Thursday, 17 November 2011

Witches' Hammer (1970)

Witch-hunting has always been a popular subject for both art-house and exploitation films in most countries. There are many well-known examples from British, American and European film-makers. Witches' Hammer (Kladivo na carodejnice), made in Czechoslovakia in 1969, is a rare example of such a movie from behind the Iron Curtain.

Writer-director Otakar Vávra already had a long career behind him when he made Witches' Hammer in 1969 (it was released in January 1970). And he had a long career still in front of him - his final film was released in 2003. He died in 2011, aged 100.

He’d lived through countless changes of regime. When he was born his birthplace in Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the late 30s it was under the control of the Nazis. By the time he reached middle age the horrors of the Nazi regime had given way to the horrors of communism. He outlived all those regimes. He survived, and managed to go on making movies for more than seventy years.

This is one case where it’s absolutely essential to know the historical background to a film. The tentative moves towards freedom in Czechoslovakia, the so-called Prague Spring, had been brutally crushed by the Soviets in 1968 and hardline communism reinstated. It’s impossible to believe that any Czech film-maker could have chosen witch-hunting and the Inquisition as subject matter in 1969 without there being a political intent to the film. And in later life director Otakar Vávra made it clear that that was indeed his intention, that the movie is really about the oppressiveness of the communist regime.

The plot is your basic witch-hunt plot. The time is the late 17th century. An old woman is spotted stealing a consecrated host from a church. The priest immediately suspects that witch-craft is afoot. After consultations with the local grandees the fateful decision is made to call in the Inquisition.

The problem here being that calling in the Inquisition is relatively easy but getting rid of them is next to impossible. Accusation follows accusation, the number of convicted witches sentenced to burning grows steadily, and soon it is obvious that no-one is safe. A number of local notables are concerned, the priest who stared the ball rolling is sure that most of the victims are in fact innocent, but anyone who questions the activities of the Inquisitor risks being accused of witchcraft himself. If you doubt the guilt of the accused witches then you must be a witch, just as anyone who doubted the guilt of the victims of the Stalinist show trials automatically came under suspicion.

The acting is generally good. Vladimír Smeral as the Inquisitor Boblig is a frightening study in evil and hypocrisy, more interested in enriching himself and cementing his own power than in anything else. He’s the sort of person who would have been equally successful as a Party apparatchik in the mid-20th century. Elo Romancik gives a moving performance as Deacon Lautner, a man with the courage to stand up to the Inquisition but unfortunately also a man with a guilty secret.

The film was shot in black-and-white and looks extraordinarily bleak. The mood of the film is every bit as grim. 1969 being an incredibly grim time in Czech history that’s probably not surprising. There’s not a great deal of hope on offer here.

While the movie’s real subject is what was happening in Czechoslovakia after the suppression of the Prague Spring it’s also an effective indictment of the witch-hunting mentality in general making it as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. That witch-hunting mentality is still alive and well.

It’s not exactly enjoyable but it is a powerful film. This is an art-house rather than an exploitation flick but there’s copious nudity and there are plenty of grisly scenes.

It’s been released on DVD by an outfit called Facets Video. It’s a so-so transfer. The liner notes (by Susan Doll) are informative but that’s the only extra included.


Samuel Wilson said...

It definitely straddles the nebulous border separating arthouse from exploitation, and the border was a lot more nebulous then than now. Except for lack of color, it could well have been sold as an exploitation movie in the Free World.

abdul666 said...

Malleus Maleficarum (witches' hammer' = 'the hammer to crush witches') is is a treatise on the prosecution of witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman.