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One of the most unconventional films of the silent era, Benjamin Christensen's Haxan (1922) is a semi-documentary examination of witchcraft, and the unearthly and human horrors that permeate it. Christensen spent about two years researching and shooting Haxan, at great expense. But the quality of production is evident throughout the film, which resembles no other motion picture of its era.
Beginning as a cinematic textbook, Haxan uses medieval woodcuts and engravings to illustrate the early conceptions of satanic beings and the necromancers who worship them. To usher the Modern Age viewer into this realm of antiquated beliefs, Christensen uses charts and models (supplemented with an academic pointer) to show how people of the Middle Ages believed the universe was ordered, with the earth at the center of the universe, orbited by the moon, the sun, the stars, and surrounded by choirs of angels. In one deceptively quaint sequence, the torments of hell are depicted via a mechanical model, with tiny demons pumping the bellows, and dunking its human victims, while a toothy dragon chews one sinner in its jaws.
The film quickly delves into dramatizations of witchcraft, and history comes alive. At first, the episodes are somewhat quaint. A witch casts a spell on a spiteful man so that his mouth cannot be closed. Soon, the tales blossom into a hideous chamber of religious horrors. Peasant women concoct love potions from frogs, snakes, and the body parts of executed criminals. Friars are taunted by violent demons. Somnambulistic maidens leave their marriage beds to bow before their satanic master.
Unlike other films, in which demons, witches, monks, and nuns serve as clearly-defined symbols of good and evil, without even dirtying their hands, Haxan renders its characters as flesh, and allows them to indulge in the pleasures of sin at its most carnal. Shocking for any era, much less 1922, Haxan depicts a woman giving birth to demonic creatures, witches kissing the "arse" of Satan during a Sabbath frolic, nudity, vomiting, urination, and all sort of sacrilegious and sexual high jinks.
Once the phantasmagoric world of witchcraft is established, Haxan depicts the more earthly, more horrifying history of the persecution of witches. Because of the way the film is structured, the viewer is inclined to notice that the horrifying tales of witchcraft are those confessions obtained under the most cruel forms of torture. In one such confession, dozens of witches soar through the sky to attend a bacchanal presided over by Satan's grandmother. Those witches who have not yet committed enough crimes against religion are whipped savagely; a potion is brewed with the blood of unbaptized babies, and some of the unholy celebrants gleefully wipe their feet on a cross.
But is this horrifying story real? Or a fabrication designed by an accused witch to satiate her tormentors? As one closely watches Haxan, one realizes that the Inquisitors and holy men and women of the Catholic Church are not far removed from the Satanists they persecute. In one of the film's most deliciously subversive sequences, a young monk (Elith Pio) suffering from lustful thoughts asks a fellow monk to lash him with a whip. When the beating ends, the tearful penitent cries, "Oh, brother, why have you stopped?"
It seems members of religious orders are just as likely to fall prey to satanic forces as the uneducated peasant. In one sequence, the devil penetrates a convent, bludgeoning one nun with a club, who then stumbles through the chapel and stabs the communion host with a knife, before infecting the other nuns with tongue-lolling, eye-rolling, dancing abandon.
In its final act, Haxan uses modern science to "explain" witchcraft. Christensen reveals that it is not so different from the somewhat recently diagnosed mental illness known as hysteria. Somnambulism, kleptomania, and pyromania are all maladies that might have once been attributed to demonic possession.
From the vantage of the 21st Century, we see another set of misogynistic values at play here, in the form of this scientifically-defined psychosis that is intrinsically feminine. The label of "hysteric" was often used to dismiss rebellious female behavior and sometimes relegate its sufferers to institutions, against their will.
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Screenplay: Benjamin Christensen
Cinematography: Johan Ankerstjerne
Film Editing: Edla Hansen
Art Direction: Richard Louw
Music: Launy Grondahl
Cast: Maren Pedersen (Heksen/The Witch), Clara Pontoppidan (Nonne/Nun), Elith Pio (Heksedommer/Witch Judge), Oscar Stribolt (Graabroder/Doctor), Tora Teje (Modern Hysteric), John Andersen (Chief Inquisitor).
by Bret Wood
Christensen derived much of Haxan's historical data from the book Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1486 by two Inquisitors of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church: Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. The Latin title translates into English as The Hammer of Witches. Even though the book was banned by the Catholic Church in 1490, it was frequently republished, and is believed to have been the handbook for the prosecution (and persecution) of suspected witches throughout Late Medieval Europe.
