Häxan (1922): “Get thee behind me, Satan!”

Haxan_sv_posterHäxan, or, Witchcraft Through the Ages, is a Swedish/Danish silent film from 1922, directed by Benjamin Christensen. The film is structured into seven chapters of “moving pictures” – informing viewers about witchcraft and the occult through history and art, and through a variety of case studies. This is a beautiful silent film that is often used in the same sentence as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). If you have an interest in the occult, or in the silent film era, this is definitely one to watch. However, if you’re expecting a vibrant and scary horror film, then you might want to do some more research before watching it.

Häxan is, firstly, a very interesting film. When I began watching it, I didn’t expect it to be as graphic as it is, in terms of both its content and its visuals. Its art director, Richard Louw, and cinematographer, Johan Ankerstjerne, have crafted one of the most beautiful and visually daring silent films that I’ve seen. The sets and costume design are equal parts beautiful and creepy, and are impeccably detailed. Which makes sense, since this is the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s also quite informative, and I ended up learning a lot about the history of witchcraft and witch trials. The acting is also quite good for a silent film, particularly that of the titular Häxan (translation: witch), an old woman whose pain is heartbreaking to watch.

There is a version of the film with William S. Burroughs as the narrator, which I would have loved to hear. I watched the version with the regular silent film title and dialogue cards. In this version the visuals are accompanied by quite contemporary classical music which seemed to be carefully selected for each scene.

The film begins with a history of witchcraft, which is information-heavy, but has beautiful art direction. We are shown art, etchings, sketches and sculpture of occult figures and gods and goddesses from ancient religions. There is a discussion of the motifs and themes of witchcraft, which leads the viewer to a deeper understanding of the overall occult world. This introduction was quite clever, as it serves the purpose of teaching the viewer to accurately locate the concepts that they see later on in the film.

Further into the film, we are introduced to a witch who brews up a tasty love potion for a woman who seeks the affections of a chaste monk. In this part, we see the devil for the first time in the film, and he is actually really scary. The linear narrative parts of the film are shot very simply, usually from one wide camera angle showing the contents of a room, and then a series of close-ups on each of the characters’ faces. In Häxan, the production has made great use of the limited technology available. Without modern technology and computer effects, the film uses reverse footage, puppets, and stop-motion animation in order to achieve optimum levels of creepiness.

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As aforementioned, the film is quite graphic in its blunt portrayal of witchcraft. We are shown babies being drained of their blood and cooked, and Satan being ‘amorous’ with naked women. Another sequence shows two witches urinating into chamber pots and throwing the urine on the door of someone they want to curse. One scene shows the old witch giving birth to children fathered by the devil – grotesque demons with spiny and furry bodies. The costumes are slightly disturbing, and seem even more so because they’re viewed silently. All of this might seem ‘tame’ by today’s standards, but I can only imagine how strange it would have been back in the 1920s.

One of the most interesting segments of the film is where we are shown a longer story of a family whose female members are, one by one, accused of being witches and are put to trial. By initially accusing an old woman of being a witch, the female members of the family are paradoxically also accused of being witches, highlighting the Catch-22 of being involved in trials at the time. As the film explains, “Each witch gives 10 other witches away”, but how are we to know whether they’re really witches, or the accused just wants her torture to end?

Häxan also touches on the female politics of the Middle Ages and how this influenced the search for witches. In one scene, a pretty young woman clutches at the arm of a monk, pleading for him to put a witch to trial. Later in the film, that monk, having seemingly fallen in love with the young woman, claims that she has put a spell on him and that she is probably also a witch. One of the aspects that I appreciated about the film is that it gives the space to allow the viewer to make their own conclusions about such issues. It’s unclear whether the director or the narration has any religious leanings, and Häxan seems to be free of the bias that might usually cloud documentary-style films about the occult.

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My very favourite part of the film was the final chapter, where the concepts of witchcraft and the characteristics of being a witch in the Middle Ages are contrasted with the symptoms of mental illness and hysteria in modern times (that is, the 1920s). Even though nowadays the concept of ‘hysteria’ is slightly dated in the mental health world, this was an excellent way to bring together the ancient and the modern in order to gain a better understanding of how the two could be correlated. As the film so aptly summarises: “Poor little hysterical witch! In the Middle Ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.”

