For many years, Haxan (1921), Benjamin Christensen’s compelling examination of witchcraft, was considered his only important achievement. This myth was demolished during the 1960s when the director’s two great earlier films, The Mysterious X (1913) and The Night of Revenge (1915), resurfaced and were greeted as revelations by European critics. MOMA’s invaluable current retrospective includes a number of the movies Christensen made later in Hollywood and Denmark. It features all of his extant silent work, together with U.S. premieres of three of his Danish sound films.
As a youth, Christensen trained as an opera singer, worked for a time as a wine merchant, then entered the booming Danish film industry as an actor and scenarist in 1912. He seems to have been one of the screen’s first actor-directors—he plays the lead in The Mysterious X, a naval officer involved in a rip-roaring tale of espionage. Technically, the film seems far in advance of Griffith and Feuillade, full of magnificent compositions and extraordinary chiaroscuro lighting. The Night of Revenge is as advanced and experimental as X in its cinematography and integration of decor into narrative. Christensen not only directed this delightfully baroque melodrama about a circus performer framed for murder and out for revenge—he produced and distributed it, plays the leading role, and designed the ingenious sets.
Shot in Sweden in a style recalling Bosch and Goya, Haxan presents the view that witches were harmless hysterics victimized by a repressive church. A great favorite of the surrealists, it was also a major influence on Carl Dreyer. (The collective behind The Blair Witch Project took their name from the film.) Christensen cast himself as a hairy, jovial, long-tongued Satan, given to popping up nude in women’s bedrooms.
After Haxan, Hollywood beckoned. Christensen arrived in 1925 and completed two features at MGM, then four at First National. The Devil’s Circus (1926) and Mockery (1927) are typically lavish Metro star vehicles (for Norma Shearer and Lon Chaney), beautiful but a tad staid and studied. The director’s gifts for comic irony, eroticized fantasy, and the macabre seem to have had much freer rein at the smaller studio, where he made four films during 1928 and 1929. Unfortunately, only one—Seven Footprints to Satan—has survived. In this irresistible horror spoof, a kidnapped couple spend the night in a vintage old dark house inhabited by ghosts, gorillas, and revolving dwarves. For good measure, there’s an orgy scene that’s kickier than anything in Eyes Wide Shut.
Christensen moved back to Denmark in 1935 and directed four final films there. The two I’ve seen, The Child (1940) and Come Home With Me (1941), both contemporary “social-debate” pictures, are so drably unremarkable they could constitute a brief for antiauteurism. It’s not easy to believe that they were made by the great visionary stylist metteur en scène of Haxan, The Night of Revenge, and The Mysterious X.