Reality is something to be surpassed in horror. The promotional line of being based on a ‘true story’ is something which is used as a basic inspiration point as illustrated by the original Amityville and Conjuring movies or the countless identikit exorcism films using this in their marketing spiel. Witch trial films are different, Michael Reeves the Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm) saw Vincent Price depict the very real and horrifying Inquisitor Matthew Reeves. By the same token, 1970 Czech film Witchhammer gave the same unsentimental handling by director Otakar Vávra who, alongside distinguished Czech new wave writer Ester Krumbachová, adapted Václav Kaplický’s book ‘Kladivo na čarodějnice’ (Hammer of Witches) – a book that features real accounts of the events that transpired in the Northern Moravia witch trials of the 1670s. Excluding the more exploitative titles of the mid to late 1970s, Second Run’s latest Czech excursion follows Reeves’s 1968 classic in depicting this very real blight on 17th century Europe.
Like much of the Czech New Wave, Witchhammer is a deeply political film but unlike its contemporaries that doesn’t mean you need to be savvy to get anything from it. Immediately follow up Vávra’s film with Kat Ellinger’s visual essay (the womb of woman is the gateway to hell), as it will help with the historical and political placement and also make you want to re-watch with this new information at hand. At the time, Czechoslovakia was between two totalitarian regimes and the way in which Boblig (Vladimír Smeral) reigns over this town serves as an allegory for living under totalitarianism. And whilst women were subject to such abhorrent treatment by these inquisitors, this also serves an allegoric purpose in the form of the feminists who opposed the state in some landmark court cases in the early 1950s.
That was the intended meaning in Vávra and Krumbachová’s work, and that is a fine document for the time it was made, however, Witchhammer goes beyond that with Boblig’s men and their violent subjugation doubling up to represent poisonous aspects of our modern world. Specifically, the way it has been normalised for society to vilify those with a distinct ‘otherness’ with little or no proof beyond the fact they are different. For a film to depict the mood of a time is one thing, but for it to be adaptable and just as relevant far into the future sees it walk upon the kind of hallowed turf that few films ever tread.
Witchhammer starts with a grim, hooded figure reading passages from the text which all witch hunters work and cuts to the one scene of innocence in which a group of women, young and old, nakedly frolicking in the public baths. After that the women of this village are subject to all kinds of suffering, and what instigates it all? An elderly, hungry and poor woman steals a communion wafer so that she can exchange it in her village in the hope that her cow can once again produce milk. The aristocracy and state don’t acknowledge this as a byproduct of their poverty-stricken land but the act of a callous witch and it’s their job as authority to destroy this coven. Enter Vladimír Smeral as Boblig, a man with 40 years experience in the witch-hunting trade, a man who is allegedly a lawyer (by his own account) but has never read a word of the law, a man who holds the fate of every last person in this village – a power he wields as if a vengeful god.
A person was considered to be a witch after the alleged is quizzed in a series of leading questions in front of the jury and they naturally denied all accusations as most claims had flaky foundations or built upon a tower of lies. That alone was proof enough to torture these poor women with thumb and leg clamps and sleep deprivation until they agreed to whatever the inquisitor claimed they have done, implicating others in the process. Seeing these poor women bloodied and beaten soullessly repeating the words they have had beaten into them is genuinely upsetting. If they didn’t answer, they were possessed by a mute spirit or a devil broke their neck to prevent them from revealing any secrets, there was an answer for every eventuality. Not only does Boblig string out the story and the number of women involved in this coven to maintain his and his men’s life of Riley, he also uses his insidious ways to implicate powerful men who threaten him. That is our way in with Deacon Lautner (Elo Romancik) and his young cook Zuzana (Sona Valentová), both targets for very different but every bit as selfish reasons.
Although I did initially describe Witchhammer as a horror film, that isn’t exactly true. While it does have gruelling torture scenes and cinematography that recalls early German horror in Nosferatu & the Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, it is much more of a supremely chilling character piece and a parable on the corruption of power. Brilliantly acted, wonderfully shot, wistfully scored piece (from an original composition by Vivaldi’s son, Antonio) that tells a hard tale which transcends both place and time, it cannot be a surprise for me to confirm that I was bowled over by Second Run’s latest. Witchhammer deserves a far bigger audience than it currently has, Czech cinema is not as fashionable as other world cinema markets, but with the continued efforts from this UK label the Czech/Slovak New Wave will break into wider awareness and with titles like this, and the upcoming Cremator, that day can’t come soon enough.