Updated: Mar 12, 2020
Review by Kelly
"Fictionalized documentary showing the evolution of witchcraft, from its pagan roots to its confusion with hysteria in modern Europe."
Released in 1922 by writer, actor, director Benjamin Christensen, this Swedish silent film also known as The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages, blends documentary style film making with fantasy. It combines over the top imagery and historical facts regarding the medieval witch-hunts from 1450-1750. For Octobers theme on witches, the Spinsters of Horror felt that this was a must watch!
The movie is told within seven chapters and is inspired by the Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches, written in 1487 by inquisitor Heineich Kramer as a means to identify witches. The film begins with witchcraft lore shown through woodcuts, images and models. It continues to describe the plight of the medieval “witch”; the torture, accusations, and overall the culture of the time surrounding them. It ends with a potential explanation for the behavior of women at the time, claiming “hysteria”and perhaps that they required medical help instead of being burned at the stake. That idea is obviously a bit problematic but infinitely better than death!
During the Middle Ages, people were highly religious and superstitious. They genuinely believed and feared the devil and that all evil doers would be sent to Hell to suffer for eternity. I can’t even comprehend what it would be like to live in that world. Since they believed that witches had made a pact with the Devil, that they were his agents of evil, then they were also to be feared. In their eyes, the medieval witch was truly a satanic being.
A few things I learned from the film are: parties with Satan are fun, the irrational belief that women are evil (inherently??) and I really love movies from that era. There is a lot of dark imagery and it was beautifully done. For an example, the home of Karna, a witch seen in the beginning, has a cauldron, a dog skeleton hanging from the ceiling and we see her removing the fingers from a severed hand, likely for her potions and spells. The movie is very visually appealing and the image of the Devil is quite grim but also comical. He is always wagging his tongue and “churning butter” (which mysteriously looks like masturbation…). There are scenes of altars, skulls, bleeding babies and demon sex. I really want to party with Satan! The version of the film I watched had a classical score alongside it which sometimes didn’t suit the mood, especially once they were covering the torture devices used on the suspected witches. Unless it’s Wagner, I feel like all classical music is upbeat. I would have loved to seen this truly as a silent film, as it was originally released.
At some point in time, we all have learned about the persecution of witches in Europe and this was an absolute tragic reminder of the barbaric times of old. When one of the “tests” was described, one where a suspected witch was essentially hogtied and put into water, I was sick to my stomach. If the woman (as they were almost always women) floated, then she was a witch and sent to be burned at the stake; but if she sank (and goddamn died), then she was pure of heart and innocent. God bless her soul...
If you can sit through a silent film with a running time of 1 hr and 45 mins or have enjoyed Nosferatu (1922), I would definitely recommend this film.