Tag Archives: Yugoslavia

The Gorilla Bathes at Noon

“The gorilla bathes at noon” (Gorila se kupa u podne,1993) is not set in Africa. It has a stubborn non-conformist whose verities have banished at its center. A Soviet major, Victor Borisovich, who had been hospitalized (like the devoutly communist mother in “Goodbye, Lenin”) finds that his army has deserted him in Berlin. He remains in dress uniform and he remains loyal to Lenin, not only cleaning a gigantic statue of Lenin, but dreaming of his sort-of-girlfriend in Lenin drag. (There is footage of a Lenin statue being decapitated and the head trucked away. There is also footage of Stalin visiting Berlin recently conquered by the Red Army and other footage from the 1949 Soviet propaganda film/documentary “The Fall of Berlin.”

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The major has access to the Berlin Zoo, steals food intended for the animals, and considers (dreams?) of feeding himself to his compatriots, the zoo’s Siberian tigers, except that neither tiger had ever been in Siberia: one was born in Stüttgart, the other in Budapest.

The sex and the music are muted in contrast to Makavejev’s Yugoslavian films (back when he was allowed to make them). There’s still plenty of comedy of the absurd in “Gorilla.”

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In the other communist founding father veneration film (Tito and Me), I don’t know if the family is Serbian or Croatian. I suspect that instead of speaking Russian, the actors in “Gorilla” are speaking Serbo-Croatian. The abandoned  major is played by “Yugoslav stage actor Svetozar Cvetkovic”) and the film is directed by Dusan Makavejev (director of “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” and “Montenegro”), who may now be German, but was Yugoslav before that was a code word for Serbian. (He was born in Belgrade in 1932.)

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

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Rats, sexologists, and switchboard operators

I was bored by Dusan Makavejev’s 1967 “Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator“ (Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.), one of the three movies in the Criterion Eclipse “” Makavejev: Free Radical” set. I assumed that the sexologist, Dr. Aleksandar Kostich, who natters frequently between scenes of the crime was a fictional parody, but, apparently, he was real, a cinematic objet trouvé. I don’t know if one could say the scenes of baking are documentary or not, but those of political rallies are.

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The Turkish sanitation expert Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudić) who picks up Izabela (Eva Ras) who is out on the town (/prowl) her fellow switchboard operator (Ruzica Sokić) is charged with exterminating the gray rat population — a species that was introduced to wipe out black rats (like the mongeese of Hawai’i). It is impossible not to suspect that the dueling rat populations are a Metaphor for human politics in a land where communists supplanted Nazis.

The alien (Turk) is a suspect in the murder of Izabela, not least in that her corpse is found in his subterranean workplace (the sewers). Another suspect is the mailman (Miodrag Andric) who gave her rides to work and hit on her incessantly—and when Ahmed was away on business for a month overcame her resistance.

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The whodunit aspect obviously did not much interest Makavejev. Clearly, he was aiming to preach against sexual repression (even before “W.R.: Mysteries of the Orgasm”), but the main romance has none of the quirky charm of even the generally cold-blooded Rainer Fassbiner’s (1974) “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” centering on a Muslim male and an eastern European female.

Ahmed does install a bathtub for Izabela, which introduces a theme taken up again in “The Gorilla Bathes at Noon.”.

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

Body-builder showing off in 1942 and 1968

The question is whether ‘Nevinost bez zastite” (Innocence Unprotected), the documentary Dusan Makavejev (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism; Montenegro; The Gorilla Bathes at Noon) made about/incorporating the first talkie shot in “Yugoslavian” (Serbian and Croatian use different scripts, but these inscribe the same spoken language) the 1942 ‘Nevinost bez zastite,” written, produced and directed by, and starring acrobat/bodybuilder/strongman Dragoljub Aleksic (1900-85) is one strange movie — or two strange movies intercut together.

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The 1942 melodrama has the creakiness of a particularly hokey silent-movie or Victorian play melodrama, except that the damsel in distress, Nada (Ana Milosavljevic) — on whom a rich man ((Bratoljub Gligorijević) is being pressed by a stereotypical wicked stepmother (Vera Jovanovic-Segvić) — is in love with Akrobata Aleksic, and when she speaks of his exploits, records of Aleksic’s daring feats are cut in. Hanging by his teeth from an airplane flying over Belgrade is not the most spectacular of these. (Hey! I have to leave something for the viewer to discover!)

In 1968, Aleksic remained a flamboyant exhibitionist, ready and more or less able to repeat some of his shows of strength. Other cast members (including both the female leads) gather at the grave of a departed one to picnic and reminisce. Makavejev splices in some maps of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some WWII documentary footage, and large chunks of the 1942 movie.

