“A woman’s womb is the gateway to Hell,” whispers a rabidly fanatical monk at the beginning of Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice), while we cut away to watch a group of women bathing nude.
It’s a provocative opening and, although Vávra had the Communist show trials of the 1950s in mind while making the film, it sets out its stall early: the problem is the patriarchy, and sexual repression goes hand-in-hand with political repression, a theme that is as depressingly relevant fifty years later. Or 300-odd years on from the events of the film. Same as it ever was.
The film takes its title from the Malleus Maleficarum, a weighty 15th-century tome that details at length the procedures deemed necessary for dealing with witchcraft, including the methods of torture that were legally permissible for extracting confessions from the accused…
Set in 1670s Moravia, a tiny indiscretion sets into motion a chain of events that will have a devastating effect on a community. An old woman visits a church and “steals” a Communion wafer for a neighbour whose sickly cow isn’t milking. The priest is a total hard-on about it and jumps to the conclusion that witchcraft is involved, reporting the incident to the local noblewoman who owns the land. She, in turn, calls in an inquisitional judge to get to the bottom of the matter.
Enter Boblig von Edelstadt (Vladimír Šmeral), a formerly retired inquisitor who seizes the opportunity to take control of the trials and line his pockets once again, at the expense of the noblewoman funding the witchhunt and dozens of innocent lives. With the Malleus Maleficarum as his inspiration and henchmen all too willing to carry out his orders, Boblig succeeds in extorting confessions and further accusations out of his victims. He’s the Czech equivalent of England’s self-appointed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, another man who made a lucrative business exploiting the fears of the superstitious and the gullible.
Dissenting voices are quickly hushed, but upstanding priest Kryštof Lautner (Elo Romančík) realizes that the initial group of women burnt at the stake were innocent and demands that the trials cease. Of course, Boblig is enjoying his power and living too high on the hog to let pesky little details like people’s innocence put a stop to his activities. Realizing the popular and well-read Lautner is a threat, he ensures that the priest and his cook and lover, Zuzana (Soňa Valentová) are also incriminated.
The outcome of all this won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of witch trials and movies based on them. Witchhammer covers similar ground to other films of the era, such as Michael Reeves’ The Witchfinder General and Ken Russell’s The Devils. In some senses, the familiarity is the story’s strength – told in a methodical, sober way, the story escalates with a sense of grim inevitability, driven on by the ominous theme tune.
The strident marching theme and the reappearance of the lusty, overzealous monk quoting snippets of the eponymous book are some of the only stylistic flourishes in the film, which largely involves middle-aged white men in wigs sitting around tables talking. That is not necessarily a bad thing, because the film is well-written enough to be gripping even with copious subtitles, and the creeping horror of the situation is generated by the sheer levels of hypocrisy, greed and callousness on display. The lengthy scenes of dialogue are interspersed with gruesome moments of torture and people burnt alive, but the violence is not exploitative – it is there to expose the ruthlessness of Boblig’s methods and the hopelessness of the victims’ situation.
Now is a good time to watch Witchhammer, with Donald Trump in the White House and in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In fact, it’s very hard to watch the film without thinking about Trump, a man who has repeatedly abused his wealth and power to exploit women – “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” – and is currently abusing his power in the highest office in the world, trying his best to silence enemies and critics through accusations of fake news and random witchhunts such as the current #ObamaGate farce. Sexual repression going hand-in-hand with political repression.
The film fits nicely into the amorphous folk horror category, which appeared around the time of Witchhammer‘s release and is commonly founded around the “unholy trinity” of The Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). Folk horror is often thought of as a British subgenre, but there are many notable exceptions, including Witchhammer (1970), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (also 1970) and Eiichi Yamamoto’s trippy Belladonna of Sadness (1973) from the same era.
Folk horror has seen a resurgence over the last few years, probably starting with the works of Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England) and finding more mainstream appeal with the success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Ari Aster’s Midsommar. The Witch has received praise as a feminist narrative challenging the patriarchy, picking up a headline-worthy endorsement from The Satanic Temple. The religious group has positioned themselves in recent years as a helpful counterpoint to the old forces of the crusty, bigoted and greedy, who, like the avaricious grifters Boblig and Hopkins, commonly hoard wealth and power while banging on about so-called Christian values.
While Witchhammer doesn’t have the cathartic conclusion of The Witch or Belladonna of Sadness, it’s a powerful reminder of where the true danger lies. And when you see who’s supposedly on the side of God these days, you have to wonder if the Devil might be the better bet…