Häxan is a fascinating piece of cinematic history for a number of reasons – the first certainly being that it is one of the earliest films to straddle the line between fact and fiction; narrative and documentary. Second, because it is one of the earlier (#134) releases by the Criterion Collection.
The film tells its tale of witchcraft and satanism from the middle ages through the modern times. It cleverly uses vignettes (dramatizations if you prefer) and slides, illustrations etc. It goes from a title describing reasoning and custom behind an act or belief to a scene in which it is depicted or to an illustration where typically a pencil held by an unknown person indicates to us the area of interest.
The film goes along chapter by chapter revealing reason and the cause and effect of the hysteria concerning witches and the devil. Although, we at one point find out that several trials involve people from the same household there is little by way of a through-line, and that is by design. However, it does make it slightly troublesome to follow in part because you expect it to come back to one scenario or another but it doesn’t. Alas, one of the perils of blending fact and fiction, it moves and is structured like a doc but is portrayed as fiction much of the time so the audience member expects similar conventions.
Towards the end it does do a fascinating feat of simulacrum and tell the audience its reusing actors, does demonstrations and the titles take on a very analytical approach but it is some of the more enjoyable stuff in the film.
Criterion gets very high marks for this particular release for a number of reasons. First, there are two versions of the film on this DVD – one the 1922 silent, and then a 1968 re-score, voice-over included re-do by avant-gardists called Witchcraft Through the Ages.
In the former Criterion did a great job re-recording the score and returning the film to its original intended tinting. Tinting was a fabulous technique which was widely practiced in the silent era because it gave you the wonderful contrast and grain of black and white but it was bright and lively. It was also a tremendous tool for symbolism of time, place, emotion and so forth as colors hold many associations for people.
The original Häxan is very much worth watching. The sound version is worth comparing for students and serious films fans. The sound version is not only unnecessary but appalling; it’s akin to colorization in its futility in attempting to improve something that needn’t be fixed.
Not only is it conceptually a bad idea but the execution is also poor you get two conflicting sonorous signals sent to you and thus the confusion of the filmmakers is evident, even if subconscious. There is a clear dichotomy between the pomposity and seemingly unintentional Movie Tone newsreel style gravitas that Burroughs has in his voice and the ridiculous, cacophonous Jazz score by Jean-Luc Ponty, which makes me wonder if that music wasn’t the work of the devil.
Another thing lacking in the newer version was the tinting, so in fact, it is the opposite of colorization it’s actually a desaturated less visually appealing version of the film. The voice-over also cuts out a lot of text from the titles some including interesting anecdotal information and at times footage. There was one instance there the image was up well before the voice over started.
Ultimately, it pales in comparison to the silent film but it was still quite intriguing to watch both and compare them and the two cuts plus a plethora of bonus material like liner-notes, commentary by a Danish silent film scholar, director’s intro outtakes a look at Christiansen’s sources and stills make the DVD worth getting,
Häxan (1922) 7/10
Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968) 4/10
DVD presentation: 10