Witchhammer – Czechoslovakia, 1969 – review

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Witchhammer – original title: Kladivo na čarodějnice – is a 1969 Czechoslovakian dramatical horror film directed by Otakar Vávra. It is considered Vávra’s magnum opus. The original title, Malleus Maleficarum, also translates as Witchhammer.

The story of the film is based on Václav Kaplický’s book Kladivo na čarodějnice (1963), a novel about witch trials in Northern Moravia during the 1670s.

On 13 November 2017, Witchhammer was released on Blu-ray in the UK by Second Run.

Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.co.uk

  • Witchhammer (Kladivo na arod jnice, 1969) presented from a new HD transfer from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive
  • Otakar Vávra’s short film The Light Penetrates the Dark (Svetlo proniká tmou, 1931)
  • Booklet featuring a new essay by writer and film critic Samm Deighan
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • Original soundtrack in Dual Mono 24-bit LPCM audio
  • World Premiere on Blu-ray
  • Region Free

Review:

The black-and-white allegorical film, full of symbols, follows the events from the beginning until the trial and execution of the priest Kryštof Lautner. Unwillingness to stop the evil in the beginning only encourages the inquisitor to graduate his accusations and use violence. The vicious circle scares everyone from resistance.

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These trials started when an altar boy observed an old woman hiding the bread given out during communion. He alerted the priest who confronted the old woman. She admitted that she took the bread with the intent to give it to a cow to re-enable its milk production.

The priest reported the incident to the owner of the local estate who, in turn, called in an inquisitor, a judge specializing in witchcraft trials. Boblig von Edelstadt, the inquisitor, commenced an ever-escalating series of trials, eventually involving hundreds of people. In the end, 112 people were burned at the stake.

Broadly speaking, this is the filmed European version of Arthur’s Miller’s political side-swipe at McCarthyism, The Crucible, similarly all wrapped up in 17th Century witchfinder’s clothing.

Derivative or not, this is powerful, often shocking stuff, so much so that the Czech authorities did not want the film to be shown in Prague because of its political connotations. It was restricted to the cinemas in small towns just outside of the capital.

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A brief prologue sets the scene nicely, if not particularly subtly: “A woman’s womb is the gateway to Hell”. In a society where morality is judged by class, appearance and intelligence by those who feast so extravagantly they employ face-wipers, the lowly women of a European town are being tormented for sport.

So desperate are the lowers classes for food that they’re offering up their milk-free cows to the Dark One in return for a bag of peas to avoid starvation. This is cause enough for Chief Inquisitor Boblig of Edelstadt (Vladimír Šmeral), a replacement for the ex-Witchfinder, Hutter of Sumperk (if nothing else, this is a superb film for names), to come charging into the town to fight for justice, Godliness and reason. Unfortunately for the locals, this includes not a little torture.

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A cut-away to a face cast in shadow informs us throughout of the moral situation, necessarily a heady mix of religious fervour and violence. The flight of witches into the town (a rare mental image provoked of a very basic idea of witchly behaviour) is not enough to provoke disgust and fear – they are “smeared in the marrow and fat of babies”.

The posturing of Boblig and his ultra-religious rhetoric is surprisingly at odds with many, interestingly the Church who become concerned after initial complicity that their own are in the firing line as soon as a homeless wretch. Such is the Inquisitor’s power, no-one dare stand up to challenge his decrees.

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The social divisions become yet clearly as we repeatedly see the upper classes feasting and boozing, often to the point of apparent boredom whilst the suspected witches are forced to give bizarre confessionals to acts that they are frantically making up on the spot to avoid torture.

Sadly, this is not the best way out of their predicament and they are forced to suffer the rack, thumbscrews and the boot, all displayed in surprisingly graphic shots. These lead to even further horrors at completely believable trails where they are required to thank their tormentors for their judgement before being burned alive.

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At another courtroom exchange, one of the accused can hold back no longer: “I was made to acknowledge my guilt! I was tortured for nine days.” The Inquisitor fearing he’s rumbled responds, “That’s a lie. She was interrogated with the usual application of thumbscrews and boot”.

Ultimately it is revealed that both Boblig and the Church are as bad as each other, Boblig jealous that he can achieve happiness only by force, the bishop and the nearly respectable Deacon Lautner (Elo Romanc) alarmed that their long stranglehold on the town and their own judgements are being questioned and usurped. Clearly there is only going to be one winner.

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Unsurprisingly, there are no breakout stars from the film and although it is one of the few of the celebrated director to find its way onto DVD and Blu-ray, there has not really been any groundswell of reappraisal in recent years.

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However, this film can sit comfortably alongside the likes of Witchfinder General and Mark of the Devil as a disturbing account of real events, rivalling them even in the shock stakes, surprisingly graphic in its depiction of torture and also an eye-opening amount of full-frontal female nudity.

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Of course, on a very serious level, the film appeared just a couple of years after the Prague Spring, a freeing of the Czech citizens from the dominant rule of the Soviet Union, a clear allegory, warning against an unchecked society. The realism of the film puts it in the upper league of witch-hunting barbarism flicks and, alas, still has a message for society today.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA

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Buy DVD: Amazon.com

 

  

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