Though financed by a Swedish company (Svensk Filmindustri), Christensen persuaded the producers to allow him to film Haxan in Denmark, at a small studio north of Copenhagen where his previous films were made. Not only did SF allow Christensen to work "off-campus," they paid a hefty sum to bring the studio's facilities up to date, which greatly increased Haxan's production costs.
According to film historian Casper Tybjerg, Haxan was "probably the most expensive film made in any of the Scandinavian countries during the whole silent period."
Even though most scenes were filmed in interior studios, Christensen insisted that Haxan be shot almost entirely at night. He explained, "the film which examines hysteria deals with the dark side of human nature. And when the sun was shining during the day, it was not possible to bring out this side in the actors."
One of the most dazzling sequences of the film is one in which a horde of witches fly over a village and through the countryside on their brooms and pitchforks. Christensen claims to have shot approximately 75 individual witches, on separate pieces of film, then combined them through an optical printer. An airplane propeller was used to whip up enough of a wind to furl the clothing of the witches (who were actually stationary, against a black background). The village beneath them is in reality a miniature town, built upon a huge turntable. This turntable was rotated, so the "tracking shot" would appear endless. The circular model was so large that it reportedly took twenty men to operate it.
In an early test of this complicated process shot, Christensen was photographed by cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne, perched on a chair against a black background, gesticulating with his arms. This was superimposed against footage (taken from the side of a moving train), of a landscape speeding past. The test successfully conveyed the sense of a flying person, but required some modification since the view from the train was so cluttered by electrical poles and telegraph wires that they realized the need to construct the artificial landscape.
For the shots in which the witches are seen against glowing nocturnal clouds, a camera crew was dispatched to Norway where dramatic skyscapes were more easily found.
Haxan includes several scenes in which a demon sits at a butter churn, maniacally working the handle in an explicitly masturbatory fashion. Christensen was inspired to adopt this image after reading Troels-Lund's Daily Life in the Nordic Countries in the Sixteenth Century. According to this fourteen-volume study, witches were often referred to as "the devil's dairy maids." "That era seemed to find something ambiguous about the mere image of a butter churn. It was therefore a common subject in the wall paintings of both Danish and Swedish churches: the devil getting off with a woman churning butter."
Maria, the weaver (one of the persecuted witches) was played by Maren Pedersen, whom Christensen allegedly discovered while she was selling flowers on a street corner. Pedersen claimed that she was the first Red Cross nurse in Denmark. During the shoot, Pedersen reportedly turned to Christensen and said, "The Devil is real. I have seen him sitting at my bedside." Christensen was so struck by this confession of modern demonic activity (or at least the belief in modern demonic activity) that he incorporated this anecdote into the film itself, and even shows the woman's prayer book, its pages instructing the reader on how to recognize the various incarnations in which Satan might appear.
The Swedish film censors required numerous cuts in the film, before authorizing its release. Among the censored scenes were the closeup of the finger being removed from the hanged man's hand, the trampling of the cross in the witch's sabbath scene, the shot of the oozing infant held over a cooking pot, a closeup of a woman's face while she is on a torture rack, closeups of several instruments of torture being employed, and a shot of a demon embracing a nude woman (all these shots have since been restored to the film).
Christensen intended that Haxan would be the first chapter of a trilogy of films, followed by The Saint and The Spirits, but these projects were never realized. This was partly because of the astronomical cost of Haxan, and also because of Christensen's departure from Europe for the seemingly green pastures of Hollywood. At American studios such as MGM or First National (later Warner Bros.) such didactic, eclectic films were unthinkable.
In 1968, Haxan was modified for contemporary audiences. Experimental filmmaker Antony Balch supervised the creation of a version in which most of the title cards were removed and replaced with narration, drawn mostly from Christensen's original text. This narration was spoken by William S. Burroughs in his inimitable vocal fashion. Balch and Burroughs had previously collaborated on the short film Towers Open Fire (1963), and The Cut Ups (1966). These modifications, as well as running the film at the standardized projection speed of 24 frames per second, instead of the historically accurate 20 fps, reduced the film's running time from 104 minutes to 75 minutes. Released as Witchcraft Through the Ages it was through the Balch version that most contemporary viewers -- during the cult film movement of the 1970s -- came to know Christensen's startlingly unique film. It is this version which will be aired on TCM Underground.
When Balch oversaw the revamping of Haxan for its 1968 re-release, he commissioned a score by Daniel Humair. This controversial musical accompaniment (that employs avant-garde stylings rather than the traditional themes integrated in the original cue sheet) was performed by Humair, Jean-Luc Ponty, Bernard Lubat, Guy Pederson, and Michel Portal.
Compiled by Bret Wood
Christensen was initially educated for a medical career at the University of Copenhagen, but was recruited for the musical stage when a renowned opera singer wandered by Christensen's home (circa 1899) and heard him singing loudly while shaving. The man encouraged Christensen to audition for a spot at the Opera Academy at the Danish Royal Theatre, which he successfully did. He first appeared on the stage in 1902 but his singing career was severely inhibited by stage fright. Since he had also studied acting at the Royal Theatre, he turned his attention to drama.
Christensen later told another tale in which his vocal talents were "discovered," but this anecdote sounds suspiciously like a modified version of the earlier tale. He claimed that in 1916, he traveled to the U.S. to sell the rights of his film Haevnens nat (released as Blind Justice in 1917). While relaxing in the bathtub at New York's Knickerbocker Hotel, Christensen once again unleashed his bass-baritone voice. The guest next door overheard Christensen's vocal stylings and came to his door, encouraging him to pursue a career in the opera. In this story, the nearby singer was legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. It should be noted that in another telling of this same anecdote, the action takes place in Paris, rather than New York, casting further doubt on the authenticity of the tall tale.
In spite of its efforts at historical authenticity, Haxan takes a very subjective approach to its subject. Although it is less apparent in the 1968 revised version of the film than the 1922 original, Christensen carefully foregrounded his voice as the film's director. His face appears in closeup at the beginning of the film. The opening credits of the 1922 edition are phrased in the first person: "For the photography I am grateful to Mr. Johan Ankerstjerne..." In one scene, a thumbscrew is demonstrated for the camera, but this is done outside of the historical context of the film. The titles say, "One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew when we shot these pictures." We then see the actress, speaking and laughing, as the device is tightened on her hands, presumably by Christensen himself. "I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady in less than a minute." And, in one of the most fascinating insertions of himself into the film, Christensen stars (under heavy makeup) as the devil and, in one brief double-exposure, as Christ. On the topic of the subjective film, Christensen later said, "Like every other artist, film artists must display in the future their own personality in their works. When we leave the theatre, we should know the person who has spoken to us from the screen."
The sequence in which the nuns run rampant in their convent was inspired by an actual event of 1634. The Ursuline nuns of the convent in Loudun, France were reportedly possessed by devils after the priest, Urbain Grandier, made a pact with the devil. This case was later the subject of a play by Alexandre Dumas the elder (Urbain Grandier ), a novel by Aldous Huxley (The Devils of Loudun ) and films by Ken Russell (The Devils ) and Jerzy Kawalerowicz (Mother Joan of the Angels ).
Haxan's world premiere was in Stockholm on September 18, 1922. It premiered in Denmark on November 7, 1922; and in Germany in June 1924.
Haxan didn't play in the U.S. until May 1929, at New York's Fifth Avenue Playhouse. At these initial screenings, it was accompanied by a newsreel, Liberty (1929, a Laurel and Hardy two-reel comedy), and Voices Across the Sea (1928, a celebrity-spotting talkie short promoting MGM's brightest stars). The film debuted in Los Angeles in March 1930. By this time, Christensen was living in the U.S., having landed a contract at MGM, where he directed a pair of expensive melodramas (The Devil's Circus  and Mockery ). He was later offered a contract at First National, where he made a quartet of light-hearted thrillers: The Hawk's Nest (1928), The Haunted House (1928), Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) and House of Horror (1929). Despite their titles, none of Christensen's American films approached the fantastic horrors of Haxan.
