The death of Josip Broz Tito on May 4, 1980, marked the end of an era in Yugoslavia’s post-Second World War social and political development. Nearly 88 years old at his death, Tito had dominated Yugoslav domestic and international relations for nearly four decades, first as the Supreme Commander of the Communist-led Partisan resistance against enemy occupiers and domestic foes, and afterwards as the undisputed leader of the Party and State. His enormous prestige and astute political leadership had guided the young socialist state through a minefield of dramatic upheavals, international tensions, and domestic crises. On the other hand, the prestige and authority of his leadership had held in abeyance and left unresolved a number of deep and worrisome economic and political dilemmas and contradictions which burst into the open in the eighties and ushered in Yugoslavia’s current “time of troubles.”
At the center of Yugoslavia’s current crisis are deteriorating economic conditions characterized by a high and persistent inflation rate which has reached 150 to 200 percent annually in the last few years, a huge balance of payments deficit, a precipitous drop in the living standards of many Yugoslavs, and the declining productivity of workers. Economic difficulties have been exacerbated by political paralysis at the federal level and the steady devolution of power to regional and republican centers whose interests do not always coincide with all-Yugoslav plans of social and economic stabilization and growth.1
Added to these woes have been the re-emergence of nationality problems and interethnic strife2 and the multiple stresses carried in the wake of Yugoslavia’s rapid transition from a predominantly agrarian economy at the end of the war to a predominantly urbanized and industrialized one today. Longstanding dilemmas in Yugoslavia’s rapid urbanization and industrialization have been heightened by recent worsening economic and social conditions. The serious multiple crises which face Yugoslavia in the eighties have taken their toll on public confidence in the system and have led to an erosion of beliefs in the founding myths of the state and the inherent superiority of self-management socialism.3
This pessimistic litany of unresolved woes and dilemmas must be balanced against the resilience and independence of the peoples of Yugoslavia and the pride and resourcefulness they have shown in finding innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems and crises in the past. The Yugoslavia of the eighties has been characterized by wide-ranging political and cultural expression and debate which sharply question received myths and which critically address the multiple dilemmas of contemporary social, economic, and political life. Yugoslav feature films have recently played a significant role in the present critical revisioning of Yugoslavia’s revolutionary past and in imaginatively reflecting the subtle, complex, and changing contours of her evolving present.
Not since her “golden age” of the sixties has Yugoslavia’s multinational film industry (with centers in all six republics and the two autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina) experienced such a fecund and vital period of film production and such a variety of meaningful film expression. The new film (novi film) period of the sixties is separated from the latest “resurgence” of Yugoslav feature films by a relatively low and flat profile of film production in the seventies.4 Following the political suppression of new film tendencies in the late sixties and early seventies, Yugoslav feature films were characterized by a general lack of thematic boldness and cinematic experimentation. Heroic Partisan films (which had already begun to weary domestic viewers with their worn clichés, xenophobic excesses, and repetitive formulas), light comedies, action-adventure films, and historical dramas once again rose to the forefront, and new film radicalism receded to the vanishing point. It was not until the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties that the picture began to brighten considerably. Feature film production rose to levels which rivaled the high watermark of the late sixties,5 and a new generation of film artists stimulated the revival of artistically and socially more interesting films.
RENEWAL AND RESURGENCE
The comeback of Yugoslav film in the late seventies and early eighties was initially spearheaded by a group of younger film directors, among the most important of whom are Srdan Karanović (b. 1945), Goran Paskaljević (b. 1947), Goran Marković (b. 1946), Rajko Grlić (b. 1947), and Lordan Zafranović (b. 1944). All were classmates, along with the talented cinematographer Živko Zalar, at FAMU, the professional film school in Prague, and became known collectively as the “Czech School” of Yugoslav directors. They shared and continue to share a common interest in making well-crafted films which communicate effectively with the audience as well as make sharp and meaningful comments on the complexities and contradictions of contemporary life in Yugoslavia.6
While the “Czech School” of Yugoslav film directors provided the yeast for leavening and quickening the resurgence of Yugoslav film expression in the late seventies and early eighties, numerous other creative sources have nurtured its continued maturation and growth during the last few years. Among the most promising and accomplished new feature film directors to emerge in the eighties are the Bosnian Emir Kusturica (b. 1954), who also received his professional film training at FAMU in Prague, and has directed two films which have received major international awards, Do You Remember Dolly Bell (Sjećas li se Dolly Bell, 1981) and When Father Was Away on Business (Otac na službenom putu, 1985); the Serbian Slobodan Šijan (b. 1946) who has directed four stylistically varied and critically acclaimed films, Who’s That Singing Over There (Ko to tamo peva, 1980), The Marathon Runner (Maratonci trče posčasni krug, 1981), How I Was Systematically Destroyed by an Idiot (Kako sam sistematski unisten od idiota, 1983), and Strangler Versus Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja, 1984); the Macedonian Stole Popov (b. 1950) whose uneven first film, The Red Horse (Crveniot konj, 1981), was followed by his internationally successful film, Happy New Year, 1949 (Srećna nova, ‘49, 1986); the Serbian Branko Baletić (b. 1946) whose relatively slight first film, Plum Juice (Sok od šljiva, 1980) was followed by his witty and accomplished film, Balkan Express (Balkan ekspres, 1983); the talented Slovenian cinematographer-turned-director Karpo Godina (b. 1943) whose successful first film, The Raft of the Medusa (Splav meduze, 1980) was followed by an interesting but comparatively less successful second film, Red Boogie (Rdeči boogie, 1983); and the Slovenian film scenarist and director Filip Robar-Dorin (b. 1940) whose debut film, Sheep and Mammoths (Ovni in mamuti, 1985) earned widespread critical praise.
Several directors who contributed substantially to new film tendencies in the sixties (the Serbians Živojin [Žika] Pavlović, Puriša Đorđević, Miloś Radivojević and Želimir Žilnik; the Croatians Vatroslav Mimica, Krsto Papić, Branko Ivanda, Ante Babaja and Zvonimir Berković; the Slovenians Boštjan Hladnik and Matjaž Klopčič; and the Bosnians Bora Drašković and Bato Čengić) have all directed films in the eighties, in some cases after a long absence from feature film production. Among the most significant of these recent films are Body Scent (Zadah tela, 1983) directed by Žika Pavlović, winner of the Golden Arena award for best film at the 1983 Pula feature film festival, which explores the dark underside of socialism in the characteristic style of Pavlović’s most important films of the sixties; The Inheritance (Dediščina, 1985) directed by Matjaž Klopčič, featured in the Certain Regard section of the 1985 Cannes festival, a cinematically complex rendering of the period from 1914 to 1944 and the tragedy which overtakes three generations of the Vrhunc family; Life Is Beautiful (Život je lep, 1985), a dark metaphor of social breakdown in contemporary Yugoslavia, directed by Boro Drašković; and Living Like the Rest of Us (Živeti kao sav normalan svet, 1982), directed by Milos Radivojević, a compelling cinematic study of a talented and idealistic music student from the provinces who is progressively disillusioned by the subtle politics and corrupt lifestyles which he finds in the professional conservatory of music in Belgrade.
One of the foremost directors of the sixties, Aleksandar Petrović, has not directed a film in Yugoslavia since his controversial film, The Master and Margarita (Majstor i Margarita, 1972), adapted from the well-known and long-suppressed Russian novel of the same name by Mikhail Bulgakov. At the time of this writing, however, he has received French funding for a major film project, Migrations, which will be partially shot in Yugoslavia.7 Dušan Makavejev, the best-known Yugoslav film director internationlly) Sweet Movie, Montenegro, The Coca-Cola Kid) has not made a film in Yugoslavia since WR: Mysteries of the Organism (WR: Misterije organizma, 1970). He has, however, recently returned to Yugoslavia for guest appearances, and WR: Mysteries of the Organism has enjoyed special screenings in Yugoslavia with enthusiastic audience responses. At the time of this writing, Makavejev is directing a U.S.-Yugoslav coproduced feature film, For a Night of Love.
International recognition of Yugoslavia’s second coming of age as an important source of world-class films was most dramatically confirmed at the 1985 Cannes film festival, where the Yugoslav film, When Father Was Away on Business, directed by Emir Kusturica, won the coveted Palme d’Or for best feature film, and has since enjoyed widespread international critical and popular success. Major retrospectives of Yugoslav films have recently been organized by the prestigious Georges Pompidou Center in Paris (spring, 1986), the National Film Theater in London (fall, 1986), a series of retrospectives in the U.S. by the American Film Institute (1987), and in special sections devoted to Yugoslav films at major international film festivals. Several films which were either banned or not picked up for distribution in the late sixties have been re-released for domestic viewing, and recent critical film scholarship in Yugoslavia has made important strides in restoring the significance of the new film movement of the sixties and its relationship and continuity with recent developments.8
Unlike the sixties, the recent creative ferment in Yugoslav cinema has not coalesced, however loosely, around a “movement” or discernible set of collective or republican-centered sociocultural and aesthetic tendencies.9 There is a common interest in making professionally well-crafted films with dramatically interesting story lines which communicate effectively with the contemporary audience. Free of political dogmatism, the new Yugoslav cinema is informed by a broad humanism which depicts the foibles and contradictions of human nature and explores the regions of human imagination and freedom playing against the labyrinthine, sometimes coercive, and infinitely complex surfaces of Yugoslav reality. While there is comparatively less experimentation with film form than in the six-ties, there are several recent films which blend social realism with magical realism, surrealism and comic invention—ranging from the situational and slapstick to the absurd, surreal and Kafkaesque.
