Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review of The Witch's Hammer

Considering that fame of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible” and its use of witch hunts as a metaphor for HUAC’s anti-communist trials, it may seem a bit ironic that Czech director Otakar Vavra chose to use witch-hunting as a metaphor for the politically reversed situation of communist leader Gustav Husak’s liberal purge. The fact that its message still holds true, however, does reinforce that the miscarriages of justice spawned by mass paranoia and agenda-motivated, fast-track trials are not tied to any single political circumstance.

Indeed, these works remain relevant even in modern American politics as questions of torture-facilitated interrogations continue to be debated. Moreso than in “The Crucible,” Vavra’s film “The Witch’s Hammer” (1970) is specifically preoccupied with the torture issue. The brutal methods used in witch interrogations had been previously addressed in “Witchfinder General” (1968), but I’m actually a bit out-of-step with the cult line in finding that film a bit unsatisfactory.

“The Witch’s Hammer” takes its title from the 15th century Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook for witch-hunting inquisitors that set scant limitations on the use of pain and trickery for extracting confessions. The work is not mentioned by name in the film, but it makes two cameos. At one point it shows up as “the only book I need” on the desk of Boblig, the self-serving anti-intellectual judge who orchestrates a spiral of accusations, trials and stake-burnings. It casts a more chilling shadow in the form of an unconventional narration by a mad-eyed monk, who reads lurid passages about witch rituals while staring directly into the camera and not otherwise commenting upon the actual story events.

Our hero is Lautner (Elo Romancik), a good man well-versed in legal practice whose honesty and courage stands in great contrast to Boblig, a greedy conniving hypocrite who instantly recognizes a chance to snatch power and never lets go. The performances are top notch all around, but the various voices of reason tend to be less interesting than the petty villains. I think Vavra intentionally defuses any hope for heroism or righteousness to prevail by leaving us with the stolid, common-sensical Lautner. His unwilling to bend makes the search for his breaking point all the more excruciating.

Vladimir Smeral’s smugly impish Boblig is ultimately the performance that remains the most memorable. His diabolical campaign is triggered by an uncompromising priest who later comes to regret his zealousness and is sponsored by a malleable duchess too foolish to recognize her own tyranny. But Boblig’s greatest ally is the fear and inaction of the townspeople, who keep their heads down and hope justice will prevail unaided until it is too late to save anyone.

“The Witch’s Hammer” is one of the most effective witch-hunt movies I’ve seen, in part due to its dead serious tone and unadorned black-and-white presentation. The scenes of thumb screws, whippings and burnings are arguable more horrifying with the New Wave stylistics played down. The camera looks on with horror, but remains as trapped as the characters to do anything about the heinous proceedings. The editing has more freedom, giving us behind the scenes access to Boblig’s gang, the prison cells and the mysterious monk narrator, but it can’t escape the task of chronicling cruelty. Some of my reservations with “Witchfinder General” stem from its borderline-exploitive embrace of the undertaking.

In contrast to “The Crucible” and the variants it inspired, there are several themes that are given particular emphasis in “The Witch’s Hammer.” These include the unreliability of information obtained through torture, the catch-22 logic of law in the grips of fanaticism and the susceptibility of little men and large institutions alike to corruption and collaboration. The criticism of the contemporary Czech political situation was thinly veiled and untempered by any suggestion that the broken system was self-correcting or redeemable. There’s even a bitter blast of injustice in the film’s coda, which explains that Boblig went on to enjoy a long and happy life, even marrying.

Like "The Crucible," “The Witch’s Hammer” is set in the late 17th century, but the European setting made me think it was nearly medieval. There's an even greater level of pessimism and oppressiveness, though it's arguably harder to relate to. In some sense it reminds me of Frantisek Vlacil’s “Marketa Lazarova” and “Valley of the Bees,” but the cinematography and music aren’t nearly as moving. The Facets DVD I watched also suffered from occasional subtitle timing issues and could have used better picture contrast. Still, this is movie definitely worth seeing and not easily forgotten.

Walrus Rating: 8.0


Anonymous said...

Good article. Only one note: This terrible events is not set in 15th century but in the end of 17th century (1678-1695). It already was not medieval, it was near to 18th century - Age of Reason. At that time Boblig really killed 105 people.

FilmWalrus said...

Thanks! I'll make the correction.

Anonymous said...

I just want to add that "Witch Hammer" is a film adaptation of a historical novel written by Vaclav Kaplicky. In the novel it says that Boblig married and lived until a ripe age so Vavra did not make that up.
You can watch many Czech movies on Youtube (a lot of them have English subtitles, although not of great quality).