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Haxan - Witchcraft through the Ages [Criterion Collection] [DVD] [1922]

Release Date:10/16/2001
Considered by many to be one of the truly great (and peculiar) silent films ever, Häxan is part documentary, part horror film, part social commentary, and always fascinating. Originally directed by Benjamin Christensen, the film regained a whole new audience in 1967 when British filmmaker Antony Balch recut the film and had beat novelist William Burroughs record narration (voiced in Burroughs' typically droll and ironic manner) and included a new avant-garde jazz score. The Criterion Collection has made both versions available on this DVD, which is great considering the many strengths of either cut. Christensen's longer 104-minute version has been beautifully restored by the Swedish Film Institute, utilizing a fine-grain master print taken from the original camera negative. New Swedish intertitles with optional English subtitles have been added, as well as a fantastic new orchestral score (available in robust 5.1 surround) that replicates the film's original music when it premiered in 1922. A wide variety of different scores (some orchestral, some using an organ) have been used for the film for its various video incarnations over the years, so it is a great delight to have the original music cues reinstated. The film, which is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (full screen), has also been re-tinted to its former glory. The film is also equipped with an optional commentary track by noted Danish silent film historian Casper Tybjerg. The track is informative (giving detailed accounts of the director's career, as well as the peculiar originality of the film itself and how it incorporates many disparate film styles into a cohesive whole), but the track occasionally grows turgid in spots. Overall, the track is worthwhile and Tybjerg's obvious enthusiasm for the film is commendable. Also available on the disc is the 76-minute version of the film called Witchcraft Through the Ages. This version is most notable for its acerbic narration and its sometimes inappropriate jazz soundtrack (featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty). An interesting version (and one useful for comparisons with the original), but an inferior cut of the film nonetheless. The black-and-white image is acceptable, though it does not compare to the beautiful appearance of the longer version. The disc also contains a very brief selection of outtakes, an optional introduction to Haxan by the director himself (taken from the 1941 re-release of the film), an excellent overview of many of the historical sources which Christensen used for the film, a great stills gallery, and useful liner notes. An overall excellent disc for a film which continues to cast a strange cinematic spell upon its viewers even after all these years.

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    Special Features

    • New digital, speed-corrected transfer of the Swedish Film Institute'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
    • Bibliothèque Diabolique, a photographic exploration of Christensen's historical sources
    • Stills gallery
    • New English translation of intertitles
    • "Witchcraft Through the Ages [1968]: the 76-minute version of Häxan, narrated by William S. Burroughs, with a soundtrack featuring Jean-Luc Ponty
    • English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
    • Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition


    Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen's obsession with bizarre lighting effects reached its apotheosis with his 1922 masterpiece Häxan. Beginning in a deceptively sedate fashion with a series of woodcuts and engravings (a technique later adopted by RKO producer Val Lewton), the film then shifts into gear with a progression of dramatic vignettes, illustrating the awesome power of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. So powerful are some of these images that even some modern viewers will avert their eyes from the screen. Though obviously a work of pure imagination, the film occasionally takes on the dimensions of a documentary, a byproduct of the extensive research done by Christensen before embarking on the project (incidentally, the director himself can be seen in the film in a dual role as Satan and the Doctor). Häxan marked a parting of the ways for Christensen and the Danish film industry; thereafter, he confined his activities to the German cinema, before answering Hollywood's call in 1928. A separate version of this film exists, with a shorter running time, retitled Witchcraft Through the Ages and released in 1968. It features narration by the legendary Beat writer William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) and a score by Jean-Luc Ponty. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

    Cast & Crew

    • Benjamin Christensen
      Benjamin Christensen - Doctor, Satan
    • Clara Pontoppidan
      Clara Pontoppidan - Nun
    • Astrid Holm
      Astrid Holm - Anna
    • Image coming soon
      Oscar Stribolt - A Doctor

    Product images, including color, may differ from actual product appearance.