Swedish release poster
|Directed by||Benjamin Christensen|
|Written by||Benjamin Christensen|
|Music by||Launy Grøndahl
Matti Bye (sv)
|Edited by||Edia Hansen|
|Distributed by||Svensk Filmindustri (Sweden)
Janus Films (US)
|Running time||87 minutes (Sweden)
77 minutes (1968 US re-release)
104 minutes (DVD)
|Budget||2 million kr|
Häxan (Danish title: Heksen; English title: The Witches or Witchcraft Through The Ages) is a 1922 Swedish/Danish silent horror 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 dramatized 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 kronor. 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.
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.
A series of vignettes theatrically demonstrating medieval superstition and beliefs concerning witchcraft, including 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.
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 one of the clergymen accuses her of bewitching him.
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. There is heavy irony, however, in the observation that the "temperate shower of the clinic" i.e. the treatment of "hysterical women" in a modern institution, has replaced medieval solutions such as burning at the stake.
- Maren Pedersen as the Heksen (The Witch). Christensen cast Pedersen in the role of the witch, although she was not an actress but rather a 78-year-old flower seller.
- Clara Pontoppidan as a Nonne (nun)
- Elith Pio as Heksedommer (the Young Monk)
- Oscar Stribolt as Graabroder, (the Fat Monk)
- Tora Teje as En hysterisk kvinde (Modern Hysteric), a Kleptomaniac.
- John Andersen as the Chief Inquisitor. He was credited as Johs Andersen.
- Benjamin Christensen as Djævlen (The Devil). Christensen also appears briefly as Jesus Christ during a scene set in a convent, and he appears as himself in the film's opening credits.
- Poul Reumert as a Juveler (Jeweler)
- Karen Winther as Anna
- Kate Fabian as a Gammel jomfru (Old Maid)
- Else Vermehren as a Nonne (Nun)
- Astrid Holm as Anna
- Johannes Andersen as a Heksedommer (Witch Judge)
- Gerda Madsen as a Nonne (Nun)
- Aage Hertel as a Heksedommer (Witch Judge)
- Ib Schønberg as a Heksedommer (Witch Judge). This role was Schønberg's screen debut.
- Emmy Schønfeld as Marie, a Seamstress. She credited as Emmy Schönfeld.
- Frederik Christensen as a Borger (Citizen). He was credited as Frederick Christensen.
- Ella La Cour as the Troldkvinde (Sorceress)
- Elisabeth Christensen as an ældre bondekone (Old Farm Lady)
- Henry Seemann as a Borger (Citizen)
- Alice O'Fredericks as a Nonne (Nun). O'Fredericks also worked as Christensen's script girl on this film. It was her first job in film production,but she later became one of Denmark's most popular film directors.
- Knud Rassow as the Anatomen (Anatomist)
- Ellen Rassow as a Tjenestepige (Maid)
- Holst Jørgensen as Ole Kighul
- H.C. Nielsen as the Juveler assistent (Jeweler's Assistant)
- Albrecht Schmidt as the Nervelæge (Neurologist)
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."
Christensen obtained funding from the Svensk Film (Swedish Film), preferring it over the local Danish film studios, so that he could maintain complete artistic freedom. He used the money to buy and refurbish the Astra film studio in Hellerup, Denmark. Filming then ran from February through October 1921. Christensen and cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne filmed only at night or in a closed set to maintain the film's dark hue. Post-production required another year before the film premiered in late 1922. Total cost for Svensk Film, including refurbishing the Astra Film Studio, reached between 1.5 and 2 million kronor, making Häxan the most expensive Scandinavian silent film in history.
The film was re-released in 1941 in Denmark with an extended introduction by Christensen. The intertitles were also changed in this version.
In 1968, an abbreviated version of the film (77 minutes as opposed to the original's 104 minutes) was released, entitled Witchcraft Through the Ages. This version featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair (played by a quintet including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin and Daniel Humair on percussion) and dramatic narration by William S. Burroughs.
On October 16, 2001, Häxan was released on DVD by The Criterion Collection. This release features a restored print of the original version of the film, as well as the 1968 Witchcraft Through The Ages version. Also featured are extensive production notes, a re-recorded musical score, commentary by Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg, a gallery featuring the images used in the film's first section, and the introduction Christensen recorded for the 1941 re-release.
When the film first opened (in Stockholm, 18 September 1922), it was accompanied by a score compiled from preexisting compositions; details of the selection, which met with the director's enthusiastic approval, have been lost. It is known, however, what music was used the following November for the Copenhagen premier, where it was played by a 50-piece orchestra; this selection, combining pieces by Schubert, Gluck, and Beethoven, has been restored and recorded with a smaller ensemble by arranger/conductor Gillian Anderson for the 2001 Criterion Collection DVD edition.
In 2007, two new soundtracks for the film were composed in Britain. One was by the British composer and performer Geoff Smith, to be performed on the hammered dulcimer. Smith performed the soundtrack throughout the UK in 2007. The other was by the British group Bronnt Industries Kapital, and was also performed throughout the UK and Europe in 2007. A DVD of the film featuring both soundtracks was released by Tartan Films on September 24, 2007.
A third soundtrack to be recorded and released in 2007 was a score commissioned from silent film composer Matti Bye (sv) by the Swedish Film Institute. This soundtrack is featured on the DVD release of the most recent restoration of the film, made by the Swedish Film Institute.
The French experimental music group Art Zoyd also created a soundtrack that was released on CD in 1997. This work was commissioned by the City of Copenhagen, the European Union designated Cultural Capital of Europe 1996. Art Zoyd members Gérard Hourbette and Thierry Zaboïtzeff composed the soundtrack.
- Pilkington, Mark Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages Fortean Times, Dennis Publishing Ltd., October 2007
- Tybjerg, Casper, Et lille lands vagabonder 1920-1929, 100 Års Dansk Film, Rosinante Forslag, 2001, pg. 68. ISBN 87-621-0157-9
- Christensen, Benjamin, "from a published letter", Kinobladet 9. No.17, August 5, 1921
- Bourne, Mike Häxan / Witchcraft Through the Ages: The Criterion Collection The DVD Journal, 2001
- Gillian Anderson: About the music, in Criterion's DVD booklet, 2001
- "News & Biog". Dulcimer. Retrieved 2013-08-13.
- Häxan (with tint and subtitles) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]
- Häxan at the Internet Movie Database
- Häxan at AllMovie
- Häxan at Rotten Tomatoes
- Häxan at Det Danske Filminstitut (in Danish)
- Häxan at Silent Era
- Criterion Collection essay by Chris Fujiwara
- Criterion Collection essay about the film music by Gillian Anderson
- evocative lobby poster