Tuesday, February 17, 2015

70's Bonanza: Witchhammer

During last month's latest installment of the Sundance Film Festival, word began to trickle out about a horror film called The Witch, a debut film by Robert Eggers that would eventually go on to win the directing award. Strong word of mouth has pushed this gothic New England tale into one of the more anticipated features this year. It will surely also revive the "witches" film, right? So many efforts in this genre- from the late 60's British offerings like "Witchfinder General" to Rob Zombie's post-punk "Lord of Salem"- take the fantasy as truth and spin scary, devilish stories about possession, satanic brews and gaudy bloodletting. So when a film such as Otakar Vavra's "Witchhammer" comes along, not only is it a sobering glimpse at the base inhumanity perpetrated by mankind, but it makes one reconsider the guilty pleasures enjoyed by those other frivolous witches films.

Playing like a Sidney Lumet 'policier' thriller (think "Prince of the City" transposed to 1684), "Witchhammer" concerns the initial hysteria that grips a Czech village when an elderly woman is caught trying to steal a host from her Catholic Mass service. Initially saying the object would be to help nurse a sick cow, her testimony soon includes other women on the outskirts of town and an ominous sounding place called Peter's Rock. Believing they have a full-on witches coven sullying the land beneath their noses, the local leaders call in ex tribunal judge Boblig (Vladimir Smeral) and a mass witches trial eventually overtakes the town. 

Being of Czech origin and released in 1970, its no surprise "Witchhammer" is an angry veiled reference to, basically, name your aggression. Boblig, whose shadowy intentions slowly emerge, is shown to be secretly as vile and consumed by wealth and money than any person in the town said to be a worker of the devil. His wreckage of souls (and bodies through torture) targets some of the richest men in town since their land, upon confession, would be forfeited to his tribunal in order to pay for the trial services. It's not long before "Witchhammer" becomes an exercise in tolerance as we watch the machinations of Boblig destroy people and crush souls all in the name of religious piety. The only comic relief we get are brief explanations of tribunal law from a book about twice the size of the Bible, in which it regulates with mind-numbing calculations the extent to which a head nod under torture is allowable as an actual head nod admission. Bureaucracy hasn't changed in 300 years, obviously.

Filmed in sharp black and white, "Witchhammer" looks just as imposing as its message of institutional confinement. Talky and political, yes, but it also features some stunning, haunting images, such as the stream-of-conscience rant from an imposing monk (framed with just the right amount of light and shadow to create a demonic gleam in his eyes) inter cut throughout the film. The horror film reference is never far removed. Still, his monologues on the seductive ways of women or the various "truths" about how Christianity is usurped by demonic forces make him a likely candidate for any governmental office in the world. 

In an ideal world, the outrageous acts explored in "Witchhammer" are true remnants of the ignorant past, fodder for silly horror films and Vincent Price's intent gaze. Sadly, open any page in any local newspaper and   one realizes we're consistently doomed to repeat that ignorance. For that matter, "Witchhammer" is just as prescient today as it was almost 40 years ago.

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