Presented as a video research project, the 1922 Danish silent film Haxan explores the phenomena of witchcraft. It is also one of the first documentary films as we have come to know them today.
The director, Benjamin Christensen, takes a first-person approach to his presentation; early in the film, a flash of his face appears on the screen. The image is lit from underneath, the eyes stare plainly at the viewers. It almost seems like the face of a villain.
But soon into the film, we realize that this face is the “I” referred to in the first-person audio cards, the knowledgeable source who teaches us all he has learned from studying medieval drawings and the Malleus Malefacarum.
The reenactments are incredible; the director constructed beautiful, elaborate sets depicting witches, clergy, and even the devil in orange- and blue-tinted tones. Because of the scenes depicting torture, sacrilege, and implied sexuality, the film was banned from US release when it first came out. Watching it now, I would not describe the imagery as disturbing, but it is definitely powerful. Haxan somehow captures the ancient fear (and ignorance) of witches, making us understand why people thought they were twisted and scary.
But despite these haunting images, the film’s true purpose was not to frighten but to enlighten. The director explains that many of the thousands accused of, and killed for, being witches would now be considered mentally ill. He depicts the witch hunt in Europe as a wrongful and shameful persecution of innocent victims, an instance of people believing so much that evil exists that they made it real.
Click here to see some of the scenes from Haxan. Note that the music that accompanies these clips is not original (instead, the original uses classic pieces like Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”).