Witchcraft Through the Ages/The Witches/Häxan/Heksen (1922/1929/1968) ***½
The filmmakers of the Germanic world seemed to have Satan on the brain during the years immediately following World War I. The Devil and his disciples were a major background presence in German Expressionist horror films like The Golem and Nosferatu, of course, but there were also a handful of movies made in northern Europe at the time in which Lucifer took center stage. Carl Theodor Dreyer, later the director of Vampyr, sank a good two years into producing Leaves from Satan’s Book, a sprawling and episodic examination of cosmic evil’s supposed role in shaping human history, while F. W. Murnau did much the same thing with Satanas. Leaves from Satan’s Book is so cloddish and hectoring that I could not force myself to watch much beyond the opening reel. Satanas is believed lost, but what descriptions have survived make it sound not a lot more edifying, despite the tantalizing prospect of getting to see Conrad Veidt assay the role of the Author of Evil. Benjamin Christensen’s Witchcraft Through the Ages is something else again, however. The flipside of Dreyer’s and Murnau’s pious epics, this Swedish-Danish co-production looks at the black arts from a perspective distinctly favorable to the artists. Theoretically educational in character, it is in reality a bizarre hodgepodge of styles and genres— part documentary, part drama; part narrative, part didactic. It anticipates everything from the roadshow social-issues pictures of the 30’s and 40’s to the post-Conqueror Worm witch-burners, from nunsploitation to the Mondo movie. And yet despite its place in the ancestry of so many purely mercenary films, it was obviously made completely in earnest, representing a conscious effort to expand the boundaries of what a movie could do and be. Furthermore, and of the greatest importance, it is successful for the most part, regardless of its occasional lapses into incoherence.
One senses immediately how far the film was in advance of the state of the art in 1920’s Scandinavia, for six of its seven reels conclude with “To be continued” cards. The obvious implication is that multi-reel movies were as yet uncommon in that part of the world, and that single-projector exhibition (requiring interruptions every fifteen minutes or so for reel-changes in those pictures that would not fit on a single spool of film) was still the norm. The initial “chapter” is the most purely documentarian, alternating images of antique art with explanatory intertitles to present a condensed history of beliefs about black magic and supernatural evil from ancient times to the High Middle Ages. Through 21st-century eyes, it looks almost like a weirdly stylized Power Point presentation. Right around the time when you’ll start thinking that you’re going to scream if you have to look at one more Medieval German woodcut, the first “To be continued” flashes onto the screen, and the movie gets down to business.
It is the year 1448. A couple of old witches named Karna (probably Maren Pedersen— the credits are more than a little vague) and Apelone (I have no idea— they’re also extremely incomplete) are getting started on an evening’s conjuring when a young woman knocks at their door. The visitor requires a love potion, and it’s easy enough to guess why, as she’s rather a fat and homely girl. Her romantic difficulties go well beyond her slack face and excess girth, however, for the man she hopes to seduce is a friar (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler’s Oscar Stribolt) who habitually drops in at her cottage while making his rounds of the village! Karna sets the girl up while Apelone, apparently anticipating a slow night, drinks herself into a stupor. She passes out shortly after the customer goes home, and launches off on an astral journey to “her dream castle,” where Satan temporarily— that is to say, until she awakens— grants her wishes for wealth, power, and acceptance.
Chapter three begins the main body of the story. In it, a printer named Jesper falls ill, and his wife, Anna (Karen Winther), fears that he has been bewitched. Jesper’s apprentice, Peter, performs some kind of alchemical test using lead from their workshop, and offers his assessment that the lead does indeed augur malefic activity in the house. Just then, a poor (and presumably out-of-work) weaver named Maria (Emmy Schønfeld) comes around begging for something to eat, and Anna becomes convinced that the old hag has given her husband the evil eye. Luckily for Anna (or unluckily, as we shall see later), the Papal Inquisition is in town at the moment, and she rushes to their temporary headquarters to denounce Maria to Father Henrik (John Andersen).
Chapter four sees the Inquisition spring into action. Maria is arrested and searched for potions or other magical paraphernalia. Then two “honorable men” attempt to persuade a confession out of her via remarkably modernistic good cop/bad cop techniques. When that fails, Henrik remands Maria to Rasmus the executioner and his torture dungeon. That does the trick, and before long, Maria is howling out confessions to all sorts of things— laying curses, bearing the Devil’s bastards, attending witches’ sabbaths at a place called Broecken. She even drops the dime on Karna and her coven. But Maria doesn’t stop there. With the torture halted in order to facilitate her confession, she begins to think more clearly, and evidently decides that so long as she’s going down, she may as well take a few of her enemies with her. Foremost among those whom Maria condemns in her frenzy of eleventh-hour score-settling is, appropriately enough, Anna’s mother!
