Blu-Ray Review – Witchhammer

Witchhammer is an extremely obscure film that came out during the golden era of Czech filmmaking during the ’60s. It was directed by Otakar Vávra, who was considered the father of Czech cinema and started directing films all the way back in the ’30s. He has been criticised by some because of his willingness to conform with the communist regime, and he even made films under the Nazi’s rule, but he always was adamant that it was minimal cooperation, not ideological agreement.

The film itself was inspired by true-life accounts of the 16th century Northern Moravia witch trials. It starts initially with one woman, but as you would expect it becomes full-blown hysteria, with the head inquisitor using the famous Malleus Maleficarum as his guide to interrogating the women who are considered witches. (The book in question was actually the second best-selling book in the world for 200 years, second only to the Bible.)  Naturally, many woman are brutally tortured and eventually burnt at the stake, but a priest starts questioning the validity of their witchery.

The screenplay was co-written by Ester Krumbachová, who was responsible for writing many of the most well-loved Czech films, like DaisiesValerie and Her Week of Wonders and The Party and the Guests. She is slightly forgotten in favour of her husband Jan Němec and her later frequent collaborator Věra Chytilová. However, she obviously had an equally unique voice, which melded well with these directors, Chytilová famously rejected being called a “feminist” because she hated western labels. I don’t know if Krumbachová agreed with her, but certainly there is a feminist streak in the films she wrote anyway, and Witchhammer was no exception.

Actual witch hunts are obviously the most extreme version of the patriarchy at work. Interestingly, Wicca has came back in a big bad way in the Trump era, with spells being cast every month to “protect” woman from Trump: the pop star Lana Del Ray made headlines after she admitted to using witchcraft on Trump. Krumbachová obviously wrote a similar perspective into the film, and you can’t help but feel for the woman who are being horribly mistreated in the film. She also made it as a clear allegory for the oppression of the Czechs by the Soviets after the ‘68 invasion, and the film was therefore swiftly banned and was out of circulation for many years.

The film had a message in 1968 about mob mentalities and conformity, which at the time was mostly aimed at a “left-wing” ideology but still has relevance to the modern day, with the Trump administration’s crackdowns on a whole range of things, not to forget some of the crazy witch-hunts that go on within the left itself. It’s a strong statement about how people with power oppress the most vulnerable in society. It also boasts stark black and white photography, which enhances the most horrific elements of the film.

The disc includes an appreciation by Kat Ellinger in the form of a visual essay, and a fun experimental short by Vávra, which he made in the 1930s. The booklet includes writing on the film by critic Samm Deighan and some of Vávra’s on thoughts on the film.

★★★½

Ian Schultz

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