The documentary form was only in it’s infancy in the early 1900s, only having seen success in the mainstream with Robert Flaherty’s still divisive “documentary” Nanook of the North which depicted the life of Eskimos as much as it staged it. While it would take years for the average cinephile to pick up on when documentary realism is or isn’t truly happening in front of the camera, the idea of staging reenactment footage of preexisting events for the sake of a documentary narrative was relatively new and ultimately became an integral approach to what would become the still revolutionary “documentary” of sorts, the 1922 Swedish-Danish silent documentary about witchcraft and witch hunts, Haxan. Translated to Witch and considered to be the most expensive Scandanavian silent film ever made at the time, director Benjamin Christensen’s four-part documentary which cross-cuts between scholarly lecturing and kitschy mixture of all things demonic including graphic nudity, bawdy sexuality and violent torture might be the earliest rendition of satanic imagery ever created for the cinematic medium. Loosely based on the historical text Malleus Maleficorum and designed in part as a study of how limited knowledge of modern medicine and mental illness resulted in mass witch burnings in the Middle Ages and how such naïve superstitions are still applicable in our modern world, Haxan achieves that rare feat of being as educational of an experience as it is exploitative.
Despite being made in 1922, this still ahead-of-its-time shockfest with everything including but not limited to hysterical nuns, demonic orgies, a baby drained dry of its blood before being cooked, women ritualistically smooching Beelzebub’s ass and medieval tortures, Haxan was banned outright in the United States and heavily censored in almost every territory it appeared in before being re-edited into a shortened version renamed Witchcraft Through the Ages in 1968 with voiceover narration by William S. Burroughs. Less of a serious minded critique of society than a bawdy witches’ brew of all things unholy, this technically proficient exercise in occult imagery, loose surrealism and a kind of tongue-in-cheek approach to the macabre and bizarre, the highly theatrical Haxan inarguably influenced everyone from Hammer Horror to Ken Russell and even now remains difficult to fully gauge. In one breath, it’s deadly serious and in the next its dancing about naked with impish glee. Most notable of all is director Christensen who plays the devil himself, slithering about shirtless with an extended tongue and devil horns as his sharp claws grope the naked bodies of women. Paving the way for endless interpretations of the dark lord of the underworld (Tim Curry in Legend most notably), casting himself as Satan only serves to blur the lines between documentary objectivity and geek show lunacy where we’re not sure how seriously we should be taking it.
Thought to be lost through years of censorship and plain old wear and tear characteristic of silent films’ difficult survival over the course of a century, Haxan and its creator were sadly neglected with the film itself falling into public domain and numerous alternate versions existing before the Burroughs version came along in the 60s. That is until 2001 when the film underwent an extensive restoration to bring the film closest to its original theatrical form including intentional tinting of specific scenes and a re-rendering of the original score in 5.0 surround sound thanks to the painstaking efforts of the Swedish Film Institute and was re-released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. As such, the travelogue through macabre excess functions less as a compelling documentary narrative and more like a demonic video installation akin to E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten and is a perfect item to play on the background at Halloween parties. Even a few years prior to the restoration, The Blair Witch Project creators Daniel Myrick, Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez named their production company Haxan Films as a subtle nod to the witch movie that started it all. As a straight watch Haxan is decidedly less engaging than the films it would inspire decades later but as a collection of all things horror oriented, it’s a splendid concoction with stunning production design, elegant costumes and makeup and a sensibility that seems years ahead of the era in which it was made.
- Andrew Kotwicki