the year 2001, the ‘67 version, complete with Burroughs and jazz, doesn’t seem to modernize the film at all.
The ‘67 version does move quicker. It has been edited more tightly, more concisely. Perhaps some of the compression is helped by the new soundtrack. But the later version shows how much fat could have been trimmed from the 1922 original, and supports the notion that Christensen hadn’t quite mastered the medium yet.
In addition to the second version of the film, there is a running commentary by Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg, whose knowledge of Benjamin Christensen is thorough and complete. His commentary is well researched and at times interesting (although, to be honest, I found some segments to be dry).
The disc also features a gallery of stills used in the movie. These stills were photographed from books about witches and witchcraft. In the supplement, each still is presented as it appears in the movie, followed by a screen of information about what is depicted and from whence it came. Of all the extras on the DVD, this was the most impressive, thoroughly researched by the good people of Criterion.
There is also a production photo gallery, test reels, and outtakes from the film.
The disc also includes, as mentioned before, Christensen’s filmed introduction to the 1941 re-release, and the complete 1967 version featuring narration by William S. Burroughs and music by Daniel Humair
The creative and curious should give Haxan a look this Halloween. Beat lovers and Burroughs fans should rent the disc and watch Witchcraft Through the Ages. Students and lovers of film should be happy to have Haxan in their collection.
Mainstream audiences, however, aren’t likely to get much from Haxan. It’s quaint, dated presentation, and Christensen’s imperfect use of the medium may be too foreign for the googolplex crowd.