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Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, it was generally felt among Western intellectuals and cinephiles that cutting-edge, revolutionary cinema came from Western Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Among the touchstones were Jean-Luc Godard’s films in France, Newsreel’s agitprop documentaries and their spin-offs (like Robert Kramer’s Ice and Milestones) in the United States, such diverse provocations as Lindsay Anderson’s If.... and Godard’s 1+1 in the United Kingdom, and, in Latin America, films like Lucía (Cuba), The Hour of the Furnace (Argentina), and Antonio das Mortes (Brazil).
By contrast, the wilder politicized art movies coming out of Eastern Europe at the time—such as those of Vera Chytilová, Miklós Jancsó, and Dušan Makavejev—were treated as curiosities, aberrations that wound up getting marginalized by default. The fact that they came from Communist countries made them much harder for Westerners to place, process, and understand; in most cases, an adequate sense of context was lacking.
Part of the problem was a certain intellectual as well as sensual impoverishment arising from the one-dimensional view of Communism fostered by the cold war, even among some of the better-educated leftists and cinephiles, which tended to lump together the Eastern European countries as if they were all part of the same stereotypical gray wasteland. Communists across the board were supposed to be prudish, and sexual liberation and Communism were seen as competing forms of radicalism rather than as separate parts of the same struggle. (Minor exceptions to the rule were “free love” experiments in Russia, exemplified by the ménage à trois in Abram Room’s 1927 Bed and Sofa, and in some bohemian leftist circles in the West, as suggested rather timidly in Warren Beatty’s 1981 Reds.)
Yet for all their substantial disparities, Chytilová’s Czech Daisies (1966), Jancsó’s Hungarian Red Psalm (1971), and Makavejev’s Yugoslav WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) share two striking traits: they’re significantly less prudish than any of the examples of so-called revolutionary cinema cited above, and they’re quite adventurous formally. Indeed, their erotic candor and their formal boldness are interconnected. In the case of Makavejev’s masterpiece, both are integral aspects deriving from the film’s dialectical structure, which explores sexual freedoms and their perils in both New York and Belgrade, using each city and set of practices and problems to help define the other. Maybe because Makavejev qualified as a post–cold war intellectual even while the cold-war bureaucracies were still fully in force, he was bound to court certain misunderstandings on both sides of the Atlantic—much like his hero Wilhelm Reich, the maverick Austrian psychologist whose work the film explores and celebrates (and whose initials compose the first part of its title).
Born in Belgrade, in 1932, Makavejev studied psychology at university before entering film school, and these two preoccupations are yoked together more insistently in WR than in any of his other features (though his 1967 Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator offers a clear precedent). He first encountered Reich’s work in the early fifties, during roughly the same period when he was studying Freud and Gestalt psychology, discovering French surrealist and Soviet silent cinema via the Cinémathèque française’s Henri Langlois, and making his first amateur films (some of which had early brushes with Yugoslav censorship). Eventually, a Ford Foundation grant financed a pilgrimage to the United States to trace the final, desperate stages of Reich’s career.
Reich had been a respected analyst in Vienna in the 1920s, when he was selected by Freud as a first assistant physician at his clinic. Reich subsequently joined the teaching staff there and became vice-director after he published his first major book, The Function of the Orgasm (1927), in which he argued for the importance of the orgasm to good health. With this, he began to chart his deviation from Freud and his own path toward combining radical left-wing politics with equally radical sexual-education advocacy. In 1930, he moved to Berlin and joined the Communist Party, soon publishing his groundbreaking Character Analysis and, partly in response to Hitler’s rise to power, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, in which he explains fascism as a symptom of sexual repression. These publications, and his unorthodox sexual politics, prompted his expulsion from the Communist Party, in 1933. The Nazis also weren’t very happy with his work, and Reich soon fled Germany for various stops in Scandinavia, before settling, at the end of the thirties, in the United States. There, Reich conducted experiments deriving from his increasingly radical theories about sexual health—his view of the libido as a flow of energy that orgasms regulate, and his concept of muscular armor, a neurotic symptom preventing the regulation of this energy. By the mid-fifties, this work had led to government persecution, lengthy legal battles, and finally a prison sentence, during which he died, in 1957.
It wasn’t only the politics of sexuality but also the sexuality of politics represented by Reich that sparked Makavejev’s interest. In WR, he’s less concerned with the pseudoscientific aspects of Reich’s late theories about “orgone energy” than he is with Reich’s overall privileging of sexuality in relation to politics and psychology. And training this emphasis on sexual lifestyles and issues on both America and Yugoslavia, Makavejev offers diverse applications of Reichian therapy (both happy and desperate), as well as documentary segments in New York involving various sexual preferences and practices, and, in Belgrade, a fictional story about a Reichian feminist named Milena (Milena Dravic) trying to seduce Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic), a repressed Bolshoi ice skater named after Lenin. All this leads irresistibly to Joseph Stalin as an erotic and phallic symbol—explored at length via fictional representations of the dictator in films as well as actual appearances in newsreels.