Paradoxically, some of the boldest avant garde experiments in visual form and what Yugoslav critics call the “new narrativity” have taken place in the usually more conservative realm of television drama, especially in Belgrade.10 The internationally renowned Zagreb school of animation has also continued to experiment with a wide variety of visual styles and graphic design. Among the most significant of these recent animated films are Satiemania, 1978, directed by Zdenko Gašparović, and inspired by the mocking, lyrical music of Erik Satie. Sketches, reminiscent of the best impressionistic drawing of the twenties, integrate graphic movement with humor and detached spleen: Fisheye (Riblje oko, 1982), directed by Joško Marušić, depicts a cruel reversal of nature when monster fish invade and demolish a fishing village. This macabre vision is executed with woodcuts creating a vivid black and white pictorial effect. Obsession (Opsesija, 1983), directed by Aleksandar Marks, uses exaggerated expres-sionistic drawings to create a nightmarish world based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Black Cat; and House No. 42 (Kuća br. 42, 1984), directed by Pavao Stalter, employs a cinematic reconstruction of a daguerreotype showing an old building in downtown Zagreb. Using soft focus and subtle time-lapse, the stationary picture turns into a peopled city scene which nostalgically captures petit-bourgeois behavior and a turn-of-the-century romantic atmosphere.
It should also be emphasized that liberated cinematic tendencies in Yugoslavia, as in past periods, exist at the thin edge of a much larger politically conformist and commercially oriented cinema. The most popular films with the domestic audience in the eighties have been light social comedies with contemporary settings. The most successful director of the genre, Zoran Čalić, has made seven films based on a continuing cast of characters, beginning with Crazy Years (Lude godine, 1977), which have all been enormous box office successes. Another film in this genre which broke all previous domestic box office records is The Tight Spot (Tesna koža, 1983), directed by Mića Milošević.11 Several commercially oriented imitators of this trend, however, have failed to reach even the relatively low level of audience taste at which these films are aimed. There have also been sporadic attempts, usually not very successful, to expand the repertoire of popular films into such genres as science fiction, gangster films, murder mysteries, and film noir. More clearly established genres in Yugoslav feature film production (i.e., literary-historical films and feature films made especially for children) have recently been on the wane.
The current advance of Yugoslav feature film production in both qualitative and quantitative terms has moved against the grain of overall deteriorating economic conditions. A tax on film admissions constitutes one important source of film funding, but the price of film tickets, as a matter of cultural policy, has been kept low, despite spiraling inflation. The Yugoslav film industry is therefore faced with the paradox of having greatly increased the audience for domestic films while at the same time realizing a dwindling income from the tax on ticket admissions as measured in real terms. Inflation has also taken a heavy toll on the material infrastructure for film production, making it difficult to invest properly in film equipment and new technologies. Gifted film artists often work against the constraints of low production budgets and aging film equipment.
The Yugoslav film industry is also faced with the problem of adapting to the complexities of new and evolving self-management structures introduced by the Constitution of 1974 and the Law on Associated Labor passed in 1976. One consequence of these reforms has been to complicate greatly the overlapping levels of decision-making required to realize a film project. Another consequence has been the formation of autarkic regional and republican markets which make it more difficult to achieve inter-republican coproduction agreements and interrepublican film distribution. Every year there are new cries of alarm from major production studios and technical film enterprises in the various republics that the present level of feature film production cannot long be sustained and may be on the verge of collapse.12
Weighed against these negative developments has been the increasing reliance on creative and financial collaboration with republican-centered television enterprises, improved export earnings, and improved prospects for coproductions with foreign film enterprises as well as recourse to bank loans and alternative sources of republican financing. Undergirding these efforts to maintain a viable film industry against serious financial obstacles is the profound social and political commitment which has been made, and repeatedly confirmed, to sustain an independent, indigenous film industry capable of expressing the remarkable cultural diversity and languages of Yugoslavia’s five nations and more than twenty nationalities and ethnic minorities. What redeems and infuses this complex system with life and vitality, of course, are the creative efforts, ambitions and personal dynamics of a seasoned and articulate vanguard of artists, critics, and technical workers, who often chafe against the boundaries of the allowable to produce works of enduring artistic and sociocultural interest. This chapter will focus on a thematic and sociocultural analysis of recent Yugoslav fiction feature films which represent “liberalizing” tendencies in both form and content, and which reflect critically and imaginatively upon Yugoslavia’s revolutionary past, and upon her richly textured, complex and troubled present.
CRITICAL REVISIONING OF
YUGOSLAVIA’S REVOLUTIONARY PAST
One of the noticeable thematic trends in Yugoslav feature films of the eighties is the steady reduction and virtual disappearance of films dealing with the Partisan war experience, either as action-adventure entertainment or as a source of artistic critical reexamination. Recently, the critical focus has shifted to inter-war Yugoslavia, the Stalinist aftermath of the war, and the dramatic period following Yugoslavia’s break with the Cominform on June 28, 1948.
The Tito-Stalin Split
Within a year after Tito’s death on May 4, 1980, a spate of articles, novels and plays began to appear in Yugoslavia which sharply reexamined the most controversial aspects of the anti-Stalinist purges carried out by the Tito-led government following the anathema and expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform on June 28, 1948, with special attention focused upon the Gulag-type concentration camp set up on the arid and desolate northern Adriatic island of Goli otok (Naked Island). The most important of these novels was Tren (The Moment) written by one of the Yugoslavia’s most distinguished writers, Antonije Isaković, and based upon interviews of survivors of Goli otok. The novel was completed in 1979 but not released for publication until after Tito’s death, when it became an instant bestseller and generated widespread controversy.13
The most important play dealing with this same theme was Dušan Jovanović’s The Karamazovs, which premiered in Slovenia in 1980, opened in Zagreb in 1982, and subsequently played to packed houses all over Yugoslavia.14 Isaković’s novel, Jovanović’s play, and other literary works dealing with the same theme15 provoked widespread controversy and polemics in Yugoslavia which reached their greatest intensity in 1982-1983. Some top officials and journalists argued that the extreme measures taken at Goli otok must be placed in the context of a time in which Yugoslavia’s very existence was being threatened. One official stated, “Had we not sent the Cominformists to a place like Goli otok, the whole of Yugoslavia might be a Goli otok today.”16 Isaković acknowledged the weight of this historical argument, but reasoned that numerous innocent victims had been caught in the purge either because they were mistakenly arrested or were victims of witch hunts and of petty officials settling old scores. He also argued that the ends do not always justify the means: “We were fighting Stalinism with Stalinist methods when the real weapons against Stalinism are greater freedom and greater democracy.”17
More conservative polemicists and party apologists inveighed against “people in Yugoslavia who specialize precisely in unearthing the errors of the past; i.e. the errors of the party,” and a number of Yugoslav dramatists, novelists, poets, filmmakers, and other intellectuals were criticized for “fomenting counterrevolution, demystification of society, negativism toward socialism, and negative portrayals of Yugoslavia’s revolutionary past.”18
More recently, several important Yugoslav feature films have critically revisioned the dramatic period following Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Cominform (i.e. the period from 1948 to Stalin’s death in 1953). The most significant of these films are The Balkan Spy (Balkanski špijun, 1984), When Father Was Away on Business (Otac na službenom putu, 1985), and Happy New Year, 1949 (Srećna nova ‘49, 1986).19 The best known of these recent films is When Father Was Away on Business,20 directed by Emir Kusturica in collaboration with the Bosnian writer-scenarist Abdullah Sidran. The film vividly depicts the tensions and the moral and political ambiguities which prevailed in Yugoslavia after the break with Stalin, as these impacted on a Moslem family living in Sarajevo. The time of the film is condensed from the summer of 1950 to the summer of 1952, a period in which Yugoslavia weathered the harshest diplomatic, economic, and military threats against her independence, and steadily gained in strength. The dramatic structure of the film mirrors and reflects this steady progress toward reconciliation and transcendence.
In the beginning of the film, the father, Meša, a petty Communist official in the labor department, makes the offhand comment that an anti-Stalinist political cartoon appearing in Yugoslavia’s leading newspaper Politika “goes too far.”21 Meša’s remark is made to Ankica, his mistress, who is travelling with him on a train. Ankica, in a jealous pique because Meša will not divorce his wife and marry her, reports this comment to the local Party official Zio, who is the brother of Meša’s wife and who covets the sexual favors of Ankica and subsequently marries her. Zio uses Meša’s negative comment about the political cartoon to interrogate him, arrest him as unreliable, and send him off to a forced labor camp at Lipnica. As the film progresses, Meša achieves partial rehabilitation by being sent to a crude provincial outpost at Zvornik where his family is permitted to rejoin him. He finally achieves full rehabilitation near the end of the film when he is freed to return to his beloved Sarajevo. In the meantime, his wife Sena remains intensely loyal to Meša despite his infidelities, holds the family together, and develops an implacable hatred toward her brother Zio, and his wife Ankica, when she discovers that they are the cause of her family’s misfortune.
