Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999

Y U G O S L A V   F I L M:
Who Will Take the Blame?
Post-Yugoslav filmmakers create a grateful audience for family massacres.

Peter Krasztev

By a lucky chance last spring, I managed to get into the Belgrade premiere of the film The Saviour (directed by Predrag-Antonievic-Goga, 1998) which was a Serb-American co-production. Not a single seat was left empty in the big hall of the Sava Centar which seats four thousand. The local political and intellectual elites were showing off their English and French outfits, and in the rows before me, well-known war criminals were clutching the hands of their wives in excitement.

The unsavable

The story of the film starts in Paris. An American diplomat is about to have his restaurant dinner with his wife and young child when an American officer appears and tells him confidentially that he has found out about plans of a terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists. Could they talk urgently. They have barely left the restaurant when a mighty bang is heard, the building collapses, the diplomat rushes back and amidst the rubble finds his wife and child lying in blood. In the next frame he is sitting next to the coffins of his beloved and, distraught with grief, swears a terrible vengeance. He rushes into the street, straight into the first Muslim prayer house that he sees and massacres from behind the Muslims who are praying there.

The tension that had held the viewers spellbound is suddenly released, the select audience bursts out cheering and applauding frantically. Even though I had known from the start that I was not sitting among rebellious Belgrade students or pacifist intellectuals, the experience was horrifying. But to assume that I had spent two moderately exciting hours breathing the same air with four thousand potential mass murderers would be neither professional, nor humane, even in retrospect. At the press conference following the premiere, the American actor who had played the diplomat told us in a slightly uneasy manner that he had been surprised by the reaction of the audience but then reminded himself that his people gave way to similar emotions whenever they were shown the homes of indigenous Americans on fire. So, that reassured him.

Reference to universal human stupidity, however, cannot satisfactorily explain how a propaganda mechanism could create such a unified atmosphere for aesthetic reception that at a particular dramatic impulse every viewer should produce an entirely spontaneous and uniformly subhuman response. A family massacre as a cliche has proven a reliable trigger from Taiwan to Hollywood; such a scene will wake the vengeful monster even in the meekest viewer. But this was something different. What I saw was the result of persistent and aggressive brainwashing which had reached its ultimate aim, the creation of a 'grateful', i. e. bad, audience. Metaphors charged with the suitable meanings - in this case the metaphor of the family - can be thrown among such a responsive audience at any time and in any context and will yield a predictable explosion. No ideologue could wish for more than that.

Sublime sufferings of an ideologue

Despite of how it may appear at first glance, the post-Yugoslav ideologue of our time is not in an easy position. He has to elaborate a rhetoric which is simultaneously effective in three directions. First, the rhetoric of the present day film-maker-ideologue must act to create the above-mentioned 'grateful' audience. In other words, it must soothe society into accepting without qualm or query any sort of war crime or economic crime. Second, it must be aware that it determines to a great extent the image that posterity will have of the present. This means that the criminals of the present day must also be made immune to reproach or investigation on a historical scale. Finally, it must manipulate external observers, at least to such a degree that they become hesitant in uttering their disparaging judgements.

The first challenge was taken up quite easily. Back in 1994, Renata Salecl systematically analysed the main sources from which the elements of the new mythology, with which the Serbian audience was meant to be anaesthetised, were drawn. According to Salecl's analysis, the new ideology uses an indiscriminate mixture of traditional Stalinism, proto-fascist right-wing populism, etatism, the mythologising of nationalism, bourgeois liberalism and patriarchal metaphor (Salecl, 1994, 64). This relatively simple task was accomplished by the state-controlled media, initially creating the appearance of free competition which was later replaced by outright dictatorial means.

The brainwashing of contemporaries is easy. A much more challenging task is the invention of a historical narrative which can help Serbian posterity to sublimate the crimes of the 199Os and which can avert all the frustrations that are predictably towering on the horizon. At the same time, this historical narrative needs to offer Western analysts a metaphor which they can substitute for the real history that took place and might even divert historians at a later stage. This delicate task could not be entrusted to the domestic media; it could be made possible only through some sort of aesthetic missile that is rapid and has massive range. This is what filmmaking offered and this is why no one ever begrudged it the millions it cost, even in the years of the worst poverty.

