The time is the seventeenth century. The beggar Maryna Schuchová hides the Host in her scarf at the Communion. She admits to the parish priest Schmidt that she intended to give it to the midwife Groerová to heal her ailing cow. The young priest declares her a witch and convinces the Sumperk countess De Galle to summon the inquisitor Boblig from Edelstadt. This failed student of law sees the offer as a great opportunity. He uses torture and threats to force the women from the to testify to their meetings with the devil and learn by heart the lies he has made up for the inquisition tribunal. Boblig accuses the wealthy burghers of witchcraft as well, and so wants to seize their possessions.
With a plot as aggressive as the sound of its title suggests, Witchhammer is a historically accurate account contemporary to the Czech New Wave, but simultaneously refusing to belong to the experimental / existentialist trends of the movement, separating itself for independent consideration.
With a marvelous cinematography that transforms the attrezzo into sceneries of terror and human injustice, Otakar Vávra directs a relentless and powerful look into the cruelty of the Inquisition authorities orchestrating a fabrication process of false witnesses for fulfilling personal interests, such as the confiscation of the goods of falsely accused nobles and merchants, and the increase of their wealth. Whereas it is very true that the message of intolerance and the greediness of the ecclesiastical authorities resonates today, it is important to consider that the film’s intentions are, at least, twofold. One side has already been covered.
The second one goes like this.
The film never takes a radical position, that is, that of the authorities or favoring the innocents. On the contrary, it functions as a mammoth-sized vehicle of condemnation against the imposed concept of human “justice”. The Inquisition provides the easiest setting to illustrate the film’s statements graphically, but it is important not to consider the very different past circumstances of the time (extreme religiosity, religious intolerance, the fabricated trials, the 17th Century torture methods) as irrelevant to our modern times, because the intention is not (only) to make an expertly filmed account of the Inquisition that cannot go beyond a historical analysis. It touches the topic of torture, which I consider to be one of the strongest issues to be considered about human dignity. It is a known fact that torture is the most effective devise to manipulate the person into making a fabricated confession, because the person will say anything just to make the suffering stop. So the inquisitors stand for any government figure today working under the same mentality. They are literally shown as loud nose-blowing, repugnant, sexually immature drunkards with no appreciation for human life or social strata. However, instead of making the mistake of drawing one-sided caricaturesque cardboard-cutout clichés, it remains neutral at the beliefs of people, and yet condemns those that inflict damage on others.
Excellent performances, a glorious art direction and costume design, and a catchy original score are just extra bonus points in one of the most staggering deliveries of the Czech New Wave, notorious for its graphic sexual and violent content. It is not entertainment. It is not pleasant. Yet, some truths are not either, but must be seen and known for the sake of living in a better society. It is a buried gem waiting to be discovered by those willing to explore those unfamiliar, dark corners of international celluloid that few would mind to go to.
— Edgar Cochran (Letterboxd)
Subtitles:English, Czech (muxed), English (srt)