Director: Otakar Vávra
Screenplay: Otakar Vávra, Ester Krumbachová
Based on a Novel by: Václav Kaplický
Starring: Vladimír Smeral, Elo Romancik, Josef Kemr, Sona Valentová
Running Time: 107 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I’ve only just begun to discover and appreciate some of the gems of Czechoslovakian cinema. Arrow Academy released a couple of Czech classics, The Firemen’s Ball and Closely Observed Trains at the tail end of 2015 and I loved both of them. Then, more recently, I was absolutely blown away by Karel Zeman’s wildly imaginative The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil). That was released by Second Run in the UK, and they’re the go-to label for Czech home entertainment releases, so I’m always waiting with baited breath for their next titles to be announced. Their latest Czechoslovakian film receiving the Blu-Ray treatment is Witchhammer.
The film, which follows witch trials in a Czech village, opens with a declaration stating that it is based on “authentic court recordings of Inquisition trials which took place in Velké Losiny and Šumperk from 1678 to 1695.” We soon then see an elderly beggar woman caught sneaking a sacrament wafer into her handkerchief. Seen as sacrilege by the local heads of the church, they question the woman, who claims she was acting on a request by another, taking the blessed wafer to feed a cow that isn’t producing milk. The church believe this is evidence of a witch’s coven in the village and summon the inquisitor Boblig (Vladimír Smeral) from Edelstadt. He takes on the job and begins to torture confessions out of the accused, forcing them to name other villagers (usually women) so as to put more of them to trial and eventually death. Boblig begins to move from paupers to wealthier folk, with an eye to seizing their possessions after they’ve been burnt at the stake.
Several members of the church and village aristocracy start to doubt Boblig’s methods, but anyone who stands in his way is quickly deemed a witch and put to death before they can stop him. The Deacon Lautner (Elo Romancik) is one man hellbent on putting an end to Boblig’s reign of terror and, being a popular figure, he has most of the village on his side. However, as countless accusations are thrown his way, on top of those towards his beloved cook Zuzana (Sona Valentová), his chances of success and survival grow slim.
Quite a few witch trial films were released around the late 60s and early 70s, Witchfinder General (a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm) and The Devils being two of the most famous (or notorious). With the McCarthy ‘witch-hunts’ in America reaching a peak in the early 50s, Hollywood films had tackled similar ideas already too, so what could this European art-house take on the subject offer that hadn’t been covered?
Well, at first glance, Witchhammer doesn’t necessarily alter or expand upon the usual witch-hunt story, with allegations, rarely based on any hard evidence, growing out of hand and resulting in the murder of countless innocents. However, the film works as a damnation of the strong-arm techniques meted out by the Communist party, who had recently invaded Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring. This is similar to films playing on McCarthyism I guess, but it’s refreshing to see politics outside of America or England being tackled. More interestingly perhaps, particular emphasis is put on the oppression of women in the film. Most of the victims are female and Boblig, along with a great many of the male characters, are shown to lech after the women whilst damning them as evil. In fact, the film’s opening lines are “sin entered the world through woman. Woman is sin”. Almost all of the female characters become victims of Boblig’s ‘work’ and end up ‘confessing’, yet those we see on the stake are shown to make final exclamations of their innocence and damnations of Boblig’s methods. These are powerful moments and show stronger female characters than most exploitative witch-hunt films. Witchhammer certainly hit its mark too, as it was banned in its home country, presumably for its clear political statements rather than the violence or nudity on screen.
There are some graphically shocking sequences in the film though. Director Otakar Vávra doesn’t shy away from the brutal torture methods utilised back in the period and is quite frank about sexual allegations put towards some of the accused. However, another reason Witchhammer differs from other witch-hunt films is that it doesn’t dwell on the gore or violence. Enough is shown to demonstrate the atrocities in question, but never more, so the film feels like anything but an exploitation film. As such, when matched with some stark, carefully composed cinematography, Witchhammer is an all together classy affair.
All in all, it’s a coldly harrowing and bleak testament to the dangers of bestowing power to the few. It’s brutal without overplaying the sex and violence inherent in the content and is exceptionally well made, yet avoids over-stylisation that might gloss over the horrors on screen. So, it’s another exceptional entry in my education into Czechoslovakian cinema.
Witchhammer is out on 30th October on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Run. I watched the Blu-Ray version, which is a world premiere, and the transfer is very good. There are some light flecks and marks, but largely the picture is clean and detailed. The audio is solid too.
On both releases, Second Run have included a new and exclusive appreciation of the film by critic Kat Ellinger, and Otakar Vávra’s experimental 1931 short film The Light Penetrates the Dark. The appreciation provides plenty of background information on Vávra, as well as thoughts on the film and what sets it apart from its peers. The short film is stylishly and inventively made for the period, if rather different from Witchhammer, made almost four decades later.
There’s also a 16-page booklet featuring a new essay on the film by editor and journalist Samm Deighan and director Otakar Vávra on Witchhammer.