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June 7, 2017

Silent Screams: Haxan (1922)

Originally released in 1922, Haxan is a Swedish docudrama on witchcraft. Conceived in seven parts, the film used ‘documentary’ footage of witch-y type things as well as actor re-enactments. The not-so-proud forefather of found footage wackiness like The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast, Haxan was far ahead of its time. Remember, this is on the heels of Murnau’s Nosferatu and Caligari, so there is an audience available for horror (Melies was doing it in the late 1800s), but nothing this extravagant had been attempted up to this point. Its run time was a staggering 104 minutes.

The writer/director, Benjamin Christensen had studied the fifteenth century German witch hunting guide, The Malleus Maleficareum (or The Witches Hammer) and decided to film his magnum opus on the subject. He viewed it as a pedagogical pursuit and the division of the film into the seven parts was meant to be educational. These seven parts are: Sources, in which the rise of witchcraft is explored; 1488, which dramatizes rituals and spells with special effects; The Trials followed by The Torture detail the destruction, in a disturbing re-enactment, of the destruction of a family; Sinful Thoughts continuing the theme of detection and torture; Techniques shows us useful ways of drawing confessions from witches and, finally, the last chapter features Christensen himself playing Satan and exemplifying the import of the film.

Although grandiose, the film was banned in the United States and many other countries due solely to content. A 1923 Variety review stated, "Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition," and mentioned the various tortures including the bleeding of a baby for a spell as reasoning for the review. Regardless, Christensen was noticed and hired by MGM for a series of films including Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) and Mockery (1927) featuring Lon Chaney.

Most people are familiar with the 1967 version edited down to 76 minutes and narrated by William S. Burroughs. Entitled Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages, it did modestly well at the art house theatres.

Fortunately, Criterion has collected both versions. Now, for your viewing pleasure, please toil and trouble through Haxan.

Cinematography: Johan Ankerstjerne
Art Direction: Richard Louw
Music: Launy Grondahl; Emil Reesen (1941); Daniel Humair (1968)
Film Editing: Edla Hansen
Cast: Maren Pedersen (Heksen/The Witch), Clara Pontoppidan (Nonne/Nun), Elith Pio (Heksedommer/Witch Judge (The Young Monk)), Oscar Stribolt (Graabroder/Doctor (The Fat Monk)), Tora Teje (En hysterisk kvinde/Modern Hysteric (The Kelptomaniac)), Johs Andersen (Chief Inquisitor), Benjamin Christensen (Djaevlen/The Devil), Poul Reumert (Juveler/Jeweler), Karen Winther (Anna), Kate Fabian (Gammel jomfru/Old Maid).

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