The Czech historical drama Witchhammer was released not too long after Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and could be compared to it in some ways. Both are about the panic that overtakes society when the hysteria of witchcraft accusations begins to pit neighbour against neighbour. Of course, both are about other things too, from commentaries on violence to, in the case of Witchhammer, a blunt allegorical fable on Communism and the total moral corruption of the desire for power.
A closer cinematic relation is Ken Russel’s The Devils but, if possible, this film is even bleaker than that masterpiece. When an old woman foolishly tries to steal a communion wafer from church, events spiral out into an investigation that will find almost everyone in an area of a couple of towns in Moravia accused of conspiring with the devil. It ultimately pits two men against each other, Lautner (Romančík), a flawed man of God, and the monstrous inquisitor Boblig (Šmeral). The film tracks the historically accurate events of the trials as, one after another, innocent women (and men) ‘confess’ to witchcraft after brutal torture.
Although this doesn’t spare on depictions of violence and nudity, there’s no element of exploitation here. It’s instead serious-minded stuff with a clear point to make about political oppression and violence against women, and it’s nearly impossible not to become angry at the rampant hypocrisy taking place, not least because it’s something we have done time and again as people, seemingly refusing to learn the lessons of history. Performances are excellent from all involved, with Romančík an outstanding, compelling lead clinging hopelessly to faith that devastatingly dwindles as he finds himself at the centre of a vendetta by Boblig. And as the vain, venal, power-hungry Boblig, Šmeral is fearsomely good, giving us probably one of cinema’s most wicked, immoral villains ever.
Otakar Vávra, who directed and co-wrote the film with Ester Krumbachová, presents us with a measured, coldly matter-of-fact film that still manages many moments of mournful visual poetry. The cinematography by Josef Illík is remarkable, and the production design here is excellent. The black and white print on this Second Run Blu-ray is generally in good shape, and despite some damage here and there, it’s a more than acceptable presentation of the film. As for extras, you get a 22-minute visual essay by critic Kat Ellinger that provides historical and cultural context. You also get a valuable booklet with writing on the film by Samm Deighan, and The Light Penetrates the Dark, an experimental 1931 short by Vávra.
It’s subversive, haunting, horribly compelling stuff, and that comparison with The Devils is one Witchhammer can well withstand.
WITCHHAMMER / CERT: TBD / DIRECTOR: OTAKAR VAVRA / SCREENPLAY: VACLAV KAPLICKY, OTAKAR VAVRA / STARRING: VLADIMÍR SMERAL, ELO ROMANCIK, JOSEF KEMR / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW