Just as jazz enjoyed its heyday during the 1920s, so European cinema reached what many would term its apogee in the period 1958-1968. A revolution occurred that dismissed the hidebound, politically moribund cinema of the old guard in France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, Spain and Eastern Europe.
- Peter Cowie (1)
As this new century nears the end of its first decade, the sixth decade of the 20th century is being frequently revisited – by cultural writers, as well as by political, historical and sociological writers. It was the decade of Vietnam, the ‘68 Revolution in France, new forms of political protest such as the Baader-Meinhof movement Germany, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
For the cinema, as Peter Cowie suggests in the paragraph at the top of this article, it was a rich, creative decade. In France, the New Wave appeared as a clarion call for reinvention and renewal. Wider cinema audiences were discovering exciting new films from a range of countries. But, as Cowie perhaps unintentionally indicates, they were only seeing new films from a very small number of countries – and he has lumped all of Eastern Europe into one bundle. That means the filmmaking happening in the USSR, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (those last two already lumping together a number of different nationalities), as well as Romania and Bulgaria at least.
For audiences in the West, there were a number of factors at work in the way they saw films from “behind the Iron Curtain”. This was still the height of the Cold War. There could be a political dimension in seeing films from Eastern Europe. Were these the films of a dreaded totalitarian enemy? Or an insight into the humanity of a whole group of nations that our leaders wanted to vilify, so that even seeing the films became a political statement?
Of course, the régimes of Eastern Europe were keen for their films to be accepted in the West. They could be a potent propaganda tool, warmly embraced by the “intelligentsia” audience that went to foreign-language films. They could be “proof” of a humanising evolution taking place in these almost inaccessible countries. Or they could give an understanding of what “they also suffered” in World War II. Or, “How can we be fascist when we make the strongest films against fascism?”
But perhaps those audiences weren’t getting a very insightful glimpse into what it was really like in those countries: politically, economically, socially. Western audiences usually only had a chance to see films the Eastern European film authorities deemed suitable envoys for their régimes. Already, censorship pre-production and post-production influenced what filmmakers could say. We were more likely to see “safe” films, adapted from “safe” classics – Dama s sobachkoy (Lady with a Little Dog, Iosif Kheifits, USSR, 1960), Gamlet (Hamlet, Grigori Kozintsev, USSR, 1964), Voyna i mir (War and Peace, Sergei Bondarchuk, USSR, 1967). During this decade, in the Soviet Union Andrei Tarkovsky had made his first films – Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, USSR, 1962) and Andrey Rublyov (Andrei Rublov, USSR, 1968) – but they were not seen in the West (or, in some cases, in the Soviet Union itself) in complete versions during this period. The same fate met the films of Sergei Paradjanov: Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, USSR, 1964) and Sayat nova (Colour of Pomegranates, USSR, 1968).
Even this small selection of filmmaking was further filtered by what Western distributors or Film Festival Directors chose as potential films for their tiny niche audiences. And they were only able to choose from those films made available to them by the film commissars of Eastern Europe.
Now, with régime changes and the evolution of viewing technologies, it is easier to return to that era, and see what treasures they can yield. This is certainly the case with a box set from the Slovak Film Institute, Slovenský Film 60. Rokov (Slovak Cinema of the 60’s). With ten features and several supporting documentaries, this is only a selection. After all, the Slovak movie database lists 82 features made in Slovakia for the period 1961-70. (2) But it is an intelligent selection; it does contain treasures that are relevant and satisfying today. And it does raise a question as to why some of these films did not make an impact in the West when they were new.
* * *
Filmmaking in Eastern Europe at that time operated under different imperatives from the usually completely market-motivated industry in the West. The ruling régimes saw films as more than just entertainment. They had a social purpose to fulfil as well. Meanwhile, there were filmmakers wanting to use cinema to explore aspects of their society. This often meant hiding unacceptable ideas in various ways in their films – or risk not being allowed to make any more films.
The officially endorsed type of filmmaking is exemplified by Jánošík (Pal’o Bielik, two parts, 1962-63). Juraj Jánošík (1688-1713) was a famous Slovak outlaw, the lead in many legends. He is in many ways the hero nations need, like a Robin Hood, a William Tell, a Jesse James, a Ned Kelly. Like those, his real story is legendary enough to be retold for succeeding generations with seemingly endless variations to suit the needs of the day. Perhaps he was the leader of a ruthless robber band. Or perhaps he was the scourge of an exploiting ruling class, pillaging the rich to share with the poor.
