The Last Yugoslav: On Dusan Makavejev | The Nation


The Last Yugoslav: On Dusan Makavejev

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It is time, however, to return to our mystery--and to Mortimer's insistence on links between Makavejev and Yugoslavia's wars. In many ways, Terror and Joy seeks to conjure up Yugoslavia, that film that Makavejev never made, by using the director's own mash-up techniques and poetic images to tell the story of his career. But there is another story to tell, for Makavejev did make a new movie after Manifesto, and he looked not to Yugoslavia--where ethnic tensions were already bubbling openly by 1986, just six years after Tito's death--but once again to the cold war and the Berlin Wall.

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

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That film was released in 1993 as Gorilla Bathes at Noon. In an interview with film critic Ray Privett in 2000, Makavejev described how East German President Erich Honecker's declaration that the wall would last fifty or a hundred years inspired him to write the script:

But while I was preparing this, the Wall fell. Everything became totally chaotic. I didn't want to try shooting a Wall that wasn't there. Then I got a letter from the commission that gave me money that told me that if I wanted to change the story, the money is still waiting for me.

With his improvisatory skills, Makavejev fashioned a film that has only become more profound with the passage of time. The film's portrait of Berlin as a filthy, cold and abandoned siege line of the cold war is compelling. It is a city haunted by the ghosts of its vanishing occupiers.

Many of Makavejev's most useful gambits turn up once again, propelling the tale of a Russian soldier named Viktor Borisovich (Svetozar Cvetkovic), who finds himself left behind in post-wall Berlin by accident when his unit is called home to the Soviet Union. A repurposed Soviet war drama about the Red Army's conquest of Berlin is mined for all its irony and bathos--including a completely fabricated visit to the conquered city by Stalin, whose very appearance on a Berlin tarmac magically reunites a Soviet soldier with his beloved girl from back home under his chilly but benevolent gaze. A documentary about the 1991 removal of a statue of Lenin from East Berlin is deftly woven into the plot. (Borisovich even rides with the massive head as it leaves town.) And, of course, there is the mash-up of sex and politics when Lenin (played by actress Anita Mancic) forcefully seduces Borisovich in a fit of revolutionary ardor.

There is an elegiac ache to Gorilla Bathes at Noon--a sort of instant Ostalgie. And like WR, the film eschews easy answers. In its final scene, Cvetkovic is at the Brandenburg Gate, explicitly identified as an actor, munching on an apple and hawking his uniform to tourists as a souvenir, just as many other castaway Russians in Berlin did at the time. The closing voiceover twists that knife a bit more:

Where is Viktor Borisovich? I'm asking myself the same question. And I am getting no answer.

With the cold war over, one senses that Makavejev has lost his great theme as well. And even if Makavejev had wanted to return to his roots and explore the messy contradictions of the country that had formed him, the Yugoslavia of his early films had vanished, like Atlantis, in a sea of blood.

Makavejev has talked a great deal in interviews about his Yugoslav identity. He offered my favorite expression of it in 1991, just as the country plunged into war. In an interview with journalist Mark Thompson, later published in that author's travelogue, A Paper House, Makavejev sits in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel, talking about the ending of WR:

As Makavejev gathered his papers I put my last question. Did he agree that Milena's failure to humanize her Soviet lover was a prophecy of the failure of a "third way" between West and East?
 His eyes popped. "But I believed there is a third way, and the third way is Yugoslavia!"

In the new countries carved from Yugoslavia's remains--where linguists busily invented new words to differentiate their languages from the common one they once had shared--Makavejev was forced to shed that identity with which he so closely identified himself. Geographically, he is now a Serbian filmmaker, and not a Yugoslav filmmaker. Or maybe not, if one chooses simply to disappear. One can then, perhaps, remain eternally Yugoslav.

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