"Haxan; Witchcraft Through the Ages", my views on the Criterion dvd

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Ben Motley, Oct 20, 2001.

  1. Ben Motley

    Ben Motley Supporting Actor

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    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. I've just finished watching this dvd, and found that Haxan delivers in spades.
    This 1922 Swedish silent film by Danish director Benjamin Christensen - 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 and Swedish 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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    [Edited last by Ben Motley on October 24, 2001 at 05:13 AM]
     
  2. GilS

    GilS Auditioning

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    Thanks Ben for this great review!
     
  3. Craig S

    Craig S Producer
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    Dammit, Ben, now I have to go get another Criterion... [​IMG]
    Seriously - great review!!
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  4. Julie K

    Julie K Screenwriter

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    Wow. You've convinced me. Gotta go spend some more money today [​IMG]
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  5. SteveGon

    SteveGon Executive Producer

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    quote: Dammit, Ben, now I have to go get another Criterion...[/quote]
    Yeah, me too. [​IMG] I also forgot about Le Trou - gotta get that one also!
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    1. Akira Kurosawa's Dreams 2. Freaks 3. Men With Guns 4. The Ninth Configuration 5. The Reflecting Skin 6. Santa Sangre 7. Treasure of the Sierra Madre 8. Voyager 9. White Heat 10. Wings of Desire
    [Edited last by SteveGon on October 20, 2001 at 09:17 AM]
     
  6. Ben Motley

    Ben Motley Supporting Actor

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    Thanks for the good words y'all, I'm happy to oblige. After watching this, I just had to post a thread on it and, well, once I started writing, it was kinda hard to stop. I'm very interested to hear what you think of it once you've had a chance to watch it. By the way, I think it'll make a great addition to anyones Halloween itinerary. I know I'll be watching it again then.
    Oh, and sorry in assisting in depleting all your bank accounts further. [​IMG]
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  7. Andrew_SA

    Andrew_SA Auditioning

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    Excellent post Mr. Motley.
    [​IMG]
     
  8. Claes Ljunghorn

    Claes Ljunghorn Stunt Coordinator

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    It's ironic that when finally a Swedish silent production makes it to DVD, everybody seems to think it is a Danish film!
    The director was Danish but the film was a Swedish production and is preserved by the Swedish Film Institute.
     
  9. Iain Lambert

    Iain Lambert Screenwriter

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    "The new score was arranged by film music specialist Gillian Anderson"
    Presumably a different one to the X-Files star; anyone who has been subjected to her single will know not to to use her name and 'music specialist' in the same sentance!
     
  10. Ben Motley

    Ben Motley Supporting Actor

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    Claes, I'm a Texan, gimme some slack [​IMG] . Yeah, I knew of the distinction, but erroneously left it out of my review. My bad; I've edited the content [​IMG] . That fact is in fact explicitly divulged in the commentary, and I found it a quite interesting story to follow.
    And yes, I do believe that Gillian the actress and Gillian the film music specialist are two separate beings, but who really knows for sure? One thing is certain... the truth is out there. (I can't believe I stooped so low, lol)
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  11. Mark Zimmer

    Mark Zimmer Producer

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    The film music specialist has taken to using middle initial B. in order to distinguish herself from Dana Scully. I don't think it's working, though [​IMG]
    The main gripe I have about the disc is that there are white splice marks after nearly every intertitle. Since these are on a solid black background, it should have been child's play to digitally clean that up, but they didn't. More of Criterion's move to quantity over quality, I guess. I was going to ask about this at the chat but ending up getting immersed in my review of From Here to Eternity.
    My review of Haxan is at Digitally Obsessed.
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  12. JerryW

    JerryW Supporting Actor

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    Very fascinating. This is absolutely going on my "Must Buy" list.
    Just for curiosity's sake, what other films can anyone think of that deal primarily with true occult/mystical practices or themes? ie. Magik, Kabbalah, RC, Golden Dawn, etc. That is, films of this genre that aren't of the "mainstream" withcraft and occult ilk? (Yes, I do have a bit more than a passing curiosity in such things. [​IMG])
    I seem to remember a Swedish or German film made in the `60s that documented/dramatized the life of Aleister Crowley? I think the name of it is Argentum Astrum (Silver Star).
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  13. Mark Zimmer

    Mark Zimmer Producer

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    Pi deals heavily with the Kabbalah, though that's not the main focus.
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  14. James D S

    James D S Screenwriter

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    Adding Haxan to my list as well. Very exciting review guys, thanks.
     
  15. Ben Motley

    Ben Motley Supporting Actor

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    Great review Mark. Between the two of us, we're gonna make some green for Criterion, lol. Maybe they should pay us in dvds? As for your observation on the intertitle after-flash thing, I honestly didn't notice that. Not saying it wasn't there, just that it didn't make an impression upon me. I'll go back and check it out again, but I've got to wait... I let my folks borrow it [​IMG] . They better hurry up though, I'm itchin' to watch it again! [​IMG]
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  16. Bryant Frazer

    Bryant Frazer Stunt Coordinator

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    Splice marks are actually visible throughout much of the film. In some segments, the rounded black corners of the filmed image are actually visible on the TV screen -- and at one point, the sprocket holes even peek into frame on the left-hand side.
    All this doesn't bother me much. The most expedient way to avoid it would simply be to crop the transfer on all four sides, and I'd much rather see the entire frame revealed than to lose some of the picture data at the very edges.
    -bf-
     
  17. Ben Motley

    Ben Motley Supporting Actor

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    Now that you mention it Bryant, I do remember the rounded corners... and another thing; again, while I didn't notice the splice marks (I just wasn't looking I guess) I did notice that when the intertitles would come on, they'd be still for a split second, and then slowly creep up just a bit before the film went back to live action. Then, when it did go to live action, the image would slowly creep back down again, just a little. I thought it was pretty odd, but soon was able to ignore it. As for these imperfections, I think I'm okay with them... I mean, the film is 80 years old. Could Criterion have fixed these issues? Maybe, but at what cost? I don't think Haxan is going to be one of their big movers (although I'm tryin like hell to make it one [​IMG] ) so maybe they didn't feel it was viable to spend too much money on it. Another possibility is that they may feel that these imperfections are part of the original source element that should be preserved. The corners, the splice marks (somewhat akin to cigarette marks maybe?) are not like dust and scratches, which would not be part of the original source element. Just a few thoughts.
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