Witchhammer [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (23rd November 2017).
The Film

When an old beggar woman is caught during mass stealing a consecrated host, she confesses that she intended to give it to the local midwife to give to her cow that had stopped giving milk. While Deacon Lautner (DemonsAre Calling's Elo Romancik) chastises her for her "foolish superstitions" but Father Schmidt (Dreams for Sunday's Eduard Cupák) believes they are "on the track of widespread heresy" and has already gone over his head and reported to the Bishop's Consistory, requiring that they summon an inquisition judge. While Lautner tries to mitigate damage by suggesting a judge familiar with the local superstitions, Schmidt charges that the judge was suspended for letting four witches go free – women Lautner claims were of "unsound mind" – and instead suggests Boblig of Edelstadt (The Treasure of a Byzantine Merchant's Vladimír Smeral) who never finished his law studies but has forty years of experience in the inquisition. A lowly tavern owner since his retirment, Boblig is thrust back into (self)importance and basks in the attentions of the Countess de Galle (A River Performs Magic's Blanka Waleská) whose castle dungeon hosts the inquisition tribunal and violates the tribunal's rules to elicit coached confessions out of the accused and others she has been forced to name through starvation and additional torture with the help of assistant Ignác (Marketa Lazarová's Josef Kemr). After the successful prosecution of three witches, Boblig must drum up more business for himself, and it is not that difficult with the fearful accusing others lest they be suspected. In seizing the property of the accused in order to cover the costs of the tribunal, sees a chance to build his nest egg, checking the financial circumstances of the accused and pressing the accused under duress to name others. After hearing one of the witches not repenting at the stake but begging God's forgiveness for lying under duress and warning the onlookers that the same thing could happen to them, a remorseful Schmidt begs Boblig to stop the inquisitions only to be warned about the devil's deceit. When Lautner speaks out against Boblig and the inquisition, he is warned by his own brother about the danger of speaking up for "helpers of the Devil" and to keep his head down. Resentful of Lautner's popularity with the parishioners and his book-learnedness, Boblig targets Lautner's beautiful young housekeeper Zuzana (The Feather Fairy's Sona Valentová) as a means of building up a case against Lautner for witchcraft; but will Zuzana's socially-unacceptable love for her employer give her the strength to withstand the torture?

Less sexually and violently graphic than the Western equivalents such as Witchfinder General and Mark of the Devil, what is so genuinely frightening about Witchhammer – loosely adapted by noted Czech New Wave female screenwriter Ester Krumbachová (Daisies) from the novel by Václav Kaplický and authentic historical court records – is just how dead-on the absurdities are that they simultaneously provoke laughter and anger; for instance, the Sheriff threatening to arrest Boblig for jailing the revenue officer and forester for witchcraft only to be seized by his own men as Boblig accuses him of championing "associates of the Devil." Major sections of the film are bookended by cutaways to a monk (All My Good Countrymen's Václav Lohniský) fervently asserting that "The womb of woman is the gateway to Hell. Through woman, sin came into the world. Woman is sin," but the film demonstrates the ways in which powerless women are victimized or used not to seduce man but exploited as a means of getting to powerful men by those motivated by greed." Similarly, as the monk describes the revels of the Black Mass, the film cuts not to the Witches Sabbat but to the feasts at which Boblig regales the lusty and gluttonous town elite with prurient details of witchcraft and witchhunting first as a guest and later as a host (and in the end, alone once he has seized all of their property). The scenes of torture in which the accused are coached with details provided by Ignác and the confessions before the tribunal in which they glance over to him for prompting parody the Communist show trials of the 1950s as much as the Salem witch trials of Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" paralleled the congressional hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the same era, and critical writing on Witchhammer have interpreted it as director Otakar Vávra's (August Sunday) response to the Soviet clampdown (or "normalization") of the Prague Spring of 1968 following the brief bubble of freedom that preceded it (the period that also spawned the Czech New Wave of cinema). Relatable human emotions are not lost in this approach, from the impotent and the craven – including the Countess who is at first amused to get to see a witch, devout enough to be scared into assenting to Boblig's requests, and then takes off to the country until the unpleasantness blows over – and it is perhaps fitting that the more venal motives for accusation are only enacted on the part of the members of the tribunal when offered enhancements to their finances and statuses to support Boblig's rulings while the townspeople are more relatable in their fear of being accused and their vain hope that agreeing to accuse certain people under torture might somehow lead to freedom and forgiveness, or at least a quicker death. It is, perhaps, appropriate that the relationship between Lautner and Zuzana is given the briefest of lip service until the end, since it is principle that Lautner stands up against Boblig rather than more personal concerns. More bureaucrat than religious fanatic, Boblig without his wig looks very much the lowly "pensioner" Lautner calls him and even more ridiculous with it on, and he remains more pathetically greedy than monstrous at his worst; and the "evil triumphant" ending is more resonant than cynical because the evil here is so opportunistic and thoroughly unworthy of even the most grudging admiration. Witchhammer is a masterwork whose political parallels are evident even without any contextual knowledge of Communist oppression in the country of its origin during the period of its production.


Previously available on DVD from Facets stateside in a cropped, non-anamorphic PAL-converted transfer with burnt-in subtitles, Witchhammer was one of the titles to benefit from a Czech National Film Archive restoration which netted an anamorphic, dual-layer Czech Republic DVD with the optional of English subtitles for the feature only. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen BD50 release is derived from a new HD transfer (or "re-master" as credited on the back cover) that has the rare splice and a few fleeting but deep scratches that apparently could not be painted out remain, but is on the whole an attractive representation of the film's monochrome CinemaScope cinematography.


The effectiveness of the clean Czech LPCM 2.0 track is evident from the start of the credits with the score of Jirí Srnka (Wolf-Trap) while the optional English subtitles are able to keep up with some rapid monologues and overlapping dialogue.


Besides "The Light Penetrates the Dark" (4:46), a 1931 short film from director Vava, the disc includes "The Womb of Woman is the Gateway to Hell" (22:21), an appreciation by Diabolique Magazine's Kat Ellinger who discuses the ways in which the film is more comparable to The Crucible and Carl Theodore Dreyer's Day of Wrath than any of the British and European witch-hunting films of the late sixties and seventies, as well as some of the Eastern European films about the clash of Christianity and Paganism like Eduard Grecner's Dragon's Return or Frantisek Vlácil's Valley of the Bees andMarketa Lazarová, recurring themes of screenwriter Krumbachová across her works for other directors including Vera Chytilová (Fruit of Paradise), and the stripping of women's autonomy in the middle ages and its parallel in the show trial and execution of Czech female politician Milada Horáková by the Communists in 1950 (the verdict would be posthumously annulled in 1968 and she would receive the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk). An essay booklet by Ellinger's fellow Daughters of Darkness podcaster Samm Deighan overlaps in some areas while also discussing the fear of women apparent in witch-hunting texts and prosecutions, and the social underpinnings of the use of Goya images from Los Caprichos under the opening credits, along with a selection of quotations from Vavra on the film from various sources.


Witchhammer is a masterwork whose political parallels are evident even without any contextual knowledge of Communist oppression in the country of its origin during the period of its production, and Second Run's Blu-ray thoughtfully provides plenty of helpful background.


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