Movie Discussion: Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

  • Monthly Theme: Protohorrorhaxan-witchcraft-through-the-ages-movie-poster-1922-1020691725
  • The Film: Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages
  • Country of origin: Sweden/Denmark
  • Date of Swedish release: September 18, 1922
  • Date of Danish release: November 7, 1922
  • Date of U.S. release: May 27, 1929
  • Studio: Svensk Filmindustri & Aljosha Production Company
  • Distributer: BijouFlix Releasing
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: $2 million (estimated)
  • Director: Benjamin Christensen
  • Producers: n/a
  • Screenwriter: Benjamin Christensen
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Johan Ankerstjerne
  • Make-Up/FX: Helge Norél & L. Mathiesen
  • Music: Launy Grøndahl, et al.
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: n/a
  • The Lowdown: Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is a silent documentary that explains the history of occult beliefs in Europe (as well as some ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians). The film uses still images, scholarly texts and dramatic recreations in order to explain ancient cosmologies, superstitions, myth & folklore surrounding Satanic worship and witchcraft, and the history of inquisitions and witch-burnings. Swedish film censors required many cuts to Christensen’s footage in order to secure a release. A restored version of the film was released by the Criterion Collection in 2001.

If you haven’t seen Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: Is Häxan well known? I had never heard of it.

Sean: It’s gotten a Criterion release. It’s got arthouse/old school propers. I was going to suggest, if you’re not feeling well, perhaps you could try a potion of cat feces and dove hearts, boiled in the moonlight?

Kristine: I don’t know if I quite have my mind wrapped around it yet. It was definitely entertaining, but extremely strange. I am not sure I understand the director’s motivation in making it.

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Nature summons nude women

Sean: More than usual, I wished that we’d been able to watch this together, in the same room, because it is uproariously funny.

Kristine: The first moment that made me sputter and then surrender to giggles was in Part 1, when a ceremonial banquet is described wherein the witches show the devil respect by kissing him on the butthole.

Sean: Oh, I know.

Kristine: Also, “The Sabbath food was often prepared from corpses from the gallows.” Nasty.

Sean: All the devils waggling their tongues and gesturing for women to c’mon over and get plowed? And the devil that clobbers the nun over the head with a mallet, like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon?

Kristine: Those waggling devil tongues were a theme throughout the entire movie, and in every instance they were equally perverse and hilarious. I couldn’t believe them.

Sean: I know. This movie is dirty as fuck. Did you catch that scene where they show one of the devils furiously jerking off a butter churn? It was as perverse as anything from The Devils.

Kristine:  I missed the butter churn.

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Satan “churns” his “butter”

Sean: The devil was beating a butter churn between his legs like a huge phallus and it was ridiculous.

Kristine: What exactly were the filmmakers trying to accomplish with this movie, do you think?

Sean: The question of the director’s motivations is, I think, one of the most provocative questions to ask about Häxan. The movie’s ending thesis statement? About modern women? I was scandalized and upset, but laughing.

Kristine: There are a lot of mixed messages. For instance, the jaunty, spirited musical score made all of the devils’ antics seem pretty fun, right? Becoming a witch and partying with the devil seems like a pretty good option for these medieval ladies. But, of course, the downside is that working for the Devil still means being subject to a controlling patriarchy. If a witch does not perform enough evil acts, she is punished by Daddy Devil. Basically, the ladies are fucked whether they are normal or perverse, Christian or Satanic. For instance, the capture and torture of that ancient, filthy, malnourished crone? I couldn’t handle it.

Sean: The movie keeps on calling the superstitions of medieval times “naive” and “absurd,” but then the movie itself seems to endorse the idea that women are occult creatures. It’s just that we should feel sorry for them.

Kristine: True. Did you find the music incongruous, like I did?

Sean: I liked the music fine. It was just boring, classical crap.

Kristine: Wow, I disagree. I thought it was really crazy to have, like I said, this jaunty, spirited classical music as the score to a black sabbath where babies are being eaten or an old crone being stripped and tortured into confessing to witchcraft. I thought it was incredibly perverse. It’s like “Stuck in the Middle with You” playing during the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs.

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Medieval sex symbol

Sean: I guess you’re right. At first, I thought the movie was going to be super feminist because of the way the opening sections are framed.

Kristine:  I thought so, too. But like I said, I found the film’s messages to be very conflicted and contradictory. At first, the movie seems like a legitimate study and explanation of how European society has viewed the occult at different points in time. I loved the woodcut vignettes from Part 1.

