Man is Not a Bird: Flying Away
The term “independent cinema” has lost its punch in recent years, from overuse and misapplication. One need only look to the films of Dušan Makavejev for a reminder of its true meaning. This Serb, who lived and worked in Communist Yugoslavia for decades before his exile in 1973 (due to the fallout from his biggest sensation, the politically provocative WR: Mysteries of the Organism), believes first and foremost in individual freedom. He specializes in contradictions, both in his artistic sensibility—eternally wry yet not an avowed satirist, hopeful about humanity yet unrelenting in his grim portrayals of our willing complacency—and in the very form of his films, which use collage and juxtaposition as tools for liberation from social and cinematic strictures. Skeptical of authority and any official ideology, as well as the straitjacket of linear storytelling (“Narrative structure is prison; it is tradition; it is a lie; it is a formula that is imposed,” he once said), Makavejev aims to tear down and rebuild the basic blocks of moviemaking itself. Toggling easily, even imperceptibly, between fiction and documentary, his films can appear to be vérité portraits of everyday life one minute and unhinged, surreal comedy the next—like a Jean Rouch ethnography crossed with absurdism by way of Luis Buñuel.
Those filmmakers were indeed among Makavejev’s stated inspirations, but they were just two in a long list of influences that can be detected throughout his complex, oddball oeuvre, appropriated to make something wholly unique. Raised on a diet of Disney cartoons, Russian silent films, 1930s British documentaries, and Laurel and Hardy movies, the young, movie-mad Makavejev began expanding his already broad horizons when the first Yugoslav Cinémathèque opened its doors in 1952. He was then studying psychology at Belgrade University and had begun experimenting with film, producing his first amateur short, The Journey to Old Yugoslavia, about a neglected Gypsy community, that same year. It was in 1954, when cinephile extraordinaire Henri Langlois arrived in Belgrade with fifty-two films from the Cinémathèque française—including works by Feuillade, Clair, Vigo, and many more—that Makavejev truly cultivated his taste, which soon encompassed the Soviet cinema of Dovzhenko and Vertov, and underground American films by Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Frederick Wiseman, and Bruce Conner.
With this schizophrenic stew of styles simmering in his brain, it was only a matter of time before it reached a boil, especially when combined with an ingrained skepticism about politics. Makavejev’s first run-ins with Yugoslav authorities came in 1958, with his short film Don’t Believe in Monuments, which was banned for five years because of its allegedly too erotic content, and in 1962, with his play New Man at the Flower Market, a cutting critique of the Communist ideal of the heroic New Man, also banned. These works, along with the documentaries he made for the Croatian production company Zagreb Film—including Smile 61 (1961), about the construction of a national road between Belgrade and Skopje (which segues into a farcical, and subversive, portrait of peasants bathing close by in a mud fountain), and Parade (1962), concerning the country’s annual May Day preparations (the soberness of which is undercut by a succession of counterpointed songs, photos, and quotes, in his first ironic incorporation of pop culture into his work)—showed the stirrings of the socially radical artist to come.
Makavejev truly blossomed at the very moment that Yugoslavia was entering its most creative cultural period. His first feature, Man Is Not a Bird (1965), which dramatized ordinary, far-from-mythical men in tough working conditions, would exemplify the innovation of the unofficial Novi Film (new film), or Open Cinema, movement, which became possible because of the state’s dramatic decentralization and democratization of film production in the early sixties. Filmmakers working in this vein—including Makavejev, Novi Film trailblazer Aleksandar Petrovic, and the darker, more incendiary Živojin Pavlovic—sought to provide sociopolitical critique and to oppose dogma and bureaucracy, although within the basic tenets of the Marxist-socialist state. Still, their artistically and emotionally revelatory films, which focused on individuals rather than the collective, often provoked the ire of officials (like Veljko Vlahovic, the president of the Serbian Communist Party’s Ideological Commission, who spoke against these films for what he perceived as their autonomy from social values), resulting in heated debates between artists and party leaders about aesthetics and ideology. The power of cinema was making itself known in Yugoslavia.
