After spending several years honing his craft in the advertising industry Swiss director Simon Aeby made his feature film début with the effective small scale film Three Below Zero. A European film shot on location in New York, it was, as most first features are, an economical production. Aeby’s script demonstrated that he had an instinctive understanding of how to put characters at the heart of drama and bring the audience .along for the journey. His second feature film, The Rebel, whilst visually bigger in scale retained the level of intimacy which had made his first movie an intriguing viewing experience. With his third film, Shadow of the Sword, Aeby presented audiences with his most expansive cinematic canvas to date whilst retaining a focus on well rounded characters with all too recognisable and identifiable desires and foibles.
Released in 2006 Shadow of the Sword (also known in certain territories as The Headsman) is a story about friendship, love, betrayal, and religious extremism. Set in the 16th century, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Headhunters, Game of Thrones) and Peter McDonald (Moone Boy) play lifelong friends who must decide which side they are on in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Austrian state Tyrol.
In the first half of 16th century Catholicism was the dominant ideological force in mainland western Europe. The new world had just been discovered, mass illiteracy was widespread across the continent, and spiritual salvation was only accorded to those who were rich enough to pay tithes. With an unshakeable belief in its self defined and imposed status as the only legitimate religious creed the Catholic church waged war against nation states that were governed by a different belief system and punished those who dared to openly express differing interpretations of the gospels.
Against a background of transformation Shadow of the Sword takes place three years after Martin Luther began the reformation movement with a letter to his bishop. Known as The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgence, the invention of the printing press enabled this letter to be copied and circulated. Recognising that widespread support for Luther’s teachings represented a threat to the Vatican’s supremacy and a loss of political power (and accompanying revenue) it authorised The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (popularly known as the Spanish Inquisition) to tyrannize the emerging protestant movement.
Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and George (Peter McDonald) are a pair of orphans who have grown up under the protection of the local monastery. As adults they have taken very different paths. Reuniting after several years, Martin is a soldier returning home after spending a tour of duty abroad fighting battles on behalf of the emperor and George is a prelate at the very same monastery in which they were both raised.
In Martin’s absence the township has begun to feel the impact of Luther’s rebellion against the existing orthodoxy. Martin has come home to find a society living under a fragile peace. Anabaptists live within the vicinity preaching an alternative interpretation of the gospel. A radical and left leaning group, its adherents were deemed by the Catholic church to be guilty of heresy. George’s tolerance of this group places him in direct conflict with his superiors and invites the possibility that the Spanish Inquisition may descend upon the town at any moment to sterilise the area.
Judicial process is overseen by an institutionally corrupt town council under the watchful eye of the church. The chief punishment metered out to miscreants suspected of being in league with Satan is public execution. As agent of faith and administers of retribution the incumbent executioner has a fractured relationship with the town’s citizens. Forced to live beyond the town’s boundaries, unwelcome in local hostelries and market places the executioner is a social pariah feared by the very same populace who congregate in large numbers to witness him decapitating whatever person who have been convicted of spurious charges by a dishonest legislative framework.
Martin falls in love with the executioner’s daughter, Anna (Anastasia Griffith), despite knowing that association with her will turn him into a persona non grata. His illustrious military career will carry no further weight amongst Tyrol’s townsfolk if he enters into marital union with Anna and for the rest of his days he will be robbed of all social standing.
Having resigned his army commission Martin’s subsequent marriage to Anna renderes him unemployable within Tyrol but at this point fate intervenes and he is presented him with an unexpected opportunity. The death of Anna’s creates a vacancy for the post of town executioner, Martin applies for the post and is successful. Skills acquired during several military campaigns are put to good use in his new position and he rapidly impresses the ever watchful eye of the region’s archbishop.
Disapproving of his friend’s relationship, George refuses to bless the union and undeterred Martin asks an Anabaptist priest to perform the marriage ceremony. With the church’s resident executioner consorting with Anabaptists George is fearful that control is slipping in Tyrol and when word spreads that a rival religious group is gaining momentum everybody starts to expect an imminent visit from the Spanish Inquisition.
Director Simon Aeby was attracted to this project feeling that despite being a historical drama Shadow of the Sword’s core storyline had parallels with things happening in contemporary society, most notably the rise of religious fundamentalism and governmental attempts to restrict the access to information available on the internet. Aeby’s awareness of how to ensure that characters are central to the plot prevents the film from becoming a polemical piece. Shadow of the Sword is first and foremost a story about friendship, love, betrayal, corruption, greed, and courage in an age of religious intolerance and state sponsored oppression.
Believing the film’s subject matter to be universal and relevant to the modern age the producers shot the film in English knowing that this would increase opportunities for international distribution. The cast is filled with a number of very fine British character actors. Playing the Spanish Inquisition’s leader Steepen Berkoff (Octopussy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) comes very close to stealing the entire movie. Eddie Marson (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably grotesque as Fabio the executioner’s assistant who feels slighted at being passed over for the post and denied Anna’s hand in marriage
Thought provoking, emotionally engaging, and viscerally exciting Shadow of the Sword is an arresting European film. The first rate acting and sympathetic cinematography are complemented by suitably authentic costuming and a visually impressive recreation of an entire medieval town.
Shadow of the Sword is available to buy from Amazon: