[19 October 2009]
The brilliant and controversial director Dusan Makavejev is the most successful and important figure in Serbian cinema. As with most Eastern European filmmakers, this equates to him being practically unknown in the West. The reason behind this is perhaps greater than simple ignorance; most of Makavejev’s early work remained unseen in the West until after his breakthrough success with 1971’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. That film and its follow-up, 1974’s Sweet Movie, proved Makavejev was a taboo breaker cinematically, sexually and politically.
His earlier works were dwarfed by the transgressive reputations of those two films, however. Now that Makavejev’s most famous films are available on DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection, it is the perfect time for a reconsideration of his entire oeuvre. Enter the Eclipse Series and their latest collection Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical which compiles Makavejev’s first three features, Man is Not a Bird, Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator and Innocence Unprotected; three films that are far less transgressive but by no means less visionary.
Man is Not a Bird begins with a speech from Roko, the youngest hypnotist in the Balkans. Roko warns against buying into the illusion of love and the trouble one finds when doing so. Immediately we see the truth in his words, as several of the men from the copper factory get into a barroom brawl after the seductive singer Fatima works them into a frenzy. Among the men arrested is Barbul, an amorous worker who flaunts his affairs in his wife’s face. The brawl is quickly forgotten after the arrival of Jan, a celebrated engineer.
Jan is tasked with building an elaborate new machine that will greatly increase production and, coincidentally, make Barbul’s job obsolete. The older Jan begins an affair with the beautiful young hairdresser Rajka, the most desired woman in town, and they make plans to leave together once Jan’s work is completed. As the factory celebrates the completion of the machinery, Jan and Barbul find that the women in their lives have minds of their own and no longer wish to go along blindly with their plans.
The title of the film is taken from Roko the hypnotist’s second appearance in the film, a performance in which he makes several of the townspeople believe they are birds. More importantly this phrase is a metaphor for Makavejev’s true intent: a criticism of politics – particularly Yugoslavia’s socialism – and its hypnotizing effect on the populace. This goal is best realized through the character of Barbul’s wife, who is considered to be so insignificant in his eyes that she isn’t even given a name in the film. Tiring of his harsh treatment and endless affairs, she eventually remarks to a friend how his control over her is merely an illusion, one she could end immediately if she wanted. She does just that and begins living a carefree life as a single woman.
From Love Affair
This idea that one can free themselves from oppression through a simple decision is at the heart of Makavejev’s message. He sees politics and power as an elaborate system of illusions, hypnotism and base trickery. Man is Not a Bird is a subtle urging for the Yugoslav people to break that spell.
Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator also begins with a pronouncement from a voice of authority, this time sexologist Dr. Kostic. Kostic explains how the history of sex is one of the most compelling – if little known – aspects of human history. It’s an interesting introduction to the sweet love story that begins to unfurl shortly thereafter.
Hungarian immigrant Izabela has a chance meeting with Turkish rat catcher Ahmed and the two fall in love in short order. Together they share Izabela’s cozy apartment and Ahmed lavishes her with gifts such as an indoor shower. As Belgrade’s rat problem reaches its zenith, Ahmed is called away on work for several weeks at a time. In her loneliness, Izabela gives in to the advances of the local postman, becoming pregnant in the process. A crushed Ahmed wanders the streets in a drunken stupor for days before Izabela finds him, leading to her accidental and tragic death.
Rife with beautiful and intriguing visuals, Love Affair delivers its plot out of sequence, coloring later events by showing how they will ultimately play out. Soon after Izabela and Ahmed meet we see her dead body being retrieved from the bottom of a well. The film later returns frequently to her autopsy, divulging such details as her pregnancy before the narrative does. These macabre scenes are juxtaposed against the sweet happiness that the couple enjoys, leaving the audience with the nagging question of why the inevitable event occurs. The technique is a fantastic way to build suspense in an otherwise straightforward film.
Makavejev’s main question in the film is posed more to the audience than the characters. Would your actions change if you knew their ultimate consequence? This question hangs over the actions of Izabela in particular and the film is nebulous in regards to which of her decisions contributed most to her death. A highly participatory work, Love Affair lends itself well to multiple viewings and interpretations.
Innocence Unprotected is the most enigmatic film in the collection; no small feat considering Makavejev’s unconventional style. The title comes from the first Serbian film shot with sound, a melodrama starring acrobat and escape artist Dragoljub Aleksic as himself. The film was comprised mostly of footage of Aleksic’s many stunts and the framing drama painted him as something of a Serbian folk hero.
Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected works in much the same way. It uses clips from the original film liberally and frames it with contemporary interview footage of the actors and crew. The original blurred the lines between documentary and narrative cinema and Makavejev’s update explodes that barrier. In doing so, Makavejev turns Aleksic into the national hero he was attempting to be through his film. He made an unprecedented cinematic leap forward for Serbia – during Nazi occupation to boot – paving the way for filmmakers like Makavejev and boosting a beleaguered nation’s morale.
Innocence Unprotected is the least accessible of the films in the collection but is an important key to understanding Makavejev’s future work. He would employ a similar technique in WR: Mysteries of the Organism with far greater success. Though the film is an excellent look at Serbian history of the ‘40s through the ‘60s, it is one of Makavejev’s only films to lack a discernable “message” of its own, instead simply restating and reinforcing his frequent theme of the importance of freedom, free will and individuality. The film is a love letter to cinema and the role it plays in freedom and cinephiles of all stripes will find a kinship with Makavejev through it.
Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical is another “must-have” release from Eclipse in what seems to be an ever growing list of obscure titles. Whether you are well acquainted with Makavejev through his better-known films or a complete newcomer, there will be something to enjoy in this collection. Makavejev is one of the most unique filmmakers of the 20th century and though he is still finding his voice in these early films, they are no less powerful than those he would go on to make.
From Innocence Unprotected