Witches’ Hammer

Otakar Vavra apparently made this 1969 Czech film about 17th-century witch trials with modern political trials in mind, but it also made me think of the abuses that have occurred in our asset-forfeiture programs today. The story begins when a choirboy sees an old woman conceal her host at mass; she admits she saved it to help restore the milk from a cow that has run dry, and the existence of such popular superstitions leads to suspicions of witchcraft. A professional inquisitor, Boblig, is brought in. He quickly discovers that all the accused are poor, and knowing that the estates of heretics are forfeited according to a centuries-old Catholic tradition, he goes about finding some rich ones. Brutal tortures make everyone “confess,” allowing Boblig to “prove” accusations against anyone, and his power grows until he proclaims that he now answers to no one. Stylistically the film is not very original, but Vavra makes effective use of black-and-white ‘Scope to place some of the characters in the context of others and of key objects: Boblig is framed between candles; a bishop is seen with a crucifix and a huge book. Such compositions show the narrative’s origin in culture, and this contextualizing makes the frequent insert shots of a hooded face proclaiming evil “facts” about witches all the more effective–cropped, isolated, and strangely lit, it’s the very image of a world gone mad. Vavra effectively pairs the feminist point about Christianity seeing women as the source of all evil with Boblig’s obvious lust for a young “witch.” But what’s most powerful is the way the narrative rhythm develops a feeling of inevitability: as one cycle of arrest, torture, confession, and burning is filmed very much like the previous one, we begin to feel caught in a trap from which no one can escape. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, July 26, 7:30, 443-3737.

— Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph from “Witches Hammer”.