Criterion Review: HÄXAN (1922)

At long last, Benjamin Christensen’s iconically nightmarish Silent-era masterpiece arrives on Blu-ray

Told in a series of vignettes, Häxan is a Swedish-Danish documentary of sorts, putting forth a historical analysis on the subject of witchcraft. The film opens by briefly covering some ancient beliefs in its first segment and closes with a modern view of how old world superstition has given way to a better understanding of mental and physical health, but most of the film — and certainly the most famous and interesting chunk of it — is dedicated to dramatic re-creations of witchcraft (or perhaps more accurately, the fear of it) in medieval Europe.

Director Benjamin Christensen

As writer-director Benjamin Christensen explains in his introduction (included as an extra on the Blu-ray), religious mania and a cultural obsession with the forces of darkness paved the way for witch hunts and inquisitions. Inquisitors tortured the accused in exchange for confessions and accomplices, and the torment provided plenty of both — a senseless (and sexist) cycle of destruction and fear.

Häxan is undoubtedly best known for its nightmarish occult imagery and effects. It’s one of the flat-out coolest and most technically impressive silent films of all time as well as a major influence in the horror genre, pioneering and implementing the use of puppetry, stop motion animation, and creature makeup and costuming to dazzling effect.

The most famous segment is a deliriously nightmarish vision of a witch’s sabbath. At the height of her torture, an old crone offers up wild fictional “confessions” of her evil deeds: flying through the night sky, desecrating the cross, eating babies, copulating with demons, and literally kissing Satan’s ass.

Besides being amazed by the film’s incredible visual language, I was enraged at the oppression and torture that these women were subjected to.

And while the comparison didn’t yet exist, the imagery is kind of like a heavy metal album come to life — which also brings me to the film’s most critical weakness. The cheery classical music (the original arrangement of which is unknown but reconstructed here based on historical notes) is often tonally at odds with the material transpiring on the screen. The 1968 re-edit Witchcraft Through the Ages (also included on the Blu-ray) addressed this head-on, replacing the music with a moody original jazz-noise score which proves a much better fit.

Due to the film’s chapter-driven format, it’s a bit clunky overall and the expository “academic” parts bring it down a bit. But the celebrated middle portion of this film is an incredible feast for the eyes and mind — there’s literally nothing like it.

The Package

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Häxan (spine # 134) is packaged in their typical transparent case and includes an illustrated booklet with writings “The Real Unreal” by Chris Fujiwara, “Let Her Suffering Begin” by Chloé Germaine Buckley, and “About the Music” by music arranger Gillian Anderson.

The film, restored in 2K, looks absolutely incredible as the screenshots in this review clearly demonstrate.

Specifications of interest:

  • New 2K digital restoration
  • 5.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Newly made intertitles (Swedish with English subtitles)
  • Music from the 1922 Danish premiere, arranged by film-music specialist Gillian B. Anderson and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra in 2001

Special Features and Extras

The extras are pretty impressive for a film from 1922, including supplemental material from over the course of film’s nearly centennial history.

  • Director’s introduction — Benjamin Christensen’s intro to the 1941 re-release is a critical component to understanding the film, contextualizing his beliefs and intent, 20 years after its original release
  • Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968)(67:42) — this black and white remix features English narration by William S. Burroughs in place of intertitles and a jazzy soundtrack. It’s a breezier version with a more fitting score, and definitely a worthy and important inclusion. Unfortunately the presentation didn’t get the same kind of care as the main feature though, treated more like a bonus than a vital component of the film’s history: unrestored, in a lower resolution, and without subtitles for the narration. Here are a few screencaps along with their restored Häxan counterparts.
Left: Witchcraft Through The Ages / Right: Häxan
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Casper Tybjerg (this is me complaining about subtitles again, but as someone who is hearing impaired, they would be helpful — especially when speakers have an accent and booming timbre)
  • Outtakes (4:33) — How many movies have century-old test footage?!
  • Bibliothèque diabolique (2001) (15:04), photo gallery with details of some of Christensen’s historical sources. An archival feature with low resolution images.

A/V Out.

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HÄXAN Criterion Blu-ray:

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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