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The Last Yugoslav: On Dusan Makavejev | The Nation

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The Last Yugoslav: On Dusan Makavejev

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If anyone could make a movie encompassing Yugoslavia and its tragic fate, it would be Makavejev. Born in Belgrade in 1932, the director spent his late childhood and early adolescence in that city during its occupation by the Nazis. He developed an early love of cinema and made a short film as he took a psychology degree at the University of Belgrade. Makavejev's sense of cinema's libidinal and political potential won both the attention of Yugoslav audiences and the wary eye of its leaders from the very start. Censors found a seduction scene between a woman and a statue in one of his first shorts--Don't Believe in Monuments (1958)--too erotic and withheld the film from immediate circulation. But Makavejev persisted, graduating from making short films to full-fledged documentaries about the construction of national highways and May Day parades. Acclaim and skirmishes with government watchdogs followed in his wake.

About the Author

Richard Byrne
Richard Byrne is a journalist and playwright who lives in Washington, DC. He blogs at Balkans via Bohemia.

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The clashing official responses to Makavejev's work was typical of Yugoslavia. Under President Josip Broz Tito, the country perched carefully between East and West. Tito not only had to navigate that middle course but also keep a lid on Yugoslavia's teeming nationalist tensions, which had contributed to the bloodshed and genocide of World War II. So while Yugoslavia was freer than most of its communist neighbors, those tentative open spaces for intellectuals and artists could be smothered instantly when internal or external political winds changed. Yugoslav professor Mihajlo Mihajlov, for instance, ended up in prison and then on trial in 1965 when his acerbic travelogue from the Soviet Union (later published as Moscow Summer by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) bluntly asserted that "the first 'death camps' were not founded by the Germans, but by the Soviets."

Makavejev pranced into that dangerous territory soon enough with WR. But his early feature films navigated these Yugoslav contradictions brilliantly, and the contradictions energized his work. His first feature, Man Is Not a Bird, retains its cacophonous power more than forty years after its release. The film is a simple but powerful tale of a casual affair between a visiting factory expert and a bored hairdresser, but its evocation of life in an eastern Serbian factory town is saturated with soot and pent-up sexual tension. Abandoning the sound studio, Makavejev shot the film in the factory town of Bor in a plant that processed copper, a decision that lent added urgency to the film's larger questions about tensions within a socialist state: intellectuals versus workers, rationalism against superstition.

Makavejev's next two films, Love Affair and Innocence Unprotected, commingled documentary and fiction in an even more daring and experimental fashion. In Love Affair, a documentary on the Russian Revolution is the prelude to a gentle seductive duet between Hungarian switchboard operator Isabella and her lover Ahmed, a Bosnian ratcatcher. (Ahmed is also woven into a pseudo-documentary about rat control in Belgrade.) Makavejev's interviews with actual sexologists and criminologists seem arrogant and cold when contrasted with the very human fiction of an accidental homicide. Similarly, Innocence Unprotected brazenly appropriates Serbia's first talking film--an amateurish black-and-white melodrama made by a street acrobat under the noses of the Nazi occupation--and tints portions of it with bright splashes of color, interviews with the filmmaker and his cohort updating their careers, and footage of the occupation itself. In both films, certain kinds of knowing leave us less enlightened. Didactic histories mutilate the texture of lived experience. But Makavejev's first three films are also a virtual primer on Tito's Yugoslavia: its contradictions, its ethnic hodgepodge and its muddled history of occupation and liberation.

In chapter after chapter of her book, Mortimer relentlessly tries to establish links between Makavejev's films and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The chapter on WR couples the NATO bombing of the Serbian town of Novi Sad in 1999 with the fact that WR was produced in that city. The chapter on Innocence Protected opens with an extended meditation on a short film made by Srdjan Vuletic during the siege of Sarajevo and the wounds of the city and its citizens, and then leaps into discussing a disturbing scene from Makavejev's film of a child near death. There is even a six-page "Interlude" that tackles various aspects of the Yugoslav wars through anecdote and political history with no substantive reference to Makavejev's films at all. "I want to come back to the conception of the human being as indeed rational, a maker," Mortimer writes in that section, "but also mad, prone to delusion, both an undoer and a producer of fantasies with consequences ranging from the benign to the truly malignant." That doesn't leave much out at all. If Makavejev had kept making films about Yugoslavia after 1969, Mortimer's argument might be more convincing.

But precisely the opposite happened. Makavejev used his position as a filmmaker from Yugoslavia--the country of the "middle way"--to leap audaciously into a critique of the grand conflict of capitalism and communism. The WR in the title of that film stands not only for Freud disciple Wilhelm Reich but for world revolution. Makavejev sought--and commanded--an international stage. Both WR and his next film, Sweet Movie (1974), share a number of qualities: sexual frankness, political courage and a dazzling array of powerful and disquieting images that prove almost sacramental in distilling the era's competing ideologies into flesh-and-blood characters. Indeed, the two movies are so often linked--and they do belong together, stylistically and thematically--that it is instructive in some ways to examine their differences.

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