Directed by Osgood “Oz” Perkins and written by Rob Hayes, Gretel and Hansel is a modern retelling of the classic Grimm Brothers' fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel”, and it begins with a fairy tale of its own. It tells of the birth of a beautiful girl who grew sick and was not expected to survive. Fearing for the child's life, the father took the baby to an enchantress who cured the sickness, but in its place left a curse which gave the girl the power to prophesize and control others. When she grew older, she used her powers for evil, even killing her own father. So the village banishes the girl, wearing a pointed pink hat, into the deepest part of a forest. A forest which became haunted afterwards because the girl used her powers to lure other children into the forest, never to be seen again.
It is that same haunted forest that becomes the backdrop for the rest of the movie. As in the original fairy tale, there is a famine in the land, and with Gretel and Hansel's father having died, their mentally ill mother throws them out of the house to fend for themselves when Gretel cannot find a job. Soon they meet an Aragorn-like huntsman who rescues them from an attack from some evil creature. He gives them provisions, directions, and lofty but good advice (which will make more sense at the end of the movie).
After traveling for awhile, tired and hungry, they run into a house where an old woman named Holda lives (eerily played by Alice Krige). Gretel and Hansel agree to work for Holda in exchange for a place to sleep and the sumptuous meals she mysteriously lays out for them each day. The longer they stay however, the more the two realize that all is not as it seems.
Gretel and Hansel is both visually and metaphorically a dark film, as most of the scenes are shot in dark or dim candle-lit rooms, and the old growth forests of the Irish countryside (where the film was shot) are skillfully used to the same effect. The setting, the numerous dream-like sequences, and a soundtrack that is a haunting mix of the classic 80's film Ladyhawke and Blade Runner 2049, give the movie an a-historical and otherworldly feel to it. While some of the dialogue is insipid and awkward at times, and the discovery scenes are a lot longer than they should be, the film is still worth seeing because of the two main ways in which Gretel and Hansel differs from the original fairy tale.
This is Gretel's Story
The primary difference is of course indicated in its title. Perkins stated that he wanted to make a coming-of-age story about Gretel, and thus the story is shown and at times narrated from Gretel's perspective. Deftly played by actress Sophia Lillis, Gretel is portrayed as being twice as old as Hansel, intelligent, and possessed of a strong desire to live a life on her own terms, one where she doesn't have to constantly look after Hansel. Nevertheless, despite their constant bickering, she genuinely cares for him, as she understands that the two of them are all they have to look out for each other.
We also learn early on that she is beginning to show signs that she has a praeternatutal ability to tap into some unseen power. Holda senses Gretel's nascent abilities, and even tests her at one point by having Gretel using them to make Holda's stang stand upright. From then on, Holda takes Gretel under her wing and teaches Gretel about medicine, herbology, and of course witchcraft.
Gretel is also shown to have the ability to see visions, as she sees the shadowy images of children, including the girl in the pointy pink hat, at night and even hears their voices. Most disturbing of all though, is the dream (which eventually turns out to be true) where she discovers a huge white-stone room beneath Holda's house. There she sees bloody bodies on a table covered by a sheet, and later a younger witch (whose identity is unclear) materializes out of a pool of black goo. The witch proceeds to throw a barrel of children's body parts on the table, and then cast a spell which transforms them into the mysterious food that Gretel and Hansel have been eating since they arrived.
The Witch is Actually a Witch
Gretel's dream of the underground chamber demonstrates the other way in which the film departs from original fairy tale, and that is that Holda is shown to be an actual witch. In E. Michael Jones' book Monsters from the Id: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film, Jones states that in stories, monsters are symbolic of an unrepentant or suppressed violation of the moral order. Originally published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, “Hansel and Gretel” is actually rooted in an historical event known as the Great Famine (1314-1322), which diminished and weakened the population of Western Europe a generation before the Black Death struck. It was a time of children either being abandoned by their parents or being left to fend for themselves when the parents died or became diseased. As one Estonian chronicle recounted, it was also a time of cannibalism when some mothers ate their own children.
However, through the human tendency to project and scapegoat their sins onto others, the residual memories of those cannibalistic acts in the past were in part passed on in the form of stories about ogres or witches that lived in the darkest part of a woods, and who ate children. Thus in the case of stories like “Hansel and Gretel”, “Little Thumbling”, and “Jack the Giant-Killer” cannibalism is that moral transgression and not witchcraft. In fact, the appellation “witch” was not found in earlier versions of "Hansel and Gretel" and she is simply called "the old woman."
Not so with Holda though, she is shown to be a witch through and through, right down to her blackened finger tips. Despite some reviews trying to downplay some of the occult symbols seen in the movie as benign, the presence of an upside-down cross, downward pointing pentacles, and other trappings of witchcraft seen in the movie, prove otherwise.
Later in the movie, Hansel turns up missing and Gretel demands to know what has become of him. It is then that Holda finally tells Gretel her version of the tale that was told at the beginning of the movie. Holda was in fact the mother of the girl in the pink pointy cap, and knew that the girl was evil. However, the girl used her powers to persuade Holda that she could share in her power, but only if she was willing to relinquish all other attachments in her life and to kill and eat her remaining children. She did and continued to do so over the years with numerous other children.
Holda tells Gretel that the power she feels stirring inside of her, has the potential to be the same power that Holda wields, and it can be hers if she will only “believe and embrace the darkness”, and eat Hansel. Gretel refuses Holda's offer, but she is later restrained in the same white-stone walled room she saw in her dream. There, as Holda is about to put Hansel in a cage and lower him into a fire pit, Gretel uses her own powers again to hurl Holda's stang at her. It pins her against the wall above the fire pit where she is beheaded and immolated.
An Ambiguous Ending?
In the end, Gretel frees Hansel and tells him that for the time being they must part ways because they have different paths to follow. She sends Hansel off on a horse back to their old home where he, as Gretel narrates, will “find his own story and his own courage to live it out.”
As for Gretel, with Holda's death the curse upon the woods is lifted and for the first time in the film the sun shines through the clouds. It is then that she sees the souls of all the children that were killed and eaten by Holda, emerge from the woods and wander off to be, as Gretel says, “at peace.” Realizing that she can “feed her power darkness or give it plenty of light” and desiring to “build something on top of all that has been destroyed", Gretel decides to remain at Holda's house. When she does, she is shocked to see that her fingers turn black like Holda's were.
While certain reviews and some personal conversations with others have asserted that the ending seems to indicate that Gretel's fingers turning black means that she is now the witch of the woods. Granted, she rejected eating her brother in order to gain power, but instead split the difference so to speak, and killed Holda instead to get it. Moreover, in Gretel's final narration about feeding her powers darkness or giving it light, she doesn't actually say which one she is going to choose. From that perspective then, the film should be rejected because at the very least, it posits the practice of witchcraft as morally neutral.
That is certainly one reading of the film's ending. However, one has to keep in mind that the film is still about a fairy tale, and should be viewed within that context. Fairy tales are a genre of their own and contain within them deeper truths embedded in symbolic imagery. Hence, in the same way that Scripture can be read in different senses, there is a way that Gretel and Hansel's ending can be seen in a more positive light. This is where the huntsman's words spoken earlier in the film and mentioned above come into play.
After rescuing Gretel and Hansel, the huntsman takes them back to his place. As he feeds and talks to them, he is able to intuit their dispositions enough to tell Gretel and Hansel that he will send them to foresters who are “good people”. There Hansel will learn how to be a wood cutter and Gretel will “learn the ways of the herbs and the earth”. He ends by giving Gretel and Hansel this sage advice, “kindness is its own reward, but cruelty is a self-inflicted wound. The wicked earn a living by deception, but the one who plants righteousness gathers a true harvest. Indeed those who do what is right will live and those who pursue evil will die.”
When you couple the huntsman's words with Gretel's desire “to build something on top of all that has been destroyed”, not to mention the sun coming out at the end, it does seem that she is choosing to embrace life and light. Thus, Gretel's blackened fingers can be seen not as a mark of evil but merely as the kind of indelible mark that anyone who has ever taken someone else's life, even justifiably so, has upon their psyche and soul. They can serve as a reminder that even through blackened (or fallen) fingers, a “true harvest” can be gathered if one turns away (metanoia) from evil and death (which, as the huntsman's words should remind us, are the wages of sin) and instead embraces the light, life, and what is right.
In this way, Gretel can be seen as fulfilling the huntsman's suggestion that she learn about “the ways of herbs and the earth” by rejecting the magical and evil aspects of the training and knowledge she learned from Holda, and instead use her skills to heal physically and (as seen with the freeing of the children's souls) spiritually. In that regard, the movie, while by no means perfect, still has some merit to be gained from it.
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