In 1678, somewhere in the Northern Moravian region of the (now) Czech Republic, an old beggar woman was spotted hiding a piece of the sacramental bread during a communion in a church. When the priest present there confronted her and demanded an explanation for her action, she begged forgiveness and said she was carrying it for a certain other woman, whose cow had stopped giving milk. They believed the holy wafer would make the cow give milk again! The priest reported the matter to the countess, and upon discussing with some others, it was concluded that the women were not victims of some superstitious beliefs, but rather, practitioners of witchcraft!
A witch commission led by an ex-inquisitor by the name of Boblig was formed. Boblig was given all the powers to do whatever was deemed necessary to get rid of witchcraft in the countess's estate. Driven by a greed for wealth, power and recognition, Boblig commenced his trials starting with three women, which triggered a chain reaction of false accusations, wrongful arrests, and forced confessions by the most barbarous acts of medieval third degree torture.
All this eventually led to execution by burning at the stake, of hundreds of innocents including a well-respected priest. This gross injustice continued for almost eighteen years 'til Boblig's death. He went on amassing the wealth of the people he prosecuted, and no one could do anything about it. Those who dared protest, were implicated as well. This is no fable. It is a true story; a dark chapter in the history of Moravia, that witnessed one of the worst faces of human moral corruption ever.
Václav Kaplický penned a novel on these events, which was later adapted by director Otakar Vávra in his sledge hammer of a film aptly titled "Witchhammer" (1970). The film came out towards the end of the most rebellious movement in cinema, the Czech New Wave. Vávra in his stark, dark film pulls no punches and delivers a brutal, gut-wrenching slab of cinema that leaves you feeling appalled and helpless.
It is an era that is incredibly medieval, literally as well as figuratively, where religion and superstition dominate to the extreme, and heretics face censure and punishment for anything that goes against the established Catholic beliefs. It also appears to be commonly accepted that witches exist and they meet at some local meeting place called Peter's Rock, where they indulge in all sorts of sacrilegious activities including fornication with the devil! Anyone suspected of even going near that place is subject to persecution and death by burning if charges of witchcraft are proven against him/her!
In such a scenario, the ugly face of religious extremism and dogmatism reveals itself. The incident of the old beggar woman, as it happened, acts as a starting point and thus ensues, a series of events that beggars the imagination. Meaningless arrests, confessions forced out of innocent women and men by cruel methods including subjecting to the rack and the thumbscrews, and eventually the unjust execution of these hapless beings by burning at the stake in public presence. The older women are left to suffer insufferable pain and beating while the more younger women also become a victim of the lust of their captors. A humiliating full body examination of a woman becomes an excuse, to find the devil's mark which could very well be a mole!
All this at the hands of a hungry madman who begins to love and strives to maintain his authority. Vávra intersperses shots of a cloaked monk standing in the shadows, mumbling misogynist recitation, presumably from the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century book on the prosecution of witches, juxtaposed against the film's steady buildup to atrocities of increasing magnitude. The monk's more horror-fiction-like chilling narration reveals an irony in the film's brutally realistic proceedings. Who is really at one with the devil here? The punished or the punisher?
This reviewer was blissfully unaware that the film is a historically true account of actual events that happened in the 17th century on this very planet and hence upon the realization of the same, the impact was all the more powerful. Injustice of this ghastly nature went on for years, and nobody did anything to stop it. Whatever happened to humanity back then? How does a lousy, sloppy innkeeper who served drinks in an empty inn suddenly begin to control people's lives? It all boggles the mind!
But then one realizes that it wasn't just in those days that such things happened. This is a classic example to give to explain historic recurrence. The trials happened in the 17th century. Similar witch trials happened in colonial Massachusetts around the same time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials). In the 20th century, happened the Communist regime that led to the said film movement, the Czech New Wave.
Obviously, Otakar Vávra drew parallels between Václav Kaplický's novel based on the real incidents then, and the real incidents now (during the 60s in Czechoslovakia) and in a move of genius, presented a veiled allegory in the form of a historical drama! The dig at the Communist Government and their unjust, haphazard ways starts getting clearer when there seems to be no respite of any sort, and one begins to see where the film is going. A power-drunk Boblig blurts out in an empty dining hall: "I have moved forward. All it takes is courage, a firm goal and no scruples. I am at the top". Isn't that true of essentially any Fascist leader?
Similarly, albeit also in contrast, during the era of US Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, there was McCarthyism, the anti-communist movement, which was characterized by reckless accusations of disloyalty and communist tendencies against thousands of Americans. There was a similar fear campaign against communist infiltration in the US government much like the paranoia surrounding infiltration by the witches among God-fearing Christians as depicted in the film. History indeed does repeat itself then!
A major theme explored in the film is that of the credibility of torture as a means of extorting out a confession and an ultimate means to reach the truth. One of the characters in the film even spells out this aspect when he says that one shouldn't underestimate bodily pain. It then brings to mind several contemporary situations, like methods used post 9/11 and other such instances where third degree torture is inflicted and relied on to incriminate someone. But how much truth is really there to these judgements after all?
Many of the Czech New Wave films, especially those that satirize the communist government, have an absurd comedy flavor to them and the leaders represented in those films are bungling idiots. "Witchhammer" is a film of a different breed, however. It is one that isn't really a comedy, but a rather serious, tragic, harrowing, agonizing, gut-wrenching, infuriating, grit-your-teeth-with-helplessness-and-anger kind of a film! It has the tendency to emotionally affect and disturb, and make you feel worse than any modern day torture porn film. And therefore one expects, in a powerful film such as this, given the film's grave universe, that the characters are at least treated with the same kind of gravity.
It is not a major issue, but a tad disappointing, however, that some comic relief has been resorted to and there are some blatantly caricaturish portrayals of certain characters. The side characters are excusable, but even the antagonist, Boblig (Vladimír Smeral) is shown to be a textbook villain who is a loud, lecherous, nose-blowing drunk with an evil smirk and cartoonish mannerisms! It would've benefited to make him a more realistic character, like Dean Lautner (Elo Romancik). Along with being aggressive as he is here, he could also have embodied a more grave, cold, ruthless persona. That would give off an aura of a real fascist leader emblem that this character intends to be.
Beautifully cinematographed by Josef Illik in sharp black and white and chiaroscuro to accentuate the exceedingly bleak proceedings, wonderfully scored by Jiri Srnka and replete with some splendid performances, "Witchhammer" is one hell of a hidden disturber that would give a run for the money to all the modern horror films centering around torture. Definitely watch if you have a reasonably strong heart. It will be a while before the effect wears out.