We are all ‚Čermáks‘
In 1950, Martin Frič (1902–1968) made three new additions to his large filmography. Successful pre-war and protectorate director, creating in many genres, did sell himself to Bolshevik propaganda: May Events is shock-worker comedy starring Jaroslav Marvan, Steel Town is propagandistic nonsense about steelworkers strike at the beginning of the economic crisis – which, of course, delighted the soviet comrades. Perhaps the greatest artistic value can be attributed to The Trap, resistance-movement drama from the historic period of German occupation, though not even this film is without the then schematic tendencies.
The film (originally intended to be directed by self-taught Václav Gajer, its realization was eventually entrusted to experienced Frič, however ) begins quite symbolically on the railway station, crossed by trains with typical „V“ sign. Its hot summer day and one of the trains carry German soldiers to the Eastern Front to Stalingrad. There is no caption with year of the story present in The Trap, however since as we can later on see, in the Dörner’s office, there is a portrait of Acting Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich with black ribbon on it. This signifies that the film is set in the period after the 4th of June, 1942. Attempted sabotage, right at the station in front of the eyes of so many soldiers, in the time of the horrible terror after Heydrich’s death (so called „heydricháda“), can thus be characterized not as heroic act, but as act of feeble-minded and irresponsible railroad worker. Most of the Čermák’s group is arrested; the group will be in the future represented by comrades Bor and Antoš.
Later on, when they are inserting the copies of illegal newspaper The Red Right (Rudé právo) containing portraits of Lenin and Stalin, into the National Newspaper (Národní listy), we can tell by the date on the newspaper that the plot jumped to mid-November 1942. The trees are bare and people are wearing coats. In reality, communist really did have active resistance movement (but it started up after attack on the Soviet Union in mid-1941), their subsequent icon Julius Fučík was walking in his cell and the democratic resistance movement HOME (Central management of domestic resistance, consisting of Nation’s Defense, the Committee of the Petition „We Remain Faithful“ and Political Center) suffered annihilation after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (massive deployment of police informers into illegal networks). The winning vying with gestapo, when the secret police physically follow some of the characters involved in resistance movement, seems in the historical context extremely improbable.
More than historical authenticity can be appreciated the screenplay – quite cleverly constructed, considering for local conditions. Despite the fact that it works with the element of chance (Růžena discovering carbon copy of important denunciation at Herta’s place), in passages where resistance fighters reveal Anča as Gestapo agent and use her for major disinformation of Dönnert (meeting in the Šroubek cafeteria) is the film very exciting and has zesty. The performance of Vlasta Chramostová as Růžena is excellent; the girl, who is able to withstand the torture but is taken in by friendly fellow prisoner, is played psychologically credibly. After revealing her identity, Růžena shots her to death without mercy and the viewer understands that she will carry this trauma with her for the rest of her life (even though the subsequent speech of comrades is an attempt for moderation of this powerful moment at the end of the film).
Related to this are also the scenes of torture that Frič and his time-proven cameraman Václav Hanuš get into the film. The harsh dealing with arrested girl in Petschek Palace (the office of Gestapo; shot in authentic premises), blood dripping from broken mount onto the floor of the dungeon, the burning of chin with cigarette lighter, all those realistic details make The Trap more impressive.
Unlike disciplined and concentrated Chramostová, Majka Tomášová is in her „role“ of treacherous blond Anča Nováková painstakingly overacting. This of course can be justified by the fact that her character of agent Herta is just lousy actress. On the other hand, the part of investigator Dönnert – especially the way how he talks – is bringing the film down. At first, he speaks German (with subtitles), later on switches to Czech (why on earth would German speak to his agent in Czech?!). It is not exactly a parody in the style of Karel and Egon in Czech tv show Czech Soda (this can be heard in Habermann’s Mill by Juraj Herz)1 but the moment actor Miloslav Holub speaks like an ordinary, natural born Praguer (typical Joe from Prague), the atmosphere is gone.
The final of the film copies its beginning. The railroad worker places explosives into the departing tanker train and prophetic words can be heard: „Go, go, you won’t get far away.“ The fact that both communist groups, that at the end of the movie make an exemplary merge, end up badly, is not solved by the film.
In the Czech context, The Trap is skillfully crafted film suggesting that all the (in the film rather naively handed) resistance during the occupation was done by Communist Party members. If you want really chilling, realistic resistance-movement dramas, you have to look at Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969), controversial The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), provocative Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2006) or Flame & Citron (Ole Christian Madsen, 2008).
P.S.: If you have a sense of humor, you can enjoy The Trap in a „hitchcockian“ way: We have an honest blond and wicked brunette there, several secret organizations, fake identity, thrilling moments, and fore and foremost – great „mcguffin“ in resistance leader Čermák, who is a great pretext for developing the plot.
Director: Martin Frič
Writer: K. J. Beneš (story)
Screenplay: Miloslav Drtílek, Václav Gajer
Photography: Václav Hanuš
Music: Dalibor C. Vačkář
Cast: Vlasta Chramostová (Růžena Kubínová), Majka Tomášová (Herta Lenzová / Anna Nováková), Miloslav Holub (Anton Dönert), Otomar Krejča (Bor), Vladimír Ráž (Antoš), Jaroslav Mareš (Hans), Karel Peyr (Cortus), Věra Kalendová (dozorkyně Kraftová), Terezie Brzková (vězenkyně Karlička), Ella Nollová (Dokoupilová) and others. Czechoslovakia, 1950, 95 min.
Premiere: 17. 11. 1950
From Czech original translated by Marie Meixnerová
- translator’s note: similar parody in English language appears in BBC sitcom ‚Allo ‚Allo! (BBC1, 1982–1992), e.g. „Vind up ze gramophone, and if you don’t like ze one by ze bed there is a spare one in ze vardrobe!“ [↩]