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RONDO AWARD-NOMINEE, BEST ARTICLE: Hex of the Century – The Enduring Legacy of “HÄXAN”

Tuesday, April 18, 2023 | Awards

Editor’s note: With the 21st annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards fast approaching, we’ve decided to open up the work of some of our Rondo nominees to a wider audience here on This deep dive into the silent classic Hӓxan by contributor Dejan Ognjanović first appeared in issue #205.

Voting ends Sunday night at midnight, April 23. Click here for a list of all of our nominees and our handy copy-and-paste ballot.


A century ago, the art of cinema was still young but becoming ever more conscious of its possibilities. Visionary artists had a fresh, powerful tool at their disposal to paint with, and they used moving images and flickering interplay between the light and the dark to portray new, unseen worlds. Some of Europe’s greatest filmmakers of the time, though unrelated to one another and without conscious intention, actually brought the nascent horror cinema genre into adulthood by defining the basics of its language. This was achieved through four distinct masterpieces which premiered within two years of one another, three of which were German. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) exemplified cinema’s ability to depict the distorted, irrational world of nightmares, while Golem (1920) embodied the possibilities of expressionistic painting with darkness and shadows, serving as a visual (but also thematic) template for Universal’s later horrors. Then came Nosferatu (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922) which spread the stylized studio-shot horrors into the real-world exteriors of forests, castles, mountains and seas. Finally, 1922 also brought about a film that’s as accomplished as it is important, yet in many ways apart from the above – Hӓxan, also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages.  

It was the third and by far the most ambitious film by the Danish director Benjamin Christensen – so ambitious that it took him more than two years for research and preparation, so demanding that it required a new, special, state-of-the-arts studio, so controversial in subject and approach that he could find no backers in Denmark for it, and so he ended up making it with Swedish producers. (As a result, its title remains embedded in history as the Swedish Hӓxan, instead of the Danish Heksen

By any name, it remains a powerful piece of cinema with a lasting legacy. Its rerelease in 1941 was accompanied by William Sieverts’s book Witchcraft and Superstition Through the Times. In 1968, it was re-edited by Antony Balch into a version featuring a jazz score and narration by the cult author William S. Burroughs. In 1999, the makers of The Blair Witch Project named their production company after it – Haxan Films. The Norwegian black metal band Mayhem used a frame from Hӓxan depicting Devil for the cover of their 2004 album Chimera, and other examples of its influence abound.

But what is it that makes this film still relevant a full century later? Simply put, it was and remains revolutionary in at least three major respects. 

Documentary Horror 

First of all, Hӓxan was an early, pioneering mixture of horror and documentary. Conceived as a cultural-historic essay on the danger of delusions, it used moving images to describe the gruesome persecution of witches and the causes behind it, including the belief in demons and devils, and the psychological factors behind it all. Yes, the prologue, about worldwide demonologies, may be too general for today’s audiences (though modern horror fans can recognize some familiar faces in there, like Pazuzu), and truly, the epilogue about modern-day neuroses aged poorly and was rightfully criticized even upon the film’s premiere, but those odds and ends are easily overshadowed by the real meat – its large middle portion, which depicts the medieval superstitions attendant to the witches and how they were dealt with by the officials of the gynocidal society. 

The horrors in this concept are twofold: on one hand, the supernatural frights evoked by the flying witches, Sabbaths and devils, and on the other, the very real, historically attested terrors of torture at the Inquisition. Hӓxan is a “documentary” which obeys the cinematic narrative law of “Show, don’t tell.” And so, it visualizes both types of horror – surprisingly, with equal success.

Those depictions of ritual re-enactments are where the real drama and cinema reside: folk magic, strange broths, animal skeletons, human body parts combined with snakes and frogs for potions, the hexing power of urine (!) and so much more, all of it derived from Christensen’s research into the old books on demonology. Of note: his main source, the notorious 1487 Inquisitors manual Malleus Malleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), was not available at the time in mass-market annotated paperbacks like it is today.  

In his aim to be as authentic as possible, the director was aided by the prop master, Richard Louw, who created the sets and torture instruments based on medieval designs. There is no need to see them in action, as they strike the unfortunate flesh: the very sight of many of those sharp, spiky screws and pliers is enough to send chills down one’s spine (but modern audiences will remember seeing some of these implements applied in Ken Russell’s The Devils, 1971). Also, the investment in a new studio was a risky bet, largely responsible for making this the most expensive film made at the time in any Scandinavian country, but it paid off in spades – the meticulous high-contrast lighting and photographic effects created by the DP, Johan Ankerstjerne, surpassed all that Hollywood’s expensive bells and whistles could offer at the time. Thanks to Christensen’s obsessive, perfectionist attention to detail, Hӓxan remains a first-rate visual feast in all its aspects, whether realistic or phantasmagoric.  

Highlights include innovative visual effects of dozens of witches on broomsticks flying above the village to consort with the Devil and the actual Black Sabbath which includes grotesque demons in convincing full-body costumes, masks and highly effective prosthetic facial make-up for their leering close-ups. The shocking details in this sequence ranged from female nudity (no longer shocking today) through blasphemous acts like trampling and spitting on the cross and kissing Satan’s behind (which many would find offensive, even in this day and age), all the way to that evergreen shocker: the slaughter of a newborn. Of course, the baby that bled out above the steaming cauldron was a puppet, just like it was in A Serbian Film ninety years later but tell that to the appalled audiences lulled by the apparent realism preceding it!

