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Häxan

A film by Benjamin Christensen

Haxan, Benjamin Christensen

Häxan, Benjamin Christensen, Sweden-Denmark, 1922, 105’ *Music from the original Danish premiere (1922), arranged by fim music specialist Gillian Anderson and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra.

Here we have one of the most significant movies in the history of Nordic cinema and the height of silent film on witchcraft and Satanism — a real cult piece. Danish director Benjamin Christensen spent more than two years studying the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), the most important inquisitorial treatise on witch hunting ever published. Following its instructions, illustrations and case studies, the film embarks on a study of superstition and Satanism, and faces the close relationship with mental illness, fundamentalism and hysteria head-on.

The film is split into four parts and starts off with a look at apparitions of witches and demons in primitive and medieval culture. The director always maintained that his film was a documentary, and throughout the work combines academic discourse with theatrical re-enactments. The second and third parts comprise vignettes and cases of witchcraft and demonic apparitions, with Christensen himself acting the part of Satan. The final chapter introduces mental illness as an explanation for many ancient cases and tries to provide a rational and psychological basis for behaviours such as sleepwalking or kleptomania. It provides a parallel critique of modern methods of treating supposedly hysterical women, in which cold showers take the place of bonfires.

The resulting film — much more than a mere adaptation — marked a before and after in the evolution of cinematographic language in the age of silent film. Legend says that the film was recorded entirely at night to keep the dark and mysterious tone of the tale, and that post-production lasted over a year, making it the most expensive movie in the history of Scandinavian silent film. Despite its success in Denmark and Sweden the film was considered too graphic — sexual perversion, torture, horror and nudity — and opened to much controversy and censorship, particularly in the USA. However, beyond the moral criticisms, Häxan is without a doubt one of the greatest films of all time, and one which left a lasting mark on the popular imagination and on the perception of witchcraft and Satanism.

 

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