Benjamin Christensen’s 1929 film Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is one of the earliest and darkest documentaries. It features a combination of narrative devices that, by today’s standards, would make it more akin to a docudrama. These devices and the supernatural subject matter may be why it is frequently thought of as a horror film rather than a non-fiction piece. Häxan uses wood etchings, educational slides, reenactments, dramatizations, stop motion animation, and more to mold the story. The film marches along chronologically showing slides from ancient religions, dramatizations of the Dark Age Inquisition, and reenactments of more modern (albeit, brutalistic) clinical psychology treatments. The clinical components are not surprising since Christensen began his creative career as a medical student before transitioning into theatre and drama.
While in Berlin, Christensen was inspired to write, direct, and produce Häxan after reading the Malleus Maleficarum, a primary source manual detailing the systematic approach for prosecuting witches. The primary goal of the Malleus was not only to prove the malevolent existence of witches, but to assert that those most susceptible to the Devil’s charms were women. Christensen intended to counter that belief with his Häxan, which painted the Malleus “witches” as victims of mental illness, disease, and disenfranchisement. Christensen was never interested in creating an adaptation of the Malleus, instead he created a comment on it and helped forge a new genre in filmmaking. Injecting his perspective even more into the film, Christensen appears in Häxan as first himself, then as Satan, and finally as Christ.
Though Häxan did have an underlying sociopolitical theme, it did not skimp on salaciousness. The most expensive silent Scandinavian film to date, the final costs totalled between 1.5 to 2 million kronor (not adjusted for inflation). The money and grueling 9 month long shoot was spent on capturing nudity, sexual perversions, occult activities, and graphic torture sequences. Because of these scenes, the film was censored or outright banned in several European countries and had to be edited extensively before it could be released. Modern variants of the film have been restored to include the original footage.
Though Christensen was a Dane and the production company, AB Svensk, is Swedish, Häxan features many German Expressionist elements. Much like the German movement of the 20’s, Christensen shot exclusively at night or in completely closed sets to lend his film a distorted and imposing atmosphere. These restrictions, though well worth the effort, resulted in the extensive filming schedule and astronomical production costs but allowed for the utmost amount of control in terms of auteristic lighting. In response to Häxan, Christensen was invited to direct at the legendary German production company UFA, who made other expressionist films of the era such as Dr. Mabuse and Faust.
Christensen went on to direct many other dark titles in Europe and the United States, directing motion pictures for both MGM and Warner Brothers. The Mysterious X, The Devil’s Circus, The Hawk’s Nest, Seven Footprints of Satan, and House of Horror are all to his credit. His films never shied from controversy and covered topics ranging from the occult, to generational nihilism, to abortion. After suffering several flops in his career, he retired back to Denmark and spent the remainder of his days in relative obscurity as a suburban movie theatre manager before passing in 1959 at the age of 79.
Häxan is now in the public domain and is widely available in several forms online. The most common variants are the digitally restored Criterion Collection version, the DVD version released by Alpha Video, and the shortened 1968 version featuring voice over by William S. Burroughs (also featured on the Häxan Criterion Collection release).