The Yugoslav New Wave, also known as the Black Wave was a cinematic movement that manifested in the 60s and early 70s in Yugoslavia. This cinematic sensibility included young filmmakers which were interested in the liberation of artistic possibilities and reform of cinematic language. The desire to create unconventional films came as a reaction to the communist restrictions, which acted as universal rules for most socialist countries at that time. The characteristics of the Black Wave started consolidating with the appearance of Early Works (1969), directed by Zelimir Zilnik. The film has a non-linear narrative and includes a strong critique of communist society. While films such as this one were criticized and banned at home, they had a stunning success in the West. For example, Three (1966), directed by Sasa Petrovic, was nominated for the best foreign film at the Oscars. Probably the most controversial figure of the movement is Dusan Makavejev, as his films have been banned both in Yugoslavia and the West. His films use excessive sexuality to critique the dominating ideology and dark humor which strives to remind the audience not to take Makavejev’s images too seriously.
Innocence Unprotected (1968)
This project started with Makavejev’s finding of what seems to be the first Serbian sound film, Nevinost bez zastite (1941). It was directed by the gymnast, Dragoljub Aleksic but it never had an official premiere due to Nazi censors. Makavejev completed the film with a series of television clips from the Nazi period, footage of Aleksic, and interviews with the old film crew. His additions make the 1968 film almost impossible to classify. Is it “a metafictional farce, a fusion of the historical essay film and commercialized 'making-of’ documentary, a work of Surrealist poetics in the tradition of L'Age d'Or?” (Arthur, 2001). Whatever the assigned genre, this film represents Makavejev's esthetics of unconventional and brave cinema. The Serbian director shocks the paradigm of ideological imagery by stressing “the vibrant strangeness of Aleksic’s strongman universe, and the world of a cinema without context” (Power, 2010). Innocence Unprotected is an exercise in free-form film, which reveals Makavejev’s ability to compile politics and history into playful collages of pure cinematic force.
Love affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967)
Love affair is based on a romantic-thriller novel. The protagonist couple includes Izabela, a switchboard operator of Hungarian origin, and Ahmed, a sanitation inspector of Muslim origin. The two seem proud of their roots. He calls their future child a little janissary and she “takes in good cheer the one joke Ahmed makes about the supposedly over-sexed nature of Hungarian girls—she is indeed happy to be a sexual being” (Power, 2010). Sexual pleasure seems to be Makavejev’s preferred way of satirizing oppression. In the seduction scene, which happens at her house, they have a drink and retire to the bedroom. Then, they open the television, which displays a propaganda documentary in which communists destroy churches. This absurd moment is funny, but it also raises the issue of overbearing ideology in personal life. For the director, “if the great systemic projects of the twentieth century attempted to transform humanity all the way down, then the bedroom is either the final place of minimal resistance or the place most symptomatically colonized” (Power, 2010). The feeling of ideological intrusion is felt throughout the film, due to the dichotomy between the music and the image. The film offers a glimpse of propaganda, as the camera focuses on communist leader portraits, with patriotic music in the background. However, this moment is quickly broken as the cinematic eye quickly turns to Izabela’s daily chores. This is one of the ways in which Makavejev highlights his preference for personal life, while also downplaying the seemingly grandiose nature of politics. Love affair is a not-so-subtle critique of communism and a satire of the regime Makavejev lived under. At the same time, the Serbian seems quite uninterested in politics, baiting his audience with the inevitable fate of the switchboard operator.
WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)
In this ambiguous and absurd experimental film, the narrative follows Milena, a young proletarian who is a follower of the “Free Love” movement. In addition to the main story, there are various episodes filmed in the United States and excerpts related to the life and research of Wilhelm Reich (WR). He was a psychoanalyst who, due to his eccentric research, was forced to migrate from one country to another, until he arrived in the USA. The film also explores Reich’s concept of "orgone", a healing energy that comes from the orgasmic reflex. The documentary section about the psychologist starts with an archive video of a couple having sex. This is accompanied by a propaganda song, which sets the satirizing tone of the film towards ideology. Through various interviews and ironically introduced "Coca-Cola" advertisements, Makavejev also criticizes the American lifestyle and the American justice system, which is shown to have arrested Reich based on his socialist affinity and not his research.
In his 1971 film, Makavejev’s playful collage from Innocence Unprotected turns into a chaotic montage that comes out of the director’s desire to shock and provoke the censors of his time. “The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum speaks of Makavejev's method as materials in a collision; he combines documentary, fiction, found footage, direct narration, and patriotic music in ways startling and puzzling. The movie is about whatever impression you leave it with” (Ebert, 2007). The United States fragments start with an American poet and anarchist, who is also acting as the main narrator of these segments. He talks about the nature of freedom and the West’s hatred of communism, while dressed as a soldier. Through his presence, Makavejev sends a clear message about his thoughts on military actions: it is an absurd endeavor. The Serbian director also explores American sexual freedom, by introducing footage of artists with overtly sexualized material and the story of a transvestite. He also uses these images to ridicule communist leaders, by introducing frames of Stalin within these scenes.
Milena’s narrative is surprisingly linear. She is a young communist, who is following the teachings of the Reich and is militating for more sexual freedom. Her scenes are playful and light in tone, with a few key exceptions. One such scene places her as a speaker in front of workers, talking about the need for sexual expression within the socialist program. However, in a contrasting manner, she is seen rejecting the advances of her ex-boyfriend. Makavejek uses this dichotomy to express his thoughts on the limits of political systems which seek complete egalitarianism. The Serbian argues that as long as individuals have a choice about their sexual partners, the political authority should not prohibit other forms of freedom. After being murdered by her ex-lover, Milena’s head is brought into the morgue. In a true surrealist manner, she starts talking to the camera, explaining that her orgasm was too powerful for him. The final scene includes the man, who is an upper-class athlete from Russia, lamenting over her death by singing a sad song. The pathetic moment is representative of Makavejev’s perspective on the hypocritical communist ruling class, which is martyrizing the very people who are suffering under it.
At first sight, Dusan Makavejev seems to be an anarchist, for which the most important aspect is total freedom. However, his absurd collages include so much information, that it is sometimes hard to decipher his political agenda if he even has one. For the Serbian director, the visual journey towards satire and the ridicule of authority are essential. He is a representative figure of cinematic expression under oppression and continues to influence directors who wish to push the boundaries of film.
Arthur, P. (2001). Escape from freedom: The Films of Dusan Makavejev. Cineaste, Vol. 27, No.1 (Winter 2001), p.11-15
Power, N. (2010). Blood and Sugar: The Films of Dusan Makavejev. Film Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Spring 2010), p.42-51
Ebert, R. (2007, July 15). When sex & politics mix. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-wr-mysteries-of-the-organism-1971