The Yugoslav ideologue of our time has found the obvious solution - he tries to play up that universal human stupidity that we have already alluded to. In his excellent essay 'Europe in the Balkan Mirror' Jacques Rupnik gives ample consideration to the question we have just outlined and comes to the conclusion that the West has only tried to interpret the events of the Yugoslav region according to two code systems, both of which are erroneous (Rupnik, 1998, 96-97).

One of these is the cliche of belated modernisation. According to this, what is taking place in the area of present day Yugoslavia is the same as what happened in other Eastern European countries at the time of the emergence of nation states. The only difference is that the ideas of the German Enlightenment, for historical reasons, only reached Yugoslavia with a considerable delay. This line of interpretation is exploited mainly by people who think of themselves as the Slovenian and Croatian 'national elite'. They argue that the declaration of their independence was a result of a long and torturous struggle by their people. Accordingly, the Yugoslavian war is not the overture but the final chord of a fight for independence, which means that it cannot represent a historical reference point of any importance. Consequently, in these two countries no significant movie was made about the war (a rare exception is Vinko Bres's 1996 film How the War Started on My Island , but this comedy does not bear any ideological ballast).

According to the other Western code of interpretation that Rupnik mentions, what we are facing is the irrational outburst of a tribal hostility that had been long suppressed in the Balkans. Such a representation of the situation has supplied the Serbian and partly the Macedonian propaganda industry with an inexhaustible wealth of arguments and metaphors. It has given them the sort of raw material for which movies are an excellent vehicle. The basic argument is a reiteration of the central tenet of that dubious masterpiece of political theory, Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations. Here in the Balkans, the argument goes, we live in a different world, ruled by different legal, economical, historical necessities. Here, irrational violence is an elemental part of everyday life and this is something that observers arriving from the outside world can never understand, so it is best if they leave us, the local peoples, alone. The paradox in this statement is that the "unfathomability," "unutterab ility," the "mystery of the place" which is originally included in the tribal, irrational explanation is reinforced from the side of the people who are being observed, and then it is referred back to the source where this nonsense was initially invented for purposes of self-reassurance.

It is within this tribal-irrational-patriarchal context that the metaphor of the family creates its own semantic field and exercises its manipulative power.

It is surprising but true that the family metaphor hardly ever surfaces in a pure form within the political rhetoric of the era before the emergence of the first Yugoslav state. In 1867, when the leaders of the Croatian National party agreed with the Serbian government about the necessity of creating a joint state, allusions were made to the historical kinship of the peoples inhabiting the region. But on this occasion the formula declared that the "Southern Slavic tribes" needed to be united. The country as a family became a more widespread theme under Tito. It was he who spoke about brotherhood, about a common Yugoslav identity and who always tried to suggest that he is the head of this family, the father, tacitly appointing himself as the paterfamilias of the Yugoslav nation. (Not all East European dictators dared to assume overtly the title of the Father of the Nation as did Kemal Ataturk who boasted in a similar vein of having created a nation.)

The central family metaphor of the era of 'peaceful socialism' in Yugoslavia was used by the director Emir Kusturica in his film Father on a Business Trip. Under the conditions of totalitarian dictatorship the family was only point of certainty, the hinterland to which the humiliated and persecuted individual could retreat.

The man of our time creates the epoch

Kusturica has always been a man of his times, then and now. Underground (1995), a movie made with massive state subsidies is a veritable encyclopaedia of techniques of manipulation. Even so, in Cannes it was given the Palme d'Or Award, fulfilling the most daring dreams of Belgrade ideologues: the West found a narcissistic pleasure in rewarding the movie for reflecting all the typical Western misconceptions. Underground proved to be the source of an inexhaustible historical metaphor. It simultaneously exposed the supposed anti-Serbian manipulations of other nationalities, (in Renata Salecl's terminology this amounts to mythologising of nationalism), Communist ideology (in Salecl: bourgeois liberalism), the loss of traditional values (the patriarchal metaphor), and the corruption of the West (thus utilising traditional Stalinism). In other words, everybody received a spectacular chastisement, and yet all parties seemed very satisfied with the end product.

Underground is another film in which 'history at large' is brought closer to the viewer through a family, more precisely by a love triangle simulating a family. In the story, which begins during the Second World War, two Southern macho types fight for the heart of the actress Natalia. They are embodiments of two common stereotypes of Communist resistance fighters. One is Crni, the sucker with a pure heart, who has a true faith in the ideal and is thus easily manipulated. The other is Marko, the intellectual, careerist, money-minded manipulator who never loses out on any situation.

