With a budget of almost two million kronor, Heksen (Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages) was the most expensive Scandinavian silent ever. It premièred in Stockholm, Malmö, Göteburg, and Helsingborn on 18 September 1922, and 7 November in Copenhagen.
In 1919, director Benjamin Christensen discovered inquisitor Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) (1487) in a Berlin bookshop. For almost 200 years, this was a huge bestseller second to only the Bible.
Kramer called for the extermination of all “witches,” with detailed descriptions of torture to extract “confessions” before burning at the stake. This played a major role in the increasingly cruel, brutal, barbaric persecution of “witches” till the 18th century.
From 1919–21, Christensen studied everything he could find about “witches” and witch-hunting. The original playbill by the première included a long bibliography.
Though he was Danish, his funding came from Svensk Filmindustri. This provided complete creative control, and money to buy and refurbish the Astra studio in Hellerup, Denmark.
To maintain a dark hue, Christensen and his cameraman, the venerable Johan Ankerstjerne, only filmed at night or in a closed set.
Filming ran from February–October 1921, followed by a year of editing.
Though the film received many positive reviews, it was banned in the U.S. and heavily censored in other countries. In 1941, there was a Danish re-release with a long intro by Christensen and different intertitles. In 1968, a shortened version was released with a jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs.
Film critics and scholars widely consider Häxan to be Christensen’s masterpiece.
The film opens with a scholarly examination of the history of the belief in sorcery and evil spirits, and how earlier societies saw the universe. Historical illustrations, woodcuts, and a mechanical animation are presented with commentary.
We then move to sorcerer Karna’s underground home in 1488, where she and her assistants prepare potions with snakes, frogs, a thief’s finger, cat feces, sparrows, and a dove’s heart. One of her clients gets love potions to win a fat monk’s heart.
Meanwhile, a neighbor spies on two med students who’ve dug up a body for an autopsy, and denounces them as witches.
The Devil (Christensen) frightens a monk and seduces women, most notably Apelone, an old woman he tortures with moving and disappearing gold coins.
Chapter 3 begins the story of Maria the Weaver, an old, poor woman accused of witchcraft. Jesper the Printer has fallen ill with dizziness, and his wife Anna is convinced he’s bewitched. Lead divination confirms this.
Maria comes to beg, and Anna gives her soup. Eager for someone to blame, Anna accuses Maria of witchcraft, and the visiting inquisitors haul her off.
Maria cracks under cruel torture, and gives a false confession. She says she’s birthed many of the Devil’s children, with Karna and her coven as midwives. Maria gives details of a witches’ Sabbath, and implicates Anna, her mother, and many other women who’ve mistreated her.
Young monk Johannes is coerced into denouncing Anna’s sister. Another monk promises to smuggle her out if she reveals the secret of thunder water, but it’s a cruel trick.
Chapter 6 explores tools and methods of torture. One of Christensen’s actors insisted on trying the thumb screw herself.
Christensen then uses the story of Sister Cecilia to illustrate how many nuns, suffering from nervous tension, caused entire convents to break out in alleged insanity and demonic possession.
Chapter 7 opens by saying many women accused of witchcraft were old and poor, often with physical deformities and conditions like tremors. In the modern era, they’re taken in by nursing homes and pious organizations.
Christensen says the actor playing Maria not only believes in the Devil, but says she’s seen him by her bedside. Her prayerbook’s illustrations are shown.
Christensen retrospectively diagnoses “witches” with neuroses caused by “hysteria,” which could be humanely solved in modern clinics.
Though hysteria has been soundly debunked by countless doctors and scientists, superstition is still rampant in its own way today, and the elderly and poor still suffer.
Though Christensen claims over 8 million people were burnt as witches, that number is extremely inflated. I’ve heard as low as 40,000 and as high as one million. But regardless of the real number, those were innocent people whose lives were ended because of superstitious fears.