Man’s Hunger for Power in “Witchhammer”

Throughout the history of motion pictures, the witch trials of the 17th century have often been portrayed as an allegory of life under totalitarian rule. Films like Benjamin Christensen’s “Häxan”, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath”, and Ken Russell’s “The Devils” used these horrific tales to criticize the political climate of their time. “Häxan” likened the torturous methods of the 17th century with that of the police. “Days of Wrath” drew parallels between the witch burning and the persecution of Jews during Nazi Germany. “The Devils” was a clear commentary on religious institutions. Otakar Vávra’s powerful magnum opus, “The Witchhammer” is a metaphor for the political trials during Communist rule.

In “Witchhammer”, the use of fear to attain confessions resembled the Stalinist methods of the communist regime in the 1950’s. The film was subsequently prohibited from screening, and only appeared on television decades later in 1989. But what makes “Witchhammer” stand the test of time is its incredibly detailed portrayal of the methods used within the process itself. Vávra based everything on actual texts of court records that took place in Velké Losiny⠀ and Šumperk from 1678 to 1695. Blackmailing, torture, and psychological manipulation was used to turn friends into foes, and the weak into prey. At one point, priest Lautner utters in frustration, “Your Grace, the Devil’s work lies in the brutality towards the superstitious and the uneducated.”

The film shows how the trials were orchestrated in a way so that once the process started, it was impossible to stop. Vávra also puts women at the forefront of his film. The 17th century was the worst time for any woman to be alive. They were thought of as sinful creatures, and Vávra makes a point to highlight how the Church exploited and oppressed them in the most heinous ways. Women were accused of being disciples of the Devil, when in fact men were the real corrupted souls unleashing hell on Earth. The film argues that the witch trials were never really about implementing the teachings of Christ or exposing witchcraft, but rather to feed man’s darkest desires – greed, lust and the hunger for absolute power.

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