It's difficult to imagine the impact Häxan must have had on its initial release in 1922. Not only in its groundbreaking approach to storytelling and special effects - but to cinema as well. As the commentary track of this version tells us, director Benjamin Christensen was one of the first to make use of facial close-ups, giving this movie - close to a century old - a very modern feel. At the time, it was the most expensive film to come from the flourishing Scandinavian film industry, and it shows.
It begins as a straight documentary, with a lecture accompanied by slides, then segues into a recreation of medieval life that soon resolves into a tale of a fairly well-to-do family undone by the witch hunt mania of the Inquisition. It then settles back into documentary territory as Christensen presents his thesis that many of the condemned witches actually suffered from psychological problems, which are still with us today.
Of greater interest to the cult film fan are the frequent pauses to dramatize dreams and the fantastic confessions of an accused witch under torture, culminating in the recreation of a full witches' sabbath. In the medieval segments, the rampant belief in the day-to-day reality of devils results in Old Scratch popping in to commit all sorts of mischief. Played by the director himself, the Horned One is an impressive, tongue-waggling scoundrel, delightful to behold. Much of the witch hunt portion is properly harrowing, but there is enough sly humor on display to keep this from becoming a depressing film.
Criterion has obtained the Swedish Film Institute's restoration of the movie, a fine-grain transfer struck from the original camera negative and played at a corrected speed of 20fps. The SFI also restored the tinting employed in the original showings, and created new intertitle cards. There is still some damage apparent in the film, but far, far less than seen in other movies of the time. Overall, the image is beautifully clear, though some edge enhancement causes the fine linework in the opening woodcuts to dance and moiré. The 5.0 soundtrack is newly recorded, and its production presented some problems - any original score to Häxan has been long since lost, but a list of the pieces used to construct the score had been found. Employing her best judgement, Gillian B. Anderson reconstructed the score, which employs Schubert, Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Wagner and others to paint a suitable backdrop.
As is usual in Criterion offerings, the commentary track by Swedish silent film scholar Caspar Tybjerg is very informative, though it rarely has much to do with what is actually happening onscreen at the time. Tybjerg's Swedish accent can also seem quite sing-song at times, tempting the listener's brain from what the man is saying. Stay awake, and you'll find his comments on Christensen's history and the reception afforded Häxan very educational.
Also included is the sound introduction to the movie's 1941 re-release, in which Christensen explains his passion for the subject, and the things he discovered while researching his movie. There are also outtakes, which prove to be footage of set construction, test shots for the witch's flight segment of the Sabbat (again, employing Christensen himself as the witch), and a nun trying out "a series of ungodly titters". Forty-one stills of the sets and publicity stills round out the standard extras.
This is an important release because Häxan is one of those movies that everyone has heard about, possibly spotted a photo or two, but rarely have actually seen. It was spottily available as Witchcraft Through the Ages, a black-and white re-edited version - which, fittingly, forms the last of the extras! It replaces Christensen's first person - narrated intertitle cards with the droning (yet strangely endearing) voice of Beat writer William S. Burroughs. The soundtrack is also replaced by a jazz score featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. The score is sometimes shrilly out of place, but often is quite striking and supportive of the image. A logical and very nice extra, indeed.
Dr. Freex, 2/24/2002