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.
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.