Häxan: The Real Unreal

Born in Denmark to a wealthy family in 1879, Benjamin Christensen dropped out of medical school to receive training as an opera singer, only to lose his singing voice to what was diagnosed as an incurable nervous illness. He then had some success as an actor in the theater, until his voice failed him there, too, whereupon he left the stage to go into business. In 1912, he returned to acting, this time in the thriving Danish film industry, but soon became more interested in directing. His first two films behind the camera, Sealed Orders (1914) and Blind Justice (1916), possess great charm and are well worth watching for their fluidity, ingenuity, and unpretentious naturalism, but their qualities can have led few of their initial viewers to expect from Christensen anything like the breakthrough of his third film, Häxan (1922).

Produced by the leading Swedish film company, Svensk Filmindustri, which lured him with the promise of full artistic freedom, Häxan (pronounced HEK-sen and meaning “witch”) was the result of Christensen’s lengthy research into the long history of witchcraft and of the persecution of accused witches in Western culture. As he once explained to an interviewer, his goal was to “throw light on the psychological causes of these witch trials by demonstrating their connections with certain abnormalities of the human psyche, abnormalities which have existed throughout history and still exist in our midst.” In Christensen’s view, the medieval and early modern women who were labeled witches, and who suffered torture and death at the hands of men armed with the power of the church, would in his time have been diagnosed as hysterics. He also thought that the understanding and treatment of mental illness in his own society fell short of being enlightened and humane. Christensen made the radical decision to present his research and his ideas on-screen not in one or two dramatized case studies but as a “cultural history lecture in moving pictures,” mingling historical documents and reenactments.

Christensen filmed Häxan in Denmark in 1921 and ’22. The film found an enthusiastic reception on its initial release in the fall of 1922 in Sweden and Denmark. Elsewhere, Häxan faced problems. Censors in several countries—including Germany, France, and the United States—objected to its numerous scenes of torture, sex, nudity, and anticlericalism, and only after undergoing extensive reediting could it be publicly shown in those markets. The film went on to spend decades in the purgatory of movies that are much mentioned but rarely seen; when Häxan was shown, it was often in a shortened 1968 version called Witchcraft Through the Ages, prepared by filmmaker Antony Balch and narrated by William S. Burroughs. In recent years, benefiting from successive restorations and wider distribution, Häxan has taken its place among the preeminent works of silent cinema. With its vigorous storytelling, its vivid and shocking imagery, its rich mise-en-scène, and its profound ambiguity, Häxan can be considered one of a handful of silent films that still have the power to engage a noncinephile audience on their own terms, and without needing alibis for performance style, cultural norms, technical means, or narrative conventions.

“One of Häxan’s masterstrokes is the way it places together, on the same level of cinematic depiction, fact and fiction, objective reality and hallucination.”

A horror film from a time when the category as such did not exist, Häxan is contemporary with but stands apart from the two other most notable precursors of the genre, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu(1922). The visual design of Häxan, with its magnificent use of light and shadow, is too much a part of the detailed description of a recognizably real and lived-in world to be subsumed under the category of filmic expressionism associated with the works of Wiene and Murnau. Häxan might more fruitfully be considered a different type of film altogether. Seven years before Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and more than sixty years before Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Christensen invented in Häxan what has become known as the essay film. In an article written while he was at work on Häxan, Christensen stated: “I would like to know at this time whether a film is able to hold the public’s interest without mass effects, without sentimentality, without suspense, without heroes and heroines—in short, without all those things on which a good film is otherwise constructed. My films consist of a series of episodes that—as part of a mosaic—give expression to an idea.” With Häxan, Christensen created a prototype of this possible cinema by alternating between documentary and reconstruction and repeatedly speaking directly to the audience (through intertitles), in the first person.