At least as far as legends go, he had the fortune to have a distinctive death – if excruciating. A hook was pierced through his left ribs, and he was left dangling on the gallows that way to die. He has been the title character in an impressive array of cinema and lately television features, from the film listed on the official Slovak Film Institute Movie Database as the first full-length Slovak feature film, Jánošík (Jaroslav Siakel, 1921). Interestingly, the most recent attempt to film this story seems to have foundered, despite being directed by eminent Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Commercial, rather that nationalistic, imperatives now seem to rule. (3)
The 1962-3 version was presented in two separate parts and this was a version that highlighted his justified opposition to a cruel régime of nobles exploiting the poor peasants. The Church, as well, in the character of the Bishop, is not really for the people. The Bishop is responsible for collecting money to be used against Jánošík and his gang.
Filmed in ‘Scope and colour, Jánošík makes full use of the magnificent scenery of the Tatra Mountains. In a wonderful opening sequence, a boy nets a wild eagle in the even more wild and rugged mountains. Soon after, the boy (obviously he’ll grow up to be Jánošík) uses his hunting skills to defend a worker being (unjustifiably) whipped by one of the nobles, overseeing a group of peasants being forced to break stones to build a road so their carriages can have a smoother ride. The overt themes of the next three hours have been spelt out very directly.
This is a film that, despite an effective mise en scène that dramatically stages a number of action sequences across the width of the ‘Scope image, does not transcend its time or place of production. For one, it lacks the core of a central, dramatic relationship. Jánošík does not really have an adversary as dramatically well-placed as the Sheriff of Nottingham, or a sweetheart in as central a motivating role as Maid Marion had when Hollywood made its most famous version of The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, 1938.)
* * *
Sometimes, there seemed to be a special kind of conditioning needed to watch ’60s Eastern European cinema. It was assumed that even seemingly benign period films had a covert political message, and we should admire the daring of the filmmaker. Perhaps this applies to Drak sa vracia (Dragon’s Return, Eduard Grečner, 1968). This is a simple fable set at some imprecise time in the past. A rather introverted potter, nicknamed Dragon (Radovan Lukavský), returns to his isolated village. This immediately engenders an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, apprehension. Perhaps subsequent events can carry a charged political meaning: the director, Eduard Grečner (b. 1931), did suffer the fate of being replaced on a television film in 1971 “for political reasons” and did not make another cinema film until 1992. Dragon’s Return was adapted from a novel published in 1943 by Dobroslav Chrobák (1907-1951), a writer respected throughout Slovakia as one of the “leading figures of literary naturism.”
Dragon’s Return is one of the exciting discoveries in this set. It is a simple, elemental story. Psychology, motivation and sociology are not part of this. The powerful atmosphere lets many ideas emerge – about people, about fear, about basic human nature. Dialogue is sparse, with general mutterings some times emerging off-screen, allowing the visuals to develop other elements of the atmosphere.
The sound, in fact, is one of the triumphs of the film. This is interesting, given that Chrobák, the original author, was one of the early promoters of radio drama in Slovakia but had been dead for 17 years when his work was filmed. Here the contribution of composer Ilja Zeljenka is distinctive. He wrote the score at what must have been the same time that he joined the Electro-Acoustic Studio of the Czechoslovak Radio. He also suffered the fate of being banned, in 1973, from the Union of Slovak Composers.
As the notes with the DVD say, this is a “ballad about love, hate, and a search for a way out of loneliness”. Like a ballad, it is not attempting a philosophical tract on humanity, but like a ballad it communicates vividly, simply, freshly. All elements (including the stark black-and-white photography of Vincent Rosinec, b. 1928) combine in a compelling film, surely as exciting today as it was originally. Why didn’t this film win an international reputation when it was first made?
* * *
If the past of several centuries earlier was one area where filmmakers felt safe to go, the more recent past was a more complex matter. World War II loomed prominently and sombrely in many Eastern European films of the 1960s. It was obviously a very traumatic event in the lives of the peoples of that area. German armies had marched over and occupied much of the area. There were many stories that had to be told: of bravery and defiance, and of cowardice and complicity. The “Jewish question” also deserved confrontation. What responsibility for events did the previously occupied nations have for what happened to the Jews from their regions?
Some directors making their first films in the ’60s had their formative childhood years during the war and clearly had stories they felt impelled to tell.
