B&W, 1962, 88 mins. 56 secs.
Directed by František Vláčil
Vítězslav Vejražka, Miroslav Macháček, Vít Olmer, Čestmír Řanda, Karla Chadimová
Second Run (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD)
Though his output wasn't as prolific as some of his peers, director František Vláčil became a major name among devotees of the Czechoslovak New Wave with his masterpiece, 1967's Marketa Lazarova, and its outstanding follow-up, 1968's Valley of the Bees. His film prior to the arduous production of Marketa came in 1962, The Devil's Trap (Dáblova past), which fits in very neatly with the other two features thanks to its borderline hallucinatory period setting that nevertheless reveals a painstaking eye for detail.
In the early 18th century, a miller named Spálený (Vejražka) warns the local Regent (Řanda) about the dangers of constructing a grain storage house on a site he knows to be unstable. Believed by locals to be in league with dark forces due to the inexplicable survival of his family years earlier, the miller finds his warnings ignored and the ignorance of the local government and religious officials becoming more dangerous with the arrival of a fanatical pries, Probus (Macháček). Meanwhile the miller's handsome son, Jan (Olmer), has fallen in love with Martina (Chadimová) whose fate is controlled by the Regent, which further aggravates an already tense situation that ultimately turns explosive.
Though acclaimed upon its release and given a limited U.S. subtitled run in 1964, The Devil's Trap hasn't gotten much attention since then on an international level. That situation is likely to change with its much-needed global Blu-ray debut from Second Run, which fill in a significant gap in Czech-language cinematic history and makes you wish even more of Vláčil's work was easier to see. As with its more famous successors, this is beautifully shot in monochrome with a great eye for placing faces and figure against landscapes and architecture. At times it verges close to horror film territory, especially in the second half as the authoritarian net starts to close in and the look of the film becomes more shadowy and ominous. It's also unsettling how relevant the story is today given the still-furious clashes between rationality and fear-based dogma, which will apparently still be with us until the end of time.
The specs for the Blu-ray cite it as coming from the best existing original materials created by the Czech National Film Archive in Prague. Time obviously hasn't been as kind to this one as a the bulk of Czechoslovak titles we've seen on Blu-ray in the past, given the mostly minor signs of damage on display. However, it's great to have the film finally out there in good condition, and detail and contrast both make for a satisfyingly cinematic presentation. The Czech LPCM 2.0 mono track sounds very good with no major issues, and optional English subtitles are provided. The video extras start with 1989's In the Web of Time (V síti času) (21m21s), a portrait of "people's artist" Vláčil by cinematographer František Uldrich mixing interview footage with film clips and anecdotes about the making of the films (with an understandably heavy focus on Marketa Lazarova). There's also some great footage of the director revisiting some of his prior filming locations, which have since fallen into disrepair. Then 1962's The Week Starts on Friday (Týden začíná v pátek) (8m20s) is essentially a promotional short by Elmark Kloss for Prague's Central Film Office about the role the "special treat" of moviegoing plays in people's lives, including a fascinating look at how The Devil's Trap was being promoted via painted marquees before all that advertising material ended up in the scrapheap. Also included is a 20-page booklet featuring an essay by Peter Hames covering the background of local cinema at the time, the filmmaker's life and career including the influence of his time in the army's film unit, and his own discovery of Vláčil's work.
Reviewed on March 5, 2022