One of Häxan’s masterstrokes is the way it places together, on the same level of cinematic depiction, fact and fiction, objective reality and hallucination. It does this with great verve and audacity, and with a painstaking eye for detail. Near the start of the film, Christensen establishes a modern, rationalist point of view—“The belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naive notions about the mystery of the universe”—that he will proceed to undermine for much of the rest of the film. After a lecture-with-slideshow-style prologue on ancient and medieval cosmology, diabolism, and witch-hunting, the first of the film’s narrative re-creations unfolds in a witch’s underground workshop, in the year 1488. The scene is, up to a point, objective—and then Christensen dissolves from the workshop to fantasy scenes in which the witch’s female client administers love potions to a gluttonous monk. The realism with which the fantasy scenes are staged and acted hardly differs from the style of the workshop ones, which we have had no reason not to accept as taking place within reality.

With this ambiguity, the film takes us 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 in medieval Europe—the cinematic equivalent of the woodcuts of demons 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 incursions of the devil (Christensen himself, magisterial in obscenity) are consistent with the tonality of the film: the devil belongs to Häxan’s world even as he disrupts it by bursting into scenes through windows or from behind reading desks.

The longest sustained segment of Häxan shows how a printer’s family is destroyed when he falls ill and his wife accuses a beggar woman of having bewitched him. Christensen delineates this grim chain of events with scrupulous objectivity, until the moment when the inquisitors, using torture, at last 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 the beggar’s grotesque imaginings. The terrorized unconscious of the Middle Ages assumes cinematic form as the woman appears to spawn giant monsters that emerge unsteadily from between her legs, and as she joins a flying squadron of women on broomsticks to take part in a hellacious witches’ Sabbath (at the fabled Brocken in the Harz Mountains in Germany), where cannibalism, orgies, and kissing the devil’s anus are among the main events.

In the middle of Christensen’s documentary presentation of the torture devices that were used to prompt such confessions, there suddenly appears a smiling young woman in modern dress. “One of my actresses,” Christensen tells us in an urbane 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.” The tone of the next behind-the-scenes reference in Häxan is graver. During a break in shooting, according to Christensen, the actor playing the role of the doomed 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 actor, she appears in her medieval costume. No doubt Christensen was conscious of the analogy between the character’s confession to the inquisitors and the actor’s confession to him, between their torture implements and his camera. By likening his own activity as a director to the deeds of the inquisitors, Christensen puts himself near the head of a self-critical tradition in cinema that would later include Jean-Luc Godard and Abbas Kiarostami.

Reserving for the audience the option of not believing in the fictions he puts on-screen, Christensen goes further: he shows that these fictions are often the projections of someone’s desire. He also argues that modern celebrities (“a famous actor, a popular clergyman, or a well-known doctor”) have assumed the hold over the sexual imaginations of the mentally fragile that belonged in the Middle Ages to the devil—a point that can certainly be extended to our own age, when the images of celebrities have become omnipresent and the acquisition of celebrity nearly instantaneous. Christensen insists that though fantasies may respond to desire, the timing of their appearance does not. As the printer’s wife is warned when she wonders where the witch is who cursed her husband with illness: “You may see that witch before you wish to.” The unwelcome untimeliness of things is a major preoccupation of Häxan, and Christensen shows himself a true filmmaker in his control over pacing, progression, and the sudden introduction of the unexpected.

In Häxan and in his other films, Christensen is also careful to delineate arrangements of space and their influence on human events. Blind Justice begins with Christensen, playing himself, showing one of his actors a model of the main set of the film. In different aspects, this prologue anticipates not only the scene with the thumbscrew in Häxan but also the cosmological model of moving spheres that Christensen demonstrates in the first section of that film. These spatial systems belong to a central metaphor of the world as a prison: situations of abduction and confinement recur throughout ;Häxan and throughout Christensen’s work (a memorable example is a spy’s accidental self-entrapment in the basement of a rat-infested windmill in Sealed Orders). The criticism of modern society expressed at the end of Häxan takes as its target the techniques that were current in treating mental illness in early-twentieth-century Denmark: institutionalization and hydrotherapy (at the end of the film, Christensen uses a dissolve to draw the rather odd comparison between a shower administered to a wealthy mental patient and a pyre on which medieval witches are burned).