There were also political imperatives driving World War II as a suitable subject. For the State, stories set in that era were chances to kowtow to the Soviet Union and glorify the liberation of Slovakia from the yoke of the Nazis. In 1944, there was an armed insurrection movement in Slovakia, which attempted to extricate the country from the Germans. A well-planned operation had some successes, but after several months it was put down by the Germans. Many Slovaks were executed; afterwards, 211 mass graves were discovered.
This uprising looms large in the Slovak psyche. Its prominence in the minds of anyone who lived through it cannot be doubted. But what did it really mean? Who was responsible for it? Socialists? Democrats? Did the Soviet troops liberate the region? Or did they replace one occupier with another? How does one treat the event in the cinema, where State authorities had at least some control over the meanings of events? Authorities could be expected to endorse or approve projects that would reflect well on their loyalty to the State. Artists might be suspected of trying to smuggle suspect “messages” into their stories. And audiences were ready to read their own meanings into stories set in that period.
Boxer a smrť (The Boxer and Death, Peter Solan, 1962) was well received on its release, with prizes at a number of film festivals. Set in a concentration camp, the two main characters are a Jewish inmate, once a champion professional boxer, and the camp’s commander, who likes to keep fit by sparring exercise. Based on a short story by a Polish writer, Józef Hen, this situation provides scope for a number of intriguing dilemmas, especially in the climactic vanity bout that the commandant stages between himself and Kopínek (Štefan Kvietik). (4) For Kopínek, it is a chance to establish his own integrity, to prove his reputation. He can perhaps get away with beating up one of his German captors, but will there be repercussions for his own survival? Or will other prisoners be made to pay for a victory?
This concept fits neatly with views likely to be officially endorsed at the time, though the filmmakers still had problems in getting approval to make the film. It was shot on location at a former work camp near the Slovak town of Nováky. In the lead role, Štefan Kvietik is charismatic, a smouldering, physical performance that gives the film a strong sense of cohesion. Other aspects of the film have not travelled as well. In particular, the characterisations of the Germans are too thin, too loaded to prove their moral point. There is a sense that events have been manufactured to create the thought-provoking issues that are certainly involving.
Pieseň o sivom holubovi (The Song of the Grey Pigeon, Stanislav Barabáš, 1961) refracted the experience of the war though children. It opens on an idyllic world, of children on an excursion with their teacher in the beautiful Slovakian countryside and mountains. But we know there is danger when the teacher addresses his pupils:
“Our valleys, villages, our poor but God-fearing nation Hungarians to the south […] The Poles, there … bad neighbours. And godless Bolshiviks pushing from the east. But we’re not afraid. We’ve a powerful German empire to the west, led by Adolf Hitler. Be sure to remember that name.”
Though some of the boys are more interested in seeing if they can catch a grey pigeon they saw flying by at about the same time that some German airplanes had flown overhead.
This was the first film directed by Stanislav Barabáš (1924-1994) and was based on a screen play that had won the award in a contest to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the liberation of Czechoslovakia. It is structured more as six separate short stories, which allows it to explore a range of ways that the war impacted on children. There are incidents where it is clear they have no comprehension of the enormity of what is happening – and others where they sense their vulnerability and lack of power.
A major battle scene is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which was made the following year, 1962. But this comparison reminds us that Barabáš does not achieve any of the clarity of action or power that Tarkovsky was to realise. The Song of the Grey Pigeon is consistently interesting, but it also too frequently bears the marks of a first-time director’s work. It resorts at times to self-conscious camera work that unnecessarily draws attention to itself. The “bad” character, Vinco, is demonised too quickly and melodramatically to make the moral options as complex as the film would like us to think they were.
The grey pigeon, caught by nine-year-old Rudko on that wonderful opening excursion, acts as a link between the loosely connected episodes. It does provide a basic cohesiveness, but is not as effective as it could be. It is forgotten for long passages, to return at moments only because there is a sense that the story needs it, rather than the fact that it would have organically been a part of that episode. It is a generally effective film and its focus on children is powerful.
But, about a decade later, another director Štefan Uher would make a stronger film, also focussing on the way that children saw, and were caught up in, World War II: Keby som mal pušku (If I Had a Gun, 1971). (5)
From my viewing of these Slovak films, Štefan Uher is emerging as a director who most certainly deserves to be better known. In 1964, he also made a film with a War background, Organ (The Organ). It also reunited Uher with screenwriter Alfonz Bednár and cinematographer Stanislav Szomolányi, with whom he had made the contemporary themed Slnko v sieti (The Sun in a Net, 1962).
