Director: Benjamin Christensen
Stars: Benjamin Christensen, Maren Pedersen
Snack Report: Leftover birthday cake
Viewing Companions: Zelda, Mr. Falbeaux
“Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition.” – Variety, 1923
How do I begin to describe Haxan? The first thing that comes to mind is “One of a Kind.”
Haxan, possibly the most controversial film of the Silent Era, is a mashup of horror film and documentary from a time when both of these genres were in their infancy. It’s not exactly a horror film, but it certainly isn’t your typical documentary.
Director Benjamin Christensen spent years studying the history of witchcraft and the human suffering caused by efforts to stamp it out. Much of the film is based on Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a 15th-century handbook on how to identify and defeat Satan’s minions.
Christensen’s stated intention was to present a serious historical documentary about the subject, yet Haxan’s main claim to fame is that it’s jam-packed with very disturbing, erotic, and sometimes out-and-out wacky imagery.
The early history of witchcraft is represented by medieval engravings and woodcuts depicting demons, witches, and other satanic subjects as well as the persecution of these evildoers being brought to God’s justice.
Then the weird stuff begins in earnest, as Christensen stages phantasmagorical re-enactments (one of the first documentaries to tell a story this way) of all sorts of devilish hijinks – witches flying through the air, black masses, orgies, and naked women dancing around the Devil and even kissing his scaly behind.
Superstition and religious mania make people do crazy things – nuns go mad, housemaids administer lust potions to their priestly employers, and paranoid people torture women to force them to confess to dealings with the Devil.
There’s even a dramatization of what a witch’s work day looks like, as the crones prepare brews from toads, dead babies, and pieces of hanged corpses. Witch recruiters invite potential new witches to Sabbath Mixers. And villagers stop by to pick up love potions and other various witchly products. Of course, the same villagers turn on the old women (apparently all the hot young witches are in the forest attending orgies) and denounce them when it’s expedient.
Haxan is surprisingly explicit (especially for its time), full of sexual situations and disturbing images. Swedish censors demanded that many scenes be cut from the film before they would authorize its release. Still, Haxan was banned for many years outside Sweden for anti-Catholic images, pornography, depiction of torture, and devil worship. (All these cut scenes were eventually restored in later versions.)
Christensen himself seemed like a pretty quirky guy. He really got into the spirit of things – he plays the Devil, who apparently has an extremely active libido, and he has a tongue thing going on that Gene Simmons would die for. Interestingly enough, he also appears briefly as Jesus (such modesty!) and briefly at the beginning of the film as himself.
He also insisted that all filming – even interior shots –be done at night because he believed his actors couldn’t focus on the dark side of human nature if the sun was shining.
In the end, Christensen attributes the deviant female behavior that was once condemned as witchcraft to mental illness (“female hysteria”). Though he makes the case that these women need help, not punishment, it’s still pretty condescending and sexist.
Because Haxan fell into the public domain long ago, there are a lot of inferior prints on the market. The Criterion Collection version is the best, based on a 1968 restoration for modern audiences, with title cards being replaced with voiceover narration from author William S. Burroughs. On the downside, someone had the bright idea to add a jazz soundtrack, which is an auditory abomination that just doesn’t work.
Though it’s been surpassed in shock value on both documentary and horror film fronts, Haxan’s influence is still felt today. In fact, 77 years later, the makers of The Blair Witch Project (1999) paid homage to it by naming their production company “Haxan Films.”