KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE – WITCHES’ HAMMER (1969)
Director: Otakar Vávra
Script: Otakar Vávra, Václav Kaplický
Music: Jiří Srnka
Cinematography: Josef Illík
Cast: Elo Romančík, Vladimír Šmeral, Soňa Valentová
Josef Kemr, Lola Skrbková, Jiřina Štěpničková
Marie Nademlejnská, Miriam Kantorková, Lubor Tokoš
Otakar Vávra is one of the pillars of Czech cinema. Born in 1911, Vávra was working in cinema at almost every crucial shift in the Czech Republic’s cinematic and political history. Vávra’s interest in film began with his passion of literature. Visiting the library in Brno, Vávra met author Jiří Mahen who recommended novels for him to read. Vávra, inspired by the light sculpture installation Color Piano by Zdeněk Pešánek, would direct one of Czechslovakia’s first avant-garde short films SVETLO PRONIKĚ TMOU (LIGHT PENETRATES THE DARK, 1931). By the late thirties Vávra was adapting novels and short stories to screenplays for feature films. During this time, Vávra developed his style of displaying drama through human interaction on film instead of the dialogue between characters. He achieves this by having the camera film the small interactions people have with each other and objects, actions like tapping their feet or fumbling with a lock. Vávra also adapted the style of using past historical events to convey contemporary sentiment about current events. He does this in the early film FILOSOFSKÁ HISTORIA (PHILOSOPHERS HISTORY, 1937) which portrays the Revolution of 1848 as the context of a soon-to-be reality of German reoccupation. Unsurprisingly, the film was banned when Czechsolvakia became occupied the year following the film’s release. However, this era of German occupation helped Vávra learn the skills necessary to survive in the coming communist regime. At first, Vávra had hoped nationalism would help a film industry that was economically poor, and worked hard to set up a framework in which films would be decided upon by filmmakers, artists, and intellectuals. When this betrayed him, he spent the fifties focusing on teaching but he never stopped working on films, again returning to historical themes. During the end of the Prague Spring, Vávra released KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE, a capstone in his career that stands up against all the other great Czech New Wave films to come out of that decade.
KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE recounts the history of Inquisitor Boblig of Edelstadt (Vladimír Šmeral) who judged many trials burning witches in Šumperk, North Moravia. His story begins with an older peasant who tries to sneak out of church with sacramental bread that she hasn’t eaten. When questioned why she didn’t eat it, she tells the lords that her friend has a cow that won’t give milk and they want to feed it the sacrament. Kryštof Alois Lautner (Elo Romančík) is a popular priest in the region and holds that the woman is clearly superstitious, while the others believe she is a witch. They seek out Boblig who is now running an Inn, no longer asked to judge, to lead this new inquisition in their town. Boblig gains more power from torturing people into false confessions and reclaiming their property. Lautner soon becomes a target of Boblig because of Lautner’s fear of the power an inquisition can have and desire to alert the community. Lautner quickly finds himself isolated as his friends are tortured into faking confessions about him and his other friends become afraid of being pulled into the quagmire. In the end, Lautner takes the holier route and confesses to everyone’s sins in a sacrificial hope that it will end the inquisition with his burning at the stake.
Otakar Vávra recognizes that the only reason KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE exists is because of its release during a period of relaxation among censors. If Vávra had attempted to work on the film in the fifties, it probably wouldn’t have made it past being a screenplay. However, the time period is still important to the context of KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE, because similar to FILOSOFSKÁ HISTORIA, KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE uses the hysteria of the witch trials in the past as a commentary on the Slánský trial. Though not as relevant in 1969, the topic was still taboo to discuss, and had made a lasting impression on Vávra when it occurred. Vávra used the scripted trial and KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE as a means to explore how it is possible to manipulate a man into praying for his own death.
A theme that was central to many of Vávra’s films is human isolation; a theme that he felt was prevalent across Czech cinema. Isolation is seen throughout KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE in scenes of a solitary flower on a table, and with Lautner slowly becoming isolated over time as his friends confess of his crimes. Vávra wants the audience to recognize the power of isolation and the true torture it is. Each character in the trials is broken down not just by gruesome torture, but also by the psychological effect of friends casting them aside in the hopes of achieving protection under the inquisition.
Vávra’s KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE shows the maturity of a veteran filmmaker by creating a film that transcends Czech identity, resulting in a film that is relatable to international audiences. While other Czech auteurs in the sixties were clouding their films with cryptic messages about the political situation to hide from censors, Vávra had the experience from German occupation to understand how best to sidestep those overseers. KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE is also a strikingly beautiful film, though the imagery is no where as metaphorical as, say, MARKETA LAZAROVÁ (Frantisek Vlácil 1967)
KLADIVO NA ČARODĚJNICE is available as a region free, PAL, English friendly release from Bonton Film.