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The Criterion Collection presents
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

"How do you expect me to confess to that which is not true?"
- Maria the Weaver (Maren Pedersen)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 08, 2001

Stars: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Maren Pedersen, Johannes Andersen, Tora Teje
Other Stars: Karen Winther, Wilhelmine Henriksen, Kate Fabian, Oscar Stribolt, Clara Pontoppidan, Alice O'Fredericks
Director: Benjamin Christensen

Manufacturer: Crush Digital Video
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief nudity, torture, nunsploitation)
Run Time: 1h:45m:08s
Release Date: October 16, 2001
UPC: 037429161722
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

When I was a youngster some thirty-plus years ago, I was particularly fascinated by two stills in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica article on motion pictures, and I longed to see the films to which they related. The first was Griffith's Intolerance, with its fabulous Babylon sets, and the other was the Black Mass sequence from Haxan. While I've managed to see Intolerance several times since, until now, the rarely-screened Haxan had eluded me. Until this lovely Criterion edition, that is.

This semi-documentary was the work of some three years' research by Danish director Benjamin Christensen. Although Nanook of the North is generally credited as the first documentary, Haxan, released a little earlier, would vie for the title if not for its slightly fictionalized presentations. The film opens with a discussion of the belief in the devil dating from ancient Persia and up through the middle ages, illustrated with period woodcuts and engravings. The second chapter dramatizes the antics of a pair of witches and their sale of love potions to a stout maiden who seeks to seduce the local friar (Oscar Stribolt). These conversations lead to a number of amusing and lusty fantasy sequences. The centerpiece of the film is a 1488 witch hunt, complete with trials and tortured confessions. The penultimate chapter examines group hysterical madness and demonic possession amongst nuns. Wrapping up the story is a 1921 episode of a young kleptomaniac (Tora Teje) who steals a ring, and when caught, hysterically claims that a will outside of her own controlled her actions. Christensen acknowledges that even if such beliefs in evil spirits are baseless, the belief itself can create a reality of its own. While the practices of the past seem quaint or barbaric, they are thus demonstrably not that far removed from modern life.

Christensen employs a variety of fascinating techniques, with dramatic use of light and shadow throughout. The torture equipment is first seen in silhouette, framing the characters, making the tableau very chilling indeed. On occasion, action is seen through a thin slit of light, heightening the weird drama in a nearly Expressionist manner. In an amusing use of the frame, the inquisitors interrogate a witch using the good cop/bad cop technique. Each of the witchhunters framed separately, and they physically jerk the poor woman out of one picture and into the next, back and forth, emphasizing the disorienting effects of the technique.

Christensen took the film quite personally; the intertitles (here recreated because most of the originals have been lost) speak in the first person much of the time. The personal aspect is heightened by the fact that Christensen himself plays the devil throughout the picture, tempting and romping lasciviously. The opening shot of the film is of Christensen's glowering face, which properly sets the tone for the madness and hysteria to come.

The film is, to my knowledge, accurate in its historical basis (though the casualty figures of 80 million witches put to death over the centuries is surely exaggerated). As the disc's supplements make clear, Christensen went back to ancient materials and manuscripts in preparation for this picture, remaining horrifically faithful to the Malleus Malleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a 1487 manual of witchhunting that wrought so much carnage across Europe, even into the 17th century. On occasion, the picture breaks character, as when one of the actresses tries on a thumbscrew for herself, and quickly learns that these tools were no joking matter.

Heavily cut on its original release (Scandinavian countries found the extensive use of closeups improper, while Catholic countries were outraged over the vehement anticlericalism), the Criterion Haxan is based on a fine-grain master from the original camera negative, and is apparently complete. The Danish intertitles are maintained, with removable English subtitles, which is certainly my preferred method for presenting a foreign language silent film.

Startling and often horrific in its imagery, the film has its slow moments. Surely the religious will find much to be offended by here. However, Haxan stands as a powerful document and indictment of man's tendency to explain the incomprehensible by sorcery and evil spirits. The release of this film is certainly timely as religious fervor and mindless belief in the supernatural seem to be gripping the globe. Christensen's essay can serve as a useful warning as to where this type of thinking inevitably leads.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The print used is gorgeous. It's hard to believe that it's nearly 80 years old. While there is mild speckling, it's not extensive or annoying. Fine detail is present throughout, although occasionally the lighting design shrouds much of the picture in complete darkness. Blacks are extremely rich and there is fine depth to the picture. The main problem here is that the intertitles nearly all have a nasty splice right after them. I have to wonder why Criterion didn't digitally black out these highly jarring and annoying splices, which are a blemish on what is otherwise a grade 'A' picture. Too bad.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(silent)yes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The original orchestral score has been reconstructed by Gillian B. Anderson (not Scully), and it is a very effective use of existing classical pieces. Presented by an 11-piece orchestra, the scoring is occasionally a shade thin, but never less than acceptable. Both the 2.0 and 5.0 versions sound first-rate, with excellent clarity and definition and without distortion.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Production Notes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:27m:58s

Extra Extras:
  1. Director's intro from 1941 re-release
  2. Bibliotheque Diabolique
  3. Stills Gallery
  4. Outtakes and test shots
  5. 1967 version, Witchcraft Through the Ages
Extras Review: Criterion provides an excellent array of extras in support of the picture. First and foremost is a full-length commentary by knowledgable Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg. He provides a great deal of information regarding Christensen's career, and the methods of special effects used in the film. The dramatic meaning of the episodes presented is analyzed, and the historical sources and accuracy is addressed as well. As a complement to this is Tybjerg's Bibliotheque Demoniaque, a still-framed examination of the woodcuts and engravings that make up the first section of the film. Tybjerg provides comments on the sources of each and the materials being depicted. Since they go by too quickly within the film to be able to provide such analysis, this extra really fleshes out the commentary well. A lengthy set of liner notes on the production is by Chris Fujiwara. One thing I would like to have seen is a listing of the works utilized in the score. I noted Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Rosamunde overture, and the last segments are set to Beethoven's Moonlight and Pathetique sonatas, arranged for orchestra.

A set of 40 stills are provided, as well as a reel of test shots and outtakes. Most interesting is Christensen's test material for the flying witches, where he, gyrating on a chair, is double-exposed over footage shot from a train window. This clearly would not suffice, leading to the far more effective technique using models that appears in the film proper. A five-minute introduction from the 1941 re-release is included, with Christensen appearing as if he's giving a history lecture to the auditorium. While it doesn't add much to the film, it's certainly interesting to see, especially for Christensen's comments that the film probably would not have worked as a sound feature, most notably because he couldn't imagine what the devil should sound like.

Perhaps the most intriguing supplement is the notorious 1967 cut re-release of the film with a jazz score set to narration by William S. Burroughs. The print used is not nearly as good as that in the feature presentation, but it's passably clear. While the Burroughs narration is usually referred to as incomprehensible, really there is just a poetic incantation at the beginning that is no doubt Burroughs. The remainder of the narration tends to follow the original intertitles fairly well. The intertitles are deleted, except during the witch trial sequence, where the narration ceases and ordinary silent film conventions take over again. Heavily re-cut, the picture isn't nearly as powerful as the original, but it is intriguing in its own right.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

A brutal and frank documentary/reenactment given a beautiful transfer, with a first-rate score and a mountain of extras. If only the splices had been cleaned up! Recommended nonetheless.


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