Devil's Trap [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (17th March 2022).
The Film

A year into a devastating drought in eighteenth century Bohemia, the local regent Valecský (On the Comet's Cestmír Randa) has ordered a new granary be erected by his subjects and is insulted when freeman miller Spálený (Strakonický dudák's Vítezslav Vejrazka) has the temerity to advise him against building on land where a pit suddenly opened up and killed the previous foreman; especially in the presence of his esteemed guest the Bishop Dittrichstejn (Skeleton on Horseback's Bedrich Karen). The Bishop dismisses the regent's claim of rumors that the miller is in league with the devil as a reaction to being undermined in public by a freeman; that is, until Valecský tells him about events a century before during the Thirty Years War when his grandfather witnessed the miller's grandfather and his family miraculously surviving their barricaded home being set alight by the invading Swedish leading to the belief that "You can't burn a burnt man," and that such a man need not fear Hell nor God. With the local priest (Frantisek Kovárík) dismissed as a simpleton who believes in miracles – including the survival of the miller's grandfather and family as one such miracle – the Bishop sends chaplain Probus (Wolf's Hole's Miroslav Machácek) to carry out an investigation.

While Spálený's methods of searching for a water source for the villagers intrigue Probus, son Jan (Ferat Vampire's Vít Olmer) showing him that the miraculous source of water that keeps the miller's wheel turning year round as an underwater spring seems to dispel some of the priest's suspicion until he investigates the nearby pit that seems bottomless and is rumored to be a portal of Hell. Like his father, Jan is content to laugh off the village whispers about his family as idiocy; that is, until his father's discovery of a water source interrupts Probus' village procession praying for rain. Jan becomes frustrated with his father's stoicism as Valecský and Probus persecute him, especially since the regent has authority over who his subjects can marry including Jan's love Martina (Love Without Words' Karla Chadimová) who is also being pursued by the regent's groom Filip (The Death of Tarzan's Vlastimil Hasek) who is all too eager to apprise Probus of all of the rumors about the miller's family.

Director Frantisek Vlacil's more elaborate follow-up to his more experimental feature debut The White Dove – available on DVD from Second Run in a double feature with Pavel Juracek's and Jan Schmidt's wonderfully absurd Kafkaesque short Josef KilianDevil's Trap forms part of a trilogy with the higher-budgeted Valley of the Bees and acclaimed Marketa Lazarova; and it is perhaps the most straightforward narratively even as it lays out a blueprint for Vlacil's spare compositional use of people, landscape, and architectural elements. Dramatically, it is the story of three prideful men whose desire to be right must attack and erode the authority of another. The miller has a scientific mind and good intentions but seems to deliberately provoke the priest – "I am wont to talk about the earth this way" – and to antagonize the regent even as he is providing sound warning (the miller even seems to take pleasure in his son's uneasy questions about his parentage and whether there actually is some supernatural basis to the mill's continuous operation even in times of drought). Probus seems to feel his own divine authority undermined when the miller discovers water in the middle of his procession rather than seeing it as the miraculous result of it, conceding that the miller is wise but also telling him that "the Devil temps with what one finds most agreeable," and giving him the choice to either give the impression to the villagers of falling into line by attending the Sunday sermon or face the Holy Inquisition (indeed, the priest has advised the regent to let the people "root out the weeds in the Lord's garden"). The regent also resents not only the miller and his son bringing water to the villagers in the fields but also immediately blames the miller when one villager asks why they should have to toil for water; however, his belief in the miller's possibly deviltry is only to the extent that it serves his own purpose, seeming far less fearful of being in the miller's presence than does Filip the groom (although he too has an ulterior motive for telling tales to the priest). It is perhaps, then, appropriate that all three men (along with Filip who is too eager to follow orders) perish in the "trap" of which the miller's ancestor warns in a book that Jan discovers that also guides himself and Martina to safety as they seem to emerge into landscape renewed by the discover of water at the end, walking into the horizon with questions lingering.


Long unavailable in English-friendly form after its 1964 stateside release, The Devil's Trap first turned up on DVD with English subtitles in the Czech Republic in 2020. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-2 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray is from a "new HD transfer from the best existing materials created by the Czech National Film Archive" and the presentation certainly shows its age and the condition of the surviving materials. Although one might interpret the film leaning away from deep blacks towards grays charitably as conceptual, print damage ranges from occasional vertical scratches to reel change damage and even a short passage of missing frames that leads to a couple brief jump cuts within a single shot. The use of the outdated MPEG-2 codec is not particularly ruinous – and one cannot imagine that MPEG-4 would necessarily resolve a better image from the same inconsistent master – but the fact that all of the menus are AVC suggests that the use of the older codec was a mistake.


The sole audio option is an LPCM 2.0 mono Czech track that is subject in a few spots to hiss and other noise where the archival damage extends to the optical soundtrack, but it is a generally clean experience that emphasizers the film's at times unsettling use of sounds like horse hooves during otherwise silent sequences. The optional English subtitles appear free of any glaring errors.


Sadly, Second Run has not commissioned a commentary for this film - although we do hope they plan DVD upgrades of Valley of the Bees and Marketa Lazarova, and possibly some of Vlácil's other lesser-seen films - but the two video extras they have included are not without interest. "In the Web of Time (V síti casu)" (21:22) 1989 documentary portrait of Vlácil by cinematographer František Uldrich who shot the director's later film The Shadow of the Ferns in which Vlácil revisits the locations of some of his films and reveals that architecture was a greater influence that literature on his films, and that he often sought out stories after receiving a first impression from a setting. He also reveals that he does not so much storyboard as one image for each scene that is representative of the whole that in concert with his notes is enough for his editor to know how to what comes before and after it in the construction of scenes. "The Week Starts on Friday (Týden zacíná v pátek)" (8:20) is a 1962 short film by Elmar Kloss about the art of the theatrical marquee just as it is giving way to neon displays, visiting the workshops where they are painted – showing artists working from sketches and photographs of the actors – and the "premiere" in the streets as they go up in front of onlookers. The marquee for The Devil's Trap makes an appearance here as one of the upcoming releases.


Packaged with the disc is a 20-page booklet featuring a new essay on the film by author and Czechoslovak cinema specialist Peter Hames who offers a concise analysis of the film and its characters, recurring visual and aural motifs, and its place as part of a trilogy, as well as a short biography of Vlácil in which he notes that the director did not receive his education at the Prague Film School but though the Czechoslovak Army Film Unit which not only produced a number of older Czech and Slovak directors but a handful of feature film works including Jan Schmidt's Late August at the Hotel Ozone.


Although lesser known than its trilogy partners Valley of the Bees and Marketa Lazarova, The Devil's Trap is as much a sort of blueprint for the other films as a thought-provoking story and visual exercise in its own right.


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