In accordance with the patriarchal stereotypes, women are never seen as anything other than a means to satisfy the possessive greed of men, a mere tool in any given situation - even ready to "collaborate" with a Nazi officer. Natalia has no principles, and instead is subservient to the intentions and designs of the two men, even though all she dreams about throughout the film is a conventional, peaceful family life. Within the context of the film both men have a 'claim' to this woman, each considers her 'his' wife.

The family metaphor encoded in the film is not difficult to decipher. In Kusturica's vision the whole history of Yugoslavia since the war has been nothing but lies, false consciousness and a simulation of reality. Nothing is genuine here, similarly to the marriages of the characters, in which we never find out which is the real husband, nor is it ever decided which is the real world - the underground one or the one on the surface. The female figure could represent the idea of Yugoslavism itself, which everyone wishes to possess.

In fact, both of the rival parties end up frustrated - Crni because during the war he had lost his fertility, and Marko because he hypocritically supports an appearance of things which is incompatible with fatherhood. Since one is incapable and the other is unworthy of fatherhood, there is no one to perpetuate or even maintain the patriarchal order. Although Crni had a son from his wife before the war, the boy was shot from a helicopter by people whom Crni believed to be fascists. In the scene following the son's death, we see Crni, as a Chetnik leader, burning Bosnian villages believed to be fascist and issuing execution orders for everybody, including Marko and Natalia.

All the film's elements are metaphorical in nature - the woman, both the male figures, the family, the space and time of the film, even sin itself is a metaphor. This means that nothing is real. Men and women only embody something. The family is unreal since it remains childless. Time and space are those of the Balkans, i.e. they only exist in a symbolic sense. Most importantly, sin is not real as it has no protagonist who could be blamed for it; everything is the result of the accursed duplicity and duality of this Balkan world, of the fact that one nation cannot have two fathers. The only culprit in the massive destruction is sinister, unfortunate history, which keeps haunting the region and bringing out the urge to kill in its inhabitants. The people of this area yearn for nothing other than to escape from the shadow world of this simulation and to experience the 'real thing'. We shall return to exactly what Kusturica considers this real thing to be.

In a witty and spirited lecture, historian and War Minister John Keegen declared that Winston Churchill defined the image of the Second World war to be used by post-war Anglo-Saxon historians by a single, famous sentence: "In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity; in peace, good will." (Keegen, 1997, 82) The first statement about the Yugoslav war was uttered by Kusturica, in the language of film. Yugoslavian and Macedonian directors following him are merely recycling the crumbs that he has dropped.

The crumb-pickers of our time

In his movie Premeditated Murder (1994), Gorcin Stojanovic repeats Kusturica's thesis about historical lies through devices which are slightly less overtly manipulative, drawing on the story of two family tragedies. In one he tells the history of the love between a young woman from Belgrade who belongs to the opposition and a Serbian fighter from Kraina who returned wounded from the front. The woman had been deserted by her parents; the man's parents had been killed by Croatians. The woman spends her time reconstructing her grandmother's life-story from after the Second World War. The grandmother's story provides the other thread for the drama. Her rich bourgeois family had been impoverished by the Communists, which did not stop grandmother from falling in love with a Communist Party officer, thus becoming unfaithful to her previous lover - her own foster brother. The tension of the triangle is resolved when the foster brother shoots the Communist officer and the audience is left guessing who the y oung woman's true grandfather was.

The meaning of family history as a metaphor is not very different here from Kusturica's version - a 'system conceived in sin' can only come to a sinful end. There is no hope for family bliss since the previous decades had accumulated too much tension for the conflict to have any rational resolution. The son's vengefulness proves stronger than the positive emotions of the film. Even though toward the end he relieves himself by screaming 'I know that war is a load of crap', he goes back to the front, only to be carried home dead to Belgrade. Similarly to the plot line that took place after the Second World War, this story ends in death. Love cannot be fulfilled, it is impossible for a family to emerge but history returns and will explain the present.

The family metaphor has also been an inspiration for several Macedonian filmmakers in the last few years. Milcho Manchevski's hugely successful movie, Before the Rain (1996), is the most evident example of the use of the irrational tribal cliche. The recurring wave of violence is presented by the director as a natural catastrophe which strikes the people of the region regardless of human will. At the beginning of the story, which in this case does not coincide with the beginning of the film, a lusty, married shepherd sets eyes on a young Albanian girl. He tries to rape her, at which point she unhesitatingly stabs him with a pitchfork. It is here that the usual Balkan vendetta narrative begins. The essence of this is that since the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Albanians and Macedonians have become culturally incompatible with each other. Returning elements are the false or mythical consciousness of the characters, the destructive practices of half-witted individuals reared on partisan movies, and t he accumulated historical tension which, according to the nature of things, is bound to resurface some time or another.

