Benjamin Christensen’s ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ is perhaps the most striking example of a movie ahead of its time. Even from today’s point of view, the themes it deals with seem bold, its tone is quite unique (there are even some clever and very funny metatextual passages to be found), and the wicked makeup effects are amazing for the times.
It did not all come about smoothly, though. In 1919 Christensen, who by that time had done some work as an actor and directed two movies (the thriller ‘The Mysterious X’ in 1914 and the drama ‘Night of Revenge’ in 1916), was asked by a Swedish film company to helm a documentary on witchcraft.
He eagerly agreed to do it, but probably did not realize what a challenging and time-consuming task it would eventually become.
It took Christensen about two years to do the necessary research, and the movie was not released until September 1922; three years in the making was definitely much more than the studio had expected for a simple “educational project.” And it would not be that much of a problem had Christensen’s movie at least met the company’s expectations as far as its content was concerned; it turned out, however, that the painstakingly researched and carefully put-together piece of work was completely inappropriate.
It featured nudity, infanticide, mutilation, urination, tortures, masochism, sacrilege and — most shockingly, according to some — one scene showing witches passionately kissing the Devil’s bottom.
Also, and this must have been especially puzzling for the studio that ordered the movie, it seemed to be mocking the stiff documentary format it was supposed to fit (even though it was to be one of the first full-length documentaries in the history of cinema, as Robert Flaherty’s pioneering Nanook of the North was released the same year).
This not-quite-serious approach towards the grim themes is visible from the beginning of the movie — it is just that at first it is hard to believe that such a tone was Christensen’s intention.
‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ is divided into seven parts, and the first ones are almost like academic lectures, complete with a shaky little pointer directing our eyes to certain details in various drawings or models representing early beliefs concerning witchcraft, satanism and sorcery.
Relying a bit too much on lengthy intertitles, these introductory bits later give way to a full-blown spectacle (as some of the witches’ customs and wrongdoings are being “reconstructed” onscreen), and yet later to the deconstruction of the documentary format (clearly interested in exploring the subject of witchcraft as deeply as possible, Christensen occasionally interrogates — or even tortures! — his actresses), and in the end, to comparing witch hunts and “modernday” medicine.
There is a sketchy plot here (of an old woman accused of witchcraft by a superstitious girl, which then leads to the girl and her family being put on trial as well), but generally ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ is exactly what the title suggests: a collection of funny, funereal or fantastic scenes depicting various paradoxes and phenomena of witchcraft.
At one point, for example, we learn that this superstition-ridden period of time was very tough for women who were “old and ugly” — but that they were not any bit kinder for those who were “young and beautiful,” either.
Typically for a movie ahead of its time, ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ failed at the box office on its original release.
The controversial content aside, it was also very difficult to classify, and therefore baffling for both the viewers who wanted to see a documentary and those who expected a “real” movie, with clear storyline and characters at no point revealing that they are actors.
Critic James Kendrick writes in an essay “A Witches’ Brew of Fact, Fiction and Spectacle” that Christensen’s movie “is, in many ways, the cinematic epitome of Freud’s uncanny: we recognize elements of it as belonging to known and familiar categories, yet its overall formulation is bizarre and frustrating.
To call it a horror film, a documentary, a horror-documentary or even a midnight movie is an easy way out, blithely falling back on the use of dominant genre categories to encapsulate a film that is all and none.”
Today’s viewers and critics regard this as an asset, but for the unsuspecting 1920s audiences, this was no doubt too confusing.
The only portion of the movie often criticised by modern film historians is the final, allegedly misogynistic explanation of witchery as female neurosis; Kendrick writes elsewhere in the essay that some parts of Witchcraft “feel overly pedantic, particularly when it moves into a then-revolutionary explanation of medieval witch scares through the lens of Sigmund Freud’s theories about female hysteria.”
But can we really say for sure that Christensen was being serious in that closing chapter of his movie, and not ironic like in all the preceding ones? After all, the scene of a woman being examined by a Freudinfluenced doctor is staged similarly as the earlier one, in which the state of one character was determined by pouring molten lead into water and “reading” the resulting shape.
Allegedly, Christensen’s original idea was to make a trilogy of movies dealing with superstitions, ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ being the first instalment. Unfortunately, the other two movies — ‘The Saint’ and ‘The Spirits’ — were never made, which does not come as much of a surprise considering the many problems and controversies surrounding film number one.
In the mid–1920s, like many other talented European directors, Christensen moved to the United States where he kept on making movies until the end of the silent era.
Some of his works from this period are now lost, but out of the ones that survived, the most interesting are ‘Mockery’ (1927, starring Lon Chaney) and the wicked, energetic ‘Seven Footprints to Satan’ (1929), the closest reminder of ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ in the director’s subsequent filmography.
Upon his return to Denmark in the 1930s, Christensen focused on working in the theatre and did not make another film until the end of the decade (1939’s social drama ‘Children of Divorce’).
He directed three more movies that met with mixed reviews, which prompted him to quit the filmmaking business in 1942. A year before that, however, he managed to re-release ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ with an added prologue (which was, essentially, yet another lecture on the history of witchcraft).
Christensen died in 1959, and could not witness the second resurrection of ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ during the following decade.
In 1968 the movie resurfaced in a trimmed version (76 minutes instead of the original’s 104), with narration by beat icon William S. Burroughs and jazz score by Jean-Luc Ponty.
This new edition prepared by British distributor Antony Balch could hardly be regarded as superior to the lengthier cut, but it introduced the movie to a new generation, and established its reputation as a cult classic that cannot get old.
It may rely too heavily on the intertitles and be a bit too long, but the general impression after having watched ‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ is that of awe and shock that such a bold, clever and ironic movie could have been made back in the early days of cinema. Some of the special effects and makeup are also quite mind-blowing, with the creation of the wicked, towering Devil (played by the director himself ) being a highlight.