In the complex marriage celebration which occurs at the end of the film, a sometimes bitter and tentative reconciliation takes place among estranged members of the family and with the political circumstances which had pried the family apart. Images of family renewal are captured in Sena’s pregnancy with a third child and the marriage of her younger brother Faro to Natasha, the daughter of a close neighbor. Zio and Ankica present Malik, the youngest son, with a leather soccer ball which he has coveted throughout the film and which he happily and innocently accepts, not knowing the grief that Zio and Ankica have caused the family. Despite her husband’s urging, Sena refuses to be reconciled with her brother Zio. He becomes quite drunk, and in a stereotypically Balkan gesture, deliberately smashes his head against an empty wine bottle which he has placed on the table and, not unexpectedly, suffers a nasty wound. After he is carried to a room to recover, Sena makes the first reluctant and tentative steps toward reconciliation. Meša, in the meantime, takes his own vengeance by beckoning Ankica to the cellar where he callously takes her sexually. At first reluctant, Ankica eventually gives way to her passion. At the conclusion of their sexual coupling, Meša leaves Ankica lying on the straw-covered earthen floor and contemptuously turns his back on her. In this act Meša has achieved a double vengeance; the sexual humiliation of Ankica and the cuckolding of his brother-in-law Zio. Ankica is so overcome with shame that she tries to hang herself from the rope of an old-fashioned privy. Alas, the rope is too long and she lands on her feet—succeeding only in flushing the toilet!
There are also images of separation and loss in the sequence. The querulous grandfather Mustafir is fed up with family politics and the larger politics of the time, packs his bag, and removes himself to a rest home. Young Malik follows his soccer ball to the window of their cellar, and is shocked to witness his father coupling with Ankica. This rude revelation, combined with the “loss” of his grandfather and the earlier loss of his first sweet love for Maša, a young girl suffering from a fatal blood disease, prompts Malik’s last magical sleepwalking sequence which concludes the film.
Reconciliation with the larger political order is signaled by the “mock” interrogation scene conducted by the pragmatic and “enlightened” Communist official and bon vivant Čekić, who breaks the initial tension of the interview by joyfully announcing to Meša that he has been fully rehabilitated and is free to return to Sarajevo. Hope is also engendered by radio coverage of the famous three-to-one victory of the Yugoslav soccer team over the Soviet team in the final Olympic qualifying round held in Tampere, Finland, on Tuesday, July 22, 1952. Malik excitedly repeats the names of this legendary team: Beara, Stanković, Crnković, Čajkovski, Horvat, Boškov, Ognjanov, Mitić, Vukas, Bobek and Zebec, names which are a part of the fabric and myth of the times.22
Such a brief synopsis scarcely does justice to the aesthetic richness and complexity of the film. Structurally, Kusturica achieves one level of complexity by subtly shifting the narrative focus of the film from the innocent, precocious and mischievous perspective of the six-year-old child narrator Malik, to the “objective” camera which records scenes outside Malik’s knowledge and experience. In an illuminating interview in Yugoslavia’s leading weekly NIN, Kusturica explains, “I wanted to make a film which would talk about the period through the eyes of a boy who lives through all the consequences of his father being arrested. It is on his back and through his consciousness that history is refracted, although here, history is presented through emotions rather than facts.”23
While Kusturica’s film is not concerned with historicity and semi-documentary reconstruction, it nonetheless provides a realistic and richly detailed evocation of the material and cultural conditions of the time, and the clash between the traditional values and rituals of a Moslem family and the new socialist order which took shape after the Second World War. The circumcision ritual of Malik and his older brother Mirza, the wedding party at the end of the film, the Orthodox funeral for the father of Malik’s best friend Jožo, are blended and seamlessly wed with the scene of the staged outdoor aviation exercise in which the “New Socialist Woman,” Ankica, performs her daring loop-the-loops in a glider plane accompanied by pompous political ceremonies and speeches, and the scene of young Malik, representing the Communist Young Pioneers, forgetting and mixing-up his little public speech in such a way that he innocently commits the political heresy of downgrading Tito.
The film is filled with humor, ranging from the situational to the satiric and mordant, which serves to undercut and punch holes in official as well as personal solemnities. The Orthodox funeral, for example, is held for a neighbor, Vlado, who had also been arrested for Stalinist sympathies and presumably had committed suicide. But his body was not returned. In its place in the casket, resting on the pillow, is a photograph of the presumed dead Vlado. Peering into the casket, Malik observes, “I know when someone dies, he disappears, but he doesn’t just vanish.”
Kusturica also subtly blends social realism with Chagallian surrealism in Malik’s sleepwaking sequences. In these sequences the rich earth tones of the cinematographer’s palette (Vilko Filać who, like Kusturica, received his professional film training at FAMU in Prague) shifts to a softly focused magical luminosity. Each of the four sleepwalking sequences in the film is prompted by psychological conflicts in young Malik, and is dominated by images of aspiration and transcendence. In the first sequence, Malik walks across the narrow upper beam of a bridge across the Drina River. In the second sequence, he walks to the top of a tall cliff where he stands precariously until rescued by his father. In the third sequence he walks across the darkened streets to the home of his beloved Maša, ascends the stairs, and is tucked into bed beside Maša by her Russian émigré father, who comprehends the mystical union that has developed between his fatally ill daughter and Malik. In the final sleepwalking sequence which ends the film, Malik is miraculously levitated above the rooftops and trees. He turns to face the camera directly with the softly focused mountains surrounding Sarajevo in the background, and smiles enigmatically as the frame freezes.
Kusturica’s film is obviously not a didactic or overt political tract. It is a film in which the cruel ambiguities of the time and the face of repression are countered with humor, magic, lyricism, and the elasticity of the human spirit, with all of its foibles and contradictions. In the final scene, young Malik has transcended the particularities of his family and of the times, and has entered what Eliade calls the “sacred” time of myth—a time which is recurrently present and which exists both in and out of history.
In the film Happy New Year, 1949, the director Stole Popov and his gifted and well-known scenarist Gordan Mihic punctuate the period of the Tito-Stalin split at a very different juncture than Kusturica’s film. The film takes place during the fateful six months following Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Cominform on June 28, 1948, to the eve of Yugoslavia’s blackest year since the end of the war, 1949. Near the end of the film, a group of forlorn revellers, framed in long shot, huddled together on the platform of a small provincial Macedonian train station, ironically ring in the new year, 1949, a year which was anything but “happy” in Yugoslavia.
During the months immediately following the Cominform expulsion, Yugoslavia suffered severe economic disruptions created by the Cominform-imposed economic blockade. Western economic aid and trade did not develop until several months into 1949, and the Tito-led leadership initially attempted to counter the anathema pronounced against it by proving what good Stalinists they were, using measures that included the imposition in 1949 of a disastrous policy of farm collectivization which further exacerbated an already escalating problem of food production and distribution. Moreover, Yugoslavia faced serious military buildups on her borders, and was diplomatically isolated by Stalin-directed purges and mock trials carried out against so-called “Titoists” in East European socialist countries.24
Popov’s film vividly captures these dark days, and the dramatic progression of his film, as contrasted with Kusturica’s, is one of disintegration, defeat and tragedy. The film is set in Skopje, the capital of Yugoslavia’s Republic of Macedonia, and like Kusturica’s film, focuses upon the dynamics of a family caught up in the maelstrom of the times.
In the opening of the film, the aging father is trying to hold the family together. The mother is gravely ill in a hospital and dies shortly afterwards. The father, his youngest son Kurla, and his young daughter Nada, are living at the brink of bare subsistence. The oldest son, Bota, is returning from the Soviet Union by train when the shocking news of Yugoslavia’s expulsion is announced. Some passengers decide to return to the Soviet Union, others are induced by the KGB to act as informers inside Yugoslavia, and a friend of Bota’s, who cannot resolve his conflicting loyalties, commits suicide on the train shortly after it crosses the Yugoslav border. Bota remains steadfastly loyal to Yugoslavia and resolves to start a new life with Vera, whom he met in the Soviet Union and who is returning with him on the train.
Bota’s younger brother Kosta is completely alienated from the new socialist Yugoslavia and is engaged in smuggling activities and in protecting his territory from rival thugs. Bota attempts to reunite the family upon his arrival in Skopje, but is arrested and interrogated as a suspected Soviet agent. He is imprisoned, later cleared of the charges, but is further detained as an inducement to become an informer for the Yugoslav secret police. Bota resists intense pressure to become an informer, and is finally released.