“In bringing together witch-finding judges, convent misdeeds, and black magic, Häxan prefigures no fewer than three cinematic subgenres that would later become popular.”

Receiving little encouragement to follow up on the innovations of Häxan, Christensen found himself drawn back into relatively conventional fictional storytelling in his subsequent employment by the film industries of Germany and then America. All his American films that are known to survive are of interest, not least (though not only) because of their resonances with Häxan. In The Devil’s Circus (1926), a woman driven mad by jealousy gives way to a compulsion to pull a lever that will cause her rival, a trapeze performer, to plunge into a lion’s cage; the victim survives the catastrophe but loses the use of her legs and abjures God. Mockery (1927), starring Lon Chaney in a remarkably grotesque performance (though one that was received at the time as a triumph of restraint), reprises Häxan’s themes of eroticism, oppression, and revolt. In the extraordinary Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), Christensen once again freely indulges his taste for shock, surprise, and the grotesque; the incredible denouement of this truly aberrant thriller can be seen as both savage social criticism and an allegory of cinema. (There is also The Mysterious Island, on which Christensen served as one of three successive directors, in addition to Maurice Tourneur and Lucien Hubbard. It has not been possible to establish the Dane’s share of responsibility for this curious film, which was released, after three years in production, in 1929.)

In bringing together witch-finding judges, convent misdeeds, and black magic, Häxan prefigures no fewer than three cinematic subgenres that would later become popular. The detailed depiction of the process by which the inquisitors extract confessions anticipates the vogue for witch-hunt movies that was started by Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General (1968); it could be argued that Christensen’s critique of the persecutors is even more damn­ing than Reeves’s would be (it is certainly more nuanced), because one of the inquisitors in Häxan, though guiltily aware that his victim has been doomed not by any misdeeds of her own but by his illicit desire for her, does nothing to save her. The succinct, stylish convent section of Häxan—in which a nun privately endures visitations from the devil, only to have her obsession spread by contagion among her sisters, who join her in defying their starchy Mother Superior—anticipates a cycle of nun melodramas that includes Domenico Paolella’s excellent The Nun and the Devil and Story of a Cloistered Nun (both 1973). The black-magical practices shown in Häxan are vastly less genteel than those that would be depicted by Jacques Tourneur in Night of the Demon (1957) or Terence Fisher in The Devil Rides Out (1968); in its insistence on visual horror and the theme of demonic childbirth, Häxan bypasses those two finely wrought masterpieces to link up directly with the rawer visions of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To (1976). Häxan’s spiritual progeny are indeed legion: James Kendrick has aptly seen in the ghastly decor of Christensen’s witchcraft scenes an anticipation of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and David Cairns is not off the mark either in linking the maker of Häxan to one of the most visually extreme of all horror-film directors, Lucio Fulci, like whom Christensen is, as Cairns writes, “able to conjure disturbing deformities at will.”

Christensen also shares with Fulci a close affinity with surrealism. It was the Danish director’s formal and stylistic innovations, no less than his anticlericalism and his taste for the fantastic, that endeared him to the surrealists (in a 1951 magazine column that can be found in Paul Hammond’s The Shadow and Its Shadow, an excellent anthology of surrealist writings on the cinema, the surrealist group urged readers to see Christensen’s films and skip those of his countryman Carl Th. Dreyer). Perhaps the structure of Häxan inspired Luis Buñuel in making 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, though freely connected, 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. (Mockery also presents links to Buñuel, with its foot-fetishism interlude and its scene of servants taking over their masters’ house.)

Faithful avant la lettre to the tenets of André Breton, Häxan finds the inexplicable within the everyday, in forms both supernatural (things that cannot be explained from the point of view of modern rationalism) and natural (things that can be so explained, especially in terms of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theories of hysteria). The great originality of the film, and the source of its perpetual power to disturb, is that it puts these two forms on the same level, not bracketing one off from the other. The world, the real world, as Christensen shows it, is permeated with irrational belief, filled with gaps by which some devil may yet enter and possess us.

This essay has been expanded by the author from one written for the Criterion Collection in 2001.