After leaving First National, Christensen returned to his native Denmark, where he made a handful of melodramas between 1939 and 1942. After the release of these films (and a 1941 re-release of Haxan), Christensen was granted a license to operate a movie theatre, which is how he spent the years prior to his death in 1959, at age 79.
When Haxan was given its 1941 re-release in Denmark, it was brought somewhat up to date by an eight-minute filmed introduction by Christensen (wearing an artist's smock, surrounded by camera equipment). It was after one of these Danish screenings that a twenty-three-year-old man was found roaming the streets of Horsens in a trance. A newspaper reported, "The young man, who has been discharged from hospital today, has declared that the reason for his state was that he had been to see Haxan last night, and had been so mesmerized by its unsettling scenes that he had gone into convulsions."
The poem read at the beginning of the film (see "Quote It") is an incantation that Burroughs often recited, with constant variation. It also appears in Burroughs and Balch's abstract sci-fi short Towers Open Fire (1963).
Years later, the indie filmmakers behind The Blair Witch Project (1999) would pay homage to Christensen's film by naming their production company Haxan Films.
Compiled by Bret Wood
"For more than half an hour, sadistic orgies are conducted on the screen. Meter after meter, you stare into the tormented mummy-like hag face which glowers right at you in fully shameless closeup until nausea rises dankly in your throat...There is much nakedness in Benjamin Christensen's picture. The screen flashes with white backs and nude silhouettes wander about in a mysterious glow of enchantment. But it is not this nudity which is most offensive about the picture. It is the satanic, perverted cruelty that blazes out of it, the cruelty we all know has stalked the ages like an evil shaggy beast, the chimera of mankind. But when it is captured, let it be locked up in a cell, either in a prison or a madhouse. Do not let it be presented with music by Wagner or Chopin, to a swanky audience in comfortable seats, or to young men and women, who have entered the enchanted world of a movie theatre."
-- Berlingske Tidende, Copenhagen, 1922
"Swedish and Danish pictures easily hold the palm for morbid realism, and in many cases for brilliant acting and production. Witchcraft Through the Ages, made by Benjamin Christensen, leaves all the others beaten. It is in reality a pictorial history of black magic; of witches, of the inquisition, and the thousand and one inhumanities of the superstition-ridden Middle Ages. Many of its scenes are unadulterated horror... Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition."
-- Variety, 1923
"The picture may be informative but it is not entertaining, nor was it meant to be. It is another example of the difference in the psychology of the American and European peoples. In the United States, where we have conquered nature by science and invention, we are optimistic, and like our entertainments to be a portrayal of our dream life, a beautiful picture of our fondest imaginings."
-- Hollywood Daily Citizen, 1930
"This film of the supernatural delves into the mechanics of sorcery, revealing the devious machinations of the devil from a steam model of hell to an orgy of Satan's disciples...The picture is, for the most part, fantastically conceived and directed, holding the onlooker in a sort of medieval spell. Most of the characters seem to have stepped from primitive paintings."
-- The New York Times, 1929
"Haxan, first released in 1922, is one of the first - and perhaps only - films of its kind. The unfortunate problem with this is that it makes Haxan difficult to judge. There are almost no comparisons to be made with other films around at the time, and few accepted standards for commenting on a one and half hour high velocity blast of dramatised stories constructed from diary entries and historical reports (with a fair amount of artistic license), interspersed with semi-weighty academic posturing, mechanised montages of old paintings and real-life real-time clips of contemporary living. And that's before considering the content of the film. This includes the publiciser's dream of filmmaker Christensen dancing around in a devil costume (no doubt to get the young witches to kiss him on the ass - the osculum infame - it's what they all did at witches' sabbats), a none-too-implicit accusation that the medieval Church was led by power-obsessed impotent tyrants, torture scenes, floating pieces of silver and psychotic nuns. And not being able to say anything about the film en bloc is what makes Haxan so beguiling and yet so frustrating. Viewed as a simple documentary about the history of witchcraft, it lacks the sweep of vision necessary to do justice to the topic. There's no mention of the Salem witch trials, of alchemy or paganism and no discussion of the role of the witch figure in mythology and fable. Viewed as a work of fiction meant to provoke and entertain, the film has too many scholarly parts to sustain a proper narrative and its multiple surrealist gaffs can become wonderfully unfunny. Haxan could be viewed both as factual documentary and as creative fiction, when really it's neither, or else it's both."