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It seems that Aleksic and his brother intended to show their movie only after the war, but it did show in Belgrade during the war, which led to postwar charges of collaboration, though both were partisans (guerilla fighters against the Nazis) and even in the “right” partisan faction (the victorious communist one). Though filmed without any official permission, the theatrical release in Belgrade had at least implicit Nazi approval.

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The movie is part of a Criterion Eclipse (barebones) collection “Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical” with two earlier, also short movies shot in Tito’s Yugoslavia: “Man Is Not A Bird” (1965) and “Love Affair” (1967). “Innocence Unprotected” is like its immediate predecessor and “WR” in mixing found footage, documentary, and little narrative.

I’d actually like to know more about what people other than Aleksic thought of the 1942 movie in general and in using the (main) Yugoslavian language in particular, though I knew better than to expect any straightforward documentary from Makavejev. An idiosyncratic collage of “documentary” footage and fiction, much of the movie holds together because of the strength of ego (one completely unjustified by his film-making skill) of Dragoljub Aleksic. Aleksic is the kind of delusional larger-than-life character who would appearl to Werner Herzog, someone also more than willing to blur the fiction/documentary line.

What he shot and spliced together is only fitfully interesting, but is probably more interesting to someone more familiar with the 20th-century history and culture of the Southern Slavs (and I think that I am more familiar with these than most North Americans who are not of Southern Slav ancestry). The 1942 movie is now the first Serbian movie, I guess.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

 

Dusan Makavejev’s feature-film debut: “Man Is Not a Bird”

“Covek nije tica” (Man Is Not a Bird, 1965) is the first feature film of writer-director Dusan Makavejev (1932-), who is most (in)famous for the X-rated “WR: Mystery of the Orgasm” (1971). It is also the best of the three early Makavejev movies in the Criterion Eclipse (without bonus features) set “Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical.”

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The movie begins with a lecture on hypnosis (delivered by hypnotist (Roko Cirkovic) and ends with a demonstration of a hypnotist making hypnotized Yugoslavian men laughing stocks for an audience, foreshadowing the lectures by a sexologist and by a criminologist in “Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.” (Love Affair, (1967). There is also a very provincial circus foreshadowing the focus on strongman/acrobat turned filmmaker Dragoljub Aleksic in “Nevinost bez zastite” (Innocence Unprotected, 1968). And a 3-4 minute performance of the Beethoven 9th Symphony (foreshadowing “Clockwork Orange”?)

There is a bit of a plot, involving a middle-aged expert from Slovenia, Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec) who is in a copper-mining town on the border between Serbia and Bosnia (all three parts of Yugoslavia at the time) to supervise assembly of some turbo that will speed production and reduce electricity usage in copper smelting.

When first seen, Jan is having his hair cut by a youngish blonde Rajka (Milena Dravic). He asks her if she knows of anyone with a room to rent for his stay in town. She leads him home and becomes his landlady… and more. She pretty much throws herself at him. At the very least, she seduces him without his making any moves to seduce her.

Rajka has a more ardent, younger and very persistent admirer, a truck driver Vozac (Boris Dvornik, who bears some resemblance to Omar Sharif of the same time).

The movie also shows workers pilfering (including rolling a sort of girdle of copper wiring), corrupt managers, and workers expressing dissatisfaction with communism. It is surprising that these were not censored, especially in that the movie is a quasi-documentary about communist industrialization. The only nudity is a brief scene of some men in a shower. The sex scenes are discreet — well, if a sexual congress with the “Freedom!” part of Beethoven’s 9th can be considered discreet. None of the Yugoslavians are free, they cannot fly, are not birds (as the title emphasizes). They can, however, have sexual dalliances.

There’s also a drunkard, Barbulović (Stole Arandelovic), who gives his mistress three of his wife’s best dresses, outraging the wife, but this subplot is left unresolved. (Though, the end of that story may have been shown early on.)

There are some impressive compositions of the land scarred by mining operations and of the operating factory.

I don’t think it would be plot spoiling to report that the turbo gets installed and Jan is awarded a medal and a banquet (I’m not sure whether a cash bonus for getting the work done ahead of schedule is awarded, though I think it was approved by an official who did not think a medal was sufficient recompense.)

The mix of satire, documentary, and sex comedy runs only 78 minutes. It is not as wild or as chaotic as Makavejev’s later movies (the other two in the “Free Radical” set are far more disjointed). The images are not sharp, which I think was probably not a result of the movie’s age but of inferior film stock being used in the first place.

