Movie: Häxan (1922) — education or speculation?

21 02 2010

The Swedish silent movie Häxan is a curious semi-documentary about witchcraft, made by a Danish director. Surprisingly modern uses of lighting and camera, and mostly good actor performances. But, of course, in our 21st century, this movie is  is mainly for those interested in the history of cinema.

In 1920-22 Benjamin Christensen created the movie Häxan, first shown in Stockholm September 1922. It can be seen as an educational movie, describing what was meant by witchcraft in the medieval times, and how we, using modern (as of 1920) psychology, can see that it is mainly about mental disorders, not supernatural powers.

Häxan poster

Häxan Poster

In several sections of the movie, belief in witches are described and illustrated, In the first section, the beliefs of medieval times are illustrated via medieval illustrations. Then certain specific aspects of witches and witchcraft are described via cinematic re-creations of concrete stories. These are presented as illustrations, and the inter-titles serve the role of the speaker-outside-the-scenes, talking about what the scenes embody. In the second half of the movie, a longer story is told about suspected and accused witches, and how they are captured and investigated by official representatives (i.e., representatives of the church). Finally, an analogy is made between on the one hand women accused of witchcraft in earlier eras, and, on the other hand, the concept of “hysteria” as a mental disability. Hysteria was proposed as a medical concept in the last decades of the 19th century, and it was understood as one example of how scientific understanding of the human body and mind had emerged as practical tools for diagnosis and treatment. The movie argues that the symptoms that women with hysteria exhibit in modern times is quite similar to the behavior of the those women that were suspected of witchcraft. That is, witches in the medieval times may have just been women with hysteria.

This short characterization of the movie should make it clear that this is not what we understand as a horror movie, that is a movie with fictional story intended to scare us. Rather, its objective is to offer information about societal phenomena, in the past and in the present.

There is a clear anti-church morality in the movie. The most systematic and intolerant persecution of witches were performed by the church, as part of the fight against Satan. In those medieval times, it was regarded as permissible — or even recommendable — to use torture to get the truth from suspected witches. And by using sophisticated methods of torture, the witch-hunting priests could easily extract confessions from anyone that they could get their hands on. And confessions often concerned denunciations of other persons as witches, that were then captured and subjected to torture. As the movie says, often one tortured subject can denounce several other subjects, leading to an exponential number of accused and condemned victims. As we now know that there are no witches of the kind talked about in those days, a conclusion of this movie is that the church caused the death of innumerable innocent persons during the medieval times. This aspect of the movie most likely caused it to be banned from public display in most countries, especially countries where the the catholic church has a dominant role.

Swedish movie poster for Häxan

Swedish movie poster for Häxan

As a side remark, one can note that the exponential growth of victims for systematic witch-hunting has a curious parallel in the soviet purges in the 1930s. Peter Englund described in one of his essays that the hunt for “counter revolutionaries” can be seen as striving for increased productivity of the purging process — each suspected person should be forced to denounce at least two other counter revolutionaries. So that purging process had an exponential growth too, and finally had to be stopped, short of causing all soviet citizens to be implicated and convicted.

There is an interesting similarity with Murnau’s Nosferatu (find at imdb).  On a general level, Nosferatu is about how “the devil” (well, at least can be seen as some incarnation of the devil) causes effects on ordinary persons. Innocent people can never be guaranteed to be safe from the devil. He acts in the night-time, but is specialized on blood-sucking. Anyway, some specific similarities can be observed. For instance, the hands of Nosferatu are very similar to the hands of the devil as seen in Häxan. There is also a scene in the final part of Häxan, where a young woman is lying in a bed after experiencing an unwanted visit from some male person or apparition, and the way she is draped on the bed after this visit looks quite similar to how some women victims of Nosferatu ly in their bed. But as these two movies were produced in parallel, there seems to be no influence from one to the other. Rather they either used some common existing visual background material as inspiration, of there was something in the spirit of those times that caused similar visual impressions to be created.

Murnau's depiction of Nosferatu

Murnau's depiction of Nosferatu

The movie was made made just after the first world war. That was a traumatic period for most of Germany, where the old German empire with its clear societal structure toppled over, and was replaced by the Weimar republic, where a new societal order was created. But this was not a full replacement of one structure with another, instead it was experienced as more or less replacing structure with anarchy. This creates uncertainty, insecurity, and a need to find another personal foundation for ones life. Part of this was also the beginning rise of science as a solid foundation for a Welt Anschaung. If politics and society could not offer a guaranteed “true” foundation for life, then maybe science could.

This can be seen as one of the principles upon which Häxan is based. It does try to offer a scientific view on the phenomena of witchcraft, as well as illustrating how certain behavior of the modern society also are as unfounded as the medieval belief in witches. Therefore, the movie can be seen as an educational effort, trying to not only educate us about earlier centuries believes in witches, but also enable us to critically inspect what we ourselves are doing.

Camera work and lighting is quite well done, taking into account that it was made in the early 1920s. Of course, the film material used in those days was not very sensitive, so creating the impression of night-time is a challenge, and creating images of the devil and what witches do at the “witch feasts” need to present a feeling of night-time. This is skilfully done. Furthermore, what we see is a tinted version of the movie, and this should correspond to the version as original shown in public. Two main tones are used — a reddish color, and a blue color.

Most of the shots are full-scale interiors, but there is a fair amount of close-ups on the faces of people. The close-ups capture the unique features of the performers, and this is a clear advantage. The cast of the film mainly consists of amateurs, with no professional acting history. This has an interesting side effect. Usually, all through the silent file era and in the beginning of the sound film era, actors were exaggerating their body expressions and their facial expressions, leading to what we now see as over-acting. That over-acting was the standard, and we can assume that being trained in the movie actor business involved acquiring such performance behaviors.

In this move, Häxan, such over-acting is not very much seen. This can be the effect of using amateurs as actors, amateurs that have not been taught how to vividly express feelings and emotions. Instead these actors do it in a low-key manner, quite similar to what we nowadays regard as good standard acting. So, using amateurs as actors in this movie entailed advantages.

Snapshot from Häxan

Snapshot from Häxan

Finally, one might ask oneself: what is the reason for actually creating a film such as this? It is said to be one of the most expensive Scandinavian silent movies ever made, and there must have been some business reasons behind putting up all that money. But was it seen as an answer to a mass market need for information about witchcraft? Or was it seen as a movie that could make a lot of money by offering images that were beyond what ordinarily was socially accepted? One can argue that there is some substance to this last suggestion, as there is some amount of female nudity evident in a couple of scenes. Embedding such “adult” images in a movie that purported to be a kind of documentary, this could be one way of getting such images to be accepted by censors.


This is an interesting movie for those interested in the history and evolution of cinematic techniques. Others will probably find it uninteresting.


Name: Häxan (find at imdb)
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Cast: Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, etc.
Runtime: 87 min
On DVD: “Häxan” (Criterion Collection)




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