Benjamin Christensen’s bizarre examination of witchcraft in the Middle Ages is brought to life with shadowy darkness, double exposures, stop-motion animation, reverse motion, stark close-ups and more. The film’s well-designed and carefully composed shots are full of detail and texture, highlight and shadow, and great costume and set design. At times, the film has the look of period paintings with their single-source lighting and dramatic shadows. The film was largely shot at night to put the actors into the proper mood to produce inspired performances.
Christensen made a film that is episodic: an artistic blend of semi-documentary and semi-narrative. His intent was to entertain his audience but also to teach and inform as well. The film is a condemnation of the narrow and ignorant thinking of the Middle Ages, when unusual, reclusive, deformed, or simply contentious people were condemned as practitioners of witchcraft. As many as forty to fifty thousand people were burnt at the stake in Europe for witchcraft, and Christensen maintains that the procecutors were in reality the demons unleashed on the world. When ignorance goes hand in hand with rightiousness, cruelties and atrocities follow.
The film is segmented into seven chapters which is the skeleton of its odd structure. Chapter one has been described as an illustrated lecture, with Christensen showing illustrations from historical books and providing background on the subject for the story to come. Chapter two begins the narrative section of the film, with reenactments of witch practices beginning in 1488. Chapter three begins an extended section of connected narrative, based on details obtained from a number of historical sources, focusing on particular characters and beginning the witch trial cycle with accusation and witchhunting. Chapter four contains the witchcraft trial procedures. Chapter five dramatizes the process of torture to obtain a witch’s confession. Chapter six returns to the nonnarrative format with the documentation of other practices of witches, the contagiousness of insanity, and the tools of torture and self-punishment of Middle Ages Europe. The section is a combination of the instructional and narrative forms of the entire film. Chapter seven takes an unexpected turn into modern day civilization, in which Christensen follows contemporary turn-of-the-century thinking which linked witchcraft with the psychological state of hysteria, all based on the psuedoscientific conclusions of 19th century French psychiatrist Chacot and others. The only view of witches being burnt at the stake comes as the last shot of the film.
Among the brief case studies presented to support the theories is the example of the woman who mistook her pyromania for possession, and the psychological illnesses of somnambulism, pyromania, kleptomania, compulsion — all generally classified as hysteria. Christensen seems to explain away witches as those afflicted by mental disorders or hysteria. But isn’t the easy diagnosis just the simple pigeon-holing of ignorant out of control psychiatrists misdiagnosing what they don’t understand?
The film must have been shocking to the European audiences of 1922. There is, among several provoking shots, the shocking view of an infant being bled and then tossed into a cook pot. Thus, the film was heavily censored in Europe in the 1920s, if the film was passed by censors at all. Yet the film was well received in Denmark on its 1941 rerelease. The hindsight of a couple of decades and German occupation made the film a masterpiece on reassessment. When Christensen was preparing the film for rerelease, he considered removing the seventh chapter, agreeing with critics of the 1920s that it was the weakest part of the film, but decided that the film must stand as it was originally released. The seventh chapter wrap up eases the horror of the preceding footage but also attempts to reconcile the beliefs of the Middle Ages with modern knowledge. It also served to placate the emotions and rage of modern audiences. — Carl Bennett
The Criterion Collection
2001 DVD edition
Häxan(1922), color-toned black & white, 104 minutes, not rated,
and Witchcraft Through the Ages [Häxan] (1922) [1968 USA rerelease edition], black & white, 74 minutes, not rated.
The Criterion Collection,
HAX010 [spine number 134], UPC 0-37429-16172-2.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 0, 6 Mbps average video bit rate, 192 kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 5.0 surround sound, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound and Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound, Danish language intertitles, optional English language subtitles, 22 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $39.95.
Release date: 16 October 2001.
Country of origin: USA
Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Benjamin Christensen’s weird masterwork has been handled with an eye to detail and quality in this first DVD edition of the film Häxan (1922).
The 35mm color-toned restoration print utilized for the video transfer is excellent, with only minor speckling and scratches. The 18-20 FPS running speed transfer is smooth and balanced in its reproduction of the print’s broad greytones. Shadow details are open and well defined throughout the film. The DVD video bit rate ranges from 4.5 to 9 Mb per second, indicating a generous amount of video information to produce a quality image. And hard to render images in MPEG-2 video compression such as smoke are smooth and well defined in the transfer. The somewhat windowboxed transfer allows us to see absolutely as much of the surviving images as possible. The restoration print is so highly detailed that the texture of the skin of faces presented in close-up is clearly defined, emphasized by Christensen’s masterful lighting.
