The 1910s were Danish cinema’s Golden Age. In this decade Denmark produced an explosion of erotic melodramas for international export, the first films written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and movies featuring cinema’s first superstar, Asta Nielsen. The first Danish film to make an international splash was 1910’s Den hvide Slavenhandel (The White Slave Traffic), a sensational thriller in which a young woman is kidnapped and forced into prostitution. As film historian Marguerite Engberg reports, the film was so popular in Denmark that police had to be called to control theater crowds.
The film launched a global frenzy for white slave films, including the notorious 1913 American release Traffic in Souls, which also required police intervention when it was shown in New York. In 1910, the young Nielsen starred in her first film: Afgrunden (The Woman Always Pays), as a woman who runs off with a circus performer, performing a suggestive “cooch” dance after tying him up. Nielsen became a star and Danish studios began mass producing erotic melodramas for export. The film also inspired the 30-year-old Benjamin Christensen to pursue filmmaking.
Born in 1879 in Viborg, Denmark, Christensen abandoned his medical studies in Copenhagen to study as an opera singer at the Royal Theater. After his voice failed, he turned to acting and was soon performing in and directing plays at the City Theater in Aarhus and later for Copenhagen’s prestigious National Theater. When his voice failed him again, he became the Danish representative to a French champagne company in 1907.
Like many at the time, Christensen didn’t consider film to be an artistic medium. One day, however, he stumbled across the film shoot where Nielsen was performing the dramatic final scene of The Woman Never Pays. The next year, he joined Dansk Biografkompagni as an actor, but was frustrated with the poor technical quality and limited ambitions of its films. In 1913, the president of the company resigned and Christensen assumed his post. Inspired by Albert Capellani’s Les misérables (1913), he resolved to produce, write, direct, and star in an ambitious film intended to transform the Danish film industry. Whereas most Danish films of this time were made in a few weeks, he spent three months and quadruple the usual budget. The resulting espionage thriller, Det hemmelighedsfulde X (The Mysterious X, 1914), was a tremendous success in Denmark and abroad. A Moving Picture World critic wrote: “An extraordinary boldness of invention joined with a mastery of detail that approaches genius help to make this feature rise above all which has been filmed before.”
After turning down a contract with the American company Vitagraph, Christensen directed and starred in another successful film, Hævens nat (Increasing Night, 1916), about the vengeance sought by a wrongfully convicted man. It took eight months to make and was one of the most expensive Danish films to date. In the U.S., the film played at upscale New York movie pal-aces with full orchestras and for convicts at Sing Sing prison.
To finance his next and most ambitious picture, Christensen looked to Svensk Film- industri. Sweden was in the midst of its own Golden Age, with directors such as Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller winning international praise for their artistic productions. Christensen aspired to this same artistry but wanted to overturn traditional narrative structure. “I would like to know at this time whether a film is able to hold the public’s interest without mass effects,” he wrote, “without sentimentality, without unified narration, without suspense, without heroes and heroines—in short, without all those things on which a good film is otherwise constructed.” He decided to create a trilogy about superstition throughout history, starting with Häxan. (The next two installments, The Saint and The Spirits, were never made.) From 1918 until 1921, he researched and prepared for the film. Shooting began in February or March 1921 and lasted through October. According to film historian Casper Tybjerg, Christensen, who plays the devil in the film, “worked at his own pace, often at night, and scandalous rumors circulated about what went on when the studio doors were closed.”
As in his previous films, Christensen invented techniques to bring his aesthetic vision to the screen. For the spectacular scene of witches flying over the countryside, the director was dissatisfied with shooting from a moving train. Instead, his technicians constructed an enormous model town on a giant carousel, which held more than 250 houses, each about six feet high. The carousel was turned by 20 men. The witches (more than 75) were filmed separately by a moving camera that tracked past them as an airplane engine generated wind. These shots, according to Tybjerg, were combined “using an experimental optical printer designed by Christensen’s cameraman.”
Finally released in September 1922, Häxan cost between 1.5 and 2 million Swedish kroner, making it the most expensive Scandinavian film of the silent period. Its depictions of feverish nuns and demonic orgies met censorship everywhere it was released, preventing Svensk Filmindustri from recouping its costs. Despite the film’s success with Danish audiences, Christensen was forced out of the Scandinavian film industry with a damaging reputation for extravagance.
The chastened Christensen directed two films in Germany and starred as the artist destroyed by his male protégé’s infidelity in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Mikael (1924). Christensen’s performance was universally praised; one Berlin newspaper wrote that “his death scene belongs among the very few great masterpieces of the art of film acting.”
In 1925, Christensen signed with MGM. (After seeing Häxan, Louis B. Mayer had reportedly asked Victor Sjöström, “Is that man crazy or a genius?”) He joined Hollywood’s “Scandinavian colony” but bristled under the studio’s factory approach to filmmaking, eventually leaving for First National, where he made four low-budget films in a year and a half.
He returned to Denmark in 1935 and made four talkies for Nordisk. The first three were well-received, addressing themes such as divorce and abortion. He then spent a year working on his pet project, a new espionage thriller. However, the 1942 film Damen med de lyse Handsker (The Lady with the Light Gloves) was out of touch with the sentiment in Nazi-occupied Denmark. According to film scholar Arne Lunde, the Copenhagen premiere was “met with disbelief and derisive laughter.” Two years later, Christensen tried to find financing for a new film, with no success. The government offered him a pension running a small cinema in the suburbs of Copenhagen, which he did for 15 years until his death in 1959.
For a long time Häxan was difficult to see. In 1968, British filmmaker and distributor Antony Balach re-edited the film and added narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score by percussionist Daniel Humair and featuring Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. It circulated under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. In 2007, the Swedish Film Institute struck a new print of Häxan from the original camera negative, recreating the tinting and toning as well as the intertitles, which had been lost. Looking back at his early career, Christensen said, “While the sound film has freed us from the silent film’s often irritating approximation in expression, it has at the same time slain something in the dream, the lyricism that, in the more fortunate moments, radiate from the silent film.”
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Matti Bye Ensemble