Director: Benjamin Christensen
Writer: Benjamin Christensen
Cinematographer: Johan Ankerstjerne
by Jon Cvack
This is one of the coolest and more eerie horror silent horror films I’ve watched, and possibly one of the first docudramas of all time. Of course it helped that I placed it on mute and rolled my own score with Bohren and Der Club of Gore, which I later regretted when I saw that William S. Burroughs narrated the jazz-scored ‘68 version (Criterion didn’t mention this fact without digging into the supplements). Split into four parts, director Benjamin Christensen (who played the Devil in all scenes) follows witchcraft through the early ages in Sweden and other parts of Europe. What begins as a bunch of old photographs documenting the earliest references to witches then transforms into horrific recreations of everything from potion making, torture devices, religious inquisitions, and the coolest part, countless demon and monster costumes.
It’s no wonder that this movie experienced such harsh criticism - the trampling of a cross; a nude woman embracing the devil; a pinioned infant held over a cooking pot; the various scenes that make the church look like it’s run by a bunch of certifiable lunatics; all while producing some of the more terrifying imagery of 20th century cinema. To the point that the Swedish government forced them to remove these images at the time. 19 years later, they were restored.
This is the type of film you could possibly trick some kids into thinking it actually captured witches from the period (yes I’m aware that there were no cameras in the 15th century; I’m talking about young, impressionable kids who are looking for a good fright during Halloween). Next time I have a party that’s in need of some solid background horror films this will be at the top of my list. There’s a plot, but it’s the images of demons and monsters that pop in and out of scenes are what's mos
Christensen was part of the cinema’s transformation from silence to sound, and in a great intro, where he’s dressed like a scientist in a laboratory, recorded for the film’s re-release in 1941, he talks about the ability for cinema to allow you to fill in the blanks and extend your own voice to the demons and devils. After all, what would these beasts actually sound like and who is Christensen to try and explain that sound. Silent film, like literature, allows the viewer to fill in the blank with their imaginations. Although only eight minutes, it’s one of the most insightful essays on the power of silent cinema.
I’d put Haxan on any must see horror film list.
And for those of you wondering how they achieved the brilliantly executed witches flying through the air, here’s a bit of cinematic ingenuity, up there with Fritz Lang’s Shufftan process (from IMDb):
To achieve the scene in which the witches are flying over the roofs of the town, Benjamin Christensen and his cameraman Johan Ankerstjerne photographed a miniature town (with each house about 2 meters in height) on an enormous turntable, which operated manually and took the strength of 20 men to operate. Then, several costumed actors were photographed on broomsticks against a black background. To make the heavy costumes ripple in the "wind" Christiansen brought in an airplane motor. A total of 75 witches were photographed, each individually, and a special optical printer was built by Ankerstjerne to put them together (only about three of four appear on the screen at one time). The construction of a model town was decided upon after test footage proved the original idea of shooting from a movie train was a bad one, as too many modern structures, not to mention telephone poles and wires, were unavoidable.
BELOW: William S. Burroughs' incredible narration of the film (I'd advise watching the silent version first, as this one is cut down significantly)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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