At various points in Štefan Uher’s Slnko v sieti (The Sun in a Net, 1962) there are reminders of the many ways we look at the world. We may use smoked glass to look at an eclipse of the sun (and be left with a smudge on our cheeks). For Fayola, one of the protagonists, a camera makes it possible for him to indulge his fascination with hands. On the roof of the apartment building where Bella and Fayola meet from time to time in summer, antennas form a veritable forest, reminding us of all the residents in the flats below seeing the world through their television set. Sometimes we may see the world reflected in mirrors or water or windows. The likeness may be a perfect mirror image, reversed or inverted. It may ripple and merge with something else seen through a window. And then there’s Bella’s mother. Because she’s blind, she has to “see” through other people’s descriptions of what they’re seeing, which can, to say the least, be unreliable.
Similarly, the film itself has been looked at in various ways. When it was made, it needed official certification by the cultural authorities of the socialist regime, and they were looking for a film that matched the prevailing ideology of Socialist Realism (1). What they thought they saw was a film that might be a critique of the State. After all, it presented a picture of uncaring parents, young people being semi-shanghaied into working during their summer breaks on collective farms, a not particularly attractive urban environment. And what was Uher saying with the shots of military jets crossing the city sky (images that punctuate the film from time to time)? It was clearly not a work of Socialist Realism.
Uher did get his film released in Czechoslovakia, but it does not appear to have made it to the West at that time. Perhaps it was a bit ahead of its time. At that time, audiences in the West had their own way of looking at films from behind the Iron Curtain. They often looked for codes that were masking a critique of the current regime. Or perhaps the film would suggest a thaw in the regime, unless it was a dramatically tragic film about the evils of war. Important comparisons include films like Roman Polanski’s Nóż w wodzie (Knife in the Water) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo),both also from 1962.
But if The Sun in a Net didn’t make it to the West in the early 1960s, in its own country it paved the way for films that would. A few years later, Czech directors such as Milos Forman and Ivan Passer had their first films Cerný Petr (Black Peter, Forman, 1964), Lásky jedné plavovlásky (Loves of a Blonde, Forman, 1965), Intimní osvětlení (Intimate Lighting, Passer, 1965)hailed at home and abroad, as the vanguard of the Czech New Wave. These were films about ordinary people, in very ordinary situations, but filmed with warmth, tenderness, humour and affection.
Except perhaps in Bratislava, it wasn’t recognised that The Sun in the Net had really been the first film of that new wave. But then, Slovakia was always the overlooked part of that uneasy union of the Czechs and Slovaks.
Bela was 15 last November, Fajolo is probably the same age. In that rather shapeless time at the end of a school year, they’re something like boyfriend and girlfriend – but this may be more a matter of proximity, with them both living in the same block of flats. The episodes we see are not designed to construct a taut narrative, but allowed to drift, the way Bela and Fajolo probably feel themselves drifting at this time of the year and at this stage of their lives.
Fajolo has to go to a summer work camp. With the separation both explore new relationships. Meanwhile, we see Bela’s rather tense home. Her mother is blind, and it’s clear that there is something unspoken in the family about how she succumbed to her affliction. During this summer period, while Bela and Fajolo are living miles apart, other people enter their lives. Is Fajolo being unfaithful with Jana, a fellow student-volunteer on the farm? Does Bela betray him by taking Peter to the pontoon on the river that they have both used as a swimming deck? Is their relationship at such a point that it is appropriate to talk about betrayal or unfaithfulness?
But there are other faces – perhaps for Fajolo, other hands – in this film. In the country, Fajolo’s young, fresh face is a contrast to the weather-beaten, lined, but strong and striking faces of the men who’ve worked the land for decades. And, although it’s not spoken about, these are men who have lived through war and invasion. Just as Fajolo loves photographing hands, it would seem that Uher loves to photograph faces. There is one striking two-shot with Fajolo’s young, almost unshaped face on one side of the frame, and on the other side, a farmer in his beret, strongly bearing his whole life in every deeply etched line on his face.
The pontoon in the river is a rich location. It seems to belong to a one-handed fisherman – the youngsters ask him for permission to swim from it. He is not a “plot character” in the sense of playing a part in any cause-and-effect flow in the narrative. But at the same time, he is so important to the fabric of the film. While we’re watching the film we also have a relationship with him, and we judge other characters by the way they interact with him also.
The pontoon is also an example of how a location can be a part of the world our characters move in from time to time, but can also have a strong, metaphorical impact in the way that it is used. Here it is difficult to avoid a spoiler, but all viewers will feel the extra dimensions in the penultimate scene of the film, with the mother and daughter sitting on the pontoon, as the mother says, “Let’s sit without moving or speaking, so it won’t drain away”. We then cut to Fajolo, now in a winter coat and back on the roof, amongst the television aerials. To himself, he is thinking about waiting 120 years for another black sun (eclipse) – but the actual words are less important. They convey less to us than the visuals on screen, the mechanical shapes of the aerials, the bleak wall Fajolo leans against, the absence of any sign of nature (apart from Fajolo himself). It is not the words that capture the sense of being 15, of not being sure of where your life is heading. It can’t be put into words, and we feel the urge to echo the sentiments of Bela’s mother, “Let’s sit without moving or speaking, so it won’t drain away”.
- For a fuller discussion of this, and other Slovak films of 1960s and 1970s, see my article, “Slovak Cinema of the 1970s”, Senses of Cinema no. 47, 2008: http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/feature-articles/slovak-cinema-1970s/.
Slnko v sieti/The Sun in a Net (1962 Czechoslovakia 90 mins)
Prod Co: Filmové Studio Bratislava Dir: Štefan Uher Scr: Alfonz Bednár Phot: Stanislav Szomolányi Ed: Bedrich Voderka Prod Des: Juraj Cervik Mus: Ilja Zeljenka
Cast: Marián Bielik, Jana Beláková, Olga Salagová, Pavel Chrobak, Adam Janco