Although The Organ uses war-time experiences for its story, it is a film which transcends that era, and is more universal in its themes and ideas. Some of its references are perhaps missed by non-Slovak audiences (and, in this edition, at times there is a sense that the sub-titles are not translating everything). We miss, for example, differences in language and accent. We do not immediately grasp the actual period of the war when the film is set. After having been part of a single Czechoslovakia since 1918, Slovakia had seceded in 1939, but allying itself with Germany. Although this period saw this close link with the Nazis, the somewhat independent régime is also credited with actions that saved many Jews. Although these complex, political particulars would be familiar to Slovak audiences of the time, the many rich themes transcend these potential limitations.
During this period of the Slovak State, a young Polish deserter finds shelter in a Slovak Franciscan monastery. He is also a gifted organist, which leads to conflict with the local organist and choirmaster.
As well as representing the cloistered community of the monastery, we have the bourgeois world of the small town, with its gossip and moneymaking, and beyond that the world of the State and the possible intrusion of larger conflicts. In all of these different worlds and moralities, where does holiness lie? Can there be goodness, or holiness, in such times? Is it God’s irony that out of evil and destruction good can come? Brother Felix (Alexander Březina), a member of the monastery, was killed by the fascists. But his habit provided the disguise that helped the Polish soldier find sanctuary. Local residents were killed by the mines laid by the fascists – but the same explosion restored to the village their long dried spring with its healing waters.
Parallels are drawn. The monks hide the Pole. The locals look like they are hiding some Jews. Groups express themselves through music: the brothers through their organ and bells, the fascist councillors with their new loud-speaker broadcasting system. These are repeated in the visuals. There is a strong emphasis on verticals in the cinematography; in the opening, the pipes of the organ “rhyme” with the trees the Polish soldier tries to hide behind. These verticals recur as a visual motif throughout the film, with its black-and-white ‘Scope camera often prowling purposefully around the monastery or the church or the house of the Choirmaster and his daughter.
On its release, The Organ received a number of important prizes. But there must have been some layers of meaning that were troubling for the authorities because it was withdrawn from circulation in the 1970s by the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Socialist Republic, and was not available again until 1987. Those possibly political dimensions are certainly sensed underneath the rich fabric of the film, but there is a stronger, more timeless sense that makes much of this film as vivid and relevant today. It is not dogmatic, but leaves its viewer with many questions to ponder. In particular, at the end, the Guardian (the leader of the monastery) asks, “Is the way to holiness closed for men?” It is like his question is reminding us of the thoughts that have run through the whole film.
* * *
Many film artists are most strongly compelled to make films that explore and reflect their everyday world. With the State-controlled film industries of Central Europe, this had both possibilities and dangers that many Western filmmakers did not have to face. There was a much weaker commercial imperative. Films were a cultural item perhaps before they were a commercial product. So, a director could be freer to experiment with new story structures, new ways of filmmaking, new techniques. The influence of freer filmmaking from the West was filtering through; even when films from movements such as the French New Wave, the New German Cinema and Cinéma Verité were not allowed to be seen by the general public in Eastern Europe, filmmakers frequently did have some access to these films. The influence can be seen in a number of their films of the period.
But this freedom from commercial pressures went along with other dangers. If the State supported filmmaking, it did not want films that were critical, that implied that the State itself may be the problem for society. If your film displeased the bureaucrats, it could be shelved indefinitely, and your chance to make any more films would vanish utterly. So, you either conformed or you found ways to infiltrate critical comment into your seemingly benign film. Western audiences knew of these hazards, and part of their process was a decoding of the films they were allowed to see from Eastern Europe.
Now that the imperatives are different, some films that perhaps spoke very specifically to audiences of the ’60s have less appeal to us. Other films have qualities that have transcended the limitations of their day, and the time in between. The pressures to mould their ideas to the limitations could inspire filmmakers to produce films with even greater strengths. The box set contains several films that exemplify most of these aspects.
