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143 of 152 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2001
I have just finished watching the new Criterion dvd of Haxan and I couldn't be more pleased! I have never seen this film, but thought I would try it out, as I have always had a fascination with the grotesque, mysticism, and the occult. Haxan delivers in spades.
This 1922 Danish silent film about black magic, witches, satanism, and the persecution of said subjects during the middle-ages, which attempts to make a connection between the ancient phenomena and the modern study of hysteria (modern in 1922), has been wonderfully presented by The Criterion Collection in their new dvd. This new Criterion dvd has the original 104 min. version with a newly recorded 5.0 soundtrack orchestrated from archival documentation, and the 76 min. version released in 1967, which has narration by legendary counter-culture icon William S. Burroughs.
Watching the original version, I found it full of great imagery and fine silent acting. Emotions and actions are superbly conveyed by the actors, and the sets, costumes, lighting, and effects are all wonderfully done. I especially like the interrogation chamber and the Sabbath scenes, which display lots of good props and much deviltry with rather convincing special effects and make-up. The movie is structured in seven chapters, the first giving a historical account of witchcraft's origins in literature and illustrations. We then are presented with drama plays, having to do with the practice of witches, and the persecution, trying, and torturing of said witches. We are also presented with several instances of the devil manifesting and making demands on his minions. In the end, Christensen attempts to make a correlation between the acts, mannerisms, and various disfigurements anciently attributed to witches and their craft, and the modern affects of hysteria. This is apparently the most criticized part of the film, as mentioned in the commentary, and while it certainly is not as strong as the period dramas, I think it does a good job of raising valid questions, and does work with the film quite well.
As for the quality of the transfer... with the exception of element specs throughout, and just a few scenes marred by scrapes, the print is very clean and clear. I thought it looked great. True, the print could have been cleaned up a bit more as far as the specs go, but not every film Criterion does will get the star treatment given Akira Kuroswa's "Seven Samurai". So long as contrast is good, and edges are well defined, I'm usually a happy camper, and this transfer delivers.
The new score was arranged by film music specialist Gillian Anderson who attempted to recreate the music presented at the film's Danish premiere as best as possible by referencing the list of musical cues printed in the theater's weekly program notes. It includes works from Franz Schubert, Richard Wagner, Max Bruch, W.A. Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Christoph Gluck, and Ludwig Van Beethovan, as well as others. Anderson conducted the Czech Film Orchestra in June 2001. The score does an incredible job of accompanying the film, sounds wonderful, and is is presented in 5.0 Dolby Digital.
There is a knock-out commentary here. Narrated by Danish silent film scholar Caspar Tybjerg, the commentary centers on the director Benjamin Christensen's life in film, the Danish silent film industry, origin of the documentary film genre, technical aspects of Haxan, the cast of Haxan, historical aspects of the study of hysteria in psychology circles, the origins of the devil as a character in media, and of course, the phenomena of witchcraft and witch hunting. References are made to Nosferatu, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the German Expressionist movement, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Seventh Seal, Sigmund Freud... the list goes on and on. While there is an incredible amount of information presented here, with bibliographic references even, Tybjerg does an excellent job of tying it all together and presenting the relevance of the material to the film. This was a very engaging look at Christensen, his film, and the sociological atmosphere both during the middle-ages, and during the time of Haxan's production.
As for the 1967 version narrated by William S. Burroughs, "Witchcraft Through The Ages"... I must say that I have not sat through the whole thing. In fact, I just watched the first two segments before finally succumbing to sleep (I have, gladly, spent a LOT of time with this dvd, but have to sleep sometime). My first impression is, while Burroughs is always so interestingly droning yet intense in the same breath, the jazz score was just plain ridiculous, in the presentation of Haxan anyway. The producer composed a jazz score for the film, which by itself, is some very hip music indeed, but it was just terribly out of place in the film. I'm sure the production was aiming to enhance drug trips rather than present the film itself. With Burroughs involvement, I don't think I'm too far of base in this. I'll have to give it another go when I've had some sleep, so I can watch the whole thing, but I doubt I'll be changing my mind. The jazz score is just too out of place, and as Christensen has often said, dialogue would ruin Haxan, as well as several silent films. After witnessing this 1967 version, I must agree with the director.
For avid students of special effects, I would make an evening of it with Haxan, as well as Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast", and "Der Golum", found on Elite's "Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema" dvd set. Much mysticism, magic and enchantment abound in these films, and state-of-the-art at-the-time special effects to boot.
I am extremely happy with this dvd, and highly recommend it to anyone who is into the study of classic film or anyone who is interested in the occult, whether solely for entertainment or as a study of sociological phenomena.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2001
One of the most famous cult/horror films from the silent era, Benjamin Christensen's "Häxan" is at its devilish best on this EXCELLENT DVD release by the great folks at the Criterion Collection. Say good-bye to those murky, washed out video prints we've all had to put up with, and say hello to a nearly flawless print of the film wonderfully transfered to the disc. The images are so crisp and clear, many of the scenes look as if they could have been filmed yesterday. The clarity also allows for you to see much more of the detail in each frame. Also lending to the beautiful images is accurate tinting and correct "projection" speed. Also included is a terrific musical score which has been reconstructed from the actual music that accompanied the original 1922 release in Denmark.
Extras include movie outtakes, production stills, audio commentary, and the 1960's version of the film with William S. Burroughs narrating.
The bottom line: this is far and away the best version of "Häxan" you will find anywhere, and belongs in the collection of any silent film buff.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2010
WARNING: My copy of the "(Enhanced)" version, does not contain the entire film!!!

