Štefan Uher: The Sun in a Net (Slnko v sieti), 1963
reviewed by Jasmine Pogue © 2005
The Sun in a Net focuses on the lives of two young adults, Bela (Jana Beláková) and Oldrich “Fajolo” Fajták (Marián Bielik), as they cope with conflicts in their family lives as well as with each other. It is a revolutionary film that broke through the prescriptions imposed by the socialist realist method. From the imposition of communist rule in Slovakia (and Czechoslovakia) in 1948, socialist realism was mandated to be the artistic method to be used by all artists. According to this method, only concrete, realistic works of art had value; anything abstract was deemed unacceptable because it did not posses a definite (pro-communist) message. Filmmakers were forced to show a happy society in which everything was done for the good of the community and no one was ever shown as being dissatisfied with communism. If there was a negative character in a film, this character would either undergo a Marxist-Leninist conversion or be crushed.
The Sun in a Net was made at the onset of increasing relaxation of communist control and the enforcement of socialist realism in Czechoslovakia. It also played a role in helping to continue this process. The film incorporated elements usually banned from cinema at the time, such as shots of flesh on screen, sexual innuendos in the dialog, and the theme of marital deception.
It was Štefan Uher’s (1930-1993) second film. His first film, We from Grade 9, Study Group A (My z deviatej A, 1962) was about the lives of a group of 15-year-old students and their school. Alfonz Bednár (1914-1989), the screenwriter of The Sun in a Net, was a relatively successful writer who published mildly non-conformist fiction a bit earlier than other authors were able to do so. The Sun in a Net is based on three of his short stories: “Fajolo’s Contribution” (“Fajolov príspevok”), “Pontoon Day” (“Pontónový deň”), and “Golden Gate” (“Zlatá brána”). Filled with innovative ideas and symbolic details, The Sun in a Net depicts the lives of two youths in Bratislava who experience problems between themselves and at home. Bela is a blond, attractive teenager who comes from a dysfunctional family. Her mother is blind and her adulterous father is indifferent to his wife’s disability. She and her little brother Milo (Peter Lobotka) must act as the parents in this household, keeping it together and caring for their incapacitated mother. Fajolo, Bela’s boyfriend, is an indecisive young man. He has trouble expressing his feelings to Bela and seems self-absorbed. Fajolo’s family—his mother, father, and himself—have strained interactions with one another. His busy parents are heard but never seen onscreen, which is an effective way of portraying them as detached, perhaps even uncaring. His mother’s only exchanges (frequently repeated) with Fajolo is to tell him what is in the refrigerator for dinner; his father insists that he do “voluntary” summer work on a farm. This was a standard way for children, especially from educated families—often suspected of harboring anti-communist ideas and persecuted by the state,—to help improve their parents’ standing with the authorities and their own chances to study in college.
While working on a farm in the village of Meleňany, Fajolo meets Jana (Oľga Šalagová), a young, dark-haired woman. She satisfies Fajolo’s thirst for female company while he is away from Bela. They work side-by-side in the fields stacking straw and often escape to a tiny pond, whose bubbling water is believed locally to bestow virility on men, in order to swim and enjoy one another’s company. While Fajolo is away, Bela, in turn, befriends Peťo (Ľubo Roman), a more daring young man than Fajolo and twice as avaricious. While sunbathing on a pontoon, Peťo gets frisky with Bela and fondles her body beneath her swimsuit in a close-up shot. Such shots would not have been possible prior to the relaxation of communist control in the early 1960s.
Symbolic details are used throughout the film to convey the polarity between life under communism and the possibility of life without communism. While these details went unnoticed by many viewers and possibly not even intended as such by the filmmakers, they did not escape the attention of the authorities. Karol Bacílek, the head of the Communist Party in Slovakia at the time, attacked the film, saying it contained coded messages that conspirators were easily able to decipher. Bacílek claimed, for example, that the solar eclipse was supposed to indicate the twilight of communism, and that the pontoon on the dried-up riverbed was a comment on the state of communist rule in Czechoslovakia.  Communist officials believed that the blind mother symbolized the blindness of their Party, which did not see the realities of life under communism. Despite these accusations, however, the film was released because a political thaw had begun in Slovakia.
The most prevalent symbolic details in the film are the contrasting shots of light and darkness, and the shots of hands. At a time when abstraction was discouraged, if not totally suppressed, these ambiguous images acquired enormous power. By playing with the disparity between light and darkness, the film suggests that there is something dark about communism, which blocks out the light—and truth. Many citizens in Bratislava see a solar eclipse at the beginning of the film.  This scene resonated with many viewers, who could merely observe as the injustices of communist rule blocked out the truth.
Fajolo’s fetishistic fascination with hands is also used symbolically. A curious photographer, Fajolo captures various images of hands with his camera—strong hands, small hands, and arthritic hands. Hands can nurture, maim, and create. The recurring images of hands suggest equality—everyone has them: workers, farmers, the intelligentsia, and even communist officials. During a scene where a gathering of youths is voting, the camera first focuses on one hand that is raised and then pans out to show a room full of raised hands. While everyone has hands, each hand is unique to an individual, and that individuality is lost when surrounded by many hands. This loss of individuality in a crowd of hands parallels the loss of individual freedom when communism forces everyone to vote for the same thing.
Uher pushed the boundaries of what was permissible under socialist realism by mixing the socially acceptable with the taboo in this film, standard shots of mandated voting with shots of teenagers making out. This was a breakthrough because love, especially physical attraction, had been marginalized in art; it was an individual—not a collective—response and state of being that did not deliver a pro-communist lesson to the whole of society. Perhaps the most radical message in The Sun in a Net was the idea that lying was humane. Bela and her brother lie to their mother about the weather and her surroundings to satisfy her curiosity and to give her comfort and contentment. Communists had repeatedly accused the former “bourgeoisie” (that is, democrats) and intelligentsia of lying and deceit, and earlier films contrasted them with truthful communist officials. By showing some lies as potentially justified, The Sun in a Net turned the tables on one of the recurring themes in socialist realist art.
Several scenes in the film were obviously naughty and intended to challenge existing taboos. Perhaps the most blatant examples are the shots of the youth volunteers working on the farm in their underwear. Uher was able to film their glistening, half-naked, sweaty bodies precisely because he shoed them in the act of doing voluntary communist labor. This was pure manipulation on Uher’s part: labor and skin shots in the same scene.
The Sun in a Net was the first film in Czechoslovakia to break through the barriers imposed by socialist realism and, as a result, it was a triumph with critics and viewers alike. The fact that they got past the censors showed that the most repressive years of communist rule in Slovak and Czech society and art were coming to an end. It is no wonder, therefore, that Uher’s film was voted by critics as one of the top ten best films produced in the history of filmmaking in the former Czechoslovakia.
Jasmine Pogue (University of Pittsburgh)
The Sun in a Net (Slnko v sieti)
Slovakia (Czechoslovakia) 1963, 100 minutes, Black-and-white
Director: Štefan Uher
Screenwriter: Alfonz Bednár
Cinematography: Stanislav Szomolányi
Music: Ilja Zeljenka
Production designer: Juraj Červík
Editing: Bedřich Voděrka
Cast: Marián Bielik, Jana Beláková, Oľga Šalagová, Ľubo Roman, Adam Jančo, Pavol Chrobák
Production: Koliba (Bratislava)
Štefan Uher: The Sun in a Net (Slnko v sieti), 1963
reviewed by Jasmine Pogue © 2005