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HAXAN:
WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Benjamin Christensen, Maren Pedersen, Astrid Holm
Director:  Benjamin Christensen
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.0, Dolby Stereo (Witchcraft Dolby Digital Mono)
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes (Witchcraft 76 Minutes)
Release Date:  October 16, 2001

“Oh, you learned men!  How can I confess to that which I have not done?”

Film ****

Haxan, a.k.a. Witchcraft Through the Ages, is not only a cinematic gem from the silent era, but arguably one of the most profoundly weird and disturbing pictures ever made.  Swedish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen created a picture that flows interchangeably between narrative styles to tell a brief history of what we’ve come to know as ‘evil’.  Where did it come from?  How have superstitions and paranoia propelled it?  And what do we think of it today?

A film in seven parts, Haxan opens with a series of drawings and etchings from centuries past, with descriptive title cards in between…it plays out like a documentary, or a high school slide show.  By the time it breaks into the second part, we are no longer looking at real history, but re-enactment, as Christensen has brought actors in to depict other aspects of witchcraft, Satanism, and black magic.

The change is noticeable, but at the same time, we’ve already been tuned into accepting that what we’re seeing is real.  It makes what follows all the more disturbing.  Christensen masterfully controls some of cinema’s most striking and creepy images, including himself in a portrayal of Satan.

The development of the picture as it goes along is masterful.  For example, much of what we’ve seen in the opening chapter, with pictures and narrative, comes back into play during the dramatic parts of the story.  Certain things we’ve seen only in still form come to life before our eyes, reaffirming what we’ve already learned.  As the film progresses into the Inquisition and witch hunt years of Europe, we witness a horrendous torture session, and later, in documentary fashion, Christensen re-visits some of the tools we’ve seen in the chamber, with explanations and demonstrations.  Each segment helps strengthen and intensify another.

That Inquisistion sequence, by the way, is the longest and most intriguing chapter of the film.  History has taught us that the spread of incurable diseases, mental illnesses, and general religious paranoia of the times led to the prosecution and death of more than 8 million men and women.  The trials were far from just, presided over by heartless officials for whom an accusation was as good as a conviction.  We witness the story of Maria the Weaver (Pedersen), accused of causing a man’s deathly sickness, and subject to the kind of torture that Christensen asks, which one of us wouldn’t confess to just about anything under that kind of duress?

The witch trials are also shown as an unending circle of death, as Maria in her confession points a finger at Anna (Holm), whose accusation had put her in the chamber in the first place.  Anna resists the torture, only to fall prey to a diabolical trap at the hands of the Monks.

As a finale, Christensen looks at modern psychiatric illnesses, comparing the symptoms of hysteria, kleptomania and others to some of the events we saw depicted in the earlier parts.  As Father Karras would later point out in The Exorcist, we have indeed reached an age where we no longer blame everything on the devil.  Haxan would subtly argue the point…does that make the devil more or less dangerous a foe than before?

Christensen’s sense of self-awareness in the film (he occasionally refers to himself in the title cards as “I”, as well as his actors) adds another dimension of realism.  He mentions Ms. Pedersen later confessing to him on set that the devil was indeed real…she had once seen him sitting on the foot of her bed.

The realism should contradict Christensen’s dramatic sense of style, but it compliments it instead.  With all the light and shadow play of the best Expressionistic films, plus carefully designed and photographed sets, Haxan delivers all the punch of a good horror film…one could argue that modern films have been drawing influence from it ever since.

As a bonus on this DVD, the 1968 version of the film is also included.  This resurrected picture includes a terrific and expressive jazz score and the replacement of many, but not all, of the title screens with narration by William S. Burroughs.  Tightened up with slightly faster film speed and less title screens, this version almost works better as a pure horror film.  I’ve known friends, in fact, who have gotten up and walked out on this version when I tried to show it to them because they found it too unsettling.

But whichever version you prefer, Christensen’s singular vision comes through with haunting imagery, surprising special effects, and an uncompromising approach to an unpleasant subject matter to make Haxan one of the most important films from the silent era, and one of a small number whose influence can still be felt to this day.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The title Haxan was later resurrected as the name of the film company that made The Blair Witch Project.

Video ***1/2

Having owned previous VHS copies of this film, I found the remastered Criterion offering a revelation.  The print is cleaner and clearer than ever before (there are some effects of aging noticeable, to be sure, but not nearly as much as you might expect).  The full length silent version returns the original color tinting to the presentation, which create some truly atmospheric effects.  Detail level is generally very good, as are the contrasts between darker and lighter images.  The solid black and white photography of the 1968 version suffers a few more aging artifacts, but makes up for it with even stronger contrast levels and detail.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.0 score by film music specialist Gillian Andersen was an attempt to recapture the original theatrical music based on notes and cues from the first presentations.  It’s a very dynamic and expressive orchestral score, using front and rear stages to open up the sound and make it more akin to a live concert experience.  The 1968 version features a single channel mono soundtrack, but it also exhibits punch and dynamic range, and sounds quite clean and clear.

Features ****

The main highlight is a commentary track by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg.  His knowledge of Christensen’s history, film techniques and ideas make for a solidly informative companion piece to the original silent film.  In addition, there is an 8 minute introduction by Benjamin Christensen for the 1941 re-release of the film, a selection of outtakes (showing various camera angles and effects tests, among other things), a photographic exploration of some of the materials used in the first chapter of the film, plus a stills gallery.

Summary:

If you’re looking for something a little more cerebral and a lot off the beaten path for Halloween, Haxan is an 80 year old classic that still packs a punch after all these years.  It teaches and unsettles with equal prowess, and this quality DVD offering from Criterion marks the best and most complete home video offering ever released.