One of the most luridly misunderstood films in the history of cinema, as well as a fantastic accomplishment in silent-film technology, is 1922′s Swedish/ Danish Haxan (“The Witch”), directed by Danish film-maker Benjamin Christensen. (It is also sometimes known as Witchcraft Through the Ages.) I say “lurid” because it has a reputation for being a very trippy, out-there, psychedelic sort-of affair (apparently there was a version with William S. Burroughs providing dialogue). However, it is actually a very sober-minded film, quite well and logically arranged, intended to build up to a massive indictment of the medieval Burning Times. Produced at a time when cinema was a brand-new medium, Mr. Christensen’s work is basically a documentary with dramatization: it is described as a “cultural and historical presentation in moving pictures.” It definitely deserves to be considered a Witch Film-Classic (perhaps the first Witch Film-Classic), and should be viewed by any Witch or Pagan who wishes to know better the Middle Ages horror of the Witch-Burnings. It is happily available at Hulu.com; please set aside some time and check it out.
Mr. Christensen is moved by the same impulse that has driven a certain genre of historical research throughout the 20th century- a desire to understand what caused the Burning Times- and Mr. Christensen deserves to be recognized as a pioneer in the field. His scope-of-study, for the 1920s, is immense; his dedication and commitment to his subject admirably heroic; and his conclusions are scathing towards the medieval church. It should be born in mind that the material covered by Haxan has been very much collected by now; at the time that Christensen began his project, however, it was just nineteen years after the 1800s ended, and Witchcraft Scholarship was not nearly as complete as today. How he amassed his materials, I would love to know; a number of the antique illustrations that he displays are quite familiar (having been reproduced over and over), yet this film must have been the first time many of them were widely viewed, and Mr. Christensen derives a number of his film-images from them.
Christensen is very methodical in setting up his “presentation in moving pictures.” He begins by the introducing the curious “chapter of the Witch [Haxan]” in the History of Mysticism, explaining that belief in Sorcery and Witchcraft are “as old as Man,” and that primitive Humans, confronted with the inexplicable, assumed the agency of Spirits. Mr. Christensen helps us to understand the superstitious tenets of such a primitive world as (ahem) still to believe in Magicke. (A device that I love is his use of dioramas, assisted by helpful pointers.) Soon enough, he begins to discuss medieval Witchery with the aid of actors and sets that manage to look much like how one would expect the Middle Ages to appear. Soon enough, again, we are being treated to a reenactment of a medieval Witchcraft case; here Christensen’s source is noticeably the infamous 15th century Witch-Hunters’ manual, the Malleus Maleficarum (written by Inquisitors, from personal experience).
Here enter the sequences that earn Haxan its reputation for phantasmagorical weirdness; however, the responsibility for hallucinogenic perversity needs to be laid at the door of the medieval church, because this is nothing less than a depiction of the deranged, demonic Witches’ Sabbat invented by churchmen. Notice how these sequences suggest a twisted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as demented demons beat out drums while Witches abandon themselves to carnality and sacrilege. It looks crazy and gonzo, but it is no more than what the medieval church propagated, endorsed by torture and human life.
One of the most damning sequences is a straightforward demonstration of medieval torture devices.
The luridness of Haxan’s Sabbat scenes is not an exploitation of Witches, nor an indulgence in grotesquerie: rather it is a heartfelt indictment of the Burning Times, and of the [Holy] Inquisition that spawned it. If anything, they are meant to be viewed as satirical, a means of shouting “J’accuse!” across the centuries. Piercing out the perhaps genuine elements to a medieval Witches’ Meeting, please pay attention to the number of times that you see Witches dancing in circles (sometimes back-to-back, as was often alleged), as well as the suggestion of festivity and communal Magickal-Working- pay attention, in other words, to just about everything that is not overtly Demonic. The rough-hewn state of film-technology in the early ’20s makes some of Christensen’s screen effects all the more impressive: please, please check out the fantastic sequence of Witches flying, surely one of the first presentations of Flying Witches in cinema, as well as one of the most evocative. It’s just stupendous- even more so for being created without computer generation.
If Haxan seems kind-of “all-over the place,” it is perhaps because it next goes into the “Satanic Panic” scares experienced by convent nuns (some of these sequences can seem amusing); it then concludes with a strange coda, where Mr. Christensen attempts to explain the medieval belief in Witchcraft as misdiagnosed mental illness. This was a trendy theory in the early 1900s (although Christensen undercuts his point a bit by talking in terms of that quaint nineteenth century malady, hysteria); nowadays, we tend to feel that there must have been some more to it than that. Whatever its flaws, this is a deeply heart-felt work (as well as an unusually personal one; Christensen “introduces” himself to us with a shot of himself at the film’s beginning, and addresses the audience throughout, in his title-cards). In its way, this is an example of a film-auteur before there was such a thing.
Watching Haxan is actually getting a really good history lesson in Middle Ages demonological Witchcraft- with one super-notable exception. When Christensen was conceiving and filming Haxan, there had been little serious research into Witch-History. At the conclusion, Christensen cites “8 million” men, women, and children as the number of Burning Times victims. We now recognize that as an inflated number, perhaps arrived by judging the terrified tone of the period (I have no idea upon what justification that number is based). The most scrupulous inquiry tends to suggest some 200,000 Witch-Burning victims (roughly 80% of them women).
Be that as it may- the film closes with the only image that it possibly can: a shot of medieval Witches, burning on a pyre.