Witchcraft Double Feature – The Witch (1952) / The Girl on the Broomstick (1971)

I am very grateful to Kat Ellinger (editor of Diabolique Magazine) for the opportunity to see these films as part of her Cineslut Film Club. Both have been on my long-term viewing list and both are worthy of receiving proper blu ray releases – I’d certainly buy them.

The Witch [Noita palaa elämään] (1952)

1952 was clearly a good year for Finnish horror films with strong female protagonists, although The Witch is more comedy than horror. Released a little over two months after The White Reindeer [Valkoinen peura], this story begins with an archaeological dig conducted by Greta (Hillevi Lagerstam) and her husband Hannu (Toivo Mäkelä). They unearth the body of a woman with an aspen stake through her heart, which identifies her to the villagers as Birgit, killed for being a witch 300 years ago. Despite their warnings, Hannu removes the stake and a strong wind whips up, immediately confirming the villagers’ belief that the witch will return to life.

Conceptions of gender are quickly revealed to be central to the film as Greta and Hannu return to their base at the Baron’s mansion. The Baron’s son Veikko (Sakari Jurkka) takes Hannu’s assertion that he has discovered a witch to refer to Greta. Local painter Kauko (Helge Herala) also makes this connection, but with a stronger connection to her sexual allure, as he has not given up his pursuit of her affections despite her marriage (affections which she is steadfast in rejecting in a no-nonsense fashion, making it very clear that she loves her husband and that her views on the matter are paramount). Finally, Baron Hallberg (Aku Korhonen) takes the connection one step further with his statement that all women are witches, and we discover later that his son is reluctant to form a relationship with any of the women in the village as he couldn’t be certain that they weren’t his father’s offspring. The women of the village, rather revealingly, state that Birgit must have been a witch because she resisted the advances of that era’s Baron.

That evening, as the storm worsens, a naked woman (Mirja Mane) is discovered lying unconscious in the grave from which the witch has been disinterred. Seemingly amnesiac, all she can recall is that her name is Birgit. Everybody except Greta is convinced that Birgit must be the witch returned to life, even more so when they discover that the witch’s clothes (in surprisingly good condition after 300 years) fit her. Birgit seems to confirm this impression with her wild behaviour and references to her burial, although the fact that all of the men surrounding her at her return to consciousness have insisted on identifying her as the exhumed witch should throw her self-identification into doubt. Various strange incidents accompany her encounters with the villagers the next day, which could be coincidental or could be signs of her powers.

Mirja Mane is strikingly alluring in her role as Birgit, providing a magnetic performance which throws all of the men in the Baron’s mansion off-kilter in a plausible manner. For the 1950s, she spends a surprising amount of time naked on-screen, but it should be stressed that she spends most of the film clothed and the nudity is not relied on to explain the power she exerts. Without giving away the resolution of the story, the escalation of the effect she exerts on the men during the final 20 minutes is compellingly portrayed, as the staging of the scenes becomes more heightened, the imagery becomes wilder, and events unwind at a more frantic pace, disrupting the narrative and careening towards the climax.

Because this was the 1950s, it’s not terribly surprising when the film attempts to convey a specific moral message during the final scene, likely deriving from the play on which it was based. Whatever the source of the message, it’s not a lesson that can convincingly be drawn from the film as presented. To me, the actual message delivered by the film is a critique of men who project their sexual fantasies onto women and attempt to make them conform to those fantasies while pretending to value their autonomy.

The Girl on the Broomstick [Dívka na koštěti] (1971)

Delightful Czechoslavakian family comedy directed by Václav Vorlícek, who would go on to make Three Wishes for Cinderella [Tri orísky pro Popelku] (1973). I was fortunate to have seen this later film thanks to my wife’s German penfriend, who grew up loving it and bought her a copy of the German dubbed DVD under the title Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel. The Girl on the Broomstick also has a touch of the fairy tale, but more in the “contemporary children’s fantasy” mould.

The titular girl on the broomstick is Saxana (Petra Cernocká), a teenage witch who’s bored by her magic classes. The school setting follows the template of a classic cobwebby castle/dungeon, with a vampire janitor and a four-armed headmaster. Saxana and her classmates exhibit a magnificent range of colourful and exotic fantasy costuming and it’s a great pity that we don’t get to see much more of them. After being given 300 years of detention for failing to do her homework, Saxana turns herself into an owl and flies off to visit our world for 44 hours. Upír the janitor (Vladimír Mensík), who inadvertently assisted her departure, is sent after her to make sure that she doesn’t drink any Hag’s Ear potion during her visit, which would prevent her from ever returning.

Arriving at the zoo in her owl form, Saxana is taken home in a bag by the zookeeper as a gift to his son Honza (Jan Hrusínský), who is pleasantly surprised when Saxana climbs out of the bag in her human form instead. Thankfully the story avoids any sleaziness and establishes a more innocent connection of friendship-which-might-become-something-more-eventually. Saxana accompanies Honza to school the next day. After getting in trouble for too much whispered conversation with Honza, she is moved to sit at the front of class next to Rousek (Jan Kraus), the school troublemaker. Having already decided she wants to stay in our world, she agrees to cast some spells for Rousek in exchange for a hag’s ear. Unfortunately, Saxana is very much the trusting innocent (despite having been raised with the expectation of one day being the sort of witch who traps and eats children), and Rousek and his friends take full advantage of her naivety.

While I got a great deal of enjoyment from this film, I found it very difficult to put up with Rousek and his friends, as they’re just horrible little weasels who seem to have far too easy a time of it for much of the film. After Saxana has turned the school faculty into rabbits (an animal the boys suggested because they’re likely to end up being eaten!) and asks for her hag’s ear, the boys roll around on the floor laughing at her, finding her even more hilarious when they think she’s about to cry. When she threatens to leave, they shove a gag in her mouth, tie her up and push her into a cupboard. Although Saxana quickly rescues herself and flies away on a broom, I wasn’t convinced they would have been able to get away with their behaviour that easily, and they get away with a lot more in the course of the film, before their ultimate comeuppance. I suppose the exaggerated level of success in their villainy fits in with a children’s fantasy, but it still bugged me.

Having said that, Saxana and Honza do manage to wrap things up neatly, with Saxana retaining her agency while setting everything to rights. None of the transformed humans come to any harm, Rousek and his friends are punished, Upír meets a nice cleaning lady and Saxana achieves the life she wants. It’s lightweight fantastical fun which left a smile on my face.

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