Shortly after the Devil has compelled a nun to exit her office with a knife, the DVD abruptly ends! After some research (on youtube), I discovered that this act continues with the culmination of a dance frenzy at her convent, followed by the concluding act depicting the woes of a woman's psychosis. All said, the final 15 minutes of the film are missing.

The DVD states it is 90 minutes long. The feature length of the film is supposed to be 105 minutes! There is no sign of these final acts in the chapter menu either.

Whether a faulty DVD or an incomplete version of the film, you might do better purchasing the Criterion release instead.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2001
What a great time to be a silent film enthusiast. Thanks to video technology it's now possible to have access to more silent films than ever before and in the best condition since their original release. For years Danish director Benjamin Christensen's 1922 controversial "documentary" HAXAN (The Witch) has been available (when it's been available) in either lousy public domain copies projected at the wrong speed or in the extremely funky edited version narrated by William Burroughs with a modern jazz score. Now with the help of the Swedish Film Institute and Home Vision Cinema/Criterion Collection it is finally possible to see the film the way that Christensen intended it. Over thirty minutes of censored footage has been restored along with original tints that make this version far superior to anything that has been previously available.

For those of you who know HAXAN only through the William Burroughs version known as WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, it too has been included in this new release (DVD and VHS) so you can see the difference. Added bonuses include footage of Christensen in 1941 (in addition to directing he also portrayed Satan) and outtakes from various scenes. While not a great film it remains a remarkable, gripping experience full of striking images that stay with you long after the film is over. Although not a documentary in the true sense of the word, it does attempt to portray a selected history of what was called witchcraft and how it was brutally dealt with by the church. Scenes of nudity, torture, carnal lust, and flagellation helped to get it banned in several countries as well as heavily edited.

While the film is not for everyone it should be seen at least once for once seen it cannot be forgotten and now it's possible to see it restored to its former glory. Although it's great to have the original version, it's also good to have the Burroughs version as well. Another excellent job from the Home Vision people (who brought us Dreyer's PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and Pabst's PANDORA'S BOX). Thanks to the Criterion Collection for making it available on DVD. Though here in time for Halloween, HAXAN is definitely not for kids! Even after 80 years.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2004
This movie, in my opinion, is one of my favorite depictions of witchcraft and its history, mythology, horror, and customs. The movie is directed beautifully and hauntingly at the same time. Some of the images will stick with you forever. Benjamin Christensen's portrayal as the devil is frightning, yet somewhat humorous. This film definantely deserves a place in the top 100 greatest movies of all time. Enjoy!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2011
I don't exaggerate in the least when I tell you that the Criterion release of "Häxan" is one of the most fascinating DVD's in my collection - a collection that currently includes almost 2,000 titles. This one is a winner on two levels - both as a transfer of an exquisitely restored silent film, and as a record of that film's intriguing metamorphosis over the past 90 years.

First released in 1922, "Häxan" was filmed the previous year by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christiansen. The first portion of the film is a pseudo-scholarly documentary that examines the historical record of witches and witch hunts via ancient texts and artwork obtained from many rare and obscure sources. After this introduction, the film segues into a series of scenes in which the rituals of witchcraft and the hunts for witches are imaginatively and creatively depicted. We are shown witches brewing kettles into which live snakes and toads are poured, as well as a vivid enactment of a witches' Sabbat during which the participants dance with creatures from Hell and kiss the Devil's arse. Unlike other versions of the film available on DVD, Criterion's print is complete, and has been reproduced from a color-tinted and speed-corrected master which resides in the collection of the Swedish Film Institute, accompanied by a musical score adapted from the one played at the film's original Danish premiere. Bizarre and potent stuff indeed!