-- Sarah Boyes, Culture Wars (The Institute of Ideas, UK), 2007
"Director Benjamin Christensen apparently intended his film as a serious study of witchcraft (which he diagnoses, in an early pop-Freud conclusion, as female hysteria), but what he really has is a pretense for sadistic pornography. The film has acquired impact with age: instead of seeming quaint, the nude scenes and scatological references now have a crumbly, sinister quality--they seem the survivals of ancient, unhealthy imaginations."
-- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader, 2007
Compiled by Bret Wood
"Lock them out and bar the door.
Lock them out forever more.
Nook and cranny, window, door,
Seal them out forevermore.
"Curse go back, curse go back,
Back with double fear and flack.
Curse go back, curse go back,
Back with double pain and lack.
"Silver arrow through the night,
Silver arrow take thy flight.
Silver arrow seek and find
Cursing heart and cursing mind."
-- William S. Burroughs (1968 narration)
"Satan's friends can be wonderfully young and beautiful. But she is usually wretched, old, poor, and dirty." (1968 narration)
"You'll be served up something hot, concubine of Satan!" (title card)
"Two men try to make her confess. Now watch: this is the tough cop and the kind cop technique, still used in the police stations of the world." (1968 narration)
"Start the torture, and have done with her obstinacy!" (title card)
"I'm lashing your polluted body to purify your soul." (title card)
"And that's how they'll burn you too, young woman, in honor of God, and as a lesson to others." (1968 narration)
"Like a mental epidemic, the madness of witchcraft spreads wherever these judges settle down." (1968 narration)
"Merciful God, Sister Cecile has traffic with the demon!" (title card)
Compiled by Bret Wood
How to best describe the 1922 Swedish film Haxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages), directed by Benjamin Christensen? While not a conventional documentary by anyone's standards, it is not a traditional narrative film either and straddles several genres in its exploration of witchcraft and the black arts from the Dark Ages up to 1921. It begins as a richly illustrated lecture complete with woodcuts, paintings and sketches but soon segues into nightmarish historical reenactments and eventually full-blown horror scenarios with enough demons, devils and unholy creatures to populate numerous fantasy films. At the same time, it succeeds brilliantly as a scathing anti-clerical critique of Europe during a time when mostly women were demonized, tortured and executed by men of power, usually priests, judges and self-appointed witch-hunters. There are moments of macabre humor as well in this unique oddity and the surreal imagery on display often transforms Haxan into a frenetic folk-art fever dream.
Presented in seven parts, Haxan opens with the chapter "Sources," which presents the human conditions that allowed witchcraft hysteria to grow and run wild during the Middle Ages, and moves on to Chapter 2, "1488," which explores and dramatizes numerous rituals and myths about witches with the aid of some striking special effects. Chapter 3, "The Trials," and Chapter 4, "The Torture," have a disturbing intensity due to Christensen's unsparing depiction of how a villager's family is systemically destroyed by false accusations of witchcraft. While many of the persecuted were elderly women whose greatest misfortune was being infirm, mentally ill or physically repulsive, the young were no less suspect and just as likely to be tortured or burned at the stake as we learn in Chapter 5, "Sinful Thoughts." One also shudders at the insidious devices on display and put into action in the name of drawing confessions from so-called witches in the section entitled "Techniques." In the final chapter, Christensen draws parallels between this dark time when ignorance and superstition reigned and his own, supposedly more enlightened era. Viewers will also be interested to know that the director himself appears as His Satanic Majesty in the movie.
The effect and influence Haxan exerted on future filmmakers is obvious and pervasive. The great Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath (1943) was clearly influenced by it but you can also see Haxan's DNA in Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General (1968, aka The Conqueror Worm), the torture-porn exploitation drama Mark of the Devil (1970) and Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), in which a nuns' convent becomes a coven of self-flagellating madwomen.
