An excerpt from the booklet essay by Peter Hames
With The Devils Trap, Vláčil turned to the early 18th century, a time when the Catholic revival led to the suppression of dissidence. It was based on themes from the novel, The Mill on the Deep River (Mlýn na ponorné řece) by Alfréd Technik, originally adapted by F.A. Dvořák and M.V. Kratochvíl. Kratochvíl, a former archivist, had worked with Vávra on the Hussite trilogy, and taught screenwriting at FAMU, and became a prolific historical novelist. The final version, however, differs considerably from the original script.
The film tells the story of a simple miller, whose understanding of nature, caves, caverns, and the sources of water is considered supernatural in origin. There is a political need for scapegoats and he is deemed to be in league with the Devil.
Many of the images and techniques look forward to the more avant garde approach of Marketa Lazarová. The framing of characters and scenes avoids conventional construction. While justified by dramatic encounters, there is a systematic use of extreme close ups and angled images. The most notable effect is the strange camera movement toward the door of the barn, where the camera appears to launch into space and collide with the barn door in a virtual full stop. It punctuates the film at three key points (with variations) and also serves to link past and present. There are also extraordinary images apparently from the saddles of horses or an approaching wagon. Images of the running Marketa are perhaps more easily absorbed into Central European conventions. Vláčils regular cinematographer post-Marketa Lazarová was František Uldrich. In an interview at the Finale Festival in Plzeň in 2009, he noted that Vláčil always composed and drew his films in advance and that their realisation was often a replication of what had already been imagined. In this respect, one can note parallels with Hitchcock (and Vláčil was once alleged to have produced a complete storyboard of Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin/Bronenosets Potëmkin). Indeed, this is very evident in the images accompanying the published screenplay of Marketa Lazarová. Objects also play a key role and are emphasised in individual scenes – reflections in water, the cutting of the scythe in the reaping scenes, focus on the water jug when Jan carries it to Marketa in the fields, the guttering of a candle during the final trial-like confrontation between Probus and the miller. Sequences recall Soviet montage and there is an obvious reference to Eisenstein’s The General Line (General’niya Liniya, 1929) in the religious procession designed to end the drought. Extraordinary group scenes of the villagers working in the fields, assembled for the celebratory opening of the Regent’s barn, or listening to Probus’s church sermon are virtually ‘still life’ in their impact. In some ways, Vláčil’s visual storytelling might be seen as a revision of the techniques of silent cinema supplemented by composition in depth and advanced camera movement
Vláčil also pays attention to a precise and evocative use of sound which is often clinical in its precision. He was working again with the composer Zdeněk Liška, with whom he was to collaborate regularly – most notably, of course, on Marketa Lazarová. Liška’s collaboration is crucial, evoking the period but also using sound as opposed to conventional scoring. The sounds of horses’ hooves and birdsong achieve an artificial (i.e. musical) resonance. Music is spare and limited – a solo female voice, a choir, the sound of a pipe – but culminates in the eerie dance tunes reserved for the celebratory and doomed opening of the Regent’s barn, when the earth literally opens up. Vláčil’s collaboration with Liška was clearly significant, and he once described their work together on Marketa Lazarová as ‘film-opera’. Liška’s musical facility has often been attested. Jan Švankmajer, for instance, noted that Liška found hidden rhythms in his films of which he was previously unaware. Similarly, when Věra Chytilová supplied him with unedited material for the opening of The Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromů rajských jíme, 1969), he scored it so well that she left it intact.
Much of the visual and sound imagery in The Devil’s Trap is already a preparation for Marketa Lazarová, with its more complex narrative, long shooting schedule, and much larger budget. Vláčil once said that Marketa had always been ‘part of him’ and there is little doubt that his imagination was already inspired in advance of making the film. In The Devil’s Trap, there are many elements of ‘making strange’ that would have been absent from a realisation by other directors.
Peter Hames' complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
Film at Lincoln Center
(i) Out of the Past: Frantisek Vlácil by Michael Brooke
(ii) Czech Cinema since the Velvet Revolution by Peter Hames
(iii) The Fantastic World of František Vláčil
(iv) The Inquisition in the Old World
(v) Farming life in Bohemia in 18th Century