In the meantime his brother Kosta has provided assistance and protection to Vera and they become sexually involved. Upon his release from prison, Bota learns of Vera’s infidelity and that she has been compromised by the KGB in order to protect a brother still in the Soviet Union. After a complex moral struggle, Bota informs on Vera to the Yugoslav police authorities. Vera commits suicide before she is arrested. Bota, his personal integrity shattered, also commits suicide by quietly pointing a gun to his head and firing. Kosta, who has been savagely beaten by his rivals and returns to discover Vera’s dead body in his apartment, gathers his waning strength to hop a train heading for Greece. The last sequence of the film intercuts overhead shots of the speeding train with shots of Kosta, half-frozen, clinging to the undercarriage of the train, to his life, and to the hope of escape.
Popov’s film provides a tougher-edged evocation of the period and one less tinged with nostalgic remembrance than Kusturica’s more celebrated film. An atmosphere of material deprivation, oppressive tension, swift betrayals, and harsh police tactics is mirrored and reflected in the betrayal and dissolution of family relationships. The irony of the film’s title is given a bitter edge in the final sequence in which Kosta, who totally rejects the new social order, is the only one with enough remaining vitality to seek escape from the “madhouse” that Yugoslavia had become. The film won first prize at the 1986 Pula festival of Yugoslav feature films and received widespread critical acclaim from both Yugoslav and foreign critics.
The film Balkan Spy, codirected by the talented cinematographer Božidar Nikolić and the gifted comedy playwright and scenarist Dušan Kovačević, deals with Yugoslavia’s Stalinist legacy in a very different way than the two films just discussed. In this film, the paranoia of the past is projected into a contemporary setting and the film mixes broad humor, farce and black comedy to underscore its absurdities and contradictions. The protagonist of the film, llija Čvorović, lives on the outskirts of Belgrade with his wife and daughter and enjoys the blessings of contemporary bourgeois socialism, llija is a Serbian provincial who spent two years in prison for shouting a popular slogan praising “Stalin and the Glorious Revolution” at a time when it was no longer fashionable to do so. His brother Djura was even more passionately devoted to Stalin and spent four years in jail, llija and the other male members of his family gave their all to the National War of Liberation and naïvely believed in the Stalinist slogans they had learned during the war and its aftermath. Ilija is satirized as an unredeemed Stalinist troglodyte who keeps his old loyalties, consisting of a large portrait of Stalin and guns from the Second World War, buried in the cellar.
The other major character in the film is Petar Jakovljević, who has rented a room from Ilija. Petar is cultivated and worldly, and has just returned from Paris where he has achieved success as a fashion designer. He is attempting to reestablish himself in Belgrade and moves within a small circle of sophisticated and educated friends.
At the beginning of the film, Ilija is summoned to the police station and asked routine questions about his tenant. This encounter with the authorities resurrects all of llija’s old fears and anxieties, and he develops a full-blown conspiracy theory concerning the presumed nefarious activities of his tenant. He decides to redeem his past and fight for the good of the country by personally investigating and exposing Petar as a spy, as a part of a ring that reaches “all the way to the White House and the cowboy.” His naïve interpretations of the innocent meetings of Petar and his friends gradually build into a paranoiac preoccupation which alarms his wife and threatens the security of their comfortable existence. Gradually Ilija convinces his wife Danica that he is fighting for a great cause and enlists the help of his brother Djura and four other male members of his family who dress in old-fashioned suits and snap-brim hats.
The initial farcical and lighthearted tone of the film, however, turns decidedly darker as the film progresses. Ilija and his brothers capture Petar, tie him to a chair, and interrogate and beat him. While Djura and the others are out of the room, Ilija reveals the depths of his psychological scars from the past, and his uncomprehending and primitive feelings of despair at the injustice done to him while his tenant Petar had spent thirty successful years abroad. Ilija’s poignant and passionate speech brings on a heart attack. Petar struggles to the phone, calls for an ambulance, and then escapes from the house still handcuffed to the chair, knowing that if Djura returns he will simply shoot him.
The last scene of the film shows Ilija clutching his chest and crawling on the road in pursuit of Petar, who is running as best he can with the chair held over his head. Both men are symbiotically bound together and handicapped by life and the past. Achieving the good life had not prepared Ilija for the complexities of modern living in urbanized Yugoslavia, and Petar is a diabetic expatriate with little prospect for finding his roots again.
Of the dozen feature films dealing with this theme over the past few years, two others deserve special mention. The accomplished and internationally respected director Lordan Zafranović—Sunday II (Nedelja II, 1969), Dalmatian Chronicle (Dalmatinska kronika, 1972), The Matthew Passions (Muke po mati, 1975), Occupation in 26 Scenes (Okupacija u 26 slika, 1978), The Fall of Italy (Pad Italije, 1981), The Angel’s Bite (Ujed Anđela, 1984)—in his stylistically most mature film, Evening Bells (Večernja zvona, 1986), based on the award-winning novel by Mirko Kovač, provides a complex rendering of the period from 1926 to 1948 in which the protagonist Tomislav K., in the final sequences of the film, senselessly loses his life in prison after being falsely arrested as a Stalinist sympathizer. The film Dancing on Water (Bal na vodi, 1986), directed and written by Jovan Aćin and released in the U.S. under the curious and maladroit title Hey, Babu Riba, provides a nostalgic and witty evocation of the early fifties in which Yugoslavia was struggling to emerge from the Stalinist pall and move toward greater normalcy.
All of these films evoke the ambiguities and contradictions of the past and, in differing ways, critically reexamine the official mythology of Yugoslavia’s socialist founding and evolution from heroic Partisan war to early Stalinist orthodoxy to the “progressive” break with Stalin to a system of enlightened “self-management” socialism. The tensions and dilemmas created in Yugoslavia by a self-managing, participatory, polycentric form of decision-making which stresses consultation and consensus on the one hand, and a one-party, hierarchically organized state apparatus in which decision-making flows from the top down on the other, have never been satisfactorily resolved to the present time.25 These films rework the substrata of collective experience into critical filmic visions which infuse the present with the haunting contours of the past.
The Old Order Revisited
One of the brightest and most inventive films of the eighties is Slobodan Šijan’s debut film Who’s That Singing Over There (Ko to tamo peva, 1980) directed in collaboration with the scenarist Dušan Kovačević and the cinematographer Božidar Nikolić. The film wittily portrays a group of provincials making their way to Belgrade in a rickety bus, owned by KRSTIĆ AND SON, unaware of the tragedy that awaits them on that fatal day, Sunday, 6 April 1941, when Nazi Germany launched its savage bombing attack on Belgrade under the code name “Operation Punishment.” Although the distance to Belgrade is only 100 kilometers, it takes the antique bus, fired by a coal-burning steam engine with a stack protruding from the roof, a full two days to make the journey. The bus travels over two-rut roads which sometimes disappear altogether and is diverted in its short journey by army maneuvers, a ploughed-up section of the road, and an unsafe bridge.
The passengers on the bus are a microcosm of the predominantly rural Yugoslavia which existed between the wars. There is a maladroit hunter from Belgrade returning from an unsuccessful hunting trip, a young married couple eager to consummate their nuptial vows at every opportunity, a village official dressed in black who is a Nazi sympathizer, an old Serbian soldier, a tubercular man, a local crooner on his way to Belgrade for an audition, the bus conductor and his not-very-bright son who drives the bus, and two Gypsy singers—a man and a young boy. The trip is filled with comic, sometimes slapstick episodes in which all of the characters reveal their motivations for going to Belgrade, and their general unpreparedness and lack of awareness of the destruction that awaits them.
The film vividly captures and satirizes the primitive conditions of the times, the narrow provincialism, the ineffectuality of the once-proud Yugoslav Army, and the petty quarrels and concerns of the passengers. The tone of the film turns darker when the bus arrives in Belgrade. The passengers verbally abuse and beat the two Gypsies who are falsely accused of stealing the wallet of the old Serbian soldier. In the chilling conclusion, the bombs fall, destroying the bus and killing all of the passengers except the two Gypsies who stand in the rubble and sing of the terrors to come.
