Watch Häxan, the Classic Cinematic Study of Witchcraft Narrated by William S. Burroughs (1922)

Some pic­tures from the silent era, like F.W. Mur­nau’s Nos­fer­atu, could­n’t look more clear­ly like ances­tors of the mod­ern hor­ror film. Trac­ing the dis­tant ori­gins of oth­er forms — of doc­u­men­tary, say — proves a trick­i­er task. Hence the val­ue of a movie like Ben­jamin Chris­tensen’s Häx­an, also known as Witch­craft Through the Ages, which not only mounts a non­fic­tion­al inves­ti­ga­tion into human­i­ty’s per­cep­tion of “witch­es” through­out the ages, but does so with the aid of dra­mat­ic sequences as eerie as any of Count Orlok run­ning amok. Giv­en that Chris­tensen’s metic­u­lous­ly researched his­tor­i­cal cre­ation demand­ed a larg­er bud­get than any oth­er Scan­di­na­vian film to that point, you could also view it as an antecedent of today’s visu­al­ly elab­o­rate, spec­ta­cle-inten­sive block­busters. Like many well-known silent films, Häx­an has under­gone mul­ti­ple releas­es, each run­ning dif­fer­ent lengths, with dif­fer­ent scores. You see above the 1968 ver­sion, which reduces Chris­tensen’s orig­i­nal 104-minute cut to a brisk 77 min­utes and accom­pa­nies it with a jaun­ty, rich­ly incon­gru­ous five-piece jazz score by Daniel Humair.

Atop the music we hear the his­to­ry of the per­se­cu­tion of  “witch­es,” from the prim­i­tive era to medieval times to then-mod­ern times, when the idea of the “hys­ter­i­cal woman” gained pur­chase in the zeit­geist. Nar­rat­ing this sto­ry in the 1968 ver­sion is none oth­er than writer and Beat icon William S. Bur­roughs, who, despite his flam­boy­ant­ly artis­tic per­son­al­i­ty, deliv­ers an ulti­mate­ly sober analy­sis. The film takes the posi­tion that witch­craft, far from a real­i­ty in and of itself, aris­es and re-aris­es as an inven­tion of the super­sti­tious, the irra­tional, and those dis­in­clined to under­stand the nature of men­tal ill­ness. If that sub­ject sounds more suit­able for an aca­d­e­m­ic paper, remem­ber that this research comes deliv­ered by the bold visu­al strokes of pro­to-hor­ror silent film, close read­ing of the fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry inquisi­tor’s trea­tise Malleus Malefi­carum, and the man who wrote Naked Lunch.

via Bib­liok­lept

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Quin­tes­sen­tial Vam­pire Film Nos­fer­atu Free Online as Hal­loween Approach­es

The Pix­ies’ Black Fran­cis Cre­ates Sound­track for Famous Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Film, The Golem

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (3)
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  • DAN says:

    What does the ‘1922’ sig­ni­fy? The music cer­tain­ly isn’t from the 20’s…’50’s, maybe.

  • Mikael says:

    The orig­i­nal was made in 1922.

  • Mike Leggett says:

    Inter­est­ing com­men­tary by Bur­roughs and Balch, some­how still using the term ‘hys­te­ria’ in 1968 as the catchall term for men­tal ill­ness, in spite of it being the era of post-Freudi­an revi­sions of men­tal health. The great music track was record­ed in the late-60s too, fea­tur­ing the notable jazz vio­lin­ist, Jean-Luc Pon­ty. The orig­i­nal film is a won­der­ful pre­cur­sor of ‘film noir’, with light­ing and act­ing styles very much of the Skan­dana­vian school — see Carl Dry­er’s ‘The Pas­sion of Jeanne d’Arc’

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