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Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Criterion Collection) back to product details

A Searing Expose of the Evils of the Church
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written by mdraine March 1, 2003 - 8:12 PM PST
17 out of 20 members found this review helpful
The legendary Scandinavian film Haxan (The Witch, 1922) brings to life a medieval world of superstition with searing intensity. The film's unflinching images of the Inquisition linger long after viewing.
Producer/writer/director Benjamin Christensen (1879-1959) undertook two years of research in preparation for this film, drawing from the Malleus Maleficarum, (The Witches' Hammer, 1487) a witch-hunter's manual of unparalleled paranoia and cruelty. A filmmaker well in advance of his era, Christensen harnessed scientific curiosity with an unerring affinity for the irrational workings of the subconscious.
Employing a fragmented narrative that the director characterized as a mosaic, Haxan (pronounced hek-sen) blurs the line between historical fact, dramatization, and fantasy. It's left to the viewer to determine if the infernal imagery is to be interpreted as the fearful imaginings of superstitious characters, or actual events within the reality of the film. For example, an accused hag's confession of consorting with the Devil is clearly a desperate attempt to survive the Inquisition, yet the depiction of midnight revels is so vivid as to be readily interpreted as a flashback.
The sophisticated art direction, photography, and special effects displayed in Haxan suggest that the Scandinavian film industry was among the world's most advanced in the early Twenties. Christensen created unforgettable tableaux: scores of witches flying over the rooftops of medieval villages, a stop-motion demon breaking through a door panel, demons accepting infant sacrifices, a bride of Satan giving birth to an inhuman brood.
In 1968, British filmmaker Alfred Balch issued a truncated version of the film, with a grating jazz soundtrack and narration by William Burroughs, under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. Witchcraft Through the Ages is included in the DVD supplement.
Though exceptionally well-preserved, Haxan seems impossibly old, the materialization of the tortured imagination of Bosch, or Goya. The influence of Haxan can be seen in Murnau's Faust, Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath, Mario Bava's Black Sunday, and Ken Russell's The Devils. This tinted restoration provides the opportunity to experience Haxan in its full richness and complexity. -- Michael Draine

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(Average 7.14)
154 Votes
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