International Cinema: Witchhammer (1970) - Reviewed

Between the 1960s and 1970s, if you were a filmmaker who dared to take on the dreaded historical topic of Pagan Witch hunting during the European Middle Ages, chances are your film would be censored if not banned from circulation.  Black Sunday, Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil and of course The Devils all faced their own respective battles with censorship and/or total suppression from commercial distribution.  Typically a film bold enough to take on such a dark and violent chapter in world history would become entangled with the censors over the level of graphic violence, sexual content or potentially blasphemous or otherwise sacrilegious content. 

Very few however, if any, are ever banned for anything besides the citations of violence, sex and potentially offensive religious content.  And yet one recently revived and re-released Pagan witch hunt Czechoslovakian film from 1970, Witchhammer, found itself becoming one of the rare cases where the film’s political allegories caused the film to be banned within it’s country of origin.  While many Czechoslovakian films were frequently banned by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia during the so called Prague Spring, with some examples more outlandish than others (see the 1966 experimental feminist comedy Daisies), Witchhammer represents an outlier in that in spite of the film’s graphic violence and nudity, it was the film’s political implications the Communist regime objected to.

Based on the 1963 novel Kladivo na čarodějnice by Václav Kaplický and adapted for the screen by celebrated director Otakar Vávra, Witchhammer focuses specifically on the Northern Moravia witch trials (also dubbed the Boblig witch trials) of the Czech Republic between 1622 and 1696.  Our tragic, dark and often infuriating story zeroes in on Father Kryštof Lautner (Elo Romančík) who finds himself under fire from the ensuing witch hunt after voicing his opposition to the absence of due process and brutal methods undertaken by the vicious and cruel inquisitor, Boblig von Edelstadt (Vladimír Šmeral).  Relying on the infamous 1487 Heinrich Kramer theological text Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), Edelstadt over the course of Witchhammer will deploy every cruel form of torture the book contains while clearly using the trials to advance his own social status.

A passion play at heart and an inflamed howl of rage at totalitarianism and specifically the lawlessness of the Rajk Show Trials, consisting of a guilty verdict until proven innocent, Witchhammer like The Devils can’t help but incite feelings of anger and despair within the viewer.  Shot in lush black-and-white CinemaScope by Josef Illík with a subtle percussive score by Jirí Srnka, Witchhammer is largely faithful to the source save for a curiously scopophilic moment involving voluptuous naked women bathing, forming a connection to sexual in addition to political repression.  

Performances are very strong with many pushing themselves to the limit, including the humiliating techniques set forth in the Malleus Maleficarum demanding men and women be stripped naked in public to inspect their bodies for devil marks.  No doubt though the film’s center stage belongs to Romančík and Šmeral, imbuing the fierce opponents with conviction and empathy.  Our anger towards inquisitor Edelstadt only grows with the smug chilliness of Šmeral’s performance as our sympathy for Father Lautner transforms over the course of the film from alliance to sympathy.  Like Oliver Reed’s Father Grandier in The Devils, to see such a grand and distinguished public figure so systematically broken down piece by piece is at once shocking and truly heartbreaking.  

Seen today in the newly restored Second Run blu-ray released in the United Kingdom and in light of the recent slew of harassment allegations plaguing virtually every industry all over the world, Witchhammer joins Ken Russell’s The Devils as a startlingly relevant and timeless discussion piece about the political power of conjecture, hysteria and the systematic dehumanizing techniques used to break down a person’s will.  Moreover, while far more sobering than Russell’s flamboyant descent into madness, both films strike an allegory between the tactics deployed by the witch hunting inquisitors and their loose kinship with modern political systems.  Contrary to the berserk mob mentality being examined in The Devils however, Witchhammer focuses primarily on the ability of one man who singlehandedly deployed a massacre upon the citizens of the Czech Republic. 

Because of the source’s deep connection to Czechoslovakian history and the film’s own open critique of the Communist regime, like the characters in Witchhammer, the film was silenced upon completion in it’s homeland but garnered awards at the Argentinian Mar del Plata International Film Festival in the same year.  Despite the film’s reputation, it otherwise hasn’t been seen or available for decades with only a sub-par DVD from Facets released in the United States.  All that waiting can finally be put to rest with this wonderful new blu-ray from Second Sight with a new high-definition master supplied by the Czech National Film Archive along with plentiful extras.  

Often a moody, grim and perhaps even demoralizing viewing experience, Witchhammer isn’t a film most people are going to enjoy or feel triumphant about having sat through.  But for those eager to see all aspects of the so-called ‘witch hunt’ movie with one of world cinema’s greatest clandestine offerings more cinephiles should know about, Witchhammer will provide a terrific companion piece to The Devils regarding their kindred moral implications concerning a world where doing the wrong thing is far more politically expedient than what we know in our hearts to be just and true.

- Andrew Kotwicki