Director: Štefan Uher
Script: Alfonz Bednár
Music: Ján Zimmer
Cinematography: Stanislav Szomolányi
Cast: Hana Maciuchová, František Bubík, Irma Bárdyová,
Kamil Marek, Jozef Hodorovský, Tomás Tobák,
Luise Grossová, Albert Augustíny, Alexander Brezina
For Štefan Uher’s second film he chose to work again with both writer Alfonz Bednár and cinematographer Stanislav Szomolányi after their debut feature SLNKO V SIETI (THE SUN IN THE NET, 1962). With the Czech New Wave peaking in 1968’s Prague Spring, ORGAN marks the second time Uher, along with Bednár and Szomolányi, created a film that was ahead of the curve. This trio is more known for Uher’s debut film SLNKO V SIETI, a film more aligned with the poeticism of Devětsil and an aesthetic style similar to French New Wave cinema. Following a doomed relationship between the teenagers, Fajolo and Bela are set against the contrasting imagery of a modernizing Bratislava with its apartment buildings contrasting the Slovak countryside. Their action, as well as Szomolányi’s decision to often distort the lens, lends to its Avant-Garde openness to the interpatation of its meanings. This as well as the influence of pop culture gives the viewer a similar experience to films coming out of the French New Wave. With ORGAN we see Uher return to the artistic ideals of Devětsil, but exploring it in a more nuanced way than before.
Building on the foundation in SLNK V SIETI, Uher uses the events of fascist’s control of Czechslovakia during the begining of World War II as commentary about the current political situation. This is a necessity born out of the repressive censorship found in Czechoslovakia at the time, and isn’t wholly original to Uher, but done as a way to subversively hide the important conversion about the current situation. Again turning to the aesthetics of Devětsil, Szomolányi frames the imagery in a poetic manner by using the imagery itself to reinforce the metaphors within OGRAN. However, what is different this time is that cinematographer Szomolányi relies less on the influences of the French New Wave, and adopts a style more in line with Eastern Europe. This causes ORGAN to have a slower pace among scenes of oppressive imagery; trapped in the towns Gothic cathedral or the gardens in the monastery.
Writer Bednár also grows in the process. SLNK V SIETI is an adaption of three of his short stories, while ORGAN is Bednár’s first screenplay. He does a marvelous job writing a narrative that captures the openness of Devětsil, using characters that seem unconnected but at the end we understand how deeply connected they all are.
ORGAN begins with a Polish deserter who discovers a monk and a woman who have been killed by a landmine. He changes into the monk’s robes and travels to the nearby monastery claiming to be a witness of the last judgement. The monks recognize his robes as that of their Brother Felix and do not question the deserter, sensing his desire to hide. They start calling him Brother Felix and soon learn of his talent at playing the organ. The Guardian monk doesn’t want Brother Felix in the monastery for he isn’t a real monk, so he asks the choir director in the small town, Bachnák, if he would take Brother Felix as their organist.
Bachnák, who is the current organist, has recently purchased a house from the husband of the woman who died with the real Brother Felix. Additionally, we find out that Bachnák is hiding Jews in the cellar of his business. The choirmaster agrees with the Guardian monk and soon the small town, and Bachnák’s daughter, quickly falls in love with Brother Felix’s music. As Brother Felix recognizes that the fascist government has begun to settle into the town, he chooses to isolate himself in the church. Bachnák becomes jealous of the towns’ love for Brother Felix’s music, and begins the process of marrying his daughter to the new leader of this fascist government. His daughter eventually requests that Brother Felix play the organ at her wedding instead of her father. With his jealousy mounting, Bachnák learns from his daughter that Brother Felix is Polish and possibly not who he claims to be. Unfortunately, Bachnák’s actions lead to a tragic conclusion after the climax of the wedding.
Bednár writes a narrative for the film that includes the central theme of sin and confession. This is surprising considering the Party’s stance on Christianity in its first decade of power in Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, ORGAN is filled with Christian imagery outside of the recurring shots within the church and monastery and scenes of Christ crucified. The fake Brother Felix is first seen in the woods, arms outstretched in a Christ-like stance. Later, Bachnák’s daughter talks to the Jews they are hiding – the conversation mirrors that of a confessional booth as they are hidden in the shadows of the cellar during their conversation.
Each central character, outside of Brother Felix, has some sin they commit in the film that later they must atone for, including the head monk, who turned away the Polish deserter and not accepting him into the monastery. This theme helps to complete the picture of both sides of Devětsil, its poeticism and its dogmatism with the Communist party. Uher uses this theme of atoning for sin and the aesthetics of Devětsil to create the dialogue about the faults within the Arts of Czechoslovakia’s past. One can conclude that Uher uses ORGAN as a vehicle to communicate his conflicting views with Devětsil and Art being so closely tied to Politics.
Outside of this complicated relationship between Art and Politics, ORGAN still stands as a stunningly beautiful film with a rich narrative. Though characters are often introduced throughout the film, Uher doesn’t use their introduction to explain their motives or how they relate to the community. Instead, we gradually learn their true intent as we watch their lives unfold in the small town. This is best seen with the husband whose wife dies at the start of the film. Never given a real identity, we first see him as the vultures descend upon him in his home trying to buy it from him. He is only seen after this alone in the bar, talking to someone unseen, grieving with alcohol. Rows of pool cues stand straight and orderly in a row behind him on the wall, looking like soldiers at attention. It’s only until the conclusion of the film that he has run out of money for drinks and truly has nothing left, that he returns to church amid the film’s dramatic finale. At the conclusion of ORGAN we see Brother Felix returning to the woods with the town in the background, the church bell tolling. This leads to viewer to recalling the ideas posed as the start of the film when the Polish deserter first appears at the monastery claiming to have been a witness.
Much can also be said for the music that comprises ORGAN’s soundtrack. Ján Zimmer takes the works of Bach, and when played exclusively through the organ, helps to build upon the oppressive imagery created by Szomolányi. These dark and heavy organ compositions add a weight to the film that helps the viewer to experience the weight of the sins that the characters carry within themselves. This is most easily realized in the wedding scene, as Brother Felix plays the organ and Bachnák’s weds the fascist mayor; the sound of the organ appears to weigh heavily on the film and instead of feeling like a wedding, the viewer sees it as a funeral.
All of these contrasting elements are also at the core of Devětsil, but also that of Czechoslovakia at the time. ORGAN is very much a Slovakian film, with not just its language and shooting locations, but with its use of non-actors. Uher presents to viewers a real vision of Slovakia, a vision that is contrasting with itself and a vision carrying the weight of its father’s sins.
This isn’t the last time Štefan Uher would deal with Devětsil, his next film PANNA ZÁZRACNICA (THE MIRACULOUS VIRGIN, 1966) is an adaption of Surrealist Dominik Tatarka’s novel of the same name. PANNA ZÁZRACNICA is a film that is even more self-aware of its surrealist roots on more on the nose with its use of themes like imagination.∗