Milena (Milena Dravic) in WR: Mysteries of the Organism

It is one of the most perplexing mysteries of world cinema. In the early 1970s Dusan Makavejev was the brightest star in the avant-garde firmament. A breathless dispatch in the New York Times filed from a midnight screening of one of Makavejev’s films at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival offers a glimpse of his glow:

Somewhere along in every film festival there comes that one film that electrifies everyone, that sets everyone from the man in the street to critics to the president of a major American company talking about it with the same passionate enthusiasm…. A standing-room-only audience…cheered and screamed and applauded for a good quarter of an hour at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Makavejev still surfaces occasionally for retrospective interviews and stints on the film-school and festival circuit, but he has not released a film in fifteen years.

His first three features–Man Is Not a Bird (1965); Love Affair, Or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967); and Innocence Unprotected (1968)–were key works of Eastern European cinema that also won international acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival along with a worldwide audience. (These three films were released as a boxed set by Criterion in October.) But it was the release of the film so wildly feted at Cannes in 1971–WR: Mysteries of the Organism–that sent Makavejev’s burgeoning reputation into orbit. WR‘s political and libidinal epiphanies about the stalemated cold war were propelled by a dazzling kinesis of cinematic forms. Its clever leaps between documentary, doomed love story, agitprop and farce created revelatory juxtapositions: Nazi documentaries about the mentally ill collide with hagiographies of Stalin; street theater in New York City jostles with a documentary on the life of psychologist Wilhelm Reich. The film radiates a manic, subversive and inquisitive energy and carnality.

WR‘s scathing anti-authoritarianism did not escape the attentions of the authorities. Most countries in the Soviet bloc banned it outright. Yugoslav officials suppressed the film by choking it with red tape and then encouraged its director to make his movies in exile. Genius and notoriety usually ensure success for filmmakers–or at least a chance to keep making films. So what explains Makavejev’s mysterious cinematic silence? Terror and Joy: The Films of Dusan Makavejev, a new book by Lorraine Mortimer, a senior lecturer of sociology and anthropology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, provides an opportunity to reopen this baffling cold case. Her primary argument is that there are deep connections to be made between Makavejev’s films and Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup in the 1990s. Her sharp analysis and exacting detail make the book comprehensive and useful, but her overall argument breaks down for reasons both thematic and chronological. Yet Mortimer’s instinct to poke into the death of Yugoslavia is on the right track if you’re looking to solve this mystery. As it happens, Yugoslavia’s demise is also a prime suspect in the disappearance of Makavejev as a cinematic force.

Makavejev addressed Yugoslavia’s dissolution in his last film, Hole in the Soul (1994)–an hourlong autobiographical work made for the BBC. Hole in the Soul has all the hallmarks of a Makavejev film. Juxtapositions and leaps in form abound. Couplets about his happy early childhood in Belgrade jostle with bleak accounts of America’s soulless movie industry. A chilly cruise on the Sava River in Belgrade in the company of rock musician Rambo Amadeus ends with Makavejev stating his desire to make a film called Yugoslavia. Amadeus delivers a vulgar pitch for cash directly to the camera:

Bastards, morons, assholes, rich producers, idiots and what-not. You have a top-notcher here. So cough up a couple of hundred million dollars so the man can make his movie and make it right. You’ll all die, we’ll all die, but the movie will remain. So if you want to go down in history, like the Borgias, the Medicis, and a few other rich families, fork over the loot.

The world never got Yugoslavia, so Makavejev must have never gotten any backers. But Hole in the Soul hints in flashes at the film Makavejev might have made: there are blackly humoristic accounts of street protests against the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. (One of Makavejev’s friends has a cobblestone that almost killed him during a March 1991 riot gilded, just like the cross on the roof of Belgrade’s great unfinished cathedral of St. Sava. When Makavejev asks him if he had done it because it did not kill him, his friend replies: “No, because we’ll beat them, finally. One day, they’ll get hit on the head.”) And there’s footage of handsome youths diving into the Neretva River from a famous and beautiful Ottoman bridge in Mostar, juxtaposed with video of that same bridge as it is destroyed by Croatian artillery in 1993.

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.

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.

