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Benjamin Christensen's 1922 masterpiece, Haxan (a.k.a The Witch) is a strange, intoxicating, eerie amalgam of documentary, social commentary and horror picture concerning the history of Witchcraft from earliest times until the present day. Framed by a series of mini-lectures (conducted by Christensen himself, who also appears as the Devil in several of the fictional vignettes), Haxan is at once a detailed and authoritive history lesson (Christensen researched the material for years hitherto) and a wildly inventive, staggeringly beautiful, often deeply unsettling period fiction (albeit fiction based on historical record). Tartan's DVD includes both the original film in a beautiful print and the horrendous 1960's re-cut version - Witchcraft Through The Ages - itself complete with William Burroughs' narration and a wildly inappropriate jazz score. Some other extras would have been nice, given the film's controversial production and distribution, but to have this giddy, otherworldly phantasmagoria on DVD at all is reason enough to be thankful.
A review of the Tartan DVD.
This is one of the oddest films ever. A silent film made in Denmark in 1922, it's a documentary-cum-horror-film about witchcraft. Genre was pretty vague in the silent era, with neither horror films nor documentaries existing as we'd recognise them today. The very earliest films were factual (they were basically moving photographs). A little later, directors would 'restage' notable events (like the coronation of Edward VIII) using actors. Even what are regarded as the first 'proper' documentaries, like Nanook of the North, were largely staged. Haxan is a curious combination of lecture and re-enactment. Some sequences were definitely intended to have a frightening or titillating effect; although it pretends to be a serious study of medieval witchcraft, it's similar in spirit to the exploitative mondo documentaries of the 60s.
It's a silent film, so is probably best suited to people who are used to the conventions of silent cinema. Dialogue and other information is conveyed by the use of intertitles (cards with words on them). Annoyingly, these are in Swedish subtitled into English (the print here is taken from the Swedish film archive). Scenes are tinted various colours (silent films have a richer, more textured look to them than black and white films of the early sound era, and most had some kind of colouration). There's a full orchestral score accompanying the film. A lot of silent film appears to be slightly too fast and a bit jerky because standardised camera speeds only became necessary with the invention of synchronised sound. Haxan isn't too bad in that respect.
It begins with a short lecture on the origins of witchcraft and medieval cosmology, illustrated with various woodcuts and engravings. This isn't terribly exciting, although there's a fabulous model of Hell with about a million moving parts. But soon enough we move onto the good stuff. Old crones using body parts in sinister recipes. The Devil seducing maidens with his long fingers and vigorously-pumped butter churn. Flying around on broomsticks, black masses, hysterical nuns, women lining up to kiss the devil's arse, more demons than you can shake a stick at...
There's no real plot, it's just a series of tableaux, allegedly educational, but really there to scare and delight. For a while we follow the fortunes of an old woman persecuted (falsely) for witchcraft and the consequences of her increasingly crazy confessions, but even that plot is secondary. This is about revelling in the grotesque. The wonderfully detailed sets could almost be from Brueghel, the black masses from Goya or Rosa. If it occasionally lurches into silliness (there's a scene in which women dance with what look like human-sized teddy bears) it's still one of the most impressive recreations of the medieval I've seen on screen.
Part of the appeal of silent films for me is that they require a certain imaginative investment that modern films don't. You have to contextualise because they're so very different to films nowadays. I was delighted by the use of special effects on display here (double exposures, back projection, running the film backwards, stop-motion animation) which is incredibly impressive for its time. But that, I suspect, is what will determine whether you like this - it is clearly not comparable to Star Wars or even King Kong. Part of the beauty of the film is how much it stands out compared to other films of its day. If you're not aware of its context in film history you might not enjoy it as much.
But I'd imagine most people will at least be able to have a giggle at the OTT devil acting. The sabbat sequences really are amazing, including such delights as skeleton horses, pig men, and fat satyrs beating drums. There's a lot more (female) nudity than you'd expect for its time, mostly naked bottoms. It also presents a much earthier version of witchcraft than is typical now. Witches in modern movies tend to be young and sexy (and often naked). Here the witches are wrinkled old hags whose magical activities involve mummified hands, cat faeces, and throwing the contents of piss pots at people's front doors. It feels a little more authentic than, say, The Witches of Eastwick.
The film is quite progressive, making it clear that the director doesn't believe in witchcraft himself. (The director, Benjamin Christensen, also plays the Devil.) The torture and killing of the women accused of witchcraft is shown to be a result of sexually frustrated and malicious monks (although of course the director gets to have his cake and eat it by still showing everything he purports to disbelieve). The film's ending, in which 'modern' (ie 1920s) notions of mental illness are used to 'explain' witchcraft seems more dated than the witchcraft scenes themselves.
The film vanished for several decades after its initial release. In 1967 a cut-down version appeared under the title Witchcraft Through The Ages. That's also included on this DVD. It's notable for having narration by William Burroughs and a jazz soundtrack. It's half an hour shorter than the original version, so may be preferable. The original is 105 minutes, the Burroughs version 75 - most of the saved half hour came from cutting out some of the intertitles, so you don't miss much. This version isn't tinted, though. Burroughs' had a wonderful, croaky voice but although his narration begins with a great chanted spell, the rest of it is a bit dry, with only hints of his usual sardonic humour. It reminded me of the Egyptology lecture in Blood Feast, if that means anything to anyone...
I love this film, but then I'm a big fan of silent cinema and weird horror movies. If you're looking for something a bit outlandish, you could do a lot worse than Haxan. It's a 15 certificate, although I suspect the distancing effect of it being a silent film would make it safe for children a bit younger than that. Amazon currently sell it for a more-than-reasonable £8.