On 18 September 1922, Danish film director Benjamin Christensen’s silent film The Witches (Häxan in Swedish) or Witchcraft Through the Ages premiered in Stockholm. It had cost 2 million Swedish Crowns to produce, one of the most expensive films all times in Sweden. In todays value it equals 50 million Crowns, or $6 250 000. The film itself was made as a documentary with dramatised scenes comparable to those in i horror film. It is a study showing how superstition and misunderstanding of mental illness could lead to witch hunts.
In 1919, Benjaming Christensen (1879-1959) visited Berlin. When browsing in a book shop he found a copy of Heinrich Kramer’s infamous handbook from 1486, Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer), in witch hunting and how to treat witches were described. For two years, 1919-1921, Christensen studied the book and various manual on the subject of witch hunting, eventually resulting in a screenplay. Since he did not want to work with the strict, controlling Danish film industry, he sought financing from the more open minded Swedish production Company, Svensk Filmindustri, and after some negotiations he received the 2 Million Crowns needed for the project. The costs were high since he needed to buy his own film studio, Astra Film Studio. In February 1921 the shooting began, lasting until October the same year. The main part of the film was shot at night and in closed sets to maintain the air of mystery around the film.
The Witches consists of four parts, or acts, depicting different eras in history and the contemporary views of society on the people accused for witchcraft. In the first act, the medieval view of the universe and Hell is presented in a documentary form. In the second act the medieval superstition and beliefs regarding witchcraft is presented. Christensen himself takes the role of Satan, as he tries to lure a sleeping woman away from her bed.
In the third act, still during the late Middle Ages, an old “wise” woman is accused of witchcraft afer failing to help a dying man. She is brutally tortured and finally she confess being involved in witchcraft, describing a Witches’ Sabbath and naming other women being witches to the interrogators.
The fourth act is set in Christensen’s contemporary time. In the final chapter he tries to demonstrate how, and if, old superstitions are better understood in the modern time. Christensen argues that most people accused for witchcraft in the Middle Ages were suffering from different mental illnesses. The fourth act’s main female characters suffer from sleepwalking and kleptomania, conditions that, according to Christensen, might have led to the accusation of being a witch. With great irony, Christensen also argued that temperate showers at clinics had replaced the burning at the stake of so called hysterical women.
The film got a warm reception after it premiered in Sweden and Denmark, but in the United States it was totally band because of its graphic depiction of torture, nudity and sexual perversion.
In 1968, The Witches was re-released as Witchcraft Through the Ages. The format had been shortened from the original 104 minutes to 77 minutes, and now featuring a dramatic narration delivered by Beat-novelist,poet and artist, William S. Burroughs.
Benjamin Christensen’s The Witches touches a very interesting subject; how women have been treated through the ages. Even in modern times, persons that deviate from the norm are looked upon as rebels, strange or even mentally ill. The difference today is that the stake, and to some extent mental institutions, have been replaced by pills and medication. It would be interesting to have medical historians examine Court reports from witch trials to see if the accused might have suffered from one of the illnesses Christensen claim was the cause for many women’s (and some men’s) horrific deaths.