The supplementary material includes: the eight-minute long introduction Christensen shot in early 1941 to accompany the film’s European rerelease; the Bibliotheque Diabolique collection of Christensen’s and Casper Tybjerg’s own bibliographic references, with detailed notes on several of the illustrations used by Christensen in the film; many production stills; Tybjerg’s commentary; a reel of test shots and outtakes, including Christensen himself as the subject of a test shot for the flying witches special effect; and the 1968 revamp of Häxan entitled Witchcraft Through the Ages prepared by Anthony Balch, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, with narrative by Burroughs, for release in the U.S.
The 1968 edition 35mm print is cropped tighter and doesn’t hold as much image detail, being a very good but slightly contrasty print, when compared to the restoration print of the 1922 version also on the disc. The print’s shorter run time is because some the introduction details have been ignored or glossed over in the 1968 edition, several of the intertitles have been eliminated and replaced with Burroughs’ narration, and the original film speed of 18-20 frames per second was sped up to 24 frames per second to conform to the requirements of sound film. There are also some interesting differences in the translation of some of the intertitles. A jazz/freeform score featuring Jean-Luc Ponty was prepared for the 1968 edition and is clearly reproduced here in mono sound. Ultimately, this is the best-looking edition of the Burroughs rerelease of Häxan we have seen on home video, but the edition is strangely unsettling in its sped-up action, its modern music, and Burroughs’ 1950s-educational-film style of narration. It’s inclusion on the disc is part supplemental-section thoroughness and part acknowledging the participation of (the, we think, overrated) Mr. Burroughs in the U.S. edition’s preparation. We seriously doubt many viewers will watch the Burroughs edition when the gorgeous restoration print can instead be chosen.
Gillian Anderson’s musical accompaniment attempts to recreate the original Danish score based on a list of music cues prepared for the November 1922 premiere. Anderson conducts the Czech Film Orchestra for this well-recorded orchestral accompaniment that has been mixed for both Dolby Digital 5.0 surround sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. Despite the average encoded bit rate of 192 kb per second, the 5.0 audio has a satifyingly full ambience. Though, at times, the score sometimes seems a little too inappropriately lively for the action it accompanies.
Casper Tybjerg’s audio commentary includes information on Benjamin Christensen’s background, the film’s critical reception in the 1920s, comparisons and clarifications of the historical sources Christensen employed, and analysis of the film’s structure, among other details. Although Tybjerg’s accent and phrasing sounds like the source of the logician parody by John Cleese of Monty Python, we found the presentation to be entertaining, authoritative and informative.
We heartily recommend this wonderful disc, which is worth every cent of the premium prices that Criterion DVDs cost. The staff of The Criterion Collection has again proven why they are at the pinnacle of home video producers. Not only are the supplementary materials well produced, the video transfer of this silent era masterwork is among the best available on DVD.
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
2007 DVD edition
Häxan(1922), color-toned black & white, ? minutes, BBFC Classification 15,
and Witchcraft Through the Ages [Häxan] (1922) [1968 USA rerelease edition], black & white, ? minutes, BBFC Classification 15.
Tartan Video, unknown catalog number, unknown UPC number.
Full-frame 4:3 PAL, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 2, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, Danish language intertitles, English language subtitles, chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, £19.99.
Release date: 24 September 2007.
Country of origin: England
This PAL DVD is likely to be of similar quality to the Criterion edition noted above.
The versions of the film are accompanied by an orchestral music score, an ambient synthesizer music score by Bronnt Industries Kapital, and a hammered dulcimer music score by Geoff Smith.
North American collectors will need a region-free PAL DVD player capable of outputting an NTSC-compatible signal to view this edition.
United Kingdom: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 2PAL DVD edition from Amazon.co.uk. Your purchase supports Silent Era.
2005 DVD edition
Häxan[Witchcraft Through the Ages] (1922) [1968 USA rerelease edition], black & white, 77 minutes, not rated.
Grapevine Video, no catalog number, unknown UPC number.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, single-layered DVD-R disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, PCM 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops?, standard DVD keepcase, $11.95.
Release date: 2005.
Country of origin: USA
This DVD-R edition from Grapevine Video has likely been mastered from a 16mm reduction print of the Witchcraft Through the Ages version of the film, with narration by William S. Burroughs.