[1 April 2009]
In 1970, two years after Soviet tanks crushed the “Prague Spring” and initiated the grim era of “Normalization”, the state run film studio (Filmove Studio Barrandov) of Czechoslovakia managed to produce two masterpieces. Both are obviously Czech (great feasts, good booze and better nudity) and are beautifully crafted with superb performances. But the similarities end there. Indeed, purchasing Czech Chillers is like going to the store to buy a live butterfly and a pair of brass knuckles.
The live butterfly of this pair is Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders which is a jaw dropping, surreal trip into erotic innocence and horror. Valerie, played by the stunning Jaroslava Schallerova, is a 13-year-old who, after having her first period, is transformed from an innocent and protected girl into a much lusted after young virgin. Actually, Valerie isn’t all that transformed but everyone around her is.
Her stern and virtuous Grandmother (Helena Anyzova) suddenly becomes mad with lust and sells her house and granddaughter to regain her youthful beauty by becoming a vampire. Her purchaser may be a bishop, her father, a vampire—or all three put together. The birdlike young Orlik (Petr Kopriva) goes from a helpful friend and object of a girlish crush to a brother who may or may not be intent on incest. A visiting missionary who starts as a saintly savior of Africans becomes a witch doctor who tries to ravish her.
It’s almost as bad as junior high school but Valerie copes with it all pretty well. There’s a quality of innocent curiosity that Schallerova portrays (she was 13 when the movie was made) in which Valerie is trying to puzzle out what is an unnatural horror and what is simply part of life. The combination of beauty, innocence and curiosity makes Valerie achingly desirable yet untouchable. Sheer genius.
The same state of being that Valerie inhabits is induced in the viewer, as well. It’s the childlike sensation of seeing something without knowing what we are seeing. The experience is disconcerting but very pleasant. The beauty and the elegance are such that one doesn’t have to understand the story in order to enjoy it. Watching Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is like chasing a butterfly through a meadow.
Witches’ Hammer on the other hand is Otakar Vavra’s demonstration of brass knuckles. Based upon transcripts of actual witchcraft trials held in the villages of Velke Losiny and Sumperk during the late 17th century, this film deals with the seizure of power through force and terror. It’s a true tale of fairly reasonable and humane people pitted against the single-minded lust for power of one man. Guess who wins. By the end of the story the viewer almost wishes that there were a real devil roaming about.
The trouble begins when an old beggar woman is caught trying to steal a consecrated host at mass. She is brought before an inquiry consisting of the aging yet vain Countess De Galle (Blanka Waleska), an earnest young priest, Konig (Jiri Holy) and the Deacon, Lautner (Elo Romancik). It turns out that the host (communion wafer) was stolen by the beggar woman in order to make a cow give more milk. She was hired by the local midwife who promised to pay her a quart of peas.
Lautner chastises the old woman for her superstition and is about to let her off with a light penance, but Konig intervenes and demands that an inquisitor be summoned. The countess over rules Lautner and after some argument it is decided to send for Boblig.
Boblig, (Vladimir Smeral) suffering in an impoverished and disreputable retirement, knows an opportunity when he sees one and leaps into his task with gusto. He quickly sets up the machinery of inquisition, catching more and wealthier people into his net (it’s profitless to burn a poor witch), while intimidating all who stand in his path.
Very quickly a duel develops between Lautner, the only townsman with real courage, and Boblig. It’s fascinating and instructive to watch as Boblig tortures, bullies and co-opts all opposition, leaving Lautner alone and ultimately helpless. It’s not a case of evil triumphing because of good men doing nothing, though. It’s a case of everyone trying to the limits of their courage and failing in the face of implacable ruthlessness.
It’s riveting realism. The sets and costumes are perfect. The quality of the actors is so good as to give the film real depth. There are no caricatures; almost everyone with a speaking role is a developed and masterfully portrayed character.
The violence is far more deeply felt not because it is graphic but the quality of the realism is so high that Witches’ Hammer should be required viewing in Civics classes. If anyone wants to know how bastards wind up controlling things and how they get away with it, Vavra will tell you.
Vavra is in a good position to know. Any Czech his age would have been a child during the Hapsburg Empire and seen the chaos of its fall. As Vavra aged he saw liberal democracy, fascist occupation, more chaos, another stab at democracy, Stalinism, the Prague Spring and Normalization all before he finished middle age. Trying to cope with all of this while making films must teach a man many things and we should certainly listen to what Vavra has to say. Arthur Miller, the author of The Crucible (Salem witch trials as McCarthyism) seems a rather provincial and spoiled child by comparison.
The only dramatic license that Vavra takes is in the portrayal of Lautner. He represents us or at least the type of person that we would hope to be. Wise, learned and humane, Lautner is a handsome man’s man with quite understandable vices. At the beginning of the story, he’s prosperous, popular and secure. He’s the champion of his community. What happens to him is a complete travesty but then again it adds to the realism.
As for Boblig, he is not only real but we see incarnations of him every day. He’s the type of guy who makes Satan redundant. Smeral portrays him with chilling brilliance. “All one needs is ruthlessness and fixity of purpose”, proclaims Boblig as he enjoys his triumph. The devil has indeed arrived and is enjoying himself mightily. Perhaps the most sincere tribute to Witches Hammer is that it was suppressed by the communists while Valerie and Her Week of Wonders went on to international fame.
The pairing of these films demonstrates the breadth and depth of the Czech cinema. It speaks well for the human spirit that in spite of the tanks, the repression and the censors, somehow the Czechs managed to show a dream of wondrous fantasy and a nightmare of brutal reality. Let’s just hope that such visions can survive the joys of the free market.
Both DVD’s come with an informative booklet. There’s a rather odd cartoon added onto Valeries Week of Wonder but no other special features. But then, neither film requires any backup or explanation. They stand on their own.