Uzicka republika/The Republic of Uzhitse (Yugoslavia, 1974, dir. Zika Mitrovic)

May 26, 2010 at 11:24 am

Uzicka republika (1974) is one of several Yugoslav super-productions of the late 1960s and early 1970s that tackle WWII resistance through unqualified glorification to the leftist partisans and Tito in particular. The film is a typical representative of the genre: an epic panorama of people struggling for freedom and equality, zooming in on selected characters for rough individualization; it comes down to interweaving human interest stories within the context of a struggle that is depicted in idealistic and often exaggerated tones.

The actual historical episode in the focus, the short-lived Repulic of Uzice in Western Serbia existed for less than three months in the Fall of 1941, still in the early phase of the war. Its defenders were defeated in an extended battle in November 1941, which is also shown in at the end of the film. The historical material which confirms the leftist leanings of the population early on in the war has clearly been suitable for turning into a movie; the direction of the project entrusted to veteran Zika Mitrovic, a director favored by the powers-that-be who had already made several important partisan/WWII features as well as other historical films, such as the Macedonia-themed Mis Ston (1958) and The Salonika Terrorists (1961).

The part which I am embedding here includes the scene that is perhaps the highest manifestation of socialist realist adjustment of historical material (starting somewhere around the middle of the clip; the first half represents the arrival of Soviet comrades who come to assist the republic). It represents an improvised concert staged for the supporters of the republic, all red stars and unity. The culmination is the performance of a song glorifying Tito, sung by one of the young girls (Neda Arneric) and gradually picked up by everybody in the audience, who join into the plea for comrade Tito to take them along for the struggle. Then they all dance to the tune of a well-known Soviet tango Serdtse, tebe ne hochetsya pokoya, a popular song first featured in one of the Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s films of the 1930s.* It is an example of the way in which Soviet culture was quietly imported on the side of the import of revolutionary ideas and military assistance.

Uzicka republka is a good example of the aesthetics of communist propaganda film. Based on a real story, the narrative is of unreserved and supportive togetherness, of clear strategy in the struggle, of clear-cut feelings and allegiances. The leadership narrative gives Tito and the Soviet comrades (who are seen arriving by submarine in the clip) a key role. Displaying allegiance to the Soviets is of primary importance; everybody is in a hurry to erect slogans praising the anniversary of the October revolution and portraits of comrade Stalin. The slogans written on the walls read as if taken directly out of a history textbook – Power to the People!, All for the Victory! — professionally executed and politically correct. There is no trace of the ambiguities nor the uncertainties found in films like Praznik, which are attempting a critical examination of the complexities of the conflict. The good partisans are all nice and humane, their adversaries are all bad. The bourgeois collaborators soon quit the union, disgruntled with the communists’ efforts to push for economic reforms rather than only focusing on the current German threat. The Germans, represented stereotypically, conspire and close the circle around the rebel republic. The Cetniks are horrible, killing and indiscriminately abusing the peaceful population; they mercilessly destroy one of the female protagonists as she is propagating to local women trying to persuade them to become more actively involved in the revolution. The Cetniks also massacre a group of ordinary villagers by burning them in their own church. (A curious appearance in this film is a young Rade Serbedzija, now one of the most successful East European immigrants in Hollywood, as a Cetnik officer who is shocked by the atrocities his own people commit yet indirectly endorses it all with his compliant silence). Media reports from the period that are brought into the texture of the film suggest that the Yugoslav public opinion has been grossly misinformed about the situation with the breakaway territory.

While there isn’t a main protagonist (the protagonist is the ‘struggle’ itself), several human interest stories evolve as important subplots. The heavily idealized love between partisan leaders Nada and Boro, both thoroughly committed to the cause and who both perish in the struggle, is one of the key stories. They manage to make their vows to each other yet it so happens that they will never be together; still, they are both conscious that the freedom is more important, they are thoroughly far-sighted and forward-looking; in addition, Nada is an emancipated feminist.This is the typical way in which cinema of the East Block tackled love stories set in war time — the ideal lovers are proud, focused, dedicated; the struggle is at the foreground and takes precedence over personal feelings.

