Häxan is an early 20th century documentary about the history of witchcraft by Benjamin Christensen, who directs, writes and stars as the devil, an ominous bare-chested figure with a protruding, wiggling tongue. Häxan is based on Christensen’s research into the 15th century German text, Malleus Maleficarum otherwise known in English as ‘Hammer of [the] Witches’ a ‘how to’ guide for witch finder inquisitors.
The film is split into seven chapters, the first of which gives the background story of witchcraft from ancient times starting with their idea of the universe which in itself is very interesting with a steel sky supported on giant mountains and the crystal spheres of the heavens controlled by the almighty above it. All these are illustrated with snapshots of engravings and dioramas which include fluttering tissue paper as the fiery ring around the Earth and a handy (although sometimes unnecessary) pointer that highlights everything.
In the following chapters we move into medieval times, first exploring the medieval myth of witchcraft before moving to a sorceress’s house, which is as clichéd as imagined with a stooped old woman, a dogs skeleton hanging over the fire and a dwarf pottering around gathering toads and snakes and all sorts of other slimy creatures. There we follow as the witch makes potions for local women and adds various parts of recently hanged men to barrels. In the next chapter the inquisitors arrive in the town under a blanket of superstition and fear. On the death of a local man his wife, Anna played by Christensen’s wife Karen Winther, accuses an old beggar woman of putting a spell on him. Häxan then follows the ‘witches’ trial including both the mental and physical torture utilised to gain her confession. Inevitably the witch confesses and names several other women as witches and ends with Anna also accused. Unlike the old woman Anna does not confess and we see how the inquisitors gain confessions when torture fails.
Following the dramatization of the witch trials, some of the torture implements are examined in closer detail giving the viewers a chilling and gruesome insight into what could have been used against them in previous centuries if they were unlucky. The final chapter draws comparisons between medieval witchcraft and modern day (well the 1920s) hysteria as a mental illness including comparisons between a pyromaniac sleepwalker and a possessed nun. Christensen draws uncomfortable parallels between the medieval torture and the mental institution.
Häxan is a very brave film that inevitably caused some furore when released due to both the subject matter and the execution, including scenes of cooking un-christened babies and fornication with demons. It presents an interesting and comprehensive look at witchcraft and when viewed today provides a social commentary of how women were viewed in the 15th century and the early 20th century when this film was made.
Fun Fact: Häxan was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made.