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The sly use of documentary style has been said to be “a cornerstone of Eastern European cinema.” It preceded the films of the Prague Spring, though Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde” also dates from 1965 and Jirí Menzel’s film “Closely Watched Trains” (adapted from his own novel by Bohumil Hrabal, released in 1966) was probably already in production by the time “Man Is Not a Bird” came out. And I don’t think that the later two movies in “Free Radical” mark any advance on the sex plus mockumentary format. The sex got more explicit though.

 

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

The most recent collection of essays by Josip Novakovich

Having caught up with the most recent collection of short stories by the Croatian-American-Canadian master Josip Novakovich (1956), Heritage of Smoke, I realized I had missed a collection of his essays, the provocatively titled Shopping for a Better Country. The country in which he was born, Yugoslavia, no longer exists. His hometown Daruvar, was significantly damaged by Serbian/Slavonian military/paramilitary forces during the early 1990s. Novakovich had been going to college in the Serbian city of Novi Stad before going (legally at both ends) to the US in 1976, gradually choosing English… and raising American kids.

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He traveled back to Croatia, as well as teaching in Moscow and Berlin. He took up a position at Concordia University, an Anglophone university in Montréal in 2009. He does not write about Canada or the decision to move there in Shopping, nor much about his third of a century in the US.

The book includes pieces on Vukovar, North Africa, Hungary, Berlin, Russian customs (which refused to allow his son’s cello—or either of the bows for it—back out of the country), and writers’ tombs (in Prague and Paris. There is a very moving, lengthy essay about his mother (Ruth) and her death, a more abstract (and shorter) one on fathers. Having grown up a Baptist in a communist country, and as someone with mixed ancestry (in the most Czech town in Croatia) Novakovich is keenly aware of the tyranny of the majority and attuned to the censorious of small town ethnocentrism in which people seek ways to isolate and ostracize anyone who is different from the majority.

(Vukovar water tower, Oct. 2017 photo by SM)

I found “Why I Can’t Write Erotica” especially insightful about the straitjacket heterosexual male writers now try to write in. “Two Croatias” also communicates much about how Croatians are (mis)perceived. Being a fellow lover of trains, I am saddened by the demise of the Balkan Express (and the Orient Express). And I have seen the still raw damages of Vukovar a decade after the visit about which Novakovich wrote herein. I don’t agree with him about “friendship addiction,” though he has much of interest to say about male competitiveness in his essay on the subject. And the memoir of childhood coughing was unsettling, especially since I was coughing while reading it (though I doubt from tuberculosis).

The book does not proceed in chronological order through the author’s life, or, indeed, in any particular order I can detect. I guess that means the whole is less than the sum of the parts, but many of the parts are masterful and there is much (fairly dark) humor throughout the volume along with recordings of pain, particularly ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia — not exculpating the Croatian fascists’ treatment of Serbs during the Second World War or either Croatian or Serbian war criminals in the wars for independence of Croatia and Bosnia. Kosovo (and Macedonia) don’t figure here, not that there is any lack of atrocities in earlier conflicts!

 

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Milovan Djilas and his Land Without Justice

Milovan Djilas (1911-1997) was a very brave man, who was the first and for a long time the foremost dissident from within a communist system. A committed communist from the eighth grade onward and the #2 official in Yugoslavia as it broke from subservience to the Soviet Union (but not from a local form of Stalinism), Djilas not only spoke truth to power, but spoke the most devastating of truths: that far from communism leading to the withering away of the state and an end of social inequalities it led to state apparatus monitoring and attempting to control every facet of life in communist countries and enriched a “new class” of party bureaucrats.

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Djilas hoped that communism would bring a better, juster society. This was a hope that stimulated many to join communist parties. But I can’t think of anyone else who rose to high and proclaimed that the revolution and the communist party in power failed to deliver what he and they had hoped for.

It was certainly not that Djilas failed to understand that power was necessary to accomplish change. Nonetheless, when he was about to become president of Yugoslavia, he published a series of articles critical of how communism was developing in Yugoslavia. He dared to say that power had become an end in-itself (that is, that Stalin, Tito, et al. were more concerned about maintaining their power than in doing anything about the programs they espoused). He was removed from all his official posts. After publishing The New Class abroad (the book in which he examined the privileges of party members and managers who neither owned the means of production or labored) and speaking in support of the revolt against Soviet domination of Hungary in 1956, Djilas was charged with “slandering and writing opinions hostile to the people and the state of Yugoslavia.” He wrote the memoir of his youth in Montenegro, Land Without Justice before a nine-year imprisonment.