But Criterion enriches the viewer's experience further by offering a wealth of extras, including: a great commentary track; a visual bibliography of the texts, woodcuts and drawings referenced in the film; a selection of rare outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage; and a small stills gallery. Criterion also includes the sound introduction to the film's 1941 re-release, in which director Christiansen appears to expound upon his theory that those millions of people (mostly women) who were tried and executed in centuries past for the crime of witchcraft were actually suffering from the psychological condition diagnosed as "hysteria" in the first half of the 20th Century.

Finally, as the icing on an already rich and delectable cake, Criterion includes the 1968 re-cutting of "Häxan" - which eliminated the silent title cards, added narration by William Burroughs and a jazz soundtrack by Jean-Luc Ponty, and which was projected at a slightly faster speed. This version, which runs 76 minutes as opposed to the original's 104 minutes, also omits the color tints in favor of austere black-and-white and was retitled, "Witchcraft Through the Ages". The changes give the film an entirely different timber and tone, and show the power inherent in the filmmaking and film exhibition processes.

I am pleased to be able to recommend the Criterion version of "Häxan" / "Witchcraft Through the Ages" without reservations. This DVD will appeal broadly to fans of silent film, to documentarians, to film scholars, and to those interested in the subjects of witchcraft, magic, sorcery, and the Middle Ages.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2007
This is not what I expected at all, from reading the back of the Criterion dvd you hear about Grave Robbing, torture, possessed nuns, and a satanic sabbath, so I'm thinking a horror movie. What i got was writer director Benjamin Christensen exposing witchcraft for what it really was, mental disorders. He does this first with some dark comedy which reminded me of Jeff Foxworthy's whole bit about you might be a redneck if, however here it's you might be a witch if. It's infuriating almost, to see how ignorance and fear of anything and anyone different were proclaimed witches and tortured and murdered. If you denied being a witch then you were tortured until you basically just wanted to die, so you would say anything they wanted. Prisoners were often tricked into saying they were a witch in exchange for freedom. I got a kick out of the woman who gets tortured till she's had enough and says I'll tell you everything and starts naming off everybody that's done her wrong and how there witches as well, smart idea. In my opinion everyone that cuts me off in traffic are witches. At the end he shows how modern day (being the 20's) it is hysteria and mental disorders, which we have specific names for every disorder he shows, and not the work of witches.
There are images of horror but it's more describing the peoples fear and nothing that actually happened.
I was surprised on the internet movie database that the only genre this falls into is horror. It's a a whole lot deeper than that i believe and plays true today and every decade since.
The real horror and probably the scariest of all is the judgmental ignorance and fear by man of anything different, and in this film if there was something that couldn't be understood, well then blame it on someone that looks and acts different and call them a Witch.
History repeats itself unfortunately you could use this same film today and use witches and then at the end of the movie you could replace mental disorders with Hitler and the Jews. You could use witches and then supplement mental disorders with slavery, racism and segregation. Again use witches and replace mental disorders with "the evil doers" our president refers too. Who will be the "witches" of the next generation? That is the horror.
This is a great and important film.
**DVD Features** from back cover

