By JENN ADAMS
By now it’s safe to say that THE WITCH was a game changer. Robert Eggers’s 2015 film about a puritan family besieged by a witch haunting the neighboring woods shook the genre with its historical accuracy and candlelit beauty. But THE WITCH also marked a shift in the depiction of magical women on screen. The Witch of the Woods and her devilish partner Black Phillip, the family’s nefarious goat, prove to be both menace and salvation for teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). This duality ushered in a wave of genre films painting the classic archetype with fresh nuance and complexity.
Arriving five years later, Oz Perkins’s GRETEL AND HANSEL is a feminist reimagining of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale. More surreal and fantastical than Eggers’s meticulously researched tale, the film centers older sister Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and reimagines the witch of the forest as a mentor of sorts who encourages her to explore her own mystical powers. Though not narratively connected, GRETEL AND HANSEL serves as a spiritual sequel to THE WITCH. Both films follow teenage girls who find empowerment by embracing witchcraft and rejecting the patriarchal structures that have kept them subservient. While Thomasin’s fate is left open-ended, GRETEL AND HANSEL seemingly continues the story, exploring not just the waking of a young witch, but the peril and transformation that follow.
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” writer and director Robert Eggers’s THE WITCH examines 17th century fears of the occult and imagines them to be real. Thomasin’s father William (Ralph Ineson) has left their colonial village out of piety and pride, dragging the rest of his family along with him. They settle alone in a forest clearing and quickly find themselves outmatched by the harsh wilderness. When baby Samuel (Axtun and Athan Dube) vanishes without a trace, they fear he has fallen victim to the Witch of the Woods. Young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) accuse Thomasin of witchcraft and her grief stricken mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) is quick to believe them. The mysterious witch, appearing as a beautiful seductress, an old hag, a crow, and a hare, systematically devours the family until only Thomasin remains. Left alone, she offers herself to Black Phillip (Daniel Malik), who reveals himself to be the devil in disguise. Offered untold pleasures in return, Thomasin signs his book and follows him naked into the woods. There she meets a circle of women performing a ritual around a bonfire. Joining them, she ascends laughing into the treetops, finally free of her oppressive puritanical life.
Eggers introduces Thomasin to the audience as she casts her eyes up to the heavens in prayer. Desperate to win the love of her mother and her god, she begs forgiveness for the sins she’s committed in her thoughts. Throughout the film, she tries to live according to the fundamentalist beliefs of her upbringing, but is constantly accused of witchcraft and blamed for the family’s misfortunes. Her first act of empowerment occurs in a conversation with her father after younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw)’s mysterious death. Fed up with the baseless accusations and grieving for her siblings, she confronts William with his own hypocrisy and incompetence.
In the film’s climax, Katherine attacks Thomasin, calling her a slut and blaming her for the deaths of the rest of the family. Though she begs for mercy, Thomasin has no choice but to defend herself and strikes her mother in the head with a nearby tool. Katherine bleeds to death on top of the daughter she was trying to kill. Finally free of her family’s oppressive cruelty and left alone in the wilderness, Thomasin calls to Black Phillip. He speaks to her with kindness, offering the sensual pleasures she’s always been told are sinful. All she has to do is sign his book. Having already been punished for this very act, she has nothing left to lose. She follows him into the trees and joins the circle of witches. Ascending into the treetops, she is finally happy, finally free. But what has she agreed to? Though momentarily liberated, has she merely traded one form of oppression for another?
Gretel’s story begins with an empowering act and seemingly continues the path Thomasin has decided to walk. Having been sent by her recently widowed mother to seek employment at a wealthy home, she interviews with the lecherous lord of the manor who hints that her role would be sexual in nature. She rejects the exploitative position and is turned out of her house by her furious mother. Along with her younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey), Gretel sets off into the forest to find a new home. In the woods, they meet Holda (Alice Krige, Jessica De Gouw), a generous old woman with a never ending supply of delicious food. As Hansel stuffs himself, Holda begins to mentor Gretel in the ways of witchcraft. She shows the girl a salve that she rubs on her hands to activate magical powers. Holda offers the burgeoning witch a home and guidance, but her lessons will come at a steep price.
After a series of ominous dreams, Gretel finds a magical kitchen in the secret basement of the woodland cottage. She realizes that the food they’ve been eating is only a glamor made from rotted fruit and the decomposing bodies of children. Holda has been feasting on them for years, growing more and more powerful from their suffering. She attempts to liberate Gretel from the responsibility of caring for Samuel by cooking him in her mystical oven. But seeing that there is only darkness within Holda’s magic, Gretel rejects her teachings and burns the old witch in her own flames. Though wary of the power awakening within her, Gretel vows to trust herself and follow her newly discovered light down a more constructive path.
Thomasin and Gretel may have much in common, but the witches they encounter differ wildly. The Witch of the Woods is a manifestation of puritanical fear. She takes many forms and threatens the very heart of what the patriarchy holds most dear. By stealing baby Samuel to make a magical paste from his body, she rejects maternity, the traditional role for women in puritan society. She also appears in the form of a young and voluptuous temptress when she encounters Caleb in the woods. In a system that views men as helpless against their own sexual urges, a beautiful woman is not to be trusted lest she awaken human desires thought to be sinful. Only seeing the witch in glimpses, we learn little about her outside of puritanical fears and legends. But viewed through the lens of patriarchy, she is a sexually liberated woman not interested in motherhood and thus inherently evil.
Though Holda embodies the fairy tale definition of a witch, she is an interesting mix of reductive fears and empowering reality. She is simultaneously a maternal figure to Gretel and a threat to all other children, embodying a nuanced view of motherhood. She likes the girl she sees as her surrogate child, but dislikes children as a whole. Unlike the Witch of the Woods, she also is not beholden to the devil. Holda introduces Gretel to the concept of another spiritual being, the Great Provider, a female force who provides the seeds to be nurtured and grown as they choose. She is offering Gretel empowerment and autonomy, not a different form of patriarchal religion dominated by the male devil.
The primary difference between the two elder witches lies in the two books they offer their younger counterparts. In order to embrace her power, Thomasin must sign the devil’s book. Though offered by Black Phillip, it’s implied that all witches in the forest coven must sign their names to reap the magical rewards. Though we know little about what this agreement entails, Thomasin has signed a deal for a life of liberated servitude. She may be free of her religious upbringing, but she trades it to become the agent of a different master. The book Holda offers Gretel is her own grimoire, a book of shadows filled with spells and recipes, references and magical correspondences. Rather than a book of control, she has filled its pages with her own knowledge. Gretel may now take this book and continue forward as she chooses, adding her own spells as her power grows.
The ending of Thomasin’s story is ostensibly empowering and literally uplifting. She casts off the yoke of oppression and guilt heaped upon her by her family and leaves the physical world behind. But the film ends before her feet return to earth. Will she join the coven and fall under the guidance of another witch? Will she be left to explore the magical forest on her own? It’s implied that Thomasin will become another Witch of the Woods, following the devil and preying upon others in the same way as her predecessor, but I like to imagine that her path forward is similar to Gretel’s. Holda offers her power in a structure not controlled by a patriarchal force. The concept of the Great Provider offers a glimpse of a natural matriarchy, with abundant gifts waiting to be shared. Unbound by the devil, Gretel is able to choose the ways in which she manifests her magic.
A recurring mantra in a bedtime story Gretel tells Hansel warns to be afraid of gifts. The world is a dark and cruel place and we should beware of any unearned kindness. But this is the ideology of a world in which women don’t deserve to be happy. Stripped of nearly all agency, women were (are) told they should be satisfied with the scraps of power given freely to men. Both girls are offered gifts that put them in danger. Thomasin is offered a taste of butter, a pretty dress, and a life lived deliciously. All she has to do is give up her autonomy. Not a bad option in a world where she already has none. Gretel is offered freedom and guidance by Holda, but in order to claim it, she must relinquish her humanity.
Thomasin and Gretel both want the gift of independence and long for a world where it doesn’t come with strings attached. Black Phillip offers Thomasin a gift that masks subservience, but Gretel has the opportunity to find the gifts within her and share them on her own terms. Her story demonstrates the option to reject patriarchal oppression without becoming the monster liberated women are painted to be. Gretel’s choice shows that witches are not inherently evil. They are merely women seeking empowerment in a world designed to vilify them. Gretel’s story ends on a hopeful note as she explores the positive abilities she is learning to embrace. Perhaps as the newest Witch of the Woods, Thomasin will find a way to choose this path as well.
I hadn’t thought much about this question until you raised it here: is the message of THE WITCH a feminist one if it still serves a patriarch? The signing of the book seems a bit ominous; we’ve all heard stories about selling your soul to the devil. But I agree with you that whatever the new life entails, it can’t be much worse than the puritanical one she left behind. I guess I like the gray area here as it makes for interesting debate.
Both of these movies are so aesthetically stunning, and I love the dialogue they create. Thanks for the interesting piece.