Häxan (English title: The Witches or Witchcraft Through The Ages) is a 1922 Swedish/Danish silent horror film written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. Based partly on Christensen's study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German guide for inquisitors, Häxan is a study of how superstition and the misunderstanding of diseases and mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. The film was made as a documentary but contains dramatized sequences that are comparable to horror films.
With Christensen's meticulous recreation of medieval scenes and the lengthy production period, the film was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, costing nearly two million Swedish kronor. Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered at that time graphic depictions of torture, nudity and sexual perversion.[
In 1968, an abbreviated version of the film (77 minutes as opposed to the original's 104 minutes) was released, entitled Witchcraft Through the Ages. This version featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair (played by a quintet including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin and Daniel Humair on percussion) and dramatic narration by William S. Burroughs.
A scholarly dissertation on the appearances of demons and witches in primitive and medieval culture, a number of photographs of statuary, paintings, and woodcuts are used as demonstrative pieces. In addition, several large scale models are employed to demonstrate medieval concepts of the structure of the solar system and the commonly accepted depiction of Hell.
A series of vignettes theatrically demonstrating medieval superstition and beliefs concerning witchcraft, including Satan (played by Christensen himself) tempting a sleeping woman away from her husband's bed and terrorizing a group of monks. Also shown is a woman purchasing a love potion from a supposed witch, and a sequence showing a supposed witch dreaming of flying through the air and attending a witches' gathering.
A long narrative broken up into several parts; set in the Middle Ages, it concerns an old woman accused of witchcraft by a dying man's family. The narrative is used to demonstrate the treatment of suspected witches by the religious authorities of the time. The old woman, after being tortured, admits to heavy involvement in witchcraft, including detailed descriptions of a Witches' Sabbath, even going so far as to "name" other supposed witches, including two of the women in the dying man's household. Eventually, the dying man's wife is arrested as a witch when she admits that she falsely accused the old woman of witchcraft.
The final part of the film seeks to demonstrate how the superstitions of old are better understood now. Christensen seeks to make the claim that most who were accused of witchcraft were possibly mentally ill, and in modern times, such behavior is interpreted as a disease. His case revolves around vignettes about a somnambulist and a kleptomaniac, the implication being that these behaviors would have been thought of as demonically-influenced in medieval times whereas modern times recognizes them as psychological ailments. There is heavy irony, however, in the observation that the "temperate shower of the clinic" i.e. the treatment of "hysterical women" in a modern institution, has replaced medieval solutions such as burning at the stake. Maren Pedersen as the Heksen (The Witch). Christensen cast Pedersen in the role of the witch, although she was not an actress but rather a 78-year-old flower seller. Clara Pontoppidan as a Nonne (nun) Elith Pio as Heksedommer (the Young Monk) Oscar Stribolt as Graabroder, (the Fat Monk) Tora Teje as En hysterisk kvinde (Modern Hysteric), a Kleptomaniac. John Andersen as the Chief Inquisitor. He was credited as Johs Andersen. Benjamin Christensen as Djævlen (The Devil). Christensen also appears briefly as Jesus Christ during a scene set in a convent, and he appears as himself in the film's opening credits. Ib Schønberg as a Heksedommer (Witch Judge). This role was Schønberg's screen debut.
Alice O'Fredericks as a Nonne (Nun). O'Fredericks also worked as Christensen's script girl on this film. It was her first job in film production,but she later became one of Denmark's most popular film directors