Christensen spent his time between 1919 and 1921 researching the history of witchcraft, drawing in particular from Malleus Maleficorum (The Hammer of Witches), an infamous 15th century handwork on how to identify and effectively neutralize the powers of Satan's followers. The director clearly intended for Haxan to push the boundaries of film art and it did in ways he may not have foreseen at the time. A 1923 review in Variety stated, "Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition," and indeed, the film was banned outside Sweden for many decades due to its anti-Catholic bent and explicit representations of devil worship (a baby being bled to death for a potion) and various tortures.
Christensen's virtuosity as a director was certainly noticed by Hollywood and not long after Haxan, the Danish director crossed the Atlantic to work for MGM, which also attracted such renowned Swedish expatriates as Victor Sjostrom (He Who Gets Slapped, 1924) and Mauritz Stiller (The Temptress, 1926). Unfortunately, few of Christensen's American films have survived though Mockery (1927), a historical epic set during the Russian Civil War and starring Lon Chaney, is still available on DVD and Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), a mystery thriller starring Thelma Todd, exists in a silent version with Italian intertitles on the internet. What should have been a great and promising career in the film capital of the world never happened and Christensen moved back to Denmark in 1935 where he directed four more features but none of them had the impact or lasting power of his landmark 1922 film, Haxan.
In 1941, Haxan was re-released with Christensen appearing on camera in a spoken prologue where he emphasizes the film's pedagogical intents. Even more famous - and the one contemporary audiences are probably more familiar with - is the 1967 version of Haxan, edited down to 76-minutes and retitled Witchcraft Through the Ages. It was the brainchild of British exploitation filmmaker and distributor Anthony Balch, who enlisted the services of Beat author William S. Burroughs to provide the narration and French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to compose the score. This version and a new digital transfer of the 104 minute version from the Swedish Film Institute were released by the Criterion Collection in 2001.
Most film scholars agree that Christensen's original version of the film is his finest achievement with Peter Cowie in Eighty Years of Cinema proclaiming Christensen "to be an auteur of uncommon imagination and with a pictorial flair far ahead of his time." He also notes that "in many respects it is more Teutonic than the average German film of the twenties, deriving much of its visual style from medieval paintings - Durer, Bosch, Cranach, Breughel - while its spirit is unmistakably Nordic...Christensen's technique is immaculate, and the establishment of period detail is meticulous." Among those who share this opinion is Chris Fujiwara, whose liner notes for the Criterion Collection edition of the film state, "Haxan endures because of Christensen's tremendous skill with lighting, staging, and varying of shot scale. The word "painterly" comes to mind in watching Christensen's ingeniously constructed shots, but it is inadequate to evoke the fascination the film exerts through its patterns of movement and its narrative disjunctions. Christensen is at once painter, historian, social critic, and a highly self-conscious filmmaker. His world comes alive as few attempts to recreate the past on film have."
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Screenplay: Benjamin Christensen
Cinematography: Johan Ankerstjerne
Art Direction: Richard Louw
Music: Launy Grondahl; Emil Reesen (1941); Daniel Humair (1968); Matti Bye (restored version: 2006)
Film Editing: Edla Hansen
Cast: Maren Pedersen (Heksen/The Witch), Clara Pontoppidan (Nonne/Nun), Elith Pio (Heksedommer/Witch Judge (The Young Monk)), Oscar Stribolt (Graabroder/Doctor (The Fat Monk)), Tora Teje (En hysterisk kvinde/Modern Hysteric (The Kelptomaniac)), Johs Andersen (Chief Inquisitor), Benjamin Christensen (Djaevlen/The Devil), Poul Reumert (Juveler/Jeweler), Karen Winther (Anna), Kate Fabian (Gammel jomfru/Old Maid).
by Jeff Stafford
Eighty Years of Cinema by Peter Cowie (A. S. Barnes & Co.)
The Museum of Modern Art program notes
"Master of His Craft," article by Elliott Stein in The Village Voice, Sept.. 1999
"A Witches' Brew of Fact, Fiction and Spectacle," article in Kinoeye: New Perpectives on European Film (website: www.kinoeye.org/)
The Criterion Collection DVD liner notes of Haxan by Chris Fujiwara