That was not his first imprisonment. He has been imprisoned for being a communist 1933-36. Nor was it his last. He was imprisoned again for publishing Conversations with Stalin in 1961 (another four years).

Djilas outlived his former comrade, dictator Josip Tito, and outlived the second Yugoslavia. Already in 1989, Djilas observed:

“Milosevich’s authoritarianism in Serbia is provoking real separation. Remember what Hegel said, that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce. What I mean to say is that when Yugoslavia disintegrates this time around, the outside world will not intervene as it did in 1914… Yugoslavia is the laboratory of all Communism. Its disintegration will foretell the disintegration in the Soviet Union. We are farther along than the Soviets.”

Djilas’s “autobiography of my youth”

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I read Land Without Justice not out of respect for Djilas as a prophet, nor even out of interest in how someone who knew about the ruthlessness of communist dictators (including direct observation of Stalin) could dare to say that the new communist emperors had not clothes, but as part of my recent attempts to understand the savagery during the breakup of Yugoslavia. (Montenegro was the last to split off from Serbia, which still called itself “Yugoslavia,” that is, the union of southern Slavs. In language and religion and stubbornness, Montenegrians are Serbian.)

The first third of the book details the inter-ethnic (and inter-clan) violence in Montenegro at the time of Djilas’s birth. The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 in which the Kingdom of Montenegro expanded, expelling Ottoman rulers and slaughtering Muslims,. were followed by World War I in which Montenegro, allied with Serbia was decisively defeated by the (Austro-Hungarian) Hapsburg army in 1916. Djilas describes the often grisly murders of Muslims before and after the First World War, and the picking off and dismemberment of stragglers from the Austrian retreat in 1918.

Djilas was only five when the Austrian army passed through triumphant and only seven when it retreated, and much of what Djilas describes he could not have understood at the time, I frequently told myself. Yet, there are very clear memories of what he himself saw, too. And there is a continuity in the savagery that continued with guerrilla rebels against the postwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and, after the Croatian leader was assassinated in Parliament, the Serbian dictatorship that called itself the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Djilas himself was a leader of partisan forces in Montenegro opposed to the fascist puppet Montenegro during the Second World War, which is beyond what is covered in the memoir of his youth. He wrote about his WWII experience and his rise and fall as a comrade of Tito in other books, as well as his analyses of the new class.

Djilas was a great storyteller, and Land Without Justice is filled with the stories of others, including his violent family members, teachers, fellow students. The book is not impersonal — it does include accounts of what the young Djilas felt — but the first two parts seem more ethnographic (an observant participant) than autobiographical. The young Djilas is more an agent in the final third, after he has left his native village to board in town and go to school.

I think that one could substitute the name of other Balkan peoples in their own areas in Djilas’s lament that “everywhere on the roads wherever we went, there was sorrow—tombstones and graces, murder and misfortune, one after another. The murder of enemies was forgotten, but our own Montenegrin losses, especially if caused by a brother’s hand, remained fresh i memory. One no sooner passed a mound or put it out of mind than another waited around the bend. Every stopping place had a grave.” The Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo required regarding all Muslims (however Slavic their ancestry) as “Turks,” killing them and dispossessing them, though much of the violence as between those not only of the same language and same faith, but same name.

“So it has always been here,” Djilas wrote.

“One fights to achieve sacred dreams and plunders and lays waste along the way — to live in misery, in pain and death…. The naked and hungry mountaineers could not keep from looting their neighbors, while yearning and dying for ancient glories. Here, war was survival, a way of life, and death in battle the loveliest dream and highest duty….. This land was never one to reward virtue, but it has always been strong on taking revenge and punishing evil. revenge is its greatest delight and glory…. Vengeance is a breath of life one shared from the cradle with one’s fellow clansmen, in both good fortune and bad, vengeance from eternity. Vengeance was the debt we paid for the love and sacrifice our forebears and fellow clansmen bore for us. It was the defense of our honor and good name, and the guarantee of our maidens. It was our pride before others.”

Individual and family honor had to be maintained by spilling of fresh blood — including that of many Djilas’s relatives, including his father (veteran of the Balkan Wars).

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(Zla Kolata, Montenegro’s highest peak photographed  by Pavoukjpeg)

The first part of the book chronicles many of those. I was struck in the last part that almost everyone Djilas mentioned — his teachers and classmates — had been killed during World War II or its immediate aftermath, and hardly any of them by foreigners (a substantial number killed by communist partisans and some “disappeared” for opposing Tito’s break from subservience to Stalin).