Deň náš každodenný (Our Daily Day …, 1969) was made by Otakar Krivánek, a noted documentarist. It utilises many of the strategies of documentary and was a record of the daily life of a real, “typical” family. Its “drama” focuses on tiny everyday incidents: Marcel (the eldest son) getting out of his music lesson to take a girl to the movies, and then getting knocked back at the box office because she doesn’t have her ID with her and so couldn’t prove she was old enough to be allowed to see the film; Gerta (the mother who plays pianos for weddings) making a dress so 17-year-old daughter Miška will have something to wear to a party.
The improvised style of the scenes does give the film a sense of authenticity, but it also saps it of any lasting dramatic intensity. The camera frequently remains focused on one person throughout a scene, rather than hunting around to find or anticipate the drama in an incident. It is of some interest as a portrait of family life in a totalitarian state at that time, but as its story points feel contrived any general or specific insights have somewhat limited value.
In 1967, Juraj Jakubisko made Kristove roky (The Prime of Life). He explained:
The Prime of Life [the Slovak title of the film – which literally translates as “Christ’s Years” – refers to the period in life when one is 33 years old] that, for me, is a philosophical notion, the term referring to the critical moment in life. Youth is coming to an end and we need to look at our dreams and see how far or close we are to them and how our dreams changed with time. (6)
At the time he made it, Jakubisko (and his co-screenwriter, Lubor Dohnal) were both 29.
In an exuberant opening scene, two brothers lark around. They’re adults, but they’re like little boys playing with guns, or water, uninhibited about floppy underpants or an imminently floppy belly. But as we get to know them through the film, both have a growing sense of dissatisfaction about where their lives are heading. Juraj (Jiří Sýkora) is an artist, now living in Prague and somewhat cut off from his Slovak roots. His brother, Andrej (Vlado Müller), is a pilot with the military. That boyhood ambition is no longer as fulfilling as he dreamed it would be – and his marriage is in crisis.
Juraj is the main focus, and actor Jiří Sýkora is charismatic in charting Juraj’s move from cocky, youthful self-confidence to self-doubt, to a sense that a new adult determination must be part of the rest of his life. As well as universal issues of confidence, Jakubisko is also concerned with issues of national identity, as a Slovak in a nation dominated in influence by its Czech partners.
With time and distance, these national issues have become somewhat limiting elements for the film. For the non-Slovak viewer, there is a sense that many elements carry a charged meaning we do not understand, including the significance of the use of Prague locations. We also do not pick up when characters are speaking Czech or Slovak, and what loaded meanings underlie their use of either language. Jakubisko’s narrative is elliptical, and his visual style a high-contrast black and white, with heavily saturated whites. Is this a new film-school graduate a little too in love with the techniques available, at the cost of always clear communication with his audience?
It is refreshing to see important philosophical notions being explored in new, exploratory ways, even when all ideas do not come across now as clearly, as freshly or as forcefully as perhaps they once did. As Juraj says at one point, “It’s the prime of life. Nothing is as we expected.”
Two years later, the mood in the country was more in pain from the intervention or invasion of Soviet forces in August 1968. In January 1969, Jan Palach had burnt himself to death as a protest, in Wenceslas Square in Prague. His action had a powerful, lasting impact on both Czechs and Slovaks. Its trauma compounded the trauma of the actual invasion and is reflected in Réžia (The Wake, Vlado Kubenko, Peter Mihálik, Dušan Trancík, 1969), one of three documentaries included in this set.
This was the year that Our Daily Day … was made, and in that film the absence of any indication of this distress, although understandable, feels strained. Also made that year was 322 (Dušan Hanák). This film, somewhat like an allegory, functions on one level as a portrait of the society at that time, but the absence of any direct political reference is handled more effectively in a film of greater lasting interest.
Hanák (born 1938) is better known as a documentarist, especially for his Obrazy starého sveta (Pictures of the Old World, 1972 but re-released in 1988 after being “withdrawn”). (7) 322 was his feature début after about 20 documentaries and several aborted attempts at making other features. The overall framework is not really novel – a middle-aged man waiting to learn if he has a potentially fatal illness re-evaluates his life – but Hanák’s approach is fresh and penetrating. He said:
The literary character of the cook Lauko [in the source short-story] had no political associations. I came up with the motif of the lead character’s guilt – he participated in purges and the process of collectivization and I was intrigued by the contradiction in the sense that this character could be a good person […] I was helped by my own, strong personal sense of the relativity of values. And also, it was not quite fitting for the lead character in a young filmmaker’s film to be a communist. My colleagues from the New Wave shared my views regarding a different criteria of values – we were focused on the life of authentic people we meet in the street. And the leaders of the Party were not them. (8)
So, the framework may not be original, but the exuberance and complexity of the film itself is certainly invigorating. The eye of the documentarist comes through in the way that Hanák builds up a kaleidoscopic mosaic of life, people caught on the street, at work, at play, at home. Through this world our protagonist, Jozef Lauko, moves. All these other lives are perhaps irrelevant to his, especially as he is pre-occupied with his own mortality. And yet, in a way, he is giving life to this rich world. As a caption announces at one point, “If you don’t think about something, it doesn’t exist.” So Jozef must be thinking about all these lives he sees around him: lives he sees in all their uniqueness, their oddness, their selfishness, their goodness.
