Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is a Danish/Swedish silent film from 1922, written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. It stars Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, and Maren Pedersen. It was filmed in Denmark and financed by Swedish backers.
The film was made in the style of a historical documentary, but contains mostly dramatized sequences that are comparable to horror films.
The film begins with a slide-show of drawings and paintings to illustrate pagan folklore and Christian superstitions and beliefs regarding demons, witches, and purgatory during the Middle Ages. This is followed by a series of highly dramatic vignettes of that era that combine scenes of stark realism with imaginative flights of surreal fantasy. The film is famous, even notorious, for its nightmarish depictions of hideous demons, diabolical occult rituals, a sacriligious satanic sabbath, possessed nuns, and the torture of suspected witches by the Inquisition.
The last part explores the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as contemporary (1921) psychiatric patients.
Artistry and innovation
The film took two years to complete and was immediately recognized as a breakthrough in filmmaking technique that proved to be greatly influential. Christensen was highly innovative in his use of moody shadow effects, stop-motion animation, dissolves, film shown in reverse, and superimposed images.
The makeup and costumes worn by a variety of monstrous demons is also highly effective, even disturbing. In one of many remarkable scenes, footage of witches flying on broomsticks is superimposed on film of a detailed model of a medieval town revolving on a giant turntable to simulate the effect of movement.
Controversy and censorship
Upon its release in 1922, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered, at that time, shocking and offensive depictions of depravity, torture, nudity, and sexual perversion.
The Swedish film censors demanded numerous cuts be made before authorizing its release. Among the censored scenes were the closeup of a finger being removed from a severed hand, the trampling of the cross in the witch's sabbath scene, an oozing dead infant held over a cooking pot, a closeup of a woman's face while she is on a torture rack, closeups of several instruments of torture being employed, and a shot of a demon embracing a nude woman. All of these shots have since been restored to the film.
The spanking scene
During the wildly riotous and bizarre witch's sabbath scene, the Devil has one witch punished for not committing enough evil acts. She gets down on her hands and knees while a demonic being with a birch in each hand whips her backside several times.