Häxan: the silent-era witchcraft film at 100

What witches do – and what’s done to suspected witches – is given sensational treatment in Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 silent film Häxan. A century later, it’s disturbing for even more reasons.

Häxan (1922)

Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan is sort of a documentary, and it’s the ‘sort of’ that makes it unlike any other film. The Swedish silent melds historical fact and folk superstition to explore ideas about witchcraft from ancient times, through the medieval period, and on up to 1922, when the film was made. Unknowingly, Christensen extended his examination 100 years into the future, as it’s almost impossible to watch without making comparisons to the present time. Today, Häxan’s horror lies less in its depictions of witches and witchcraft, and more in the fact that it depicts hundreds of years of the ongoing systematic oppression and abuse of women.

Upon its release, Häxan was instantly recognised as “unadulterated horror” by a critic at Variety, who added that, “wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition.” Häxan is still recognised as horror (it was included on the BFI’s list of 10 great silent horror films), and though its graphic depictions of nudity and blasphemy are less of a novelty to modern audiences, the images are still disturbing. Christensen condemns the practice of inquisitions while simultaneously filming the resulting torture with a sort of glee. The images of beautiful women, stripped and strung up, are still used in material meant to titillate. In Häxan we see the atrocity of it, but we also see its allure. 

Häxan begins with a study of the ancient origins of witchcraft. Gruesome woodcuts are displayed: humans boiled alive in cauldrons, demons pouring sulphur down men’s throats. A steam-powered mechanical representation of hell features animated fiends torturing live victims with forks, like a macabre vignette on a Disneyland ride. To punctuate that this is serious business, crucial details are highlighted by a hand – Christensen’s own – with an academic pointer, as if we are attending a lecture. 

The next part of Häxan features live-action sequences, presented as pseudo-historical re-enactments of things witches were purported to do. It’s a curious technique, as these recreations of witchcraft rumours make them seem like fact. Local villagers blame every domestic difficulty on women, from cows that won’t give milk to stillbirths and house fires. Christensen doesn’t just depict the outcomes; he also depicts women in the act of their witchery. In a scene cut by Swedish censors, one old witch rips fingers from the hand of a dead thief to make one of her concoctions. We see young witches fly through the air on brooms and dance naked with the Devil.

It’s worth noting that Christensen himself plays the Devil in these scenes. The young women in the film who line up and kiss the Devil’s arse are kissing Christensen’s arse. The naked maiden who is lured by the Devil to the cemetery at night, where she falls to her knees at his feet, is lured by Christensen. The director wasn’t just intrigued by the perversions of witchcraft, but wanted to directly participate in them. This Devil is all the more frightening because he’s so obviously a real man, hairy and barrel-chested. His leering, tongue-wagging and miming of masturbation as he furiously works a butter churn are all the more repugnant because his actions are recognisable to any woman who has tried to walk down a street.

The film’s worst atrocities come into play with the introduction of the Inquisition, as we see innocent women betrayed by other women who want to save their own skin. The scenes of a beggar woman being tortured are harsh by any decade’s standards, and the extreme close-ups of her face, and the agony it betrays, are forerunners of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). These close-ups were also cut by early censors, which is a sign of how great the acting is – that mere faces were deemed shocking as they betrayed the severity of the torture so explicitly. 

When the innocent Maria the Weaver is tortured until she can no longer stand, she admits to witchcraft, condemning herself to death as relief from her pain. Her confessions are worse than the original false charges. The sins she speaks of are absurd because she is simply rattling off the worst things she can think of: stomping on crosses, changing into a cat and defecating on church altars, boiling infants alive. Maria names names, and a title card tells us that every condemned witch would give 10 others away. 

Häxan (1922)

At Häxan’s close, we are told that women accused of witchcraft were often suffering from mental illness, and in this enlightened time of 1922 we can commit them to institutions instead, and treat them with psychiatry. Christensen presents their difficulties and the ‘modern’ treatment as sort of a “Gee whiz, look how lucky we are today” coda. With our own present-day hindsight, this ending is as disturbing as the rest of the film, because we know how women have historically been treated in institutions. Even worse is the assertion that instead of seeing the Devil, women of the 1920s believe they are visited in the night by celebrities, or even their own doctors. The film considers these fantasies, concocted by disturbed minds, but today we know that women have sometimes been abused by doctors. The scene of a psychologist coming into a terrified woman’s bedroom at night is meant to show us that the woman is deranged, but the effect is chilling. (The psychologist, perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, is also played by Christensen.)

Häxan went on to heavily influence future filmmakers, most notably in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc, but its shockwaves also ripple through folk horror witch-hunting films such as Witchfinder General (1968) and Twins of Evil (1971). The film’s most powerful impact, though, is cultural. Each generation of women’s experiences mingle with the history of female persecution and become a new extension of it. Häxan is, ultimately, not merely a witchcraft film, and not fixed in time. It’s a kind of living documentary, and we’re all part of it. 

In Dreams Are Monsters: A Season of Horror Films is in cinemas across the UK and on BFI Player now.

Häxan screens with a live score by Nick Carlisle at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, on 24 November.

Sight and Sound Presents – The History of Horror Part 1: Vampires

Drawing on extensive material from the Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin archives, Vampires is the first in a major new series exploring the history of horror onscreen. Vampires takes us from the first vampire film in 1922, FW Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, to Carl Dreyer's Vampyr in 1932, and on through the endless versions of Dracula and other vampires that have abounded in cinema since.

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