Another human interest story is the subplot featuring a young teenager who is shaving for a first time and receiving loving glances from his mum and dad at home, to only hours later be brought back to town as a corpse; he had gone on failed mission to secure bread for the town and his parents are left mourning in shock. Yet another is the story of Pero, the old lonely baker, who adopts an orphan boy and teaches him bread making. The boy grows attached to him and begs him not to go to the battle but Pero feels he should bring bread to the fighters, and is killed. One by one, most of the protagonists are killed in the protracted bloody battle shown at the end of the film, leaving the ending on a sad yet optimistic note.

The film, which does not have an official distribution in the West (I only have an old not subtitled VHS copy) has been made available on YouTube, and can be watched with English subtitles in what I would describe in a pristine quality copy. The posting of this film may not be precisely legal, yet it is an instance where excellent public service is performed by making available an interesting and rare example of cinematic history. The film is cut into 18 parts for this posting; below each clip one can trace some interesting discussions which are suggestive of the political temperature (and concerns) of the likely audiences. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the way current concerns relate to historical film.

©Dina Iordanova
26 May 2010

* The tango Serdtse was created by the team Isaak Dunayevski/Vassiliy Lebedev-Kumach in 1934 for the film Vesyolie rebyata/Jolly Fellows and first performed here by Leonid Utesov. It has since become extremely popular, performed by legendary Russian singer Piotr Leshcenko. More recently, it was used as the main musical motive in Ulrich Seidl’s film Import/Export.

Praznik (1967, Yugoslavia, Djordje Kadijevic)

May 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Praznik (1967) was one of several films on the list which director Zelimir Zilnik gave me a few years back; he was making recommendations which films I should make sure to see in order to come to know the most important works dealing with Yugoslavia’s complex historical past. Having now finally seen it out of a DVD which I got courtesy of another director, Slobodan Sijan, I can confirm that this is yet another one of the Yigoslav masterpieces that are largely absent from European film history, as it is currently written about in the West.

Director Djordje Kadijevic (born 1933 in Croatia) made this debut feature at the age of 34; I have not had the chance to see his other films, perhaps because he mostly worked in television. The script was authored by Kadijevic and Aleksandar Petkovic, who is the film’s cinematographer (and the man who shot a wide range of Yugoslavia’s best-known films over several decades). Set in the mountains of Yugoslavia during World War II, the film takes place during the festivities for Božić (Christmas) 1943. Its snowy aesthetics made me think of another East European masterpiece dealing with memories of WWII, Hungarian Cold Days. A group of Cetnics (Nazi supporters) are stationed in the village where they dispense self-styled horrifying justice (there is a difficult to watch violent scene where they instigate violence against a young widow). The main line of the plot evolves around the way in which the leader of the Cetniks opts to deal with two American pilots who crash in the mountain nearby. Initially welcomed, the Americans believe they have found allies who will get them to the Partisans and with comrade Tito very soon; it does not work out this way, and while they are dined and wined at first, later on they are detained. During the night, however, the two captives escape; the leader of the Cetniks gets worried that he may be blamed for letting them free, so he promptly puts arrangements in place for two of his own men to be restrained and slaughtered, their dead bodies are then dressed up in the uniforms of the Americans. Alas, the superiors who are meant to be fooled this way do not buy into the trick as they have captured the two American fugitives meanwhile; the villagers who silently watched the slaughter of the two men (by an expert killer, a handsome and introverted young man pictured below, who spends most of his time looking over the snowy landscape and nibbling apples) now finally burst out in rage; but it is too little too late. Toward the end of the day, a group of Gypsy musicians walk down the deserted streets of the village; they find the Americans’ parachute and take it away with them, it will be of use.

The uncontrollable volatility of the context, the constantly changing mood of the wild and whimsical leader of the Cetniks, the lawlessness, the coldblooded efficiently-executed murders, the extreme violence and the endless reversals of power make this film a difficult viewing. In a subplot, a man is killed for daring to speak up, his killer (Bata Zivojnovic) is assassinated within minutes and his body dumped into a well. It is a place that harbors multiple secrets of a vicious cycle of past and future blood lettings and violence. It is difficult to tell who is who, there are so many changes of mood and allegiances. The only constant feature is the fear in the air, and in this respect the film is directly reminiscent to Miklos Jancso’s most prominent film, The Red and the White, also made in 1967, where the balance of power constantly shifts between the hordes of the revolutionaries and Whites from the time of the short-lives Hungarian Soviet Republic. At moments Praznik looks pretty much like scenes from films by Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Mirror, most notably), perhaps because in all cases there are identifiable influences of Pieter Bruegel.

