According Casper Tybjerg, the scholar who provides the DVD commentary for Criterion's excellent edition of Häxan, the film once induced something like Stendhal Syndrome in a viewer. In 1941, during the film's commercial re-release in Sweden, police found a man roaming around outside the theater, hands held out before him, dazed, and gasping for air. The police assumed he was drunk. The man was taken to the hospital where he was treated until normal breathing returned. There, the medical staff determined that the man had not been drinking. The patient indicated that the attack – his stunned shock-like state and his shortness of breath – had been induced by watching Häxan. He'd simply been overwhelmed by the film.
This wouldn't be the first or last time Häxan was equated with extreme mental states. The film became popular among the surrealists who dug on its heavy anti-clericalism (than, as now, there's no better way to easily secure your artistic status as groundbreaking than by spicing your work with a dash of the ol' anti-Christian themes) and special effects, which brought the dream-like confessions of those accused of witchcraft to life. Later, in the 1960s, an English-language re-release featured the drone/drawl narration of that elder statesman of altered states: William S. Burroughs.
Until you've seen Häxan, it sounds itself a bit like the subject of a horror movie: an obscure silent film that has obtained fetish-object status among the outsider class and has the power to render people temporarily insane. That's quite a reputation to live up to.
Well, Screamers and Screamettes, while I didn't go stark raving mad, nor was I convinced to shoot my wife and flee to a life of drug induced creativity, I am now convinced that Häxan is among the greatest silent films ever made.
Häxan is supposedly a documentary. It was intended to advance the theory that the witchcraft prosecutions of the Middle Ages were caused by a mass outbreak of hysteria, further fuelled by religious intolerance that convinced otherwise good people that the more abhorrent crimes are justified in the defense of Christianity from an enemy that could be anywhere, do anything, and take any form. However, it is the dramatic "re-creation" of a witchcraft trial and its fall-out that forms the core of the film. It's these scenes that one imagines the surrealists and folks like Burroughs thought was the good stuff. Here we get the phantasmagoric presentation of the visions of witchcraft hunters and the accused. There are scenes of torture (including one scene in which we break the fourth wall and one of the actresses, out of character, agrees to let the directors actually apply a thumb-screw to her), erotic fantasies, images of monks scourging themselves, and so on. Unlike, say, The Crucible, which used the a Salem witchcraft trial as a ham-fisted and ultimately unsatisfying metaphor for the Red Scare, the witchcraft trial presented in Häxan is meant to illustrate the methods and typical progress of a trail. In this, it feels less like piece of propaganda (though even the film's creator cleared intended it so) and more like some weird, nightmarish, Medieval version of Law and Order. With its mix of detailed realism and precise attention to the dreams and visions of its main characters, to get an equivalent, you'd have to imagine somebody turned Pan's Labyrinth into a police procedural.
Given the unwieldy mix of fact and fiction, and the forced marriage of dramatic and propagandistic purposes, it is no surprise that some of the sections of the film fall flat. It gets off to a slow start as the director walks us through the cosmology of the Middle Ages. The models he uses here to illustrate his point are interesting, but don't hold the attention like the trial sections do. Also, at the end, when Christensen attempts to generalize he thesis to modern times, his political aims are at their most naked and the film's artistic power suffers for it.
Still, even with those weak spots, Häxan is a unique and powerful film. Though it isn't as famous as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the two bedrock works of cinema horror, it is, I think, more artistically accomplished than either of those films. If the Silent Scream Series gives you the bug to check out a silent film, make it this one.