The director includes the story of two failures to establish a family, in order to make palpable what might be called 'the metaphysics of history'. The hero, Alexandar, is a well-known photographer returning from England. Sixteen years earlier he had wanted to marry his Albanian lover with whom he was at the same school, at a time when this was still possible. The woman pays her one-time lover a secret night visit, and at the same time asks him to save her daughter who is none other than the murderess of the rapist shepherd, who also happens to be the photographer's cousin. Alexandar fetches the young girl the next morning but her relatives shoot him. The girl flees to a monastery, finding refuge in the cell of a young monk who turns out to be Alexandar's nephew. In one night they fall in love with each other, the monk gets the girl out of the monastery and they are busy planning their future life together when the girl's Albanian relatives appear and shoot the girl. Illusions disappear. There is no chanc e for family reunion since time runs its mythological circles and events recur in the same way as they happened decades ago. The family as a political metaphor interprets the present with the touch of metaphysics.

A peculiar interpretation of the metaphor of the family can be detected in another Macedonian film called Suicide Guide (Erbil Altanay, 1996) which, in the technical standards of execution, parallels at places an average Czech or Hungarian soap opera. The main character is a taxi driver with an inherently aggressive personality, who is not only unfaithful to his wife on a regular basis but also beats her and who, at one point, betrays his benefactors for money. All the while he is dripping with nostalgia for the good old Yugoslavia, where he could at least make ends meet, since neither the multi-party system, nor the nation state, nor freedom can be exchanged for bread. The cabby is merciless - he rapes his son's virgin girlfriend who instantly gets pregnant. Carried along by the same impulse, he also tries to rape his own wife but the son can no longer watch this passively - he hits his father and cripples him for life. The story ends on an unexpectedly idyllic note - the family brings up the baby , the son drives the father's cab and makes decent money out of it, order is restored, the viewer finds out that you can make your fortune under the new freedom, all we need are the appropriate people who first get rid of the fathers, then forgive their sins while, of course, bearing the consequences of these sins and with their hard working perseverance create an earthly paradise in this small yet viable nation state.

Return to the Kingdom of Heaven

Kusturica himself also has a vision of an earthly paradise. In his previously quoted essay, Jacques Rupnik benevolently misunderstands the closing sequence of Underground. He believes that the image of the "land (ex-Yugoslavia)...detaching itself from the continent while its inhabitants continue to sing and dance frenetically" to be an "arresting metaphor for the Balkan predicament today: confronted with the prospect of drift and marginalisation or overcoming the present crisis and creating the conditions for a 'return to Europe'." In fact, the island is the scene of the wedding of a resurrected family in the wider sense: Marko officially marries Natalia, Crni wins his wife's forgiveness, their common son is present, together with all the other people who had been swept away by the chaos of different wars during the film. This is the island of happiness, the 'Yugoslavia of ideas' as opposed to the 'shadow' (underground) Yugoslavia, which is false and full of pretence, the heaven where, at last, eve rything is real. It is that 'real thing' which every mortal down below craves. For this to come to pass it was necessary to become detached from the external world, since it is only the closest family, i. e. the nation state, in which we can be at home - here nobody can explode the family, we can be our own "grateful audience."

And while the happy island is slowly floating away and we are having fun, the blame will be taken by Plato, Huntington, Baudrillard, Manichean Bogumils, Rudolf Steiner or somebody else, whose metaphors about the bipolarity of the world are so frequently quoted and transformed into entertaining images by contemporary post-Yugo directors.

Peter Krasztev

Note: This article was written before the Kosova crisis erupted and before the NATO air campaign against Serbia began this spring.


Huntington, Samuel P: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996.

Keegan, John: "Do We Need a New History of the Second World War?" in: Stig Ekman and Nils Edling (ed.). War Experience, Self-Image and National Identity: The Second World War as Myth and History. The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Fondation es Gidlunds Forlag, 1997.

Rupnik Jacques: "Europa in Balkanspiegel" in: Lettre International, 1998/42

Salecl, Renata: The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis and Feminism After the Fall of Socialism. Rutledge, New York-London, 1994.




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