Were it merely a documentary on witchcraft, Hӓxan might’ve remained a forgotten title, known only to a select few fanatics. Its effectiveness, however, is rooted in the fantastic scenes of the Sabbath, and even more – in the palpable atmosphere of superstition and dark forces at work, even when unseen. Especially when unseen. Christensen created a realistic setting through meticulous set design, props and costumes which surround skilled actors and their characters’ plausible motivations, resulting in a mise-en-scène in which forces of evil can be expected to rise from the shadows at any moment. The sense of an all-pervading paranoia is palpable. These were indeed the Dark Ages, and the director shows why. 

Sympathy for the Devil

The second revolutionary aspect of Hӓxan worth stressing is its portrayal of the Devil, depicted here as ambiguous and even sympathetic.

In terms of iconography, the Devil appears with small horns and big, pointed ears, his face and body recognizably humanoid, a long tongue protruding lasciviously from his mouth. Basically, he is the pagan Pan as demonized by the Christians: a deity of carnal pleasure. He is a tempter and a seducer, and all the sins that he instigates in this film have to do with sexuality: a woman buys a love potion from another in order to seduce a friar, a novice is tormented by temptation in his monastic cell, not to mention the Sabbath’s orgiastic abandon. The Devil, as seen here, is hardly supernatural: he is all too natural, arising as he does from the body’s basic instincts. As Pinhead would say, “There is no Good, there is no Evil; there is only Flesh.”

At least two aspects of Hӓxan’s Devil make him different and special. Firstly, the Devil is treated as a metaphor, not a power actually existing outside of humans and their interrelations. This is most obvious in the fact that the entire Black Sabbath sequence is presented as a “confession” of a clearly innocent old woman, extracted under torture. All the wildly memorable images of Hӓxan’s most celebrated scene come from the testimony of a terrified person, telling her tormentors what they want to hear. The film is a critical strike against medieval superstition and ignorance and makes a point of showing the use of potions and ointments as another possible source of “visions” attributed to the Devil. When the crone confesses that her frail old body allegedly gave birth to a host of demons, Christensen shows two grotesque imps (probably children in full-body costumes) crawling from underneath her skirts. It is as if to suggest that if you could believe this, you could believe anything.

Secondly, and more subtly, this film’s sympathy for the Devil is expressed in the fact that he is played by none other than by Benjamin Christensen himself – and quite memorably so. His sudden appearance from pitch-blackness, behind a book that an abbot is reading, is one of the most effective jump-scares of all time. He is all at once lewd, playful, and provocative, a master entertainer. He is the one that guarantees ticket sales, not the pious priests – none of whom appear in this anticlerical film anyway. And our master of ceremonies, our Director, clearly embraces the exploitation behind his lectures and entertainment behind his sermons, identifying with the archetypal rebel and admitting, as William Blake did writing about Milton, with his meta-cinematic wink, that all artists are “of the Devil’s party.” 

Sympathy for the Witch

Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as the scholar Montague Summers or author H. P. Lovecraft, the director of Hӓxan did not buy into any of the nonsense extracted under torture and verified as “fact” by the torturers. In his enlightened, positivist perspective, quite rare among filmmakers of the early 1920s, the witches were not perpetrators of evil, but clearly victims: sometimes of their own faults and delusions, but more often of other people’s malevolence. Predating Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General (1968) for almost half a century, Christensen realistically depicts all the phases of the process, from a false accusation, through sadistic torture to execution. Furthermore, he makes the unfortunate woman’s plight even more touching by casting an old lady (non-actor, but with a highly expressive face), in the role of the “witch.” He refused to exploit the sadistic spectacle of a nubile young woman suffering that many others would cash in on later (e.g. Mark of the Devil, 1970) and selected a person who could not possibly be guilty of anything so heinous.

As it happens so often with filmmakers dealing with extreme, explicit imagery, his agenda was not immediately recognized, and as with Deodato and Spasojević much later, Christensen was accused of advocating precisely that which he condemned. The daily paper Social Demokraten wrote after Hӓxan’s premiere: “Many of the images exude such raw realism that the dominating reaction is one of nausea. The viewer suffers the torments along with the victims on the screen. The film seems itself a product of the beastliness, torture, bonfires and insanity that it means to critique.” 

Basically, the film was condemned for being too powerful – that is, too cinematic. Its images were too strong, and this caused it many troubles. In English-speaking countries, no one dared show the film for many years. The New York Times at least recognized that the film was ahead of its time when it wrote: “Come back with your film in 25 years, Mr. Christensen, and maybe then America will be mature enough to understand your art.”

“After Hӓxan,” Christensen would recall, “I was out in the cold for two years. When I finally got a chance at UFA, I had to disprove that I was this ‘literary experimentalist’ that everybody said I was, and so I made these purely commercial films.” While Hӓxan did not actually end his career the way that, say, Peeping Tom (1960) would do to Michael Powell, its director was relegated to conventional films, now rightly forgotten, a partial exception being his decent Hollywood-made horror thriller Seven Footprints to Satan (1929). However, the power of Hӓxan was not repeated. But making even one film that is so incomparably unlike any other is more than most directors can dream of. 

“It is a state of bliss,” he admitted, “for an artist once in his lifetime to get permission to do what he wants. That happened with Hӓxan.”

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