Also known as The Headsman, this is a historical drama that takes place in Tyrol, starting in 1520. At the age of about 8, two boyhood friends are adopted by the Archbishop and brought up separately. Martin is trained as a soldier, and Georg is brought up as part of the clergy. Twenty years later, after participating in the wars of the Holy Roman Empire, Martin returns to his home town as a captain in the army, and meets up with Georg again, who has become a prior by now. They resume their friendship, but their different lives lead them down very different paths. Georg is, of course, a Catholic, and the Catholics are just now being challenged by the new Lutheran Protestants, in this case the denomination known as Anabaptists. The Catholics clamp down hard on the Anabaptists, burning some of them for heresy.
Martin meets Anna, the daughter of the local executioner, and falls in love with her. By virtue of her father’s office, however, she is an “untouchable” and Georg refuses to marry them. Consequently, Martin has to ask the Anabaptists to perform the ceremony. As Anna’s father recently died, Martin now has no choice but to become the new town executioner, which he reluctantly does.
As the conflict between the Catholics and the Anabaptists intensify, the Spanish Inquisition is sent for, to cleanse the area of heretics. The lady friend of the old executioner’s former assistant (whose job fell to Martin) steals an important relic from the church, and the Catholics immediately blames the Anabaptists. In various ways, Martin and Anna are connected to the Anabaptists and the stolen relic, and become victims of the Inquisition’s persecution. Anna is captured and slated to burn at the stake as a witch. Will Martin be able to save her?
Meanwhile, there are other minor subplots chronicling how the religious conflicts are shaking up all aspects of life, causing much human tragedy in the process. It is a well-produced movie in most ways, and many elements do seem very authentic, even if some of the circumstances are of course both simplified and exaggerated. There are a few scenes of disturbing torture (and several bloody beheadings), but it serves the historical substance of the tale quite well.
Still, the story and the characters are not described strongly enough to ever really grab you, although most of what occurs does feel fairly realistic. There is an emphasis on history and visual intensity more than on effective storytelling and character drama, and consequently the movie fails to make a powerful emotional impression.
Being from 2005, I like how the introductory text reads: “Then as now a fundamentalist alliance of religion and politics pointed the way to an age of darkness.” Seems like a bit of a Bush-criticism there.
The DVD screener had no extras besides scene selection. Not even subtitles, which was a shame, as there were some subtleties involving fatherhood and possible abuse (something about a devil’s mark, which is never properly elaborated on) which I didn’t quite catch.
Shadow of the Sword is released on DVD April 2nd.
Director: Simon Aaby
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Peter McDonald, John Shrapnel, Steven Berkoff, Anastasia Griffith, Eddie Marsan, Julie Cox and others
Runtime: 104 min.
Country: UK, Austria, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Hungary, Germany