This cinematic portrait-in-miniature of pre-war Yugoslavia is informed by tolerance and a humanistic embrace of all of the colorful characters who share this last fateful ride together. Sharp satire blends with nostalgic remembrance of a time past, a more innocent time, a decaying epoch which ends in flames and rubble.26
Another stylistically inventive and imaginative film dealing with inter-war Yugoslavia is The Raft of the Medusa (Splav meduze, 1980), directed by Karpo Godina in collaboration with one of the most influential scenarists of the new film period, Branko Vučičević. Eschewing conventional narrative development, the film presents a visually stylish portrait of Yugoslavia in the twenties imbued with the spirit and style of Dada and surrealism. It focuses on four young avant-garde male cosmopolitans and two female school teachers who join up with a strongman and his assistant to form a “living theater” troupe traveling through the northern provinces of Yugoslavia and spreading radical ideas to uncomprehending audiences. An ironic modern counterpoint to those adrift on Géricault’s raft in the classic painting of the French Romantic period, they move, in Vučičević’s words, “on a sea of mud, shish-kebab, poverty, corruption and crazy Serbian chauvinism.”27
One of the most interesting and original recent films dealing with Yugoslavia’s immediate post-war period of reconstruction is You Only Love Once (Samo jednom se ljubi, 1981), released under the English title The Melody Haunts My Memory.28 Directed by Rajko Grlić—Whichever Way the Ball Bounces (Kud puklo da puklo, 1974), Bravo Maestro, 1978, The laws of Life (U raljama života, 1984), Three’s Happiness (Za sreću je potrebno trole, 1986)—who also wrote the scenario in collaboration with Branko Somen, the film focuses upon a young Partisan hero, Tomislav, a bright, passionately intense but untutored provincial, who energetically joins two youthful wartime companions in administering a small town and rebuilding its local industry. He meets and falls in love with Beba (“baby”), a sensitive, cultured young ballerina, who has been sent to the small town from Zagreb as part of a work brigade. Her father is under heavy suspicion as a wartime enemy collaborator, and her sister had earlier run off with a German soldier. The more passionately Tomislav becomes involved with Beba, the more estranged he becomes from his close companions and fellow political commissars. Against their solemn warnings, he marries Beba in the new way, a Communist civil ceremony. On their wedding night, Tomislav introduces the shy and initially reluctant bride to the joys of sexual fulfillment. As the film progresses, there are several erotic scenes of lovemaking in which Beba becomes increasingly liberated and inventive. The lovemaking is imbued with an almost desperate intensity, as if the two lovers were attempting by sheer force of physical desire and passion to burn through the social barriers which separate them and the negative forces arrayed against their union. Beba’s parents, members of the pre-war well-educated middle class, come for a prolonged visit. Their disdain for their daughter’s choice of a husband and the rude conditions in which she lives is barely masked by civility and refined manners. In the meantime, suspicions mount concerning Tomislav’s political reliability, and he is dismissed from the Party and his post. After losing his place in the new order, Tomislav follows a downward spiral of mental anguish and despair.
In the final sequence of the film, Tomislav follows Beba (who has returned to Zagreb) to a tawdry music hall where he discovers that she is dancing as a showgirl, having found no opportunity to pursue her career as a ballerina. Making his way to the dressing room, an exhausted, disillusioned and emptied Tomislav is momentarily soothed and reassured by Beba, who then leaves him alone in order to perform her next dance routine. Sitting alone in the crowded and tacky dressing room, Tomislav shoots himself in the head and slumps over dead in the chair.
The film imaginatively captures the spartan existence of the times and the political and social contradictions which eventually tear Tomislav apart. On one level there is the political contradiction of revolutionary idealism and youthful elan rubbing up against the emergence of special privileges and an increasingly intolerant new social and political structure. At another level there is the class conflict between Tomislav’s peasant upbringing and the professional middle-class refinements of Beba’s family. It is the complex cinematic representation of these class and sociopolitical vortices which lifts the love story above the level of melodrama, and makes the suicide at the end of the film both poignant and dramatically effective.
In the more than four decades since the end of the Second World War, Yugoslavia has accomplished a remarkable transition from a predominantly rural and small-town culture based on an agrarian economy to a modern, urbanized, and industrial state. Despite backward areas, poverty, unemployment and inequalities, the general lot of the nations and nationalities constituting Yugoslavia has, until recently, steadily improved. New towns and suburbs have sprung up around the major cities to accommodate the steady influx of people from the countryside, consumer goods have proliferated, the university system has been greatly expanded, new roads and improved transportation and communication systems have been established, and political and economic freedoms have remained greater than in any other Communist state.
Along with the progress, as indicated in the beginning of this chapter, have come problems and contradictions carried in the wake of rapid material development. Contemporary Yugoslavia is now blessed with blocks of concrete high-rises, a high and persistent inflation rate, political stagnation, a huge balance-of-payments deficit, housing shortages, the inability to absorb increasing numbers of university graduates and professionally educated young people into the economy, stymied or neglected agricultural development, the erosion of traditional values, and the breakdown of civility and personal relationships in the cities (exemplified by rising divorce rates, drug problems, and violent crime). A proper balance or equilibrium has not always been struck between the needs of town and country, agriculture and industrialization, the underdeveloped South and the more prosperous North, local or individual initiative and central control and, in the international sphere, between East and West.
Such tensions and contradictions have offered fertile material for filmic expression. Once again, as in the sixties, filmmakers are reflecting critically on savremene teme (contemporary themes) and expressing sometimes jolting and somber images of society’s stresses, disruptions, dislocations and social ironies.
One of the most inventive recent films dealing with urban malaise is Strangler Versus Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja, 1984), directed by Slobodan Šijan from an original script which he wrote with Nebojša Pajkić. The film is both an elaborate parody of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller and a witty, bizarre, surrealistic and mordant satire on urban decadence, moral relativism, youthful iconoclasm, and the breakdown of public civility.
The principal strangler in the film, Pero, is etched with black humor as a sad-eyed, timid, middle-aged man who lives with his tyrannical mother and makes a living peddling carnations. He gorges himself on sweets, loves the opera where patrons still buy “old-fashioned” carnations, is bathed by his mother at night, and is punished by her when he fails to sell his daily quota of carnations—she canes him across his outstretched open palms. For entertainment, Pero hand-pumps an old-fashioned organ while his mother sings traditional songs loudly and off key. They live in an apartment filled with old furniture and Orthodox icons.
Pero’s first victim is a chic, cool, contemporary young woman who wears slacks and a mannishly styled hat. At a cafe in the evening she contemptuously dismisses Pero and refuses to accept his carnations even though her male friend had offered to buy them for her. Pero is incensed, dates himself by muttering “Some flower children!” and follows the young woman to her apartment. She refuses to be intimidated, turns and confronts Pero, and angrily berates him for following her. More in self-defense than anger, Pero reaches for her throat, discovers his considerable strength, and strangles her.
Pero’s second victim is an accomplished opera singer who also disdains carnations and orders Pero out of her dressing room. She expires before reaching high C.
The deeds of Pero capture the imagination of a slender, neurotic young new wave composer, Spiridon (Spiro), who despises beautiful women because his father had remarried a sexy younger woman who torments Spiro with a superheated sexuality which he cannot handle. He becomes telepathically linked to Pero who answers his own neurotic need to grab the world by the neck. He deflects his urges into a new wave composition celebrating the deeds of the strangler which catches on with new wavers and punkers and leads to an anarchic concert at the “Brewery.” Sofija, a sophisticated and coolly intellectual TV commentator, dissects the new piece on her show “Rockalade,” and dismisses it as pseudo avant-garde, inspired by immaturity and misogynism. She satirizes both the composer-singer Spiro and his composition as sick extensions of “Nazi Punk” and other anarchic musical aberrations of the eighties.
Pero is enthralled by the new song about his deeds and becomes a follower of new wave concerts where he sells his carnations and applauds Spiro’s performances with the same zeal he once reserved for his favorite operas. He is outraged by the negative review of the work given by Sofija. While he is watching her program on TV his mother is singing loudly behind him. He reaches back to silence her and without realizing it, ends her off-key renditions forever. He does not accept that his mother is dead and leaves her propped in her rocking chair for the remainder of the film. He imagines that she talks to him and eventually dresses as his mother and takes on her guise.
The third major character in this triangulation of strangulation is the aging, conventional police inspector Ognjen Stahinjic, who is under increasing public pressure to apprehend the strangler, and becomes so obsessed by the case that he works himself into depression and a nervous breakdown. At one point in the film, he is saved from hanging himself only by the imagined good advice of his pet cat Đorđe (George). The inspector’s behavior becomes as deranged and surrealistic as that of Spiro and Pero.
Both Pero and Spiro are in pursuit of the TV commentator Sofija to avenge themselves for her negative review. In a bizarre three-way confrontation, Sofija spiritedly fights off Pero by biting off one of his ears before losing consciousness. When she revives, she mistakenly believes that Spiro is her rescuer. They discover a strong attraction to one another and embrace passionately. The inspector arrives late as usual, and is elated to discover his first piece of physical evidence in the case, Pero’s ear, which he proudly displays on TV.
Sofija and Spiro are married in a conventional Orthodox ceremony and eagerly consummate their love on their wedding night. Sofija assumes the dominant one-up position, and as their lovemaking becomes more passionate she reaches for Spiro’s throat and begins playfully strangling him. Spiro is seized by the same urge, and strangles her back. Alas, Spiro gets carried away and Sofija expires at the point of orgasm.
The film concludes with a series of intricate plot twists and Hitchcockian surprise endings. In the summary battle of the film, fought among the rafters of an old building, Pero and Spiro (now antagonists) engage in mortal combat. Spiro manages to wrap a rope around Pero’s neck. Pero slips backwards and hangs himself, clinging to one of Spiro’s ears which is severed by the force of Pero’s backward fall. The mad inspector arrives on the scene, assumes incorrectly that Sofija is Pero’s last victim, and declares Spiro a hero.