WR represents the apotheosis of a strategy of radical juxtaposition through editing that can be traced back to the silent features of Sergei Eisenstein, a procedure of cutting between seemingly autonomous and disparate blocks of fictional and nonfictional materials that was revived decades later in such edgy fare as the aforementioned 1+1 (the "director’s cut" of the Godard film better known as Sympathy for the Devil, from 1969), Edgardo Cozarinsky’s Argentine Dot Dot Dot (1971), and Mark Rappaport’s American Casual Relations (1973)—films whose similar formal preoccupations are reflected in their titles. These filmic collages stage shotgun marriages between seemingly incompatible elements to see what kinds of sparks spring from the encounters, and Makavejev is clearly the supreme master of this subgenre—not only in WR but in his earlier features, Man Is Not a Bird (1965), Love Affair, and Innocence Unprotected (1968).
This is how WR operates on a macro scale, but the same principle of juxtaposition can be found within individual scenes. Milena, for instance, who tends to talk about sex more than practice it—even though she preaches free love to crowds of neighbors and fellow workers in her apartment house—has a randy flatmate, Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper), who cheerfully reverses those priorities. And the fact that both Milena and Jagoda are played by actresses with the same first names suggests at least traces of a documentary impulse behind the film’s only sustained story.
Too nuanced and complex in his thinking to be a simple utopian, Makavejev perceives sex as an unleashing of potentially dangerous energies that threaten not only puritanical and authoritarian systems but also, in some limit cases, sanity (especially if we acknowledge that the latter term is commonly defined socially and legally more than it is psychologically or medically). So in WR, Milena’s eventual success in seducing Vladimir Ilyich ultimately leads to her getting beheaded by him, with one of his ice skates—exposing certain dark mysteries of orgasms as well as organisms. To cite a suggestive formula proposed by the late Raymond Durgnat, Makavejev’s vision is that of a tragic Rabelaisian Marxist—an artist so dialectical in spirit that he can juxtapose his politically incorrect celebration of Nancy Godfrey in New York sculpting a plaster-cast replica of Screw editor Jim Buckley’s erect penis with a satirical song by Tuli Kupferberg about the destructive links between sex and capitalist ownership: “I’m gonna kill myself over your dead body if you fuck anybody but me.” (Kupferberg and fellow poet Ed Saunders headed a New York rock band called the Fugs, one of whose tart songs, “Kill for Peace,” we hear while Kupferberg appears in army fatigues and helmet, with a machine gun, on a street near Lincoln Center. I have a cherished memory of this quintessential sixties group performing “Coca-Cola Douche” at a free concert in the Lower East Side’s Tompkins Square Park, with elderly Poles and Ukrainians composing the bulk of their appreciative audience.)
The American episodes of WR also offer segments involving both transvestite and Andy Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis and lesbian and feminist artist Betty Dodson, who paints friends while they masturbate. But the film’s dialectical enterprise goes much further than explorations of the various highs, lows, and diversities of sexually related activities. Makavejev alternates his rough-and-ready 16mm documentary footage of Kupferberg, Godfrey, Buckley, Curtis, and Dodson in New York with the slick 35mm fictional footage shot in Belgrade. And following this latter allegorical story into outright fantasy, he can show us Milena’s severed head continuing to speak, as if to underline the fact that none of the questions he’s raising are considered closed.
Makavejev also uses clips from Nazi as well as Stalinist propaganda films (including footage of patients being subjected to electroshock and waterboarding), many kinds of folk tunes (along with both circus and classical music), and accounts of Reich’s persecution in America. In short, one might say that this Serbian filmmaker was clearly asking for trouble, and he got it in spades: WR: Mysteries of the Organism was banned in Yugoslavia for sixteen years, leading to his own exile. And his subsequent, and in some ways even more transgressive, Sweet Movie (1974) fared no better.
One could argue that he was risking not only censorship but also the possibility of being misunderstood as some sort of ideologue. That is, in undertaking the same sort of interrogative/exploratory juxtaposition of clashing ideological discourses proposed by Godard in La Chinoise (1967) and by Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989), he risked being misread as a simplistic anti-Communist libertarian—much as Godard could be (and often was) misread as a Maoist, or Lee could be misread as a Malcolm X supporter dismissing the pacifism of Martin Luther King.
In fact, Makavejev is attempting something far more difficult and valuable: a critical account of the possibilities and limits of two contradictory societies in relation to sex. In his cogent book about the film, Durgnat plausibly summarizes part of the result as, “The USA has more freedom than socialism, Yugoslavia has more socialism than freedom.” But one should stress that the comparison never takes the form of a simple contest in which there can only be one winner.
Jonathan Rosenbaum has been a film critic at the Chicago Reader since 1987. His books include Discovering Orson Welles, Essential Cinema, Movie Wars, Movies as Politics, Greed, Midnight Movies (with J. Hoberman), and Moving Places.