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Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

UK Release Date: 08-10-2007
Price: £19.99
UK Certificate: 15
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Country: Denmark
Distributor: Tartan
Rating:

A superb cinematic take on Europe’s darker history

Danish entre­pren­eur and film­maker Ben­ja­min Christ­en­sen had al­ready wowed audi­ences, and helped put Scand­in­avia on the cine­ma­tic map, with his 1913 melo­drama Myst­er­ious X, which he wrote, pro­duced, dir­ected and starred in, when he happ­ened upon a copy of the infam­ous Mall­eus Male­fic­a­rum in a Berlin book­shop.

Not one to think small, Christ­en­sen envis­ioned his next pro­ject as some­thing en­tire­ly new – a spect­ac­u­lar three-part lect­ure in film on the sub­ject of sup­er­stit­ion. The light of the pro­jector would bring an end to cent­ur­ies of dark­ness and mod­ern­ity would tri­umph over ignor­ance once and for all.

One cata­strophic World War and two and a half years of re­search later, Christ­en­sen was ready to start work on his master­piece, but not before he had lost his wife, his stud­ios and his ant­ique fur­nit­ure coll­ect­ion to the pro­ject. Iron­ic­ally, by the time film­ing began in 1921, he had bought back his now dil­ap­id­ated stud­ios, funded by a new Swed­ish pro­ducer, and it was here that the film took shape. Christ­en­sen shot only at night (Haxan was, after all, conc­erned with hum­an­ity’s dark side) and on a closed set.

The final budget came it at close to 2 mill­ion krona, making it the most exp­ens­ive Scand­in­av­ian silent film ever made, but once you’ve seen Haxan, it’s clear that the money is all up there on the screen. Intro­duced by Christ­en­sen him­self as “a pres­ent­at­ion of a cult­ural and hist­ori­cal point of view in seven chapt­ers of moving pict­ures” the film opens as an illust­rated lect­ure with images torn from text­books and medi­æval wood­cuts.

Grad­u­ally, the devils and deit­ies come to gurn­ing, lurch­ing life in a series of anim­ated dio­ramas until the human cast app­ears and Haxan’s full and awful splen­dour is un­veiled.

Cine­mato­grapher Johan Ank­erst­jerne trav­elled to remot­est Den­mark to find app­rop­riat­ely medi­æval land­scapes, while back at the studio Rich­ard Louw devel­oped props and sets to bring their in­fernal vision to life. Christ­en­sen, mean­while, plied his cast with cham­pagne in order to ease them into a suit­ably louche state-of-mind for the scenes of mad­ness he in­tend­ed to film. Along­side the young nymph­ettes play­ing nuns and vill­ag­ers and his own role as the Devil, Christ­en­sen cast a 78-year-old flower seller, Maren Peder­sen, as a weaver acc­used of witch­craft. Peder­sen’s with­ered, tooth­less grim­ace brings a real­ism to the film that no spec­ial effects, nor the skills of Denmark’s finest acting tal­ents, many of whom app­eared in Haxan, could muster.

Tread­ing a fine line be­tween po-faced edu­cat­ion and bare-chested sens­at­ion­al­ism, Haxan dazzl­ed audi­ences with its wildly vivid tab­leaux viv­ants, and the caval­cade of flying witches, demon births, sat­anic arse-kiss­ing, self-flag­ell­at­ing and baby-munch­ing is no less startl­ing today.
The press pro­vided a pre­dict­ably mixed wel­come, many of them con­sid­er­ing the film trans­gress­ive and even dang­er­ous, and out­side Scand­in­avia the film caused con­tro­versy wher­ever it went, usu­ally suff­er­ing heavy edits if it was screen­ed at all; and while Christ­en­sen him­self would enjoy a modest career in Holly­wood before return­ing to Den­mark for a herm­etic ret­ire­ment, his epic was event­u­ally lost to time.

Until 1967, that is, when, follow­ing a retro­spect­ive screen­ing in Den­mark, the Brit­ish under­ground film­maker and dist­rib­utor Anthony Balch (respons­ible for such greats as Erotic Tales from Mummy’s Tomb and Horror Hosp­ital) de­cided to chop out all the boring bits and get his friend Will­iam Burr­oughs to pro­vide a typ­ic­ally lac­onic narr­at­ion. The timing could­n’t have been better, with the UK swept up in a craze for all things eso­teric, from UFOs to Dennis Wheat­ley, and the ‘new’ 76-minute film, Witch­craft Through the Ages, was an under­ground hit the world over.

Both vers­ions (the orig­inal in a great tinted print from the Swedish film arch­ives) are pres­ent on the new Tartan DVD re­lease, along with three scores: the orch­est­ral score from the orig­inal Danish prem­ière, a haunt­ing com­pos­it­ion for voice and hamm­ered dul­cimer by Geoff Smith, and some well-judged elect­ronic ambi­ence from Brist­ol’s Brontt Indust­ries Kap­ital.

While Jack Steven­son’s heav­ily ill­ust­rated book Witch­craft Through the Ages: The Story of Haxan, the World’s Strang­est Film, and the Man Who Made It is not part of the pack­age, it pro­vides a tonne of fas­cin­at­ing back­ground inform­at­ion on Christ­en­sen and Haxan, and is curr­ently the only book in Eng­lish to do so, making it a fitt­ing com­pan­ion to this rich, dark slice of film hist­ory.

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