In the epilogue of the film, Spiro is enjoying a romantic interlude on the Adriatic with the voluptuous young former wife of his recently deceased father. This idyllic scene is followed by concluding shots of Pero’s darkened and decrepit apartment with the rotting bones of his mother still poised in the chair. Spiro has also been propelled into respectability and fame by transposing his new wave composition into the avant-garde orchestral composition which opened the film—framed with a back shot of one-eared Spiro conducting the piece. The film concludes with Spiro’s avant-garde composition playing on the soundtrack celebrating the mordant message: “Some stranglers are born under a lucky star—and others are not.”
Šijan’s film is a mordant satire on the breakdown of traditional society and the replacement of old norms by a pervasive relativism, youthful iconoclasm, urban decadence, and sexual ambivalence. Especially well captured is the anarchic and inconoclastic spirit of a segment of Yugoslavia’s youth which is radically disaffiliated from mainstream values and sacred myths. Unlike the politically explicit radical youth movements in Yugoslavia during the late sixties, youthful disaffection in the eighties has often been deflected into various rock, new wave and punk styles. The most radical of these new styles celebrate the values of anarchy, surrender, decline, and societal exile, voluntarily assumed.29
Šijan’s film also adopts a satirical and ambivalent attitude toward new sexual identities, the emergence of the modern liberated woman, and recent doubts concerning traditional Balkan virility and male chauvinism.30 Sofija personifies the strong, independent, intellectually astute woman, but is also portrayed in the film as cool, “bitchy” and emasculating. The proverbial “war between the sexes” is given a surrealistic twist in Spiro’s and Sofija’s synthesis of copulation and strangulation.
A film which deals more explicitly with ambiguities in contemporary relationships between the sexes is The jaws of Life (U raljama života, 1984), directed by Rajko Grlić from a script written in collaboration with Dubravka Ugrešić, the author of the novel upon which the film is based. The film satirically interweaves the fate of Stefica Cvek, the heroine of a TV series which parodies kitschy romantic love stories, and that of Dunja, the creator and director of the series. The TV series “Stefica Cvek in the Jaws of Life,” opens with the theme song:
I’ve met a gaze divine
In the jaws of life.
My love, kiss me please,
In the jaws of life.
The heroine Stefica works as a clerk, is shy and slightly overweight, and lives in a modest apartment with her aunt. Stefica takes her cues of modernity from empty chatter on the TV set which emphasizes the importance of being slender and attractive. This message is underscored by Stefica’s aunt who advises her that, in order to catch a man, a girl must have the “muscles of a panther ready to leap.” Stefica yearns for sexual liberation and tenderness. Her worldly but shallow older friend Marijana (who has been married five times) gives Stefica advice on how to come out of her shell, and while Stefica’s aunt is out of town, arranges for a series of three unlikely suitors to call on Stefica and introduce her to the joys of sexual fulfillment. Stefica is hopeful and fully prepared to offer herself to each of the motley threesome. The first is a taciturn, world-weary young man who ejaculates prematurely and promptly falls asleep. The second is an over-the-hill Serbian provincial whose macho pretensions (“I will screw you for twenty hours straight”) mask a flagrant case of impotence. He fails even to enter the portal. The last is an alcoholic quasi-intellectual whose wife has just left him for a plumber. He lapses into an alcoholic stupor before he can satisfy Stefica’s tender longings.
In the meantime, Dunja, the creator of this TV parody, is not faring much better than her heroine. She is a warmly attractive, ambitious, independent and successful woman who lives in a well-appointed terrace apartment and moves in sophisticated circles. Her current lover, Sale, with whom she shares her apartment, is a bored, chauvinistic Marxist polemicist and TV commentator. On his TV program, he delivers a stinging indictment of a book critical of Yugoslavia’s Stalinist past—without ever having read it! He becomes especially tiresome when Dunja permits an old male friend, a down-and-out sixties rock musician, to camp out on her terrace. She mercifully delivers herself from Sale by throwing him out of her apartment.
Dunja finds friendship and amusement with a male friend, Pipo, who masks feelings of desperation and angst with gentleness and humor. In his mid-thirties, he is impotent, lives with his mother, who is a well-travelled and successful opera singer, and complains of making five times less in salary for his technical expertise than he would earn in America. He half-yearns to go to America, but uses his mother’s presumed need for him as an excuse for inaction. Pipo spends a platonic night in bed with Dunja, and later makes a blundering and unsuccessful attempt at suicide. In the meantime, Stefica comes to a similar decision in the TV series, with equal lack of success.
Under pressure from her male producer, Dunja provides a sentimental happy ending for her TV heroine. In the series, Stefica is inspired by a pitch on TV to learn English. At the language institute, she meets the interested and tender gaze of a nice young man. They overcome initial shyness by addressing each other in halting, textbook correct English and mutual happiness is snatched from the jaws of life.
Having contrived a happy ending for her heroine, Dunja decides to snatch some happiness in her own life. She tenderly leads Pipo out of his impotence and the film ends on an upbeat note. Pipo has further liberated himself by firmly resolving to go to America—a decision which fails to ruffle a hair on his mother’s head. The kitsch ending of both the film and the film-within-the-film involves a double irony. It ironically suggests that life among the “sophisticated” may not be as far removed from kitsch as sometimes assumed. It also suggests that “contrived” happy endings do not address the multiple issues which the film raises. It may not be so easy to snatch happiness from the jaws of a life trivialized by television and fragmented by the inchoate pressures and anomie of urban living. Sentimental endings do not resolve the pressures on women who work as hard and as long as men, and who are also expected to assume the major burden of child-rearing and homemaking. They do not resolve the dilemma of well-educated, professional women who find themselves trapped at middle levels of organizational structures hierarchically dominated by men. At a deeper level, the film may implicitly convey the defensive patriarchal message that females grow stronger (i.e., take their rightful and equal place in society) only at the expense of weakening males—sending them into alcoholic stupors, spiritual angst, and genital flaccidity.
One of the most consistently original and cinematically inventive of the “Czech school” of Yugoslav directors, Srđan Karanović—Social Games (Društvena igra, 1972), The Scent of Wild Flowers (Miris poljskog cveća, 1978), Petrija’s Wreath (Petrijin venae, 1980)—has made two recent films which critically evoke the tensions, contradictions and sense of crisis and inertia which have characterized Yugoslavia in the eighties. Something In-Between (Nešto između, 1983), for which he also wrote the scenario in collaboration with Milosav Marinović and the American Andrew Horton, is an engaging portrayal of a young American woman journalist who, in a brief six-week stay in Belgrade, finds herself caught “in-between” her sexual and sentimental attachments to two Yugoslav men. At a deeper level, the film explores the ambivalent posture of Yugoslavia, herself trapped “in-between” the political tensions of East and West and the cultural and economic collisions of North and South. Karanović was awarded first prize for best direction at the Pula Festival in 1983. The film received high critical praise at Cannes, and won the top prize at the fourth International Film Festival in Valencia, Spain.
Karanović’s more recent film, A Throatful of Strawberries (Jagode u grlu, 1985), for which he wrote the script in collaboration with Rajko Grlić, conveys a somewhat more somber image of contemporary malaise. The film is built around the reunion of four old friends in their late thirties who have followed different paths since their student days of the sixties. The precipitating event for the reunion is the return of Miki Rubirosa, who has achieved material success abroad and is stopping over in Belgrade for a few days before going on to Vienna. He rents a Mercedes with a chauffeur to impress his friends and throws a party in a run-down boat cafe on the Sava river, complete with musicians and abundant drink and food. All of his friends have reached a critical point in their lives, and none have achieved the hopes they had formed in the relatively more optimistic and politically committed days of the sixties. Branislav (Brane) has managed to hustle the system, secure a nice apartment, marry his old sweetheart, sire two children, and dabble in infidelities. But his marriage is coming apart and dissolves completely during the course of the film. One of the friends is slipping into alcoholism, working at a low-paying job below his qualifications, is separated from his wife, and brings a young girlfriend, Vesna, to the party. Another of the friends, Boca, has achieved minor celebrity status as a TV commentator by delivering searing critiques of Yugoslavia’s troubled political and economic situation. He drinks heavily despite a bad ulcer and delivers a litany of popular complaints: “They cannot pay me less than I work;” “People are getting mean, testy;” and “We can discuss anything without being thrown in jail, but nothing changes.”
As the film progresses, Miki sheds his surface polish and sophistication and vainly attempts to recapture the joie de vivre and companionship of past days. He makes an attempt to seduce Vesna, but is deflected by her resistance and his own impotence. The unmerry merrymaking ultimately degenerates into a mindless game of tag played out on the boat, across the plank, and on the shore. Standing aloof from these disillusioned and desperate games is the young chauffeur, who rescues Vesna, unties the boat from its moorings, and watches it drift aimlessly down the Sava carrying its drunken cargo. He drives off with her in the Mercedes.
The pervasive mood of the film is one of malaise, fragmentation, and drift. The four companions in the film were all born in 1945, the “beginning of a new era,” and have grown into disillusioned and troubled middle age, along with the social system of which they are a part.