Sean: Those ‘mechanical presentations of Hell’ were pretty amazing. Did you notice during the mechanical presentations that one of the images they show is Pazuzu from The Exorcist? Like, the exact same demonic character.

Kristine: Fuck, I missed that.

Sean: What about when that housefrau needs a love potion to make the obese monk (who was slavering over a gigantic hunk of mutton) want to fuck her?

Kristine: OMG, right? Why would you want that beast lumbering after you? The look on his face after he consumed the love tonic was really upsetting. Almost as revolting as when the crone was slobbering over her bowl of food… My stomach actually turned during that scene. I mean, this film makes the whole world seem pretty grotesque, right? Not just the dark-sided stuff.

Sean: Yeah. This is really, at its core, an exploitation movie. It is all about titillating the audience with the occult under the pretense that it is all ‘factual.’ But what the movie really wants is to shock, fascinate and provoke the audience, all under the pretense of presenting objective ‘facts.’ I’m sure audiences flocked to go see this just because some friend who’d seen it was like, “And then the slutty sleeping wife licks her lips!”

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The crone listens to Smiths records

Kristine: Are you talking about that sleeping wife who the devil lures from the window?

Sean: And he is like, fucking the air with his tongue?

Kristine: I am telling you, those tongues…

Sean: I adore those devils. The one that pops out of the back of the monk’s organ made me scream with delight.

Kristine: I did really like the portrayal of the devils. They were horrifying and carnal and buff and badass.

Sean: Kristine, the devils and gargoyles that populated my dreams as a very small boy looked exactly like these ones. I’d dream about them all the time.

Kristine: Did you lick your lips?

Sean: One time, I dreamt that a giant devil was orating at a criminal trial in the local courthouse, but it was just making guttural groans and chitterings, but the assembled people was all nodding their heads like it made sense and I was so scared.

Kristine: You’re a freak.

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A furry convention takes a turn for the sacreligous

Sean: Kristine, one of my favorite moments was how they were like, “Witches will go into the churches at night disguised as cats and urinate on the altar while their animal familiars guard the doors” and then they show these two gigantic furries in squirrel suits and all these ladies in cat suits daintily tip-toeing out of the church doors at night. I was like, gasping for air from laughing so hard.

Kristine: No. That was my favorite moment, too. I was about to counter with that. I loved it. I loved how the demonic acts ranged from truly evil – like, baby eating – to just kind of sassy and insolent – like, peeing on the altar.

Sean: This movie is so fucking weird.

Kristine: So weird.

Sean: So, in case you think the worldviews described by this movie are totally out of date… Every semester I poll my (very lower/working class) students as to whether or not they believe in demons and devils

Kristine: You do? Wow.

Sean: Yes. And roughly 45% of them do. Adamantly.

Kristine: Are you for real??

Sean: Yes. I get into debates with my students every single semester about this.

Kristine: Do they believe in guardian angels?

Sean: Yes, they also believe in angels and ghosts and Satan. And I am like, “You do realize this is 2014, not 1414, right?” And they think I’m an insolent, uppity bastard.

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Animal Collective

Kristine: Wow.

Sean: One girl, just last week, screamed in delight and terror, “I have seen my father perform an exorcism!”

Kristine: Jesus Christ. This is really scary. And they are a population who is seeking higher education?

Sean: Yeah, and she described the writhing, screaming person being exorcised with lurid attention to detail and I asked her, “Is it possible that what you saw is evidence of mental illness or hysteria?” and she shrugged her shoulders.

Kristine: I am upset. I feel like you need to call some authority and have them investigate this incident. This reminds me of a scene from Häxan. Did you notice the looks of titillation on faces of the housewives when the men capture and cage the old crone?

Sean: Yes. Also, those cavorting nuns? There was a lot of female perversion on display in this movie.

Kristine: Straight outta The Devils.

Sean: The Devils and Witchfinder General must have used this movie as research, right?

Kristine: Absolutely. They must have.

Sean: It’s fascinating that this idea of ‘the witch’ persists to this day. I was really struck by how much the witchery described and portrayed in this movie was all actually just male paranoia, where they’re projecting their own lusts and gross appetites on the women around them.

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Nun ya business

Kristine: Agreed.

Sean: They’re like, ‘You gave me this boner! What foul thing did you put in my ale, wench? What ointment have you slathered upon me?’

 

Kristine: Gross. I found the humiliating treatment of the female body to be… Effective. When the crone was being stripped and examined for ‘witch powder’? Jesus Christ, people are evil, evil beings.

