Štefan Uher: The Organ (Organ), 1964
reviewed by Peter Konečný © 2005
The communist regime in Slovakia in the 1960s tried hard to support especially those artists who were loyal to the ruling ideology and who produced works of art according to the socialist realist method. Ideology, however, was gradually beginning to recede into the background, although it never vanished entirely. The leading protagonist of this change in Slovak filmmaking in the 1960s became Štefan Uher. As one of the directors who saw themselves as the authors of the films they made, he based his artistic expression on opposition to the romanticizing style and cinematic idealisations typical of socialist realism.
Some of Uher’s contemporaries called him the “John the Baptist” of a whole young generation, the first modern director not only in Slovakia but also in the Czech-speaking lands. These characterizations emerged in connection with his film The Sun in the Net (Slnko v sieti, 1963), which marked a turning point in the history of Slovak cinematography. This was Uher’s second feature film. It was an original experiment in all aspects of its cinematic expression. In addition to the strong acclaim it received from both critics and audiences, it also became a turning point in Uher’s work. It started his friendship and artistic cooperation with the writer Alfonz Bednár and the cinematographer Stanislav Szomolányi.
The trio’s second joint film, The Organ, whose production began in 1964, depicts the essence of how any totalitarian regime works. While The Organ’s story is set in the totalitarian era of World War II Slovakia, the film is also a parable about the totalitarian nature of the communist regime, which could not be criticized directly. Both were eras of political fanaticism, but while Roman Catholicism was strongly promoted during World War II, it and other religions were strongly suppressed during the communist period when the emphasis, especially during its first decade, was on post-Stalinist ideology. Consequently, the focus on a monastery in The Organ was also a novelty. The film is an artistic interpretation of this complex subject matter. The film is actually a philosophical discourse on art and music plays a key role: the religious cantatas by J. S. Bach serve as a symbol of nobility and humanity—counterposed to evil, on the one hand, and to the denial of humanistic values, on the other.
The film’s narrative begins with a Polish military deserter, Brother Felix (Alexander Březina), taking shelter in a Franciscan monastery. He lands at the center of a web of relationships that reveals the depth of hypocrisy, inanity, greed, and psychological pressures that characterized the life in the surrounding provincial town. The monastery’s superior (Kamil Marek) discovers in Brother Felix an ability to “convey the beauty of holiness through music,” as he refers to quirky, quiet friar’s extraordinary musical talent, and arranges for him to play the organ in a local church. Felix is a master organist and through him the town is blessed with great, noble music. The difference between Felix and the regular choirmaster, Vendelín Bachňák (František Bubík), is painfully obvious. Bachňák is going through a personal crisis, which is nourished by his conviction that he is a perfect music player. He carefully guards his reputation as a well-respected citizen, striving to achieve importance despite the challenge of his small stature. His illusions concerning himself lead to a tragic end. Bachňák’s actions echo those of the monastery’s superior, who lives with a feeling of moral superiority over the citizens of the town, yet becomes an informer and a traitor by reporting Felix to the authorities. Felix’s tragedy accentuates the pretense and perfidy behind the other leading characters’ moralistic façade and exposes the real nature of the things it hides.
If The Sun in the Net can be characterized as poetically civic-minded, Uher and Bednár employ metaphorical language in The Organ. While The Sun in the Net revolves around adolescence, first love, and the early mapping of one’s journey through life, narrated in the language of almost documentary authenticity, The Organ replaces present time with a historical topic.  Where The Sun in the Net derives its themes from everyday life, The Organ is built around metaphysical contemplation.  As much as both films use non-professional actors, the metaphoric stylization of the films differs radically. The austere dialogues in The Organ, fraught with hidden meanings, are enhanced by Szomolányi’s stylized cinematography, which successfully conveys the ambience of the film through his work with light, lenses, and camera movement. The shots running over the frescoes in the church and the pipes of the organ are synchronized with the soundtrack. Bach’s compositions create a dramatic relationship between two extremes of talented geniality and treacherous ignominy. Music becomes a dramatic factor, one of the characters in the story. Along with direction, cinematography, and set design, the musical score is a major component in this important work of Slovak cinema.
At the time of its release, critics agreed that The Organ was an ambiguous work of art, with many meanings and deserving respect and admiration. “Organ is an artistically demanding and complex movie. Anyone looking for some primary definiteness, as far as a storyline and images are concerned, will be frustrated. It is a film that one has to conquer bit-by-bit with confidence and considerable aesthetic weaponry. Both its greatness and its difficulty with audiences’ indolence consist in these qualities”.  At the same time, there was anxiety about how the film’s metaphorical and allegorical image of the relationship between the political system and an individual, between art and power would be received. The film never achieved the popularity of The Sun in a Net and, while the authorities approved its release amidst the increasing relaxation of communist rule, their attitude changed after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
In the early 1970s, the Commission for Film Release Licensing put The Organ on the list of banned films and it had to wait until 1987 to be shown in theaters again. At the time of its release, The Organ received high acclaim from both critics and audiences, and Uher and Bednár received numerous awards. It was the second Slovak film—after Peter Solan’s The Boxer and Death (Boxer a smrť, 1962)—to generate interest outside the communist bloc. The Organ received the Special Jury Prize at the 12th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland in 1965, which was the highest non-communist recognition for a Slovak feature film up to that time. Because The Organ was well ahead of its time thematically, and because of its visual language and interpretative complexity, it ranks among the best films of Slovak filmmaking.
Peter Konečný (University of Performing Arts, VŠMU, Bratislava)
Translated by Dana Matejovová
The Organ (Organ) 1964
Slovakia (Czechoslovakia) 1964, 99 minutes
Director: Štefan Uher
Screenwriters: Alfonz Bednár
Cinematography: Stanislav Szomolányi
Music: Ján Zimmer
Production designer: Anton Krajčovič
Editing: Maximilián Remeň
Cast: František Bubík, Kamil Marek, Alexander Březina, Ján Bartko, Albert Augustíny
Production: Koliba (Bratislava)
Štefan Uher: The Organ (Organ), 1964
reviewed by Peter Konečný © 2005