Born in Denmark in 1879, Benjamin Christensen had a varied career before he entered the Danish film industry as an actor and writer in 1912. The first two films he directed, The Mysterious X (1913) and The Night of Revenge (1915), have a visual sophistication that has led some historians to hail him as an innovator comparable to D. W. Griffith, Louis Feuillade, and Maurice Tourneur. Häxan (pronounced “hek-sen”), Christensen’s third film, was made in Sweden at the invitation of Svensk Filmindustri and released in 1922. It’s one of those legendary films that many people have heard about but few have seen. It should be better known. With vivid depictions of witch persecutions and medieval sorcery, frank physicality, and fluid and detailed mise-en-scène, Häxan surely has more chance of pleasing contemporary audiences than 95 percent of surviving silent films.
In bringing together witch-finding judges, convent misdeeds, and black magic, Häxan prefigures no less than three cinematic genres that would become popular (for an example of each, see Michael Reeves’ 1968 Witchfinder General, Domenico Paolella’s 1973 The Nuns of Sant’Arcangelo, and Terence Fisher’s 1968 The Devil Rides Out). Häxan also has ties to F. W. Murnau’s Faust and later films based on the Faust legend, to demonic-possession movies like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and to the many movies in which the devil comes to Earth in human form, of which George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick (1987) is a pertinent recent example.
Häxan integrates fact, fiction, objective reality, hallucination, and different levels of representation—all within a first-person discourse. In the intertitles, Christensen addresses us directly, saying “I.” The mixture of narrative modes in Häxan is astonishing for its freedom and audacity. Early on, Christensen establishes a modern, scientific point of view, stating flatly, “The belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe.” After a lecture-with-slideshow-style prologue on ancient and medieval cosmology, diabolism, and sorcery, the first of the film’s narrative recreations unfolds in a sorceress’ underground workshop in 1488. The sequence that follows is, up to a point, objective. But the film soon complicates its logical flow by dissolving from the workshop to a scene in which the sorceress’ client gives a love potion to a monk. The viewer can’t be sure whether the second scene is a flash-forward to an event occurring in the future or, as seems more likely, a representation of the client’s fantasy.
Starting with this ambiguity, the film takes us farther away from a world in which recognized laws of cause and effect hold sway, leading us into a space where the irrational is always ready to intrude in lurid forms. At times, Häxan appears to be a literal depiction of the imaginings of people of medieval Europe—the cinematic equivalent of the medieval woodcuts that illustrate the prologue. Christensen denies us cues indicating the points at which the film jumps from one level of reality to another. As a result, the obscene incursions of the devil (an unforgettable performance by Christensen himself) are consistent with the tonality of the film: the devil belongs to the film’s world even as he disrupts it.
The longest sustained segment of Häxan shows how a printer’s family is destroyed when, after he falls ill, his sister-in-law accuses a beggar woman of having bewitched him. This section of the film contains a devastating, psychologically realistic portrait of witch-hunters. Christensen delineates the narrative with scrupulous objectivity until the moment when the torturers finally force a long, detailed confession from their pathetic victim. Immediately—as if the film were blurting it all out with her—we’re plunged into the visualization of her fantastic, grotesque imaginings.
During one of the most “objective” sequences of the film, the presentation of torture devices used on accused witches, we suddenly see a young woman in modern dress, smiling. “One of my actresses,” Christensen tells us in an intertitle, “insisted on trying on the thumbscrew . . . I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady in less than a minute.” Extending the parallel between the cinema and earlier media, Christensen accuses his own activity as filmmaker. The tone of the next behind-the-scenes reference is more serious. During a break in shooting, according to Christensen, the actress playing the role of the beggar “raised her tired face to me and said: ‘The devil is real. I have seen him sitting by my bedside.’” In the shot of the actress, she appears in her medieval costume. No doubt Christensen was conscious of the analogy between the character’s confession to the inquisitors and the actress’ confession to him, between their torture implements and his camera.
Christensen’s narrative freedom, no less than his anticlericalism, endeared Häxan to the Surrealists (a column called “Some Surrealist Advice,” which can be found in Paul Hammond’s excellent anthology of Surrealist writings on the cinema, The Shadow and Its Shadow, urged readers to see Christensen’s films rather than Dreyer’s). Perhaps the film’s structure inspired Luis Buñuel in making his masterpiece L’âge d’or (1930), which also begins as a documentary, only to switch to a series of more or less coherent and self-contained fictional episodes. Buñuel’s customary insistence on photographing dreams in the same way that he photographs objective reality has a major precedent in Christensen’s practice in Häxan.
Despite its historical importance, Häxan has been available only sporadically, usually retitled Witchcraft Through the Ages. Its best-known incarnation under this title was in a version prepared in 1967 by British filmmaker and film distributor Antony Balch. This version features a narration by William Burroughs (with whom Balch had previously made Towers Open Fire and other short films) and a score by a jazz group led by percussionist Daniel Humair and featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
Under any title and with any modifications, Häxan endures because of Christensen’s tremendous skill with lighting, staging, and varying of shot scale. The word “painterly” comes to mind in watching Christensen’s ingeniously constructed shots, but it is inadequate to evoke the fascination the film exerts through its patterns of movement and its narrative disjunctions. Christensen is at once painter, historian, social critic, and a highly self-conscious filmmaker. His world comes alive as few attempts to recreate the past on film have.
Chris Fujiwara is the author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press). He writes on film for Hermenaut, the Boston Phoenix, and other publications.