Štefan Uher: The Sun in a Net ( Slnko v sieti ), 1963

reviewed by Alex Golden © 2005

The Sun in a Net is consistently ranked among the greatest films in the history of Czechoslovak cinema, in spite of—and perhaps to some degree, because of—government attacks against it. Critical acclaim, however, does not always correlate with audience reception. Not infrequently, films praised by critics for being innovative are lost on audiences that are more likely to criticize them as being pretentious or incoherent. In additional, neither critical nor popular acclaim at the time of a film’s release is an accurate indicator of whether the film will join the ranks of those canonized by critics or embraced by audiences. The Sun in a Net was favorably received by both critics and popular audiences, and both continue to hold it in high esteem four decades later.

The Sun in a Net explores the romantic attachments of student and amateur photographer Oldrich “Fajolo” Fajták (Marián Bielik) to his hometown love Bela Blažejová (Jana Beláková) and to Jana (Oľga Šalagová), a lover whom he meets during a summer job on a collective farm. This lovers’ triangle provides the film with several oppositions: town and country, intelligentsia and worker, collective and personal truth, reality and representation—all ultimately pointing towards the distinction between truth and lie. The Sun in a Net, however, offers no clear resolution of the issues at stake, instead it insists that viewers piece it together for themselves.

One of the first striking features of The Sun in a Net is its alinear narrative structure, which contrasts with the linear narrative structure dominant in socialist realism. The Sun in a Net contains ruptures in temporality that take the form of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and points of narrative perspective that are ambiguous in source. Narrative perspective shifts constantly between sequences clearly marked as representations of individual experience and of objectively unscripted shots of “life-as-it-is” to extremely subjective sequences clearly marked as memories. While these subjective sequences fly in the face of the socialist realist prerogative that film reveal objective truth (in practice, government-mandated propaganda), the unscripted sequences also tread on taboo territory because they have no explicit, plot-driving function: they are dashes of local color, ambiguous in meaning and anathema to socialist-realism.

Back in 1963, such bold defiance of the traditions of socialist realist filmmaking was likely to capture the attention of critics and audiences because of its novelty alone. With the passage of time, however, freshness wears off and narrative ambiguities are as likely to alienate popular audiences as novelty was capable of attracting them. Although Uher’s innovations in narrative structure carried over into subsequent films by other filmmakers (after all, The Sun in a Net triggered a flood of Czech New Wave films that showed its influence), there is no guarantee that the film’s once-innovative qualities will not appear dated to a contemporary, popular audience. By comparison, these same innovations and ambiguities of perspective and narrative organization continue to provide critics with an opportunity to re-interpret the meaning and placement of the film with cultural histories.

A particularly dynamic example of the potential for critical analysis in The Sun in a Net is the representation of Bela’s blind mother (Eliška Nosáľová), who in many ways stands apart from other characters in the film. She is unwavering in her solitude and depression, refusing to leave the confines of her home throughout most of the film, unlike other characters who are often shot outdoors in the midst of work and leisure activities. Her self-absorption is consistently overbearing, standing in contrast to the more natural performances of many of the untrained actors. The mother’s flatness of characterization is emphasized by the use of a relatively static camera, murky interior lighting, and frequent shots of her in mirrors. While the mother is clearly marked as a figure for viewers to contemplate, how she was interpreted when The Sun in a Net was released depended on whether the viewer was as a critic, a moviegoer seeking entertainment, or a Communist Party official.

Indeed, some Party officials took the figure of the mother to represent the blindness of the Communist Party itself. Such an allegorical interpretation, however, is difficult to support textually because the mother’s oppressive presence does not reach beyond her own experience and, therefore, has no controlling influence upon those around her. Instead, she is rendered as being impotent and isolated, certainly an ineffective means of raising viewers’ ire. This type of reductive reading of film’s symbols (as disguised literal allusions) can lead only to a linear interpretation of the film, something the film constantly defies.

While it is difficult to ascribe an obvious allegorical function to the figure of the mother, she has a well-defined thematic function: she represents a construction of the world at its most artificial. In order to build her conception of the world, she constantly relies upon visual descriptions provided by others, whether her son’s (Peter Lobotka) description of the solar eclipse or Bela’s description of the pontoon. Yet these descriptions are deliberately misleading: the son lies about the visibility of the solar eclipse on what was a cloudy day, while Bela portrays a picture-perfect panorama of a lively riverfront, when the water level had actually dropped and the camera shows acres of dried riverbed. As much as other characters, particularly Fajolo, could have appeared suspicious in their attempts to build a more authentic conception of reality from the Party’s perspective, the mother’s conception is marked as constructed and inauthentic. It is easier to see the mother as a victim of her unreflective acceptance of reported truth in lieu of the form of truth that can come only from direct experience, and as such she is more a victim of communist ideology than its purveyor.

The Sun in a Net offers abundant opportunities for thematic or symbolic interpretation of other characters and motifs, as well. But while this provides ample material for critical examination, it certainly does not assure The Sun in a Net’s continuing popularity with mass audiences. Even the mother—such a rich source for analysis by critics—may appear merely annoying to most viewers because her scenes serve only to impede the film’s moments of stylistic flair. But those flairs, in turn, may now be seen as moments of self-indulgent experimentation with little connection to popular imagination. The appearance of “real people” in “real situations” and the presence of popular Western music, which had not been permitted earlier on Slovak and Czech screens, may now appear dated and irrelevant.

Alex Golden (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 Alex Golden © 2005

Updated: 21 Dec 05