Sean: Agreed. The whole movie was very much ‘an investigation into the female body.’  I was struck by all the random moments of female nudity. When suddenly a female sleepwalker minces through the shadows to go outside and get some hot devil-dick? It was very prurient and hilarious and it made me wish the world actually was this occult place filled with fornicating housewives and lurid forest animals chittering and devils rubbing their gigantic boners on my face. But alas, there is no magic in the world.

Kristine: Yes, like I said, cavorting with the devils in this movie looks like way more fun than the drudgery of normal existence.

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Flat Earth Society porn

Sean: Completely. The movie starts off with all that cosmology stuff, I think, in order to (a) explain how/why medieval folks could have believed such bizarre shit but also to (b) weave some weird spell on the audience and make us imagine different strange shapes to the universe, so that we’d be more susceptible to the occult ideas that follow.

Kristine: That makes sense. I wish I could interview the director and be like, ‘Explain yourself.’ It makes a lot more sense to me that this movie was banned/protested against, as opposed to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which seemed harmless to me. Häxan truly is filthy and perverse.

Sean: The moment that made me spit my drink halfway across the room was when the movie was like, “Today, witches don’t ride on broomsticks!” and then showed some aviatrix getting into her biplane and zooming off into the sky – basically arguing that Amelia Earhart was a witchy wench who made a deal with the devil.

Kristine: Love it.

Sean: I was shocked.

Kristine: Hee.

Sean: So, was this fun to watch?

Kristine: Yes. Though upsetting at times.

Sean: I mean, just as an aesthetic object, this movie is really beautiful and weird.

Kristine: Definitely. Sean, we at least need to mention the images of Satan’s babies being birthed. Those devils crawling out of that woman?

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Want a leg of mutton?

Sean: Did it make you feel feminine and alive?

Kristine: It made me glad I have never given birth.

Sean: What about the witch dipping a corpses finger into her tea and being like, ‘This’ll spice things up nicely!’?

Kristine: I am telling you, these witches and devils are zesty. There was so much outright humor.

Sean: So on a slightly serious note – I remember taking a Women’s History class and studying European history and the book we were reading calling the witch burnings of the medieval period “the female Holocaust.” I’ve always wondered if that’s appropriate… But still, I was horrified and upset about how many women were lynched and burned alive and tortured. Have you ever given much thought to these historical facts?

Kristine: I don’t think ‘Holocaust’ would be my choice of words. I feel like the persecution of women during medieval times was not in order to eradicate them, but as a form of extreme behavior modification. As a warning to other women about how to behave and as a reminder to men that women are evil and can’t be trusted, and therefore must be controlled. I think there are attempts at female behavior modification woven into culture today.

Sean: Right, that’s very well put. Did you ever, as a youth, languish around imagining witch burnings?

Kristine: No.

Sean: Did you read The Crucible in school?

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Ugg boots prototype

Kristine: Yep.

Sean: What did you think at the time?

Kristine: I don’t remember it having an impact on me, truthfully, which is a little surprising since I was relatively political and savvy. What about you?

Sean: I was so upset by it. I remember them putting a giant bolder on some man’s chest at the end and I remember feeling so frustrated during all the inquisition scenes. Like, how unfair it was that people were being railroaded.

Kristine: Now I feel so insensitive and callow.

Sean: Well…

Kristine: Shut it.

Sean: I also wept in public when we read Where the Red Fern Grows in 6th grade. I was a sensitive boy child.

Kristine: Well, that is valid.

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Literal money shot

Sean: So, would you recommend Häxan to other modern gals and guys?

Kristine: I would. Mostly just for it’s utter strangeness. Also, for its moments of perverse hilarity. You mentioned it is a Criterion release. I take that to mean there are probably scholarly essays and such about the movie on the Criterion website. I might check that out, because I must say that the movie’s overall message, if there was one, was lost on me.

Sean: Wasn’t the message, ‘Witches today just put on lipstick and fly planes, so don’t stress about it’?

Kristine: I found the depictions of persecuted women to be so mixed. The women are portrayed as pitiable, but also as totally abject.

Sean: So it’s basically like any random season of The Bachelor.

Kristine: Exactly.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Batshit insanity AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative.

The Freak’s Rating: Sleazesterpiece! AND Worth watching for the campy dramz AND Stylistic triumph

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2 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

  1. You guys need to see The Viy (Vij.) A Russian almost-Hammer Studio devil and witchcraft fable. That last scene is CRAZY.