The more films dealing with the memory of WWII I see from this part of the world, the more I realize what great treasures of cinema remain forgotten. Films like Praznik, or the much-referenced Herrenpartie/ Stag Party (1964), by director Wolfgang Staudte, are not in distribution. Neither are other WWII masterpieces from around the same period, films such as Aleksandar Petrovic’s Three or Zivojn Pavlovic Zaseda. It is about time to do something to bring these films properly into the annals of cinema history.

© Dina Iordanova
14 May 2010

Krvavi put/ Blodveien/ Blood Road (Yugoslavia/Norway, 1955)

April 3, 2010 at 12:21 am

The Blood Road, a Norwegian-Yugoslav co-production released in February 1955, was co-directed by Rados Novakovic (1915-1979), a director whose name is mostly linked with a variety of resistance-themed films made in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, and Norwegian Kåre Bergstrøm (1911-1976).

I am not familiar with the real historical background of the events depicted in the film, nor have I any detailed knowledge of captured Yugoslav partisans being kept by the Nazis in places as remote as Norway (the geographical distance makes it seem impractical). Yet it seems the film is based on real events from the time of WWII. The focus is mostly on the dynamics between those kept in the camp (a group of captured Yugoslav partisans, who are systematically being destroyed by the Nazis through hard labor, inhuman conditions or straightforward murder) and a group of local Norwegians who, caught by historical circumstance, end up involved working in the context of the camp and who, appalled by the Nazis’ inhumanity, gradually grow determined to help the prisoners. The personal drama evolves around two sets of fathers and sons. On the one hand, there is Janko and his father, prisoners, and on the other hand there is the local man Ketil and his son Magnar. Janko dreams of freedom and manages to escape (while his dedicated father perishes in the camp); this father-son pair live in perfect understanding and, once free, the son will continue the struggle of the father. Not so with the difficult relationship between Kjetil, who is determined to help the partisans, and Magnar, who is not only employed by the Nazis but seems totally faithful to them. The rift between father and son (which is equated to a rift between moral responsibility and lowly opportunism) grows deeper and leads to a tragic end: Kjetil accidentally shoots Magnar dead while defending Janko, the escapee. It is the dramatic tension around the relationships of these four characters that keeps the film going; otherwise there isn’t much more but a variation of other films that deal with the life of prisoners in a camp, as seen in films like Stalag 17; other much superior camp films have been made since.

In my recent purchase and watching of this film, I was mostly intrigued by the fact the DVD cover listed the Norwegian Norske Film and Avala film (the Belgrade production studio) as co-producing partners — a transnational collaboration between two peripheral European countries realised in a period during which such joint projects were not very common (some would even claim no such collaborative projects ever took place in the divided Europe of the 1950s). Well, there is one more piece of evidence of the existance of such transnational efforts, and one that testifies not only to the interesting subterranean dynamics of Cold War cultural politics of the 1950s, but also of the liveliness of collaborations between individual small national cinematographies. Tim Bergfelder has explored some aspects of such forgotten (but in fact, quite lively) cross-national collaborations in his book on German co-productions in the 1960s“. Clearly, there is quite a bit more to highlight and work on in terms of Europe’s co-productions history, especially as co-productions between Western (Nordic, in this case) countries and those of the East bloc, especially intriguing in the case of communist maverick states like Yugoslavia and Romania whose cultural policy was relatively independent from the Soviets and who engaged in a variety of extremely interesting co-production ventures. It has been written about only sporadically and in scattered locations; a collaborative transnational project is perhaps due here to highlight these forgotten trans-bloc cultural exchanges of the Cold War.

I bought a copy of the DVD at a large special store in one of Tromso’s shopping malls this January, during the film festival. The DVD cover, pictured above, lists the film as part of the series of ‘Norwegian classics’ that have been now released on DVD (Norske klassikere). Once I had purchased it, I asked around some of the Norwegian friends who were at the festival, but none of them seemed to have heard of the film. When searching on the IMDb for more information on it today, I was not able to find a listing for such a Norwegian classic at all: the search for ‘Blodveien’ only produced a reference to the film’s Yugoslav title, Krvavi put. However, I see that there is at least one review of the DVD in Norwegian, by Kai Arne Johansen at the Norwegian-language site Cinerama.no (I wish I could read it, especially as I see it makes some references to Oscars and Cannes, if I get that correctly).

To purchase the DVD, with English subtitles, click through here.

© Dina Iordanova
3 April 2010