The darkest cinematic metaphor of a disintegrating social order is evoked in the film Life Is Beautiful (Život je lep, 1985), directed by Boro Drašković from a script based on a controversial novel by the talented writer Aleksandar Tršma. Passengers on a train are trapped in a remote village because the engineer refuses to go on. Tired and disillusioned, he stops the train as a way of protesting the stasis and lack of direction in the whole social system which he describes as “falling apart.” The passengers are self-absorbed, spiritually depleted, and confronted by the pent-up frustration and alienation of the local young men who are trapped on a flat plain and in a barren life. The animosity of the provincials towards the passengers reaches its highest pitch of cruelty in the local inn where the most varied and pessimistic sentiments are expressed and indifference to human values is brutally revealed. The leader of the young locals, Zaro, takes special delight in tormenting a pretty young provincial singer, Ana, and the two untal-ented musicians who accompany her. Zaro intimidates Ana into singing over and over again the song “Život je lep” (“Life Is Beautiful”) until it becomes a harsh, ironic and discordant refrain. He further humiliates her by hanging a cowbell around her neck and forcing her to ring it as she sings. At one point he offers the exhausted musicians wine—but instead of wine the glasses are filled with vinegar.
A quiet and brooding presence in the film is a disaffected young man, Vita, who has returned to the village after failing in the larger world. He is attracted to the shy and sensitive young singer, Ana, and attempts to protect her from the brutalities of Zaro and the other locals. In the chilling conclusion of the film, Zaro leads Ana to a back room and takes her sexually while other men are lined up waiting their turns. Vita discovers Zaro in the act of sexual intercourse, takes out a gun and shoots him twice in the back. He further expresses his cold rage by firing repeatedly into the onlookers. The film concludes with a long shot of Vita, standing on the barren plain silhouetted against the first rays of dawn. He points the gun to his head and takes his own life.
Drašković succeeds admirably in preserving the literary integrity of the text upon which the film is based while, at the same time, creating a brooding and menacing cinematic ambience. The film won the Silver Medal at the 1985 Venice film festival, and provoked widespread critical discussion and controversy in Yugoslavia. Drašković’s film is a somber warning against the dangers posed by prolonged social crisis and political stagnation. As Pedro Ramet has suggested: “In conditions of profound social stress, the edifice of political culture crumbles and feverish creativity appears. But the cost of transcending the crisis may be abandonment of a lot of old political baggage.”31
Enhancing the resurgence of an artistically and socially more relevant era of Yugoslav filmmaking are several feature films which comment sharply on contemporary problems of mismanaged self-management, alcoholism, care for the aged, youthful drug addiction, juvenile delinquency and medical care. Among the most significant of these films are Days on Earth Are Flowing By (Zemaljski dani teku, 1979) and Special Treatment (Posebni tretman, 1980), directed by Goran Paskaljević, which deal respectively with institutional approaches to caring for the aged and the treatment of alcoholics, and Variola Vera, 1982, directed by Goran Marković, which depicts personal venality and corruption in the medical and public health professions when a virulent outbreak occurs of a rare and fatal strain of smallpox with the medical name “Variola Vera.” Marković, who both wrote and directed the film, was awarded first prize for best director and best screenplay at the 1982 Valencia film festival.
Several recent feature films have illuminated current dilemmas through the refracted lens of the immediate past. The most effective of these is Do You Remember Dolly Bell (Sjećas li se Dolly Bell, 1981), directed by Emir Kusturica in collaboration with the scenarist Abdullah Sidran. The film is set in the early sixties, when Yugoslavia was poised to enter her “second revolution”—a time of unprecedented cultural liberalization, economic growth, modernization, and innovative experimentation with self-management socialism. In a richly detailed portrayal of the period, Kusturica’s film vividly depicts the forces of modernity and Western cultural influences colliding with traditional cultural norms and values, and of older forms of Marxist political orthodoxy clashing with steadily strengthening forces of socialist pragmatism and political and economic experimentation. The play of these larger sociocultural and political forces is framed against a skillfully drawn portrait of a sixteen-year-old boy, Dino Zolje, who lives with his poor family on the outskirts of Sarajevo, and whose painful process of growing into young manhood is poignantly assisted by a tender sexual liaison with a young prostitute, Dolly Bell. Kusturica’s debut film was an enormous popular and critical success, and captured the Golden Lion for best first film at the 1981 Venice film festival.
Three of the most recent films produced in Yugoslavia at the time of this writing strongly confirm the artistic maturity and continued sociocultural vitality of her resurgent cinema. Živko Nikolić, one of the most rest-lessly inventive and experimental of the film directors to emerge in the seventies—The Beasts (Beštije, 1977), Luka’s Jovina (Jovana Lukina, 1979), The Death of Mr. Goluže (Smrt gospodine Goluze, 1982), Unseen Wonder (Čudo neviđeno, 1984), The Beauty of Vice (Lepota poroka, 1986)—has recently made his most accessible and provocative film with the ironic title In the Name of the People (U ime naroda, 1987). The film combines hauntingly evocative scenes of underdevelopment with a searing examination of a mismanaged industrial enterprise upon which the local economy depends. Based upon an actual case, Nikolić’s film transcends the particularities of self-management corruption to create a Kafkaesque fable of abusive power mysteriously exercised and built upon the willing complicity of its victims. In the final sequences of the film, perpetrators and victims alike conspire to cover up gross perversions of power, sexual exploitation, and secret manipulation. The honest protagonist of the film is physically cast out of this closed society, the gates are locked behind him, and the film ends with his forlorn figure framed in isolation.
Goran Paskaljević, whose film Beach Guard in Winter (Čuvar plaže u zimskom periodu, 1976) began the series of films by the “Czech School” of Yugoslav film directors in the late seventies, recently completed his most important film of the eighties, Guardian Angel (Anđeo čuvar, 1987). The film is a sensitive, cinematically rich, and compassionate dramatization of the real-life plight of young Yugoslav Gypsy children sold into bondage in Italy as beggars and petty thieves. Shot on location in Italy and in the Gypsy settlement of Ciganmala near Niš, Yugoslavia, the film paints an unromanticized and ethnographically authentic portrait of Gypsy life in a region where Gypsies lead a sedentary, segregated and economically depressed existence. The film depicts the unsuccessful efforts of a well-intentioned journalist to expose the inner workings of this modern trade in white slavery, and to gain the love and acceptance of a young Gypsy boy, Saina. In the brutal conclusion of the film the journalist is savagely and fatally beaten by members of the Gypsy community and his dead body tossed on a rubbish heap outside the settlement. The rich imagery of the film is significantly enhanced by the skillfully edited musical sound track created by the versatile and talented Zoran Simjanović.
In his latest film Déjà Vu (Već viđeno, 1987), one of the most highly regarded of the “Czech School” directors, Goran Markovic, departs from the sharp social commentary and satire which characterized his earlier films—Special Education (Specijalno vaspitanje, 1977), National Category up to 785 cm (Nacionalna klasa do 785 cm, 1979), Majstori, majstori (1981), Variola Vera (1982), Taiwan Canasta (Tajvanska kanasta, 1985)—to create a tautly conceived and stylistically compelling psychological portrait of a once-brilliant pianist, Mihailo, who is haunted by childhood psychosexual traumas. A love affair with a beautiful young woman, Olga, prompts him to relive these tortured memories, shatters his fragile facade of “normalcy,” and leads him to brutally murder Olga and her father. Olga’s younger brother witnesses these murders from his hiding place and the cycle of neurotic disturbance is repeated in him. Markovic’s film exemplifies the high level of technical and artistic mastery which characterizes the best of the new Yugoslav cinema and the steadily ripening relationships which have developed between the writer-director Marković, the cinematographer Živko Zalar, the music director Zoran Simjanović, and a seasoned cast of excellent actors and actresses.
It is difficult to assess whether the cinematic accomplishments of Yugoslavia’s recently touted new Yugoslav cinema can be sustained. There has perhaps never been a period in Yugoslavia’s post-war film development in which there have been so many seasoned, artistically gifted, and professionally well-trained film directors, cinematographers, scenar-ists, actresses, actors, and other film artists and technicians eager to further strengthen the artistic integrity of Yugoslav films and to expand the international audience for them. Levels of feature film production have remained high despite very serious economic problems, creating healthy opportunities for new and relatively untried directors and other film artists to express themselves.
Film projects, however, must be guided through an increasingly fissiparous system, with film production enterprises (many of them small and underfinanced) spread throughout Yugoslavia’s six republics and two autonomous regions. They must also be realized within the context of a unique and constantly redefined blend of socialist-determined market incentives and a complex multitiered and sometimes overlapping self-management organizational structure which seeks to prescribe the broad social roles and “collective responsibilities” of film artists. As a result, film projects are buffeted and sometimes shaped by contradictory pressures which emphasize box-office success on the one hand, and adherence to shifting sociopolitical definitions and restrictions on artistic expression on the other.
