Danish film director, actor, and screenwriter Benjamin Christensen found a copy of Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th C treatise on witchcraft, in a Berlin bookshop that sent him on a 2-year journey resulting in the silent film classic Häxan.
The Malleus Maleficarum was written by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer who was brought to Innsbruck by the Church to try Helena Scheuberin, and other women, on charges of witchcraft. Kramer became so obsessed with Scheuberin, namely her sexual habits, the Bishop of Innsbruck expelled him from the city and the trial was suspended (remember Bewitched?). Kramer then went about writing Malleus Maleficarum which promotes the idea that witches are mostly women and torture followed by the death are the only cure. This tortured text was used for ages in the fight against men’s obsession with female sexuality coupled with a fear of women’s independence and power.
Häxan is an exploration of witches and witchcraft with a focus on dispelling superstition with science [footnote 1] that first appeared on screens in Denmark and Sweden in 1922. While that may sound dry, Häxan is about as wild a ride as you’ll experience. From a contemporary review: the satanic, perverted cruelty that blazes out of it, the cruelty we all know has stalked the ages like an evil shaggy beast, the chimera of mankind. But when it is captured, let it be locked up in a cell, either in a prison or a madhouse. Do not let it be presented with music by Wagner or Chopin, […] to young men and women, who have entered the enchanted world of a movie theatre.
It should come as no surprise that Häxan was banned in the US for its graphic depictions of torture and sexuality and its less than flattering view of the clergy. A cleaned-up shortened version, with a soundtrack composed by Daniel Humair and performed by Jean-Luc Ponty among others [footnote 2], was released in the US in 1968, renamed Witchcraft Through the Ages, for safe consumption. The only saving grace of this censored version is the narration by William S. Burroughs.
Thanks to The Criterion Collection, we can see and hear Häxan as it was originally released in a 4K digitally restored version on Blu-Ray with the same musical accompaniment as played at the 1922 premier. Christensen was clearly a master film-maker with a unique eye and approach to his subject, mixing documentary with fictionalized depictions that feel like Hieronymus Bosch’s worst fever dreams.
It’s no wonder the Surrealists found inspiration here and encouraged people to explore Christensen’s work.
The Criterion version offers a number of additional features including Christensen’s introduction to the 1941 release, a photographic exploration of Häxan‘s sources, and commentary by a number of critics and scholars.
I have to think that Ken Russel’s The Devils (1971), another wild ride of a movie, took some of its hysterical nuns inspiration from Häxan, and Robert Eggers, director of the wonderfully unsettling The Witch (2015) cites Häxan as a major influence.
You can stream the restored Häxan from The Criterion Channel (tonight would be especially appropriate) and if you don’t subscribe, I suggest signing up if you enjoy watching movies that don’t suck.
- Christensen’s stated goal with Häxan was to “throw light on the psychological causes of these witch trials by demonstrating their connections with certain abnormalities of the human psyche, abnormalities which have existed throughout history and still exist in our midst.”
- Häxan has also inspired musicians and I enjoy the soundtrack as composed and performed by French vocalist and glossolalia-ist Ghédalia Tazartès:
A Halloween List
We all know I enjoy a good Horror Flick, and what better day to get all cosy with a hot toddy (or cold beer) and watch some scary movies. Here’s a short list of good frights.
Near Dark (1987)
A different kind of vampire movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Still frightening after all these years. Directed by Roman Polanski.
The Witch (2016)
Featuring the scariest goat in film history. Written and directed by Robert Eggers.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Crazy good Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. “But you are Blanch, you are in that chair.” Directed by Robert Aldrich.
The classic. Bela remains The Count.
The Wicker Man (1975)
Beware the innocent. Christopher Lee without fangs, directed by Robin Hardy.
Beware the innocent. Really. Not for the feint of heart. Written and directed by Ari Aster.