GRETEL AND HANSEL is a wonderfully dark little gem of a movie. And it’s about one of my favorite subjects: witches!
Directed by Osgood (Oz) Perkins (son of the late actor Anthony Perkins), this eery, atmospheric production stays close to the Brothers Grimm fairytale “Hansel and Gretel.” Added in are supporting characters, interesting stylized scenes, and some background about the evil Witch, played here by veteran screen maven Alice Krige (as the older/crone Holda) and Jessica De Gouw (the young Holda). Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is switched up to being a teenager, while her younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey, in his film debut) is around eight years old. The two siblings wander into a dark forest in search of work and food, their impoverished widowed mother having cast them out of the house.
The lighting is largely dim throughout, with Robin Coudert’s synthesizer and rock music score effectively rounding out the movie’s overall mood of dread and intrigue. The cinematography was beautifully done, with stark, often claustrophobic interiors juxtaposed with lush yet foreboding outdoor forest scenes. The look and feel to almost every frame is dreamlike, as fairytales generally are. This is also helped along by a script with stretches of brief dialogue coupled with ponderous camera work over scenery and people’s faces.
This is a purposefully ponderous yet active, at times hallucinatory, movie. The Witch and Gretel are the core, yin-yang characters whose psyches initially join in alliance and then become locked in battle. Gretel is the heroine who, with the help of portentous dreaming, comes into her own power as both a newly-menstruating woman and a novice witch, the implication being that these are one and the same. Gretel becomes Holda’s apprentice in hedge witchcraft, including herb and food sorcery. But, acting as protector and surrogate mother to her brother, Gretel is determined to avoid going the way of corruption as the lone, aged Holda has long done. Hansel becomes the central sacrifice and means for Holda’s devious plans over bringing Gretel over to the dark side. Gretel, the maiden, makes a conscious decision to use her budding power for good. This affirms that the eventuality and mysteries of motherhood and then crone-dom, when approached mindfully and with care, can and should be ultimately viewed as positive cycles in women and in nature overall. That said, sometimes power corrupts a few (such as Holda) along the way in the challenges of life and the world, and still even others can be born into darkness at the start. Both the dark and light sides of witches are thoughtfully, respectfully portrayed here, making them more human and accurate to real life. Such complex and nuanced treatment of an all-too-often maligned subject is refreshing for me, an eclectic Pagan, to see played out on-screen.
I am no folklorist, but I’m familiar just enough to recognize some references to folklore in GRETEL AND HANSEL. For example, during a lesson from Holda to Gretel in hedge magic/sorcery, the elder witch introduces the younger to a clear salve for rubbing on the hands. This salve or “flying ointment” then opens up one’s innate telekinetic powers, with Gretel soon able to move Holda’s nearby stang by concentrating her mind on the object. Later, the maiden goes outside to find she can mentally cause a large tree to rock to and fro. I grew up hearing about women in olden times using a hallucinogen-filled ointment to rub inside their vaginas with a stick in order to produce a sense of flying. This appeared to be a more G-rated and literalized reference to that old lore.
Cloth dolls, likely poppets (though I’m not sure), show up in odd places in the woods in one scene, such as a few in a tree. Gretel comes across another one by a stream where she is cleaning clothing soaked in her menstrual blood while she’d been sleeping. There is probably some old folklore reference here concerning the placement of such dolls in trees and by rocks for magical purposes. Regardless, the effect was intriguingly creepy and involved no dialogue. I had the sense that Gretel was perhaps symbolically finding a part of herself, such as her nascent female power or capacity for witch craft. Fascinating.
I am not sure what the meaning is behind that of Holda’s, and later Gretel’s, black (or deep blue)-stained fingers, which are likely colored by woad, an herb that produces a very dark blue dye. I suspect this may have been another ancient Germanic folkloric reference, with (possibly) woad indicating a witch/sorceress/master herbalist, i.e., someone unique and powerful who works with herbs and other plants. I do know that woad goes back to being used by the ancient Celts and Picts, who would paint their skin with it as part of preparing for battle. Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of the Arthurian fantasy classic THE MISTS OF AVALON, has her main characters in that novel painted up in woad as part of a magical rite. In any event, the darkly dyed fingers of the witch crone Holda and, later, of the maiden/young witch Gretel make for an intriguing mark of having acquired earthly, feminine, plant-based powers.
Yet another example of folklore in the movie arises in one of my favorite scenes in the film. Just before arriving at the Witch’s cottage deep in the woods, the starving Gretel and Hansel come upon a cluster of red-colored fly agaric mushrooms. Gretel proceeds to talk to the fungi, asking permission for her and her brother to eat them without dying from their possible poison. After then ingesting probably a handful each, the two children enter a hallucinogenic trance state, which both the indigenous Sami and Siberian shamans historically have also done from eating these same kinds of mushrooms. We the viewers do not actually see what Gretel and Hansel see. But, watching their dramatic facial expressions and noise-making, enhanced by a wonderfully strange sound track, make for an effective transition into the next part of the movie. For, the two wake up in the morning after an afternoon and night of entheogen-enhanced inner journeying and enter an alternate world of sorts, that of the Witch Holda’s house and surrounding property. In a sense, the children are unknowingly initiated into a shamanic state to then enter the Middle World, Dream Time, or any number of other ancient indigenous terms used to define the realm of the supernatural and/or place beyond what the naked eye sees in the day-to-day physical world. Very cleverly done.
Dream and reality intermingle throughout this movie, particularly right before and once the crone Holda enters the story. Gretel is frequently dreaming, only to wake up and find some aspect of her dreams to be somehow true– past, present, or imminently. The abundance of beautifully-prepared food by Witch/Holda is suspect to Gretel, given there are no farm animals around to produce the milk and meat placed on the long table before them. Is the food even real? What are Gretel and Hansel actually eating? After all, having entered a shamanic state en-route to Holda’s and having since drunk her mysterious milk and herbal tea concoctions and eaten her oddly perfect, unspoiled food, it is possible the two are continuously consuming entheogens, thereby hallucinating these seeming results of magic. Within Witch’s domain, is it all simply just a haunted dream? The implications are bizarre and gruesome. Again, fascinating.
I’m impressed by the acting of everyone in GRETEL AND HANSEL, particularly that of Krige, Lillis, and Leakey, the three primaries. Ms. Krige, with her dark beady eyes, bony body, and deliberate movements is a powerful mix of crafty, sad, scary, and dominating. Sophia Lillis conveys a believable and compelling complexity. In particular, she expresses a young woman’s inner struggle to keep her sense of innocence while experiencing a fast encroachment of deep suspicion of others, having been thrust too soon into learning how people can’t be trusted, especially when you’re poor, young, and pretty. Hansel’s presence keeps her grounded in valuing innocence and goodness. She grows confident and clear-thinking before our eyes, a wonderful character for mothers with their daughters to see up on screen. Lastly, Samuel Leakey is excellent, portraying a believably naive boy determined to live in his mind of fairytales and trust in the world no matter what, until even he too finally begins to mature and briefly question things, though not before enduring an ordeal of sorts.
Filmed mostly in Dublin, Ireland and then later for a time in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, this short and thoughtful supernatural horror movie comes in at at eighty-seven minutes. The screenplay is both Pagan and woman affirming as well as female centered without being anti-male. It taps into the currents of nature and shamanic and magical practices informed by the use of herbs and entheogens in particular. It honors the Brothers Grimm’s source text of “Hansel and Gretel” while building upon it in some creative and thought-provoking ways.
I enjoyed and deeply appreciated GRETEL AND HANSEL. It is fantastical and stimulating without being overdone, a very special work of cinema. This is largely not for those who always prefer a lot of fast-paced violent action in movies. Also, intolerant Christians (or any number of other rigidly-practicing followers of assorted religions) will find this film sinful and heretical. But, as I’ve always sensed, and this screen drama affirms, spirituality can be practiced in many forms, including as a witch.