Kissing the Devil’s Arse: Witch-Hunting in Eurocult Cinema, c.1968-1976

Mark of the Devil, Part II (1973)

The sequel to Mark of the Devil, Mark of the Devil, Part II (Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält), was directed by Adrian Hoven himself. Nalder appears again, in the same costume (with distinctive tricorner hat and red jacket), but as a different character… Well, a character with a different name, at least. Here, Nalder plays Natas; for all intents and purposes, Natas is identical to the character of Albino in the first Mark of the Devil. The film opens with Natas overseeing the ‘dunking’ of an alleged witch into icy water, through a hole cut in the thick ice that surfaces a lake. He is interrupted in this by a nobleman, Count Alexander von Salmenau (Adrian Hoven), and his wife Elisabeth (Erika Blanc). The von Salmenaus attempt to rescue the girl; in the process, the Count is killed; when Natas returns and breaks the news to his patron, Balthasar von Ross (Anton Diffring), Balthasar instructs Natas to investigate the young son of the von Salmenaus, who is also named Alexander (played by Percy Hoven, the director’s son).

‘The words of the Bible are valid’, Balthasar tells Natas, ‘“Who is not for me is against me”’. Together, the witchfinders discuss the economics of execution, concluding that ‘Beheading is much cheaper’ than burning. When Elisabeth meets a young nun, Clementine, the pair discuss the nature of evil. Clementine asks Elisabeth if she believes in evil, and Elisabeth replies by stating, ‘Of course, it’s all around. For some, it’s obvious. And what’s in the people is called superstition, delusion, hate and jealousy’.

Presumably capitalising on Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and its focus on the sexual habits of nuns, from this point in the story Hoven splits the narrative perspective between Balthasar’s persecution of Elisabeth and Alexander, and Clementine’s relationship with the abbess of the convent and her (Clementine’s) subsequent trial as a witch. When confronted with Balthasar’s claims that Elisabeth and Alexander have made a covenant with the Devil, the abbess (Ellen Umlauf) of the convent seizes the opportunity to ‘purify’ Clementine. The abbess, clearly gaining sexual pleasure from the act, whips Clementine whilst stating, ‘I want to abase myself before you [….] Please beat me’.

When young Alexander hurts his knee in front of Clementine, the novice nun tries to help him; Clementine insists she accompany him to the home of Pompanne (Rosemarie Heinikel), a woman who specialises in herbal medicine. Both Alexander and Clementine are arrested by Natas, and Clementine is accused of making ‘unnatural flying attempts with the boy’. The abbess persuades a priest, Father Melchior (Dietrich Kerky), to intervene on Clementine’s behalf, but Melchior is also accused of witchcraft. Hoven films the subsequent scenes of torture, including a boot of flames which is placed on the foot of Melchior (a very convincing effect that was cut from some versions of the film), with a similar fetishism to that exerted by the witchfinders in the torture of their victims. Meanwhile, Elisabeth tries desperately to have her young son freed from the witch-hunters’ grasps.

In the film’s most challenging scene, Alexander – who is, as the witch-hunters note, ‘about seven years of age’ – is described as having ‘pronounced canine teeth. In a very short period, he will undergo a rapid transformation into a wolfman’. Balthasar insists that the child be ‘pricked’ in order to assess whether or not he has made a covenant with the Devil. The young Alexander is then tortured in front of his distraught mother, Elisabeth. It’s not a particularly graphic scene, but is in many ways far more upsetting – in concept more than execution – than many of the more explicit scenes of torture in this film or its predecessor.

Again, as in the first film, Mark of the Devil, Part II avoids offering any sense of the supernatural – instead foregrounding human cruelty, motivated by superstition and prejudice. Only one moment in the film contains a sense of supernatural potential: as Clementine is executed, her body lowered into the flames, a sudden gust of wind and rainfall extinguishes the fire. Clementine is already dead, of course, her legs dangling uselessly above the pyre; but the locals disperse, seeing the wind and rain as a supernatural ‘sign’. For the most part, however, Mark of the Devil, Part II emphasises the sexual exploitation of women by figures of authority – both male (Balthasar, Natas) and female (for example, the abbess’ abuse of Clementine). A number of times, Elisabeth uses her sexuality to bargain with various figures of authority, including Balthasar, for the release of her son. Finally, she and Alexander are released by the gaoler, who has become sick of Balthasar’s hypocrisy; the gaoler at first offers to help Elisabeth if she will sleep with him, but recants and ultimately assists Elisabeth and Alexander altruistically.

Witchhammer (1970)

With its narrative set in 17th Century Northern Moravia, Czech filmmaker Otakar Vàvra’s 1970 feature Witchhammer took its title from the “Malleus Maleficarum” (‘Hammer of Witches’), Catholic Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer’s 15th Century treatise on the identification and prosecution of witches. Like Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Witchhammer was based on a historical novel – this one by Václav Kaplický. The source book, “Kladivo na čarodějnice”, had been published in 1963 and dealt with the witch trials that took place in Northern Moravia in the 1670s – within decades of Matthew Hopkins’ activities in England. These witch trials, framed in history as an outgrowth of the Catholic Revival, had been presided over by a witchfinder, Jindřich František Boblig, who like Hopkins was claimed to be a lawyer (or student of law). Boblig became a lay inquisitor and was commissioned by Countess Angelia Anna Sibyla of Galle to oversee a series of witch trials that were initiated when an elderly woman, Marie Schuhová, was seen stealing a communion wafer during Mass. Threatened with torture, Schuhová suggested that she had stolen the wafer for an acquaintance, Dorota Grörová. In turn, Grörová implicated another woman, Dorota Davidová, who Grörová claimed wanted the communion wafer for use in a spell that was intended to get her ‘dry’ cow to produce milk. The outcome was that whilst Davidová died in gaol (and her body was burned ritualistically), three other women – including Schuhová and Grörová – were burnt at the stake.

Executions for witchcraft in the region escalated, with the result that members of the clergy, including Tomáš König and Kryštof Alois Lautner, began to criticise Boblig’s methods. Boblig had already arrested and imprisoned Kašpar Sattler and Sattler’s wife and daughter, so that he may confiscate their properties in order to line his own pockets, and under torture the Sattlers pointed the finger at Lautner’s housekeeper (and alleged lover), Zuzana Voglicková. Boblig sought the bishop’s permission to arrest Lautner too, who was burnt at the stake alongside Voglicková and the Sattlers in 1685. Boblig lived in comfort to the ripe old age of 86, and during his time on the witch commission initiated by the Countess, he is claimed to have overseen the executions of around one hundred people.

Vàvra’s Witchhammer follows the above historical events very closely but makes the story a very obvious allegory for the communist regime in present-day Czechoslovakia, which had been initiated by the Soviet invasion of the country that took place in 1968. This was all too apparent to the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia, who banned Witchhammer.

Vàvra highlights the witch-hunters’ focus on the persecution of women by cutting away, at a number of points in the narrative, to shots of a hooded monk as he feverishly expresses various statements against women and, more generally, human sexuality. Thus, Vàvra highlights the repressive fervour of the totalitarian mindset, linking sexual repression with political repression. The film opens with such a scene, the monk declaring that ‘Sin entered the world through man. Woman is sin’. Vàvra cuts here to a shot of the naked torso of a woman as she exits a bath, drying her legs and buttocks. The room is filled with women in similar states of undress. Vàvra cuts back to the monk, via a tight close-up of his mouth, as he speaks: ‘A woman’s womb is the gateway to Hell. Her insatiable carnal desires are the root of all evil’.

Following Schuhová’s (Lola Skrbková) theft of the communion wafer, the Countess’ (Blanka Waleská) advisers suggest that a witchfinder be employed in order to identify and dispatch those who have made a covenant with the Devil. ‘Uncompromising measures must be taken’, the Countess is told, and her ear is bent by the flattery of a member of her court, who suggests that she should hire ‘an experienced inquisitor’ – Boblig (Vladimír Šmeral). However, Boblig is a lay inquisitor with little understanding of the law. The Countess is depicted as a naïve figure of authority, her decisions made for her by her advisors – who know to use flattery more than logic in order to manipulate her thinking.

