Naked chicks, demons, devils, bare-assed celebrations, monster births, cannibals, and lots of liquor. You know- the standard stuffy, old and boring silent film. I’m really shocked HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES is not as highly regarded as some of the other classic works of silent cinema. Film history usually thrusts an academic finger at NOSFERATU (also from 1922) and THE CABINET OF DR.CALIGARI (1920) as the best examples of early horror films. Yet not once in my Film Studies undergrad or post-grad work did anyone even mention HAXAN. I had to stumble upon this twisted early work of art on my own, which admittedly may have made me love it all the more.
Directed by Benjamin Christensen, HAXAN is a sometimes scholarly film discussion on demonology and witchcraft, sometimes a fictional narrative about witchcraft practices, and sometimes an editorial about how witchcraft is a false interpretation of what we now see as mental maladies. The movie is supposedly based on the book MALLEUS MALEFICARUM, a 15th century German guide on how to be a witch inquisitor. HAXAN is not only a superb example of early horror filmmaking (especially from Denmark/Sweden), it is also a strange mix of educational film, documentary, and fictional narrative all in one wickedly silent package. Because of this unique blend, the film borders on surrealism. Also peculiar and unique, Ben Christensen presents the film from his own perspective, referring to himself as “I” or noting the girl on screen is “one of my actresses”.
The bulk of the film is composed of a narrative fictionalized segment which focuses on a witch’s retelling of her witchy adventures and days frolicking naked at the Sabbaths. This is when the film gets pretty shocking. Not only is there an ample amount of nudity, but there is quite a bit of discussion about kicking babies, orgies, torture, and even kissing the devil’s ass…literally. The special effects during these segments are wonderful, employing not only great make-up, but also superimposition and scale to create spirits and demons. The head devil is played by director Christensen himself, who also makes a brief appearance as Jesus Christ as well.
Yet, even with all the debauchery the film does not function as full “exploitation”. Christensen is not trying to convince the world that flying witches and the sinful Satan exist, nor is he trying to sell movie tickets with scenes of poorly framed orgies. Instead, his message is much more of an attempt to explain why multiple societies and legions of Christians would have believed in witchcraft enough to slaughter masses in fear. He even goes on to explain how ailments that would previously have been identified as the devil’s work, curses or possessions like hysteria and other mental illness are now treated as psychological disorders, inserting a moment of irony as he notes that in our modern age institutional treatment has replaced burning at the stake.
HAXAN is rather hard to mesh in with many other films from the time period. While 1922’s NOSFERATU and NANOOK OF THE NORTH are both canonized as classic works of early film, HAXAN is still somewhat fighting for representation possibly because it is not like anything before or after. It’s experimental and daring. Though it utilizes auto-ethnographic elements that were commonplace in 1920s travelogues, as well as employing some horror filmmaking structures from the time period like surrealism and expressionism, it ultimately does not track predominant patterns of how film history journeyed from early roots to modern day…which makes it all the more important.
Although in past decades HAXAN had been hard to locate, we now live in the age where everything from a pizza to hot sex to a rare 1920s Scandinavian witch film can be accessed with a few quick clicks of your mouse (and would all together make for a terrific night). HAXAN is currently streaming both on Hulu and on Amazon Prime. Take a trip back to a classic horror film, and enjoy some fine witch debauchery!