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.