Haxan is a 1922 Swedish avant-garde film by Benjamin Christiansen, considered one of the most important and innovative masterpieces in the history of films. The film invents and mixes different genres in a truly surprising way. 50 years before Godard and the Nouvelle Vague Benjamin Christiansen invents the fake documentary and the gothic and fantastic horror cinema.
The Masterpieces of Nordic Cinema: Haxan
The Nordic cinema offers some filmmakers who continue to make important films such as Sjostrom and Christensen, who realizes a real masterpiece of witchcraft through the centuries (Haxan) of 1922. A metanarrative half documentary film that tells the story of use of witchcraft through the centuries with a view to tolerance, with ironic grotesque scenes to describe a dark phenomenon of violence and repression.
After 100 years from the release of Haxan it is still difficult to find a film that renders in such an exemplary way the diabolical and Mephistopheles atmospheres of witchcraft, with images that are scarier than the worst contemporary splatter films. Disturbing images because they are real evidence of real events.
Extremely expensive film with great qualities of innovation that passed almost unnoticed at the time due to the subject matter. Controversial, blasphemous and in some anticlerical scenes the film was partially censored in Sweden and it was completely banned from circulation in the United States.
Haxan: the Plot of the Film
In fact, in the first part of the film it is the director himself who takes us by the hand and guides us in the analysis of the text Malleus Maleficarum, a kind of vademecum for German inquisitors in the 15th century. The director shows us primitive works of art: statues, paintings, sculptures depicting demons, then analyzes in a scientific way the conception of the solar system and the places considered gates to hell in the Middle Ages.
In the central part of the film Haxan, director Benjamin Christiansen skilfully alternates comedy, grotesque tone, drama and gothic horror. It is a series of scenes where superstitions related to witchcraft and various appearances of Satan are shown: the devil tempts a woman away from her husband and then terrorizes a group of monks.
A woman who wants to seduce a friar at all costs lets a witch make a magic potion and make her victim drink it. The friar gets excited and starts running after the woman.
The film continues with a series of intertwined narratives on the theme of witchcraft and Satanism. Each of these scenes is something of a sequel to the in-depth study that began in the film’s early scenes, but now in the form of fiction and horror films.
The following sequence is the most famous: women leave their homes with flying brooms to reach the woods where the Sabbath with Satan will take place. Undoubtedly among the most powerful in the history of cinema.
Both figuratively and from the point of view of the contents, Christiansen constructs a truly memorable sequence, strongly inspired images from the pictorial point of view that had never been seen up until that moment.
Not content with his role as director and screenwriter, Christiansen also enjoys playing the role of Satan, to whom witches queue to kiss butt during the Sabbath. In this and other scenes there are contents unthinkable for the time: nuns possessed by perverse erotic obsessions, human sacrifices, torture and violence.
Do not think, however, that these contents are made in a crude and effective way, as in recent horror films. These are highly sophisticated scenes with great artistic inspiration, never vulgar. Christiansen turns out to be a great figurative artist.
In the end, the film changes its register again and becomes a documentary of denunciation and social investigation. The director goes in search of the roots of evil, the cause of so much pain. And he finds them in the different, in the marginalized, in the madness that society and even religious institutions condemn. It is a system for projecting the evil they have inside of them outward.
The film was produced by a Swedish company but was shot entirely in Denmark. Haxan was the most expensive production in Denmark and cost SEK 2 million at the time. In fact, some scenes of the film are impressive that needed great means.
The film had moderate success in Sweden and Denmark but was blocked by censorship in France, Germany, the United States. It was considered a scandalous, perverse and anticlerical work. In fact exactly the opposite is true Haxan is a deeply spiritual film, its message is deeply ethical.
In 1968 a new version of the film was created with William Burroughs narrating. The film was subsequently restored several times.
Between Documentary and Horror
The first part of the film is a real documentary and describes the dark imagery of ancient populations and their depictions of demons to exorcise the forces of evil. Then we move on to the Middle Ages and the film tells about the Inquisition and its ruthless and inhuman methods of torture.
