Review by Michael Jacobson
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
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes (Witchcraft 76 Minutes)
Release Date: October 15, 2019
you learned men! How can I confess
to that which I have not done?”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
TRIVIA: The title Haxan was
later resurrected as the name of the film company that made The Blair Witch
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.
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.
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
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 Blu-ray offering from Criterion marks the best and most complete home video offering ever released.