Even though Häxan is an interesting and informative silent work, at times it can be quite slow. Although some silent films can be more punchy and fast-paced than others, this is one where you really have to concentrate and take in all the information you’re being fed. If you’re looking for something like The Blair Witch Project (1999), or The Conjuring (2013), then this is not the film for you. A conventional horror film about witches, this is not. However, what this film is, is a beautiful and interesting historical document on quite a specific topic, and I’d definitely recommend it for people who a) enjoy silent film, and/or b) have an interest in the history of witchcraft or ancient religions.

3/5
Watch the trailer here.

Watch this film at Amazon!

21 comments

  1. Interesting. I don’t like most conventional horror movies, and I just watched The Passion of Joan of Arc yesterday (for the first time). Maybe I’ll give this one a shot at some point, too. Great review!

    1. Thanks! What did you think of The Passion of Joan of Arc?

      1. It’s excellent. Rarely are close ups used so effectively to keep us focused on characters’ emotion.

  2. Great review and great idea for a post. I’ve only seen about a dozen silent films and need to watch more.

    1. Thanks! 🙂 You should definitely watch more silent film! I’m really getting into them at the moment.

  3. nice review. Have you seen brand upon the brain?

    1. I haven’t seen it – and it looks amazing! Definitely watching it now, thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

      1. Thought you might like it 🙂

  4. The visual images in this film are outstanding even today – I like to point out the scene where the witches line up to kiss the Devil’s ass. I believe Rob Zombie’s, Lords of Salem, was influenced by this film quite a bit. I also thought that this film had a skewed view of women in general, implying that all women can fall into Hysteria (no men) and its comparison to witchcraft was telling in how the filmmakers veiwed the opposite sex.

    1. I haven’t seen any of Rob Zombie’s films, should I? The visuals in this are amazing. I wonder if the film’s view of women is a product of its time (although that’s certainly no excuse). Hysteria was pretty much a “ladies only” diagnosis back then, so comparing it with female-only witches makes sense, even though it seems incredibly misogynistic now. The film did mention at one point that men were executed for being witches as well though, I would have loved to know more about that to get a bit of gender balance!

  5. This is such a fabulous film. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen it but oh did I love it!

    1. Isn’t it great? I can’t stop thinking about it.

      1. I’ve had a hankering lately to re-watch, this only adds to it!

  6. this sounds beautiful and unusual! I may have to find & watch it… As for silent films, my favorite is probably “Lot in Sodom.” it’s pretty anti-homophobia, if you ask me. (hint: streaming on YouTube if you care to watch)

    1. It’s definitely very beautiful and very unusual! One of the most unique silent films I’ve seen. I’m going to check that one out on Youtube! Looks like an interesting one, thanks for the recommend! 🙂

  7. Victor De Leon · · Reply

    Brilliant review! I haven’t watched this movie in a long while. I need to revisit it very soon. It is an amazing work of beautiful visual imagery and depth. Quite influential. I agree with Mike from Parlor of Horror, that Zombie’s last film seemed very influenced by it. Good post!

    1. Thank you! 🙂 It’s such a beautiful film. I’m already wanting to re-watch it, which doesn’t often happen. It’s too intriguing to see just once!

  8. […] a bit different for today. After watching Häxan (1922), my passion for silent film has been rekindled. I’ve been watching a lot of short […]

  9. In addition to the interesting explorations of female politics, hysteria, mental illness etc., I think the film maker was also looking to make something that was shocking – which I think was achieved.

    1. Absolutely. The rhetorical questions throughout the film tended to have that effect, as if the narrator was asking, “Isn’t this shocking?”. It would have definitely been very shocking back in the day!

  10. […] black and white movie film scenes in it I wonder whether this search term might be referring to Häxan (1922), although that film is largely about witches and witchcraft rather than Satan himself. He […]

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