Finally, the fortunes of Yugoslav film are inevitably held hostage to the complex drama currently being acted out in the larger socio-cultural and political arena. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict whether Yugoslavia will find a way out of her present quandaries. There are strong and opposing forces at work for fragmentation and unity; devolution and centralization; liberality and repression; openness and closure; a multi-candidate system, a multi-party system, and continuance of the status quo; economic liberalization of privately owned businesses and farms and opposition to any further liberalization; and contending and rival views of the meanings and lessons to be derived from Yugoslavia’s often turbulent and dramatic past. It is a remarkable tribute to a relatively small film industry that each year some films are produced which not only reflect Yugoslavia’s unique cultural and political experience, but which also transcend republican and national boundaries to imaginatively address film-goers everywhere.
1. For an astute and well-documented analysis of Yugoslavia’s current economic and political difficulties, see Pedro Ramet, ed., Yugoslavia in the 1980s. See also, George Schöpflin, “Yugoslavia’s Uncertain Future,” “The Yugoslav Crisis,” and “Yugoslavia’s Growing Crisis,” in, respectively, Soviet Analyst XI no. 13, 30 June, 1982, XII, no. 2, 26 January, 1983, and XIV, no. 25, 19 December, 1984.
2. Dennison Rusinow, “Nationalities Policy and the ‘National Question,’ ” in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, pp. 131-165.
3. Sharon Zukin, “Self-Management and Socialism,” in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, pp. 76-99.
4. The period from 1973 to 1977 marked Yugoslavia’s lowest ebb of domestic feature film production since the early sixties, with nineteen films completed in 1973, seventeen in 1974, eighteen in 1975, sixteen in 1976, and eighteen in 1977. “Jugoslovenska kinematografija u brojkama,” (Beograd: Institut za film, n.d.).
5. In the eighties, feature film production has remained steady at twenty-five and thirty per year. There was, however, a drop in production in 1987 to twenty-two feature films, only eighteen of which were screened at the annual feature film festival at Pula. Whether this drop signals a trend toward lower levels of production in the next few years is impossible to predict. “Jugoslovenska kinematografija u brojkama.”
6. For a more detailed description and analysis of the earlier films directed by the “Czech School” of Yugoslav film directors, see Daniel J. Goulding, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 143-172. See also Andrew Horton, “The New Serbo-Creationism,” American Film, XI, no. 4, Jan./Feb., 1986, pp. 24-30.
7. Aleksandar Petrović, personal correspondence, 12 January, 1987.
8. See, for example, Bogdan Tirnanić’s ten-part series on Yugoslav films in the sixties which appeared in NIN (May 18, 25; June 1, 8, 15, 22, 29; and July 6, 13 and 20, 1986).
9. A notable exception to this generalization is Slovenian film which has followed a distinctive line of development. See Ronald Holloway, “Slovenian Film,” Kino, Special Issue, 1985, pp. 1-63. For a more complete definition and analysis of new film tendencies in the sixties and the controversies surrounding their development, see Goulding, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, pp. 62-84.
10. Nenad Puhovski, “Avant-Garde Television Drama and Video Art,” unpublished lecture (delivered at a special conference on “Visual Media in Contemporary Yugoslavia”) UCLA, February 6, 1987.
11. I am grateful to Milomir Marinović, Head of the International Films Department of Jugoslavia film, for providing me with information concerning the ten top domestic box-office draws for the years 1982-1986. These figures reveal that domestically produced films have regularly captured from five to seven of the top places. This substantial achievement has occurred in competition with such popular foreign imports as Raiders of the Lost Ark, An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment and others (Milomir Marinović, personal correspondence, 10 December, 1986).
12. One of the most extensive recent analyses of the financial difficulties facing the Yugoslav film industry occurred in a Round Table Discussion at the 1985 Festival of Yugoslav Feature Films at Pula. For an extensive summary of this discussion, see Bilten, 32. Jugoslovenskog igranog filma, 20 July, pp. 9-11; 25 July, pp. 11-13; 26 July, pp. 4-8; 27 July, pp. 8-11.
13. Isaković provides vivid accounts of the harsh measures employed at Goli otok to “re-educate” or “resocialize” Stalinists and suspected Stalinist sympathizers which were compared by some Yugoslav critics to Dante’s Inferno and Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. Prisoners at Goli otok were broken psychologically and physically by techniques in which the persecuted became the persecutors. Isaković describes a technique in which new arrivals to the camp, together with inmates deemed still unrepentant, were forced to run through a corridor of fellow prisoners who were wielding sticks and whips. The guards stood back and watched as the victims were beaten and verbally abused. Some victims collapsed, bleeding, to the ground. Those who made it to the end were required to point out which of the prisoners had not beaten them hard enough, and these men were then forced to run the gauntlet themselves.
14. Jovanović’s play dramatizes the experiences of the protagonist Svetozar Milić, a devoted Communist who had learned to identify Tito’s accomplishments with Stalin’s inspiration. When the break comes, Milić speaks in perplexity: “This has hit us overnight. How can something which was always pure white suddenly become black?” Milić’s honest wavering is guilt enough, He is sent off to Goli otok where he is physically tortured and trained to recite “I am a bandit, a deserter, a scoundrel, without worth or honor, without pride, a chameleon, a sectarian, a provocateur, a stowaway on the ship of history of the Yugoslav people. I am a Cominform pig.” Milić is broken psychologically and dies in prison. Ironically, the judge at his mock trial goes on to become a professor of philosophy.
15. Among the most important of these are Branko Hofman, Noć do jutra (Night to Morning), Ferdo Godina, Molčeč orkester (The Dumb Orchestra), Jure Franičević-Pločar, Generaina proba (The General Trial), and Žarko Komanin, Prestupna godina (Leapyear).
16. International Herald Tribune, 28 July, 1982.
18. Quoted in Pedro Ramet, ed., Yugoslavia in the 1980s, (Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1985), p. 15.
19. Only one feature film was made on this theme in 1987 and any further thematic and cinematic variations on the period of the Tito-Stalin split seem temporarily exhausted.
20. The title of the film is a reference to the euphemism used to explain to young Malik the reason for his father’s absence.
21. This famous caricature by Zuko Džumhur depicts Marx in his study dominated by a large portrait of Stalin, which suggests the reversal of ideological roles that Stalin arrogantly assumed.
22. For an interesting discussion of the impact of this soccer victory on the popular imagination of the time, see Vladimir Dedijer, The Battle That Stalin Lost, (New York: Universal Library, 1972), pp. 306-310.
23. NIN, 27 January, 1985.
24. For a recent scholarly analysis of the Tito-Stalin split and its historic implications, see Wayne S. Vucinich, ed., At the Brink of War and Peace: The Tito-Stalin Split in Historic Perspective, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). See also, Dedijer, The Battle That Stalin Lost.
25. Slobodan Stanković, The End of the Tito Era: Yugoslavia’s Dilemmas, (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1981), pp. 3-5.
26. For this film, Šijan won the coveted Georges Sadoul award for best debut film by a foreign director. His second film, The Marathon Runner (Maratonci trče počasni krug, 1981) is also an accomplished and witty film set in inter-war Yugoslavia. A somewhat lighter but comically inventive film set in 1918 on the barren plateau of Lika is The Small Train Robbery (Mala pljačka vlaka, 1984), directed by Dejan Šorak.
27. Quoted in Ronald Holloway, “Slovenian Film,” Kino, p. 43.
28. A more recent film dealing with the same theme, Officer with a Rose (Oficir s ružom, 1987), written and directed by Dejan Šorak, portrays a more sentimental love story than Grlič’s film and considerably softens the harsh material and ideological conditions which existed immediately after the war. An impressive and inventive film on the immediate post-war years is the black comedy Nothing But Words of Praise for the Deceased (O pokojniku sve najlepše, 1984), the promising debut film of Predrag Antonijević.
29. In his intellectually provocative analysis of the original punk movement in Great Britain in the late seventies, Dick Hebdige summarizes its meaning in a way that has relevance to the distinct variants which have emerged in Yugoslavia in the eighties:
the punks turned towards the world a dead white face which was there and not “there.” Like the myths of Roland Barthes, these “murdered victims”—emptied and inert—also had an alibi, an elsewhere, literally “made up” out of vaseline and cosmetics, hair dye and mascara. But paradoxically, in the case of the punks, this “elsewhere” was also a nowhere, a twilight zone, a zone constituted out of negativity. Like André Breton’s Dada, punk night might seem to “open all doors” but these doors “gave onto a circular corridor.”
Once inside this desecrated circle, punk was forever condemned to act out alienation, to mime its imagined condition, to manufacture a whole series of subjective correlatives for the official archetype of the crisis of modern life.
Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, (London and New York: Methuen, 1979), p. 65.
30. Feminist theory has only recently made an impact in Yugoslavia. See, for example, Slavenka Drakulić-Ilić, Smrtni griješi feminizma: Ogledi o mudologiji (Zagreb: Znanje, 1984) and Vjeran Katunarić, Ženski eros i civilizacija smrti, (Zagreb: Biblioteka Naprijed, 1984). For an interesting overview of new feminist thought in Yugoslavia, see Barbara Jancar, “The New Feminism in Yugoslavia,” in Ramet, Yugoslavia in the 1980s, pp. 201-223.
31. Yugoslavia in the 1980s, p. 20.