As a woman is forced to confess she describes the details of a Sabbath she attended. Sacrifice of babies, apparitions of demons, a fictional scene from an anthology, one of the absolute pinnacles of Horror cinema. The director with irony enjoys playing the devil himself.
The faces of the characters are filmed very naturally and with a modern style far from the exaggerated expressiveness of the time, with a minimalist acting style. The sets in the fictional parts are extraordinarily enveloping and fantastic inspired by Flemish painting.
Haxan’s images have an extraordinary charge and strike the viewer directly in his unconscious. The film was enjoyed throughout the twentieth century by characters such as William Burroughs, and versions of varying lengths were created. The most recent version remastered in high definition lasts 104 minutes.
A film completely out of its time: avant-garde not only in style but in content. How the scenes are told with the advance of 50 years The temptations of the devil towards the nuns of a convent. Between madness, superstition, fanaticism and popular legends, Haxan is certainly one of the best horror films in the history of cinema that every art week lover should see.
Why Haxan is a Must-see Film
Why is Haxan such an important film in the history of cinema? Because it addresses one of the most important issues in the history of humanity trying to give concrete answers. It deals with the theme of evil.
The history of man appears, to a lucid glance, as the history of the struggle between good and evil. Human beings have always tried to give an answer to the apparent banality of Satanism. Why persecute innocent and fragile creatures by attributing to them evil powers, which are nothing but projections of our mind?
From Job’s challenge to God, in the Old Testament, to the search for the reasons for so much suffering, Haxan is one of the millions of attempts in the last five thousand years of history to answer the fundamental question of history: why evil, without any precise reason , triumphs over good?
The Different and the Evil
The answer in haxan is that we create evil, through wrong beliefs and fanaticisms. Projecting the evil we have inside of us onto people who appear different from society’s standards. The different, the outcast, The ugly is a monster who follows the cult of Satan.
Haxan tells us about discrimination in its absolute, totalitarian form. Lead to believe that certain individuals are evil, and that they must be eliminated. Evil is actually the form of thought of the judge, of the one who wants to rise above and condemn: he is the real criminal who should be stopped.
The Ubiquitous Idea of Conflict
This kind of discrimination seems to be the backbone of history, in every category: rich against slaves, different peoples and races in conflict, competing religions ready for fat warfare. Everyone is ready to declare in every age that the other is evil, and that it must be fought.
All philosophical traditions, all religions indicate that the path is that of universal agreement. We all have to get along well, respect diversity and play in unison like a great orchestra.
But man still seems to be at a primitive stage of evolution. Continue to seek conflict and self-destruct. Because if it is true that we are all part of a single consciousness, it is also true that by destroying what is different from you you destroy yourself.
In Haxan – witchcraft through the ages, malicious and discriminatory thinking dominates the churchmen and turn them into murderers. But where do they come from their beliefs that justify so much violence? How can they believe they are champions of goodness and of the Christian religion?
Thought that Creates Evil
Thought is one of the most powerful forces in the universe and can be manipulated in many ways. Through religions once or through the media today. And what is the technique for creating the disaster? Slowly instill an absolute idea of division and conflict over time. Repeating over and over every day with propaganda slogans who are the bad guys, who are the culprits and the cause of the evil.
These statements, even the most absurd, if repeated every day over time, become reality. The reality perceived by those who do not have a thought of their own. And so the dramatic experience of thousands of women and seniors in the age of witchcraft seems today only the subject of a gothic horror. But that’s not how director Christiansen treats the subject in his film Haxan.
In Haxan, the research on evil becomes a kind of survival act, a necessary and urgent study. Because behind the satanic Sabbath and witchcraft we can also read the evils of our time. The 900 was the century of the conflict created by the mind of man that reached the most tragic peaks. It is the condition now, in the present, even if apparently improved, it does not seem to change direction.
Man is still convinced of the need for conflict, to blame others, to create a scapegoat for the evil that exists within him. Yet many signs seem to show us the opposite way. Harmonious union and cooperation seems to be the only possible way to escape.