Haxan (1922)


Day 8 of 31

Director: Benjamin Christensen
Starring: Astrid Holm Anna Jean-Luc Ponty (William S. Burroughs 1966 version) Benjamin Christensen as Satan/The Doctor Elisabeth Christensen Karen Winther. Sweden. 1h 31m


After reading a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum Christensen spent two years researching the history of Witchcraft and the hellish witch trials and after securing the funding he produced the most expensive silent movie of all time. Haxan is split into 4 plays, the first play details the primitive concept of the cosmos and using ancient artifacts it depicts the solar system and hell.

Play 2, is centered around the devil (acted by Christensen) and his influence on mankind, including terrorising monks and his attendance at Sabbats. Play 3 details the life and times of witchcraft in the middle ages, this epic segment communicates on behalf of the accused and the accusers. Eventually the final play is a visual display of Christensens conclusions about witchcraft and how the primitive interpretation of various mental diseases was probably the source of the witch trials and how women are still being persecuted in similar ways once they are institutionalised.  

The bold Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen, fully exploited all of his obsessions in this detailed and personal work, most noticeably the use of bizarre lighting effects, things begin in a subtle fashion and starts to kick into gear with the progression of the dramatic vignettes and visualises the awesome powers of witchcraft. While the work is purely fictional the extensive research that lead up to the film really shines through

Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s obsession with bizarre lighting effects reached its apotheosis with his 1922 masterpiece Häxan. Beginning in a deceptively sedate fashion with a series of woodcuts and engravings (a technique later adopted by RKO producer Val Lewton), the film then shifts into gear with a progression of dramatic vignettes, illustrating the awesome power of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. So powerful are some of these images that even some modern viewers will avert their eyes from the screen. Though obviously a work of pure imagination, the film occasionally takes on the dimensions of a morbid realism, and that constantly displays superb acting and remarkable visual flare.

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While the film’s narrative is based on the horrors surrounding the trails or witchcraft, the persecution of witches, and the hysteria, the horror elements flutter throughout the plays as witches and devils taunt and terrorise people. At times thing are quite light hearted there are humorous moments, the devil appears and tricks people into believing money is falling from nowhere, but it refuses to take on the grand approach such as Faust (1926).  The film fails to detail the practices and acts of witchcraft and focuses in on the manic reactions instead. A great darkness is enlivened with a flare of Bosch or Goya.

Overall this labour of intensely depicts years of study and conviction, Christensen is remarkable as the devil, and as Satan was the hand on control at the sabbats, Christensen was influential in crafting every aspect of this outstanding work that will remain a genuine curio in silent cinema, filled with rich vignettes and charming anecdotal insights into medieval atrocities.




Rating 9/10

R The Phantom Carriage (1921), The Witch (2016)
L– SIlent Films, 20 for 1920’s
A– Witchcraft on film
Vs –  Hammer of the witches vs Haxan


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