Chapter five has Henrik and his men following up on Maria’s “tips.” When the Inquisition comes for Anna’s mom, Anna herself intervenes to save her, leading to her arrest as well. Jesper, meanwhile, dies of his mysterious illness, leaving Anna’s younger sister (Astrid Holm, of The Phantom Carriage) alone to care for her little nephew. In desperation, the girl goes to Inquisition headquarters, hoping to act as a character witness on her mother’s and sister’s behalf, but she makes a deadly mistake in doing so. Rather than speaking directly to Father Henrik, she takes her case to Brother John (Elith Pio, of Leaves from Satan’s Book and Call Girls), the youngest and most virile of the inquisitors. Her visit fills the monk’s head with lustful thoughts, which recur whenever his unoccupied mind has a chance to wander in her direction. I’m sure you can see where this is going.
The film turns episodic in the extreme for the last two chapters; this is perhaps understandable, because the central story has by this point left no one but the inquisitors alive. First we see a couple of case-study dramatizations of actual confessions given by accused witches. If the bosses at Court TV ever get bored with their programming format, they might consider trying something similar as a change of pace. Then we get a crash course in torture techniques and equipment, meant to put into perspective the “totally insane” nature of some of those confessions we just watched. Next comes a startling foray into nunsploitation, as Christensen examines the Medieval convent as a peculiarly fertile breeding ground for witch panics. Finally, chapter seven brings us into the modern day, drawing parallels between the witches of yore and the hysterics of the early 20th century.
Understand, however, that Witchcraft Through the Ages is nowhere near as streamlined or linear as the foregoing makes it sound. Interspersed with the main action are numerous digressions on such subjects as premodern cosmology, the role of social class in the inception and spread of witch panics, the Devil’s powers and personality as conceived of in Medieval times, and even the overlap between traditional witchcraft and what we would now perceive as medical science. Most famously, Maria’s confession triggers a lengthy and incredibly elaborate flashback scene depicting the Satanic ceremonies at Broecken. It is this segment primarily that has earned Witchcraft Through the Ages its reputation as one of the great early classics of dark fantasy, and rightly so. The witches’ sabbath is a masterpiece of horror, surrealism, and eroticism, and a technical tour de force as well. The monster makeup for the devils in attendance at the rite is terrific (and would still have been terrific 35 years later). The special effects set-piece in which squadrons of witches from all over the land fly to Broecken on their broomsticks is astonishing (although industry standards caught up to it rather more quickly). And perhaps most importantly, the demoniacal orgy gives every appearance of having actually been filmed at night, in an era when nighttime shooting was generally considered a technological impossibility. In any event, the light levels in that scene (and in several others as well) must surely have been at the extreme lower limit of what orthrochromatic film was capable of capturing intelligibly. The total effect is to create one of the most beautiful and immersive cinematic nightmares of all time.
Other digressions have a markedly different impact. Perhaps the most striking thing about Witchcraft Through the Ages is the remarkable diversity of voices in which Christensen addresses the audience over the course of its hundred-odd minutes. (The trimmed-down and sped-up 1968 reissue, however, has but one voice— that of overdubbed narrator William S. Burroughs.) At times, Christensen is a stodgy professor, waving a pointer from offscreen at the relevant details of illustrations from centuries-old books. More often, he is what we normally expect a movie director to be, visible more through the images he creates than through any direct and overt communication with the viewer. But with increasing frequency as the film wears on, Christensen turns conspiratorially chatty, putting the action on hold to (in modern parlance) break the fourth wall and offer his often scathing commentary on what he was just showing us. The tour of the torture chamber is the most striking example. Mingled with reprises of and outtakes from earlier scenes in the film are detailed examinations of the instruments being employed, shot in a style that is half university lecture and half Home Shopping Network. The intertitles in this segment, meanwhile, practically vibrate with excoriating black humor. Then Christensen digresses from his digression to relate how one of the actresses felt compelled to try out the thumbscrews on herself— “I won’t tell you what horrible confessions I was able to get out of her in less than a minute,” reads the concluding title card. All this shifting of gears can make Witchcraft Through the Ages a rather difficult film, as its moods are fleeting and change without warning. It also creates obstacles to criticism, because there is no one obviously appropriate standard by which to evaluate the movie. In the end, perhaps the most fitting summation is to say that I know of literally nothing else quite like Witchcraft Through the Ages, and to note that that by itself is, in some sense, a testimony to its merit.