Early on, Djilas also describes how looting was irresistible, even to those who tried to dissuade others. In the mid-1950s, Djilas was not writing to explain the atrocities of the 1990s in Bosnia (and elsewhere in what had been Yugoslavia). Djilas considered himself a Yugoslavian, though he foresaw that after Tito (and, especially, with Milosovich’s dictatorship) violent fission would occur. Djilas was writing about days of Montenegrian independence and the first Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, though reading his memoir now, it seems that what he was writing relates only too well to the 1990s.

For me (someone more interested in the culture and history of the Balkans than most North Americans not of Slavic descent), Djilas’s memoir is too long with too many stories of too many individuals (particularly in the second part of the book). I’d have liked more about him. And I’d have liked some explication of what “communism” meant to him as a child and youth, especially since he describes a rural society without industry, and, therefore without a proletariat. One of the paradoxes of 20th-century history is that communist revolutions succeeded (that is, seized state power) only in societies that were predominantly peasant, not those with numerous industrial workers. And Montenegro was a clan-based peasant backwater even in comparison to other places where communists took power…

Also, I found some of the generalizations with which he closed each chapter rather too oracular. For instance, I am not sure what he meant when he wrote “Awareness and perseverance are not enough to help one resist and survive if the times in which one lives are contrary to those that are ahead. A man can fight anything except his own times.” Aside from its Hegelian cast, it seems to me that Djilas fought his own times (though not winning, I guess).

©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Stories set in Croatia and the US by Josip Novakovich

I began reading Croatian-American writer Josip Novakovich (1956-) with nonfiction, before visiting Croatia. Plum Brandy and Apricots from Chrnobyl provided me much about his background amidst reports of his visits to Croatia during the bloody struggle for Croatian independence (or, depending upon one’s perspective, for the preservation of Yugoslavia). Two of the short stories in Novakovich’s superb 2005 collection Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust are written in a first-person perspective of Slavic immigrant to the US that is very close to that of Plum Brandy.

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The rest are set in various parts of what was Yugoslavia from perspectives other than that of a middle-aged male emigré. The most daring—and to me convincing—choice of perspectives are those of women (Ribs, Spleen). “The Stamp” is a memoir ostensibly written by Nedjeljko Carbrinovich, one of the Serbian nationalists who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering World War I. I found it fascinating and it fits with the historical record (that I checked after reading the story).

Other accomplished stories focus on Serbians long resident in Croatia who were treated with suspicion (and violent disdain) by “brother Serbs” (The Bridge Under the Danube) or by Croats (Neighbors). There is also a Croatian boy who falls in with Serbian invaders surrounding his town and fulfilling a fantasy of many boys (Snow Powder) and a very black comedy about other perfidious and thought-to-be-perfidious Croatians (Hail). Even memories of particularly notorious ethnic cleansing comes into a grotesque amorous adventure in “Ribs” (the comedy is in the amour, not the slaughter of civilians, BTW).

A tale of a ballet-obsessed daughter judged too young to be admitted to “Swan Lake” in St. Petersburg is out-and-out sweet—though I’m with her brother in preferring Prokofiev.

When I was reading them, I was somewhat disappointed by the endings of “Hail” and “Ribs,” but in retrospect have changed my mind and decided they end appropriately (unlike so many stories in the New Yorker that seem to me to stop rather than end). None of the eleven stories is a dud, though I have a favorite: the absurdist Croatian “Hail” and the absurdist American heartland “Night Guests.” And I especially admire “The Stamp” and “Ribs” for making the subjectivities characters quite unlike the author convincing.

Many of the characters evidence gallows humor (Slavic pessimism?) and there are many ironies of lust as well as of terror and the carnage and opportunism of “ethnic cleansings.”

Novakovich’s 1995 collection of stories, Yolk, contains more interesting stories. The one most memorably set against Serbian aggression is “Honey in the Carcase,” in which a lot of Croatian suffering has a measure of revenge. I also especially recommend his piece “Rings and Crucifixes” from Apricots from Chrnobyl. I won’t spoil the revelation of the title, but will mention the heretofore mild-mannered Serb who became a sniper, shooting Croatians while they were receiving dialysis.

The most famous Yugoslavian writer, Ivo Andric[h], was of Croatian stock but wrote more about Muslims and Serbs (in the Cyrillic script of the Serbs rather than the Roman one of Croatians). Writing in English (he is now a professor at Concordia University in Montréal), Novakovich, who left what was still Yugoslavian Croatia and who attended college in an almost entirely Serbian city (Novi Sad), seems Andric’s heir in encompassing multitudes, though not attempting to match the temporal scope (multiple centuries) of Bridge on the Drina.

 

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray