Director: Otakar Vávra
Gothic etchings, a ballad about the coming of the Grim Reaper, a monk submerged in shadow warning us in harsh whispers of the dangers of the female sex: “Through woman came Sin into the world…”. This is the sequence of images and sounds that opens Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer, bracing us for its twisted tale of witch-hunts, trials, torture and sexual repression in gorgeous black-and-white widescreen cinematography.
The unpleasantness begins when a hag-like old beggar is caught hiding the Eucharist bread during mass. She pleads to the outraged reverend: she was saving it for a local peasant-woman who needs to bless her cow that no longer milks; but he’s having none of it and refers the incident higher up. The ruling clergy are split on the matter, some thinking this spells the presence of a coven of witches, while others (including Lautner, a moral man of reason who stands for Enlightenment values) see nothing more than the superstition of two old women. To get to the bottom of this, the decision is made to bring in a judge who shall undertake a full investigation. Again, opinion is split as to who should be selected. Lautner favours a judge with a reputation for leniency, but louder voices prevail with their wish for Boblig, known as a ruthlessly strict arbiter.
Nobody suspects at this point just how disastrous this choice will turn out. Boblig, as played by Vladimír Šmeral, can go down as one of the all-time great villains. A slitheringly opportunistic hypocrite who stops at nothing to manipulate the situation to his own benefit, who pretends to be a man of the cloth yet takes immense sadistic pleasure in seeing the accused women stripped and tortured (Boblig like the monk at the opening hates women because he cannot possess them — political and sexual repressions meet), and who sets in motion a machine indiscriminately swallowing and crushing anyone and everyone that comes in his way, even his fellow jurists if they dare contradict him. Boblig represents the absolute corruption of absolute power, since he holds the authoritative knowledge about witchcraft from his trusty tome the ‘Witchhammer’, which he merrily claims as the only book he needs — a telling overlook of the Bible from a supposed man of the Church. With this he controls, solidifies and normalises the language and the narrative of trials into seeming factual, even though he himself knows they are a farce. A reminder if it were needed that ‘fake news’ is no recent invention.
Boblig creates truth out of lies — when people are tortured into confessing a scripted admission of fornicating with the Devil or engaging in black magic with spirits, people come to believe it. Or at least they believe in Boblig’s power to make it, for all intents and purposes, true. It takes a brave, or mad, voice to stand up to him in this atmosphere where any wrong step leads to being burned alive, but Lautner — who, despite having his own demons, enjoys a popularity among his parishioners that provokes Boblig’s envious disgust — has enough conviction to attempt to engage in a Manichean battle of self-doubting Good versus unscrupulous Evil. But who can come to his support? As we are reminded several times through the film, those with the power to stop Boblig are far too preoccupied with the Ottoman invasion of Prague to care about a few sinners burning. Boblig sits pretty in his seat of power — observe how often Vávra cuts to scenes of banquets and feasts right after the torture sequences. Amid wanton suffering the powerful still enjoy themselves after hours and eat, drink, and sleep in serenity.
The source of these events are witchcraft trials that really took place in 17th century Northern Moravia (like Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc this film uses actual court transcripts), and in which hundreds were burnt at the stake. It does not require much historical knowledge, however, to figure out an allegorical dimension is also at play here. Just like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible used the past to mirror McCarthyism in 1950s America, so here Witchhammer inevitably refers to the Stalinist show-trials that plagued 1950s Czechoslovakia (trials that were best adapted into film in 1970 by Costa-Gavras in The Confession). Like the great František Vláčil in his masterpieces Marketa Lazarova (1967) and Valley of the Bees (1968), Vávra connects the Church with the Stalinist line of Communism as two forms of oppressive dogma under different names.
Witchhammer, as aesthetically stunning as it is, is hard to watch without feeling anger and despair. Apart from occasional ‘transcendent’ flashes in the middle of torture, as if briefly the heavens are opening up for these wretched sufferers, God or any divinity is conspicuously absent, there is no succour nor karmic justice. How can a man like Lautner keep faith? Yet it must be admitted that the film’s pessimist outlook is not unjustified, and warrants respectful admiration in its uncompromising nature — no prizes for guessing that it was promptly banned by the Communists after being made. As much as it is about a specific event in 17th century Moravia and an allegory of 1950s Stalinist oppression in Czechoslovakia, Vávra has created a universally binding portrait of how power is captured and consolidated. Power at any cost. It takes a perverse soul to want such power, and yet our world will always necessarily have gaps through which such souls can rise and seize it. It does not take too fanciful an imaginative leap to see how timelessly relevant this remains today.