WR‘s power resides in its relentless interrogations of authority and its power to suppress freedom and dissent. Makavejev approaches Reich’s theories–and in particular, Reich’s notion that humanity is corroded physically and enslaved politically and morally by its frustrated sexual urges–as an avenue to investigate how power works to keep humanity in chains. What compels human participation in personality cults of a dictator such as Stalin? What happens when the Vietnam War is brought home through satire directly to Manhattan’s office buildings? What is the relationship between sexual liberation and political power?

Makavejev provides no answers, just tantalizing clues in cinematic hagiographies of Stalin; the comic street theater of Tuli Kupferberg (founding member of the Fugs), who wanders through Manhattan toting a rifle and helmet; and a fatal romance between a liberated Yugoslav woman named Milena (who conveniently spouts Reichian maxims) and a Russian ice skater who decapitates her with his skate in a spasm of sexual excitement and repulsion. These elements and scores of others–including a documentary on Reich–are sliced and diced together, creating a riot of juxtapositions.

The outsized reaction against the film by Soviet and Yugoslav authorities in part served to obscure Makavejev’s stinging critique of capitalism. Communism represses sexuality or channels it into a personality cult. But capitalism? Whether it is Kupferberg comically masturbating his rifle, or the crass commercialization of sex in pornography, or the fetishization of plaster casting, Makavejev’s lens lays bare the priapism of war and commerce in American life.

And despite the savagery of his attack on Soviet communism, Makavejev’s documentary on Reich slyly reminds us that it was not communism–which the psychoanalyst embraced in the 1920s and ’30s but then bitterly rejected–that ultimately led to Reich’s personal destruction. Rather, it was officials at the US Food and Drug Administration, egged on by doctors who believed Reich to be a quack. The chain reaction of bans and prosecutions ended only with Reich’s death in jail in 1957 and the immolation of his books in two separate episodes by FDA staffers.

If WR is fueled by its relentless questioning, Sweet Movie has the air of a filmmaker who knows it all. Yet despite the controversy kicked up by Makavejev’s taboo-busting in the film (urination, theatrical castration, a vigorous exploration of childhood sexuality), Sweet Movie is at its heart a simpler and much less complex film. Sweet Movie‘s dual plotlines rigidly parallel the cold war siege lines. And though these narratives are laced with a succession of startling images (nakedness in chocolate, sex, sugar and blood), they are in fact simple and straightforward. Communism is a pirate boat with the face of Marx, piloted by the gorgeous, seductive and murderous Anna Planeta. The evils of capitalism are found in the rise and fall of the virginal Miss Monde 1984 (Carole Laure), who is married off to the fabulously rich but twisted Mr. Kapital (John Vernon, later Dean Wormer of Animal House fame) and then runs away into a succession of increasingly savage and demeaning escapades.

In any era, Sweet Movie would be powerful stuff. It was banned in even more countries than WR, including in Britain, largely because of Anna Planeta’s clearly allegorical but very edgy seduction of four young boys and an unbridled scene filmed in the radical self-expression commune run by artist and therapist Otto Muehl. One almost gets the sense that Makavejev is trying to outdo WR and ends up somehow overdoing it. Even Sweet Movie‘s bravest political moment–Makavejev’s use of Nazi footage of the exhumation of the Polish victims of a massacre by Russian forces in the Katyn forest, fourteen years before the Russian acknowledgment of the massacre–feels more gestural than integral to the film. Sweet Movie‘s essential flaw is that it dilutes the complexities that make WR so effervescent. Communism seduces and kills. Capitalism degrades humanity and drives it mad. Instead of pursuing questions, the movie is content to rest on those answers.

Numerous critics panned Sweet Movie on its release. Mortimer points out that even today, there is a palpable discomfort about the film–even among ardent Makavejev fans such as eminent film scholars Peter Cowie and Ian Christie. (She even uses her flat assertion that “Sweet Movie went too far” as a springboard for her own excavation of the film’s merits and challenges.) Many writers have suggested that the film’s scandals and bans derailed Makavejev’s career. A seven-year gap did pass between Sweet Movie and Montenegro (1981), an engrossing character study of a bored housewife who is culturally and sexually liberated from her bland suburban milieu–indeed, a bit too liberated–by a chance encounter with a group of Balkan expats. (Makavejev also had a minor art house hit in 1985 with The Coca-Cola Kid, and in 1988 he directed Manifesto, a period comedy adaptation of Émile Zola’s novella For a Night of Love.)

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.

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.