As soon as Boblig arrives, he notes the wealth evident in the Countess’ home and jewellery before deciding on his fee. Boblig justifies his increasingly high fee, and confiscation of properties of the condemned, by asserting that ‘If we are to purge the Devil from mankind, money can’t be a factor’. Various implements of torture are used – ‘iron chairs’, scold’s bridles – and through simple human terror, the accused confess to crimes they do not fully comprehend, and implicate more people from the community – thus further lining Boblig’s pockets. (‘I’ll say anything you want me to’, one of the old women declares when threatened with torture, and she is trained in her testimony by rote, further implicating her friends and neighbours.) There is no doubt that Boblig is nothing more than a sinister opportunist. In Witchhammer, the witch-hunt is thereby shown to be initiated by the minor transgression of an eccentric elderly woman, and soon escalates into something far more terrible as a result of the self-serving vanity and greed, not to mention ignorance, of figures of authority.

The priest Lautner (Elo Romancik) criticises Boblig, noting that ‘The Devil’s work lies in the brutality towards the superstitious and the uneducated’. However, Boblig becomes motivated by a desire to eliminate his opposition, and is further motivated by jealousy towards the properties owned by Lautner. Boblig’s logic is often self-contradictory: at one point, he tells Lautner ‘I know nothing about law’, and later in the film he also tells Lautner, when Lautner questions Boblig about his conscience, that ‘I’m not a theologian; I’m a lawyer’. The witch-hunts validate themselves: once the box has been opened, it cannot be closed. ‘He who speaks up for heretics risks being accused of one himself’, Lautner is told at one point. Aside from its explicitly politicised approach to the material, Witchhammer differs from most of the other films under discussion in the fact that it is photographed in stark monochrome, and in an anamorphic widescreen format, which gives the film a sense of scale.

The Devils (1971)

Also photographed in an anamorphic widescreen format is Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Russell’s film is, like that of Vàvra, explicitly political and, also like Vàvra’s Witchhammer, a savage denouncement of the totalitarian mindset. Again based on true events, The Devils opens with an onscreen title declaring that ‘This film is based on historical fact. The principal characters lived and the major events actually took place’. Though Russell, being Russell, exercises his artistic licence quite liberally, this declaration of the core narrative’s veracity is actually deeply accurate.

Russell’s picture was adapted from both Aldous Huxley’s 1952 book “The Devils of Loudun” and John Whiting’s play about the Loudun possessions of 1634, itself titled “The Devils”, which was commissioned for the RSC and first performed in 1961. Like Vàvra’s Witchhammer, Russell’s The Devils makes explicit the relationship between sexual and political repression, setting the liberal Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) – the protector of the walls of Loudun, which symbolise the city’s independence – against greater forces represented by Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), who has the ear of King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage). Loudun was a city in which Catholic and Protestant communities mixed; Grandier was an outspoken critic of Richelieu’s persecution of French Protestants, and in Russell’s film Grandier is brought down by his peccadilloes: his siring of an illegitimate son with Philippe Trincant (Georgina Hale), the daughter of Loudun’s magistrate (John Woodvine); and his marriage to Madeleine (Gemma Jones). These are spun, by his enemies, as evidence of a diabolical mindset, despite Grandier’s protestations that his greatest sin is vanity. (‘Call me vain and proud. The greatest sinner to ever walk on God’s earth. But Satan’s boy, I could never be’.) Even under extreme duress, Grandier admits to his human sins but refuses to confess to making a covenant with the Devil. ‘I have been a man’, Grandier notes as he is tortured with ‘the boot’, ‘I have loved women, I have enjoyed power’. He asks his tormentors, pointedly, ‘Do you believe in your conscience that a man should confess to crimes he has not committed simply to ease his pain?’

Richelieu instructs Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) to travel to Loudun and oversee the tearing down of the city’s walls, ostensibly with the idea of preventing Loudun (and other similarly walled cities) from being used as a Hugenot base should a Protestant uprising take place. When de Laubardemont realises that Grandier’s popularity will prevent the city walls from being demolished, he listens to the allegations of sorcery directed towards Grandier by the hysterical Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave) and enlists the help of a ‘professional witchfinder’, Father Barre (Michael Gothard), in persecuting and ultimately executing Grandier.

Barre’s investigation involves an intimate yet theatrical examination of Sister Jeanne that is designed to assess whether or not she is a virgin. (Jeanne claims that Grandier seduced her and initiated her in a Black Mass.) Barre also stages an equally theatrical ‘exorcism’ of the nuns in Sister Jeanne’s care, which degenerates into nothing more than an orgy in which Barre and various other figures take barely concealed delight. Grandier denounces Barre’s methods as pure spectacle: ‘You have turned the house of the Lord into a circus, and its servants into clowns’, Grandier accusses Barre.

Oliver Reed as Urbain Grandier in The Devils (1971)

The charismatic Grandier is painted by Russell, and Oliver Reed’s nuanced performance, as a conflicted figure: a man of faith who nevertheless expresses a profound sense of nihilism and a desire for self-destruction, telling a dying plague victim that ‘You stand on the threshold of everlasting life. I envy you’, and later suggesting to his colleague Father Mignon (Murray Melvin), ‘I have a great need to be united with God’. To his lover Philippe, he philosophises, ‘Even the most innocent lamb is destined for the lustful ram [….] Even lilies decay’.

Russell took from Aldous Huxley’s book about the Loudun possessions the notion that Sister Jeanne des Anges, the prioress at the convent of Ursuline nuns that had been established in Loudun in 1626, was sexually obsessed with Grandier. (‘He’s the most beautiful man in the world’, Jeanne swoons near the start of the film, when she watches Grandier lead a funeral procession from her room in the convent.) This, Huxley and Russell posit, was the primary motivation for the Ursuline nuns’ implication of Grandier in a diabolical plot. Jeanne’s sexual hysteria is foregrounded by Russell through a repeated dream sequence in which Jeanne imagines Grandier as Christ, stepping down from the cross and walking on water before engaging in coitus with Jeanne. At the end of the film, Baron de Laubardemont presents Sister Jeanne with Grandier’s charred, and distinctly phallic, thigh bone – a trophy of her endeavours. (‘I almost forgot’, de Laubardemont notes, tossing the femur to Jeanne as he leaves the room: ‘Souvenir!’) Russell originally intended for the film to end with Sister Jeanne kissing the bone (in mimicry of the act of fellatio) and masturbating (off-screen) with it, though this footage was ultimately considered too taboo and excised from the picture. Nevertheless, a clear line is drawn between sexual repression, hysteria and totalitarian political repression, the sexually repressed, lustful nun used as an agent of the politically repressive forces engineered at a distance by Richelieu. (‘They give themselves to God’, Grandier observes in reference to the Ursuline nuns, ‘But something remains which cries out to be given to man’.)

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The speech Grandier gives to the people of Loudun, when de Laubardemont attempts to tear down the city walls, also seems frighteningly universal and perpetually relevant to the totalitarian mindset of the 21st Century: ‘Every time there is a so called nationalist revival’, Grandier asserts, ‘it means one thing: someone is trying to seize control of the entire country’. Arguably, the film’s most poignant line is delivered by Grandier early in the narrative. ‘To confess is to seek forgiveness, not to blame others’. This simple statement underscores Jeanne’s need to pass the blame for her lust on to the object of her desire, Grandier, and the general ‘passing (of) the buck’ that is a characteristic of the witch-hunt – whether it is spiritual, sexual or political. When faced with charges of witchcraft, Grandier admits his human sins and, even under the most cruel torture, refuses to implicate anyone else.

In the film’s final scene, Grandier is finally executed in a botched murder-by-the-State that makes the work of Jack Ketch look tidy and humane. He is labelled as a heretic but ironically made a martyr. The viewer might be reminded of Christian’s question of Cumberland, in Mark of the Devil, ‘If they die as Christian martyrs, what do their deaths make you?’ Ironically, like Christ, Grandier is tormented and humiliated during his execution. As Grandier burns to death, the vengeful Trincant holds up Philippe’s baby and tells it, ‘Watch, bastard. See how your mother’s honour was avenged’. His ally Ibert (Max Adrian) adds, ‘Lucky little bastard. It’s not every day that baby sees daddy burn to death’. ‘If you would remain free men, fight! Fight them or become their slaves!’, the dying Grandier implores the gathered crowd. Ultimately, The Devils suggests that there is no redemption, and no escape. Evil wins completely.

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