Released in 1922, the same year as film history's first documentary, Nanook of the North, Witchcraft Through the Ages (originally entitled Haxan and often released under literal translations of that title, The Witches in English) stands as the most memorable film of pioneering Danish director Benjamin Christensen. While not a documentary in the modern sense, it presents a fair bit of researched history, and defends theses regarding the superstitious belief in sorcery, and the circumstances that led some people to be regarded as witches. The film wanders far from strict documentary territory, however, with its imaginative recreations of diabolical doings.
Haxan divides into several segments which, lecture-like, explain the belief in witchcraft from ancient times until the 1920s. It begins with woodcuts and illustrations, but moves into fantastic recreations of the past and the past's nightmares. We see medieval torture devices, charlatans' love potions, and (oddly enough) medical body-snatching. Christensen imaginatively recreates the demonic possession of a convent-- we see, supposedly, what hysterical nuns believed was happening. The film's highlight is a recreation of the Black Mass, as told by an elderly crone under pressure from her inquisitors.
Special effects were in their infancy in the 1920s; the director uses stagecraft, simple camera techniques, and costumes to create startlingly effective images which have a potency that often eludes the slicker methods available eighty years later. The film includes full nudity, simulated corpse desecration, and demonic masturbation. A woman gives birth to monstrous creatures; a baby's body is employed in a sinister ritual. Christenson himself plays the role of naked Satan during the Black Mass sequence. An anticlerical tone pervades certain scenes. The past was not always as prim as we like to believe; parental guidance is strongly recommended.
Throughout the twentieth century, the film suffered bans and censorship and could often only be found heavily-edited. As a consequence, many editions exist. A 1968 release features Jean-Luc Ponty playing an original Daniel Humair jazz score on violin and William S. Burroughs reading the narration aloud. These choices may not please everyone, but they clearly show the film's "cool" appeal. Vernacular translations add to the appeal of this version; its witches "kiss the devil's arse." More conventional editions feature the organ music typical of many silent horror films. A 2001 Criterion DVD allows viewers to see Haxan in various incarnations.
Christensen stirs a witches' brew of docudrama, history, fantasy, horror, and pornography. It's not for all tastes, but those interested in film history, horror, witchcraft, or religious zealotry will find much to relish.