The film often has a sense of a free association of images – Jozef giving this randomness life because he is thinking about it. Some of these moments perhaps carry specific references to that particular period in Slovakia’s history, but there is also a greater, timeless universality about them. We can recognise these moments in our own community today.
There are also elements that are capable of being read as symbolic or metaphoric. Jozef is single, but shares a house with his ex-wife, who is carrying on an affair with a younger man who is also cheating her on the side. This can be read as a specific aspect of these characters’ lives, or perhaps it is a politically charged reference to housing problems in Slovakia of the 1960s. Or perhaps it is a metaphor for the state of the union, if Jozef “is” Slovakia, his wife is the Czech people, her boyfriend is the Soviet Union. The success of this film is that these extra metaphoric meanings are possible, but the richness of the film does not depend on them. It is even possible that I am being overly creative in these reading, but the film can sustain them.
Although the screenplay was approved before the Soviet occupation, filming did not start until after the Warsaw Pact troops rolled into Czechoslovakia. Of course, Hanák could not refer to that event specifically (unless to endorse it, and he was not about to do that). But several other references seem to operate as an acknowledgement that he cannot acknowledge it. In one, a television set is playing an officially beneficial programme about when our “girls from the socialist labour camp sometimes go on a trip”. Everyone in the room ignores this programme/propaganda completely.
At another point, we hear on the soundtrack that, “The NBC television company has decided to devote a full 30-hour programme to the first landing on the moon.” This sound bite is not directly related to action on screen at that point. Is it a non-diegetic piece of sound-mix? Or is it actually diegetic, perhaps coming from a public loud speaker used to broadcast through the building where Jozef is at that point? Whatever, its very presence seems to be a statement by Hanák that there are things he can acknowledge, and things he can’t. There is a bigger world outside the smaller world of his characters, but at times, like the television programme sometimes you have to turn your back on it. Or you choose to do so, because you don’t accept its distorted picture.
In March 1969, there was a special private screening of the film in Bratislava for the director of the Mannheim Film Festival. She secretly took a copy of the film abroad and, over the complaints of the Czechoslovak film authorities, screened it in that year’s Mannheim Film Festival. Appropriately, and significantly, it shared the Grand Prix that year with Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (USA, 1969). The two films make a very interesting pair of companion works.
In this world where film awards have nicknames like Oscar, César, David and so on, it is rare to have an award named after an actual film. But in Slovakia filmmakers have been honoured with a “Sun in a Net” award. Slnko v sieti (The Sun in a Net, 1962) was the first collaboration between director Štefan Uher and writer Alfonz Bednár, and is widely regarded as the forerunner of the Czechoslovakian New Wave of the ’60s. After all, the Czech Miloš Forman’s “breakthrough” films were still several years away: Konkurs (Audition, 1964) and Cerný Petr (Black Peter, aka Peter and Pavla, 1964).
The Sun in a Net is centred on two young people, Fajolo (Marián Bielik) and Bela (Jana Beláková), who in their own ways are groping towards an understanding of relationships. Fajolo spends his summer holidays working on a farm, while Bela remains in the city with her family, including her blind, somewhat self-pitying mother. The film has three main sections, rather than a normal linear structure. These sections act to emphasise one of the themes: the differences between city and country values. Cinematography and mise en scène exploit the locations. In the opening section, we meet Fajolo on a rooftop, where it as though he is in a forest – but a forest of television aerials. The grey, concrete impersonal city stretches out in the smoggy haze below him. When Bela joins him, he takes her photograph while they talk about the imminent eclipse.
The moments between them are charged with the insecurity, the impetuousness, the confidence that sometimes is over-compensation, the impulsiveness, the energy of young people. Also, without undue emphasis by Uher, a number of motifs have been introduced, particularly that of seeing: sight, blindness, light, eclipse, photography, dark glasses.
Another “city” location is a pontoon on the Danube. With the river mists, it rather resembles scenes of the River Po in ll Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1957). An old couple come to fish off this floating shack, despite the man having a hook for one hand. The contact that Fajolo strikes up with them is one of the many variations on relationships that are part of this film.
These locations contrast vividly with the middle section when Fajolo goes to the farm cooperative in the country, and where we are to discover some relationships with the city that are pivotal to the plot (as it is) as well as to the overall themes of the film. Uher’s mise en scène is complex, with skilful use of depth of focus, and the exploitation of the many planes in the image. In the country scenes, activities in mid-field and distance contribute to the overall sense and significance of that moment as much as whatever is closer to the camera.
In this section, another motif – hands – comes through. Fajolo’s favourite photographic subject is hands and this is picked up by the cinematography in the country, where there are many beautiful weather beaten faces, and work-marked hands. These scenes reinforce the rather Renoir-like interest in, and love of, all people, an awareness of their frailties and foibles, a sense of the vast number of people we come into contact with – young, old, city, country, family, strangers.
This is not a film with any overt political references or intent. But if audiences of the period were used to hunting for sub-texts, so were the bureaucrats. The First Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party of the day was reported to have interpreted the blindness of Bela’s mother as a metaphor for the blindness of the Party. And perhaps there were other symbols, such as the eclipse representing the twilight of the Communist era. However, wiser heads prevailed and the film was released to solid praise. One critic of the time wrote:
This film is a work of rebellion against traditional conventions. It is a restless, searching film. But also it is a film which is finding things and the significance of which widely exceeds the framework of our cinematography. (9)
The Sun in a Net is still fresh and young, complex and rewarding. It has the vivacity and love of life that we found in the early films of Truffaut, for example. The only mystery is why has it been unknown outside Czechoslovakia for almost half a century? Why were some later Czech films apparently promoted at the expense of equally interesting and significant Slovak works?
* * *
This box set provides a rich resource for exploring this unknown but rich area of filmmaking. It includes a tenth feature, Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade (Celebration in the Botanical Garden, Elo Havetta, 1969), a surreal blend of fantasy and reality, of Slovak folk traditions and the slapstick style of silent cinema, which I have written about in an earlier article. (10)
There is also an extra disc with three documentaries from 1968-69. These capture the mood in the country as the era of the “Prague Spring” reached its peak of optimism, and the crushing of this by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968. Each feature also has a newsreel from the year of the feature. These provide an extra context for the films, as we consider the way that the style of these newsreels both resemble and differ from the newsreels screened in Western cinemas at that stage. a female cosmonaut visits Bratislava, and we go ice-skating in Budapest. The Czechoslovak President visits Indonesia, and art restorers work on some old painting.
The discs reviewed in this article were supplied by courtesy of the Slovak Film Institute. Much of the site can be navigated in English, although the details about the discs in this set seem to be only in Slovak. However, all discs reviewed are English friendly, with optional English menus and sub-titles including on all bonus items. DVDs are available through www.klapka.sk. The English version of this site is still being developed, but the current version should be navigable with the use of an on-line translator. More general enquiries about the films can be addressed to email@example.com.
- Peter Cowie and Pascal Edelman (Eds), Projections 15: European Cinema (London: Faber & Faber, 2007).
- Cowie and Edelmann (Eds): “[T]hree years ago we shot half of The True Story of Janosik and Uborcik in Slovakia, and then ran out of funds. The Poles were supposed to participate, but so far we’ve had promises and no money. The idea was to make it a Slovak-Czech-Polish co-production, because it’s based on the true story of a very popular eighteenth-century bandit, somewhat akin to Robin Hood but more complex.” Agnieszka Holland quoted in an interview conducted October 2006.
- There are also similarities with a 1989 film Triumph of the Spirit (Robert M. Young, USA).
- See my discussion of this film in “Slovak Cinema of the 1970s Revisited”.
- Director Juraj Jakubisko, quoted in the supporting material on the DVD. On the credits of the film he is listed as Juro Jakubisko.
- See “Slovak Cinema of the 1970s Revisited”.
- Director Dušan Hanák quoted in the supporting material on the DVD.
- Critic Richard Blech, 1963, quoted on DVD supporting material.
- See “Slovak Cinema of the 1970s Revisited”.