The Criterion Collection recently released a remastered edition of Benjamin Christenen’s classic film Häxan. The cornerstone of this latest edition features a new 2K digital restoration of the picture, and it is the first time that the film has been released on Blu-ray. Häxan is, of course, a 1922 silent film from Sweden which provides a historical look at both the history of witches in art and literature, as well as the persecution, torture, and murder of innocent people in the wake of religious-inspired mania.
From the moment viewers pop in the Blu-ray, they will be confronted with a montage of shots from the film, which play on the Blu-ray’s menu page. The clarity of these images instantly reveals the amazing effect that the 2K restoration has had on the vintage material. The shots are incredibly crisp and beautifullly showcase the brightness and contrast of the film’s cinematography. The rest of the presentation is essentially comprised of previously released content from Criterion’s DVD editions of the film.
The film, itself, is presented in several acts. These acts, respectively, contextualize the bulk of the narrative as an illustration of historical beliefs, widespread hysteria, and the eventual scientific understanding of both maladies that had inspired women to have been thought of as witches and social illnesses that had inspired church authorities to become torturers and murderers. The style of the presentation begins with shots of ancient works of art being pointed at with a stick as if a professor were giving a lecture on them — a lecture which is provided via the title cards. Gradually, the photos of art prints are replaced by miniature sets, puppets, and finally actors within scenes designed based on the historical images. The photography, production designs, and make-up succeed in conjuring powerful imagery, which still resonates effectively. The soundtrack which accompanies the film presentation is based on that which was performed, live, during the film’s premiere, and it is presented in 5.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio (on the DVD of this edition, it is presented in Dolby Digital 5.0).
The extra features feature the highly informative commentary track by film scholar Casper Tybjerg (originally recorded for the 2001 Criterion edition). Throughout the commentary, Tyberg provides details about the film’s production, additional information about historical witch persecution, notes on Christensen’s historical sources and artistic objectives and working habits, errors in Christensen’s statistics (as represented by the title cards), and quotes from various critics. He attributed one of the more resonant comments that he shared to “a Swedish reviewer.” It went like this: “Hysteria does not explain everything, and in particular does not explain itself. How are people half a millenium into the future going to try to explain the madness of our times which spread from country to country, made the cannons thunder, and in a few years cost the lives of millions of people. Is one not forced, despite all attempts at explanation, in the back of one’s own mind to acknowledge that the madness of both the middle ages and today grows out of hysteria and hypocrisy but also out of the indistinguishable stupidity and wickedness of mankind.”
The other extras include: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968), a seventy-six-minute version of Häxan, narrated by author William S. Burroughs, with a soundtrack featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty; and director Benjamin Christensen’s eight minute introduction to the film’s 1941 theatrical re-release, which consists of the director talking about the merits of silent film over sound film, providing more exposition for his content, and going more in depth about the psychological causes of witch hysteria. There are also some Outtakes, which consist of camera and effects tests; Bibliothèque Diabolique: a photographic exploration of Christensen’s historical sources; and the creation of new title cards for the film. Additionally, the packaging includes a book with an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara about Christensen’s background and the making of and reception to Häxan and the film in the context of his other films as they pertain to social themes Christensen frequently explored; an essay by Chloé Germaine Buckley, who examines Häxan in the wider context of historical depictions of witches and witchcraft and the realities of witch persecution; and, finally, a short piece by soundtrack arranger / film-music specialst Gillian B. Anderson, who writes about the score, the manner in which it was originally performed as a live accompaniment, and the advantages of matching the originally intended music with the picture.
The satanic witches of folklore are not real; however, systematic cruelty and murder committed in the name of God persists to this day in one form or another. This edition of Häxan provides lovers of film, gothic imagery, and historians with a well-supplemented presentation of Christensen’s haunting portrayal of some of the darker aspects of human history, both those which were imagined and those which were quite real.