Haxan (1922) New digital, speed-corrected transfer of the Swedish Film Institutes's tinted restoration
-Music from the original danish premiere, arranged by film music specialist Gillian Anderson and performed by the Czech film orchestra, presented in Dolby Digital 5.0
-Commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg
-Benjamin Christensen's introduction to the 1941 re-release
-A short selection of outtakes
-Bibliotheque Diabolique a photographic exploration of Christensen's historical sources
-Still gallery
-New English translation of intertitles
Witchcraft through the ages (1968) The 76 minute version of Haxan, narrated by William S. Burroughs, with a soundtrack featuring jean luc ponty
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2008
You've got to be kidding me, this movie is [.......] amazing! Haxan is a silent mockumentary film from 1922 about witchcraft and superstition. It plays out almost as an educational film about the history of witchcraft, but it's more like a satire on the idiocy of the human race in general. I was so entertained and involed with what was going on I forgot this was a silent film at all. 86 year's later it's still finding it's followers (me) and is much better than anything to come out recently. Stop motion animation, nudity, and reverse footage in the 1920's?!?! Not to mention grave robbing and other distasteful event's. Worth every penny!!! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!!
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19 of 26 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon October 28, 2001
I bought HAXAN (Witchcraft through the ages) because I am interested in religion, have been reading the Ankarloo and Clark historical series on 'WITCHCRAFT AND MAGIC IN EUROPE' and I admire Criterion films. I knew nothing about HAXAN before I saw the Criterion DVD.
HAXAN appears to have been well restored. All the details including the orginal breaks for the seven reels of film have been retained in the 1920s version. Two versions, the original released in the early 20s and a jazzed up version released in the early 40s are included. The DVD also offers subtitles in many languages. The sound track for the 1920s version is wonderful and with a full listing of the music included -- Schubert, Tschaikovsky, and others. I was amazed with the cinematography--lighting, fadeouts, etc. This film will appeal to those interested in film making.
HAXAN seems to be a somewhat serious attempt to explain "witchcraft" via the Freudian psychoanalysis -- popular in the early part of the 20th Century. The director shows women engaging in witchlike behaviours in the "olden days" and then behaving in antisocial ways (shoplifting, for example) in modern times. He suggests their behaviour could be explained by mental problems.
The film lacks historical accuracy but this is largely owing to the sources the filmmakers used (shown in a references section). These sources perpetuated the myth that the Roman Catholic church acted alone in the persecution of people for witchcraft. Although current historical research contradicts this notion many cling to it as "truth."
WITCHCRAFT AND MAGIC IN EUROPE (Ankarloo and Clark), a six volume series based on historical research undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s reveals the persecution of witches continued long after Protestants controlled Northern Europe. Most of those burned at the stake in Europe in the 17th Century were burned in the Protestant North, especially Germany and Denmark (HAXAN is a Danish film). In fact, research based on secular court records and other administrative data (not just the notes kept by Inquisitors) suggests a number of RC priests were burned as sorcerers. Seems the RCs were very involved in "magic" but not always in the way earlier accounts suggested. Also, there is a great deal of evidence the Inquisitors may have fudged their records a bit!! When the same person turns up for prosecution nine times, something is fishy.
HAXAN is melodramatic and if I didn't take witchcraft seriously I might laugh, but to me the persecution of anyone because of their religious beliefs is heinious, and laughing at the suffering of those accused of witchcraft and punished for their supposed involvement is akin to laughing at Holocaust victims.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2009
Häxan is an excellent 1922 silent film that depicted the practice of religion and witchcraft during the Middle Ages. In this movie, superstitious characters created unrest in what were once peaceful, European dwellings. Whenever plagues spread throughout communities or lustful temptations occurred within the clergy of a synagogue, a scapegoat would have to shoulder the blame for society's ills. The alleged perpetrator could be identified and found guilty on the basis of physical appearance. If the individual were deformed, then he/she could be deemed as the devil in the flesh; if, on the other hand, the defendant was an attractive woman whose beauty was captivating, then chances were, she would be branded a witch who enticed the sexual imaginings of many a young man.

With an effective cast who could act out the paranoid mindset that was swelling and spreading, Häxan had and still has the ability to lead viewers into witnessing some darker realms of humanity that were under the guise of spirituality. The emotion of fear, in conjunction with superstitions regarding a village's misfortunes, would prevail throughout this movie. As it would often fall in line with the edicts of those in power, namely the clerics, and as it would secure the standings of those already at the top, fear, as it would be experienced among laypersons and lower-ranking pastorates, overruled logic.

It can be argued that Häxan was a creative exposition to the adage that wrong people in power, if given the opportunity, will try to control the minds of others by keeping them poor, blind, scared and stupid. Häxan is based on a premise that a collective mindset built upon rumor, superstition and hate is highly dangerous.

Though this movie is nearly ninety years old, Häxan does have its fascinating, visual effects that were perhaps way ahead of their time. Portions of the movie depicted those deemed as the outsiders, that is to say, the pagans or devil worshippers who performed rituals that consisted of costumes, masks, and fire altars with some similarities to the pagan festivities in the 1973 movie, The Wicker Man. And it is within these ceremonial scenes that the stunning, technical aspects of the film arise.

The viewer is transported right away into a different dimension, where it is not clear if it is supposed to be an outer, spiritual world that exists or the enactment of what was in the mind's eye of the superstitious. Nonetheless, the presence of ghostlike figures and demons helped to create as stunning a heaven-or-hell dilemma as what one could possibly hope for from this film. The trick photography for enhancing the awesome spectral appearances leaves little doubt that ten years later, Carl Theodor Dreyer's use of ectoplasmic imagery in his 1932 film, Vampyr, was inspired by the viewing of Häxan.

All in all, this classic is, to say the least, a quintessential two-for-one. It is a perfect docudrama in the history of human behavior, and it is the perfect expositor of the genius of Benjamin Christensen, the movie's writer and director.
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