Man Is Not a Bird, with its parallel stories of Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), an admired and honored assembly expert conducting a troubled affair with hairdresser Rajka (Milena Dravic), and Barbulovic (Stole Arandelovic), a more lowly, violent, adulterous smelting worker, both toiling in a mining complex in the remote region of Bor, bravely portrayed the working class warts and all, as well as implied class divisions within the ranks—an approach far removed from the Soviet-influenced depictions of the infallible everyman that had permeated the country’s cinema for many years. Even its title, with the images of clipped wings it conjures, hints at the film’s critique of authoritarianism—though it literally refers to a stage show presented midway through, in which Roko, the Youngest Hypnotist in the Balkans, makes his subjects believe they’re, among other absurd things, soaring birds, fruitlessly flapping their arms in front of a laughing audience. Makavejev had originally intended to have Roko, playing himself, make only a cameo in the film, but the director got so much terrific material when he filmed the performances that he expanded the entertainer’s screen time. In a sense, Roko’s act becomes the film’s prime metaphor. As Makavejev later wrote: “I wanted to show how people are permeated by ideologies, and how their conduct, gestures, opinions, thoughts, are unconsciously influenced by ideological hypnosis.”
Despite the fact that Roko’s symbolically hefty scenes comment upon the participants’ desperation, for the characters themselves they provide entertainment and respite from drudgery. Makavejev depicts the mining town of Bor—located in Yugoslavia’s mountainous region near Bulgaria and “one of the world centers for producing copper,” according to a tour guide in the film—as sooty and primitive, rather than offering the positive image of the working class that the authorities expected when he sought permission to shoot in the factory. It was this reality of the life of the laborer that Makavejev had wanted to show since 1949, when he took a high school field trip to Bor with his chemistry class; rather than mighty socialism in action, Makavejev saw a kind of purgatory (wooden barracks, poor nourishment and air conditions), and it left an indelible stamp on him.
Before shooting began, Makavejev spent a month in the town, interviewing local workers, from doctors and policemen to factory heads and union leaders, and collecting their stories and anecdotes. This research, paired with his handheld shooting style, might lead one to believe that he was going for a certain documentary-like, Eastern European version of Italian neorealism (which was one of the influences on Novi Film), but ever the innovator, Makavejev merely uses this seemingly realistic groundwork as a launching pad for narrative experimentation, interspersing with Jan, Rajka, and Barbulovic’s story numerous free-associative digressions—from the aforementioned hypnosis scenes to pompous performances and discussions of Beethoven to a guided tour of the factory—and stylistic hiccups, including freeze-frames, jump cuts, and adoring close-ups of Dravic’s body in unexpected formations.
Man Is Not a Bird made a splash at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, where it was chosen for Critics’ Week, though that didn’t help it get noticed back home. The film wasn’t shocking or sensational enough to attract the attention of either the censors or major audiences, but Makavejev’s artistry was clear. As the director said years later, “I managed to produce a kind of political film that makes its own statement . . . nicely disguised within an amusing story and discreetly confrontational.” Later in this ambitious artist’s career, his anger stoked by the official crackdown on the July 1968 student protests in Belgrade and by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (to counter Prague’s liberalization reforms), that discreetness would become increasingly rare, even if his more and more surreal and antagonistic films could never be called the products of a mere provocateur. Before his controversial final years in Yugoslavia in the early 1970s, Makavejev would close out the sixties with two more works that would crystallize the truly unique voice of this champion of the individual.
Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator: We Need the Eggs
Dušan Makavejev’s second feature, Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), was, like his first, a low-budget endeavor. The cheapness of Makavejev’s films and his do-it-yourself methods, though, had more to do with the state of Yugoslav film production than the director’s ethos: In the 1950s and 1960s, a financial crisis in the American film industry had forced studios to find inexpensive location outposts, and Yugoslavia provided some of these, specifically Belgrade and Zagreb. This meant that the Serbian film board was busy accommodating these comparatively big-budget behemoths, leaving local filmmakers to mostly fend for themselves. Love Affair was made largely on the sly, without official approval, shot here and there, including in empty rooms in the basement of Belgrade’s Avala Film Studios, whenever Makavejev and crew could secure film stock.
Such makeshift means may have been a necessity, but they were fitting for Makavejev’s evolving patchwork style. Starting as a simple narrative based on a tragic local incident, Love Affair becomes a highly digressive philosophical examination of how society regulates and constrains sex and romance, mixing a vérité, black-and-white portrait of the relationship between young telephone operator Izabela (Eva Ras) and Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic), a middle-aged sanitation expert specializing in rat extermination, with interjections from such “experts” as a sexologist and a criminologist, close-ups of erotic sketches, and even footage from Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931), viewed from a TV in Izabela’s apartment. Keeping with his spirit of juxtaposition, Makavejev also makes his two leads incongruous: she a Hungarian Christian, and he a Serbian Muslim, although the eventual downfall of their love has nothing to do with these social circumstances, or the psychological musings of doctors, for that matter.
One minute clinically detached and the next winsome, Love Affair nevertheless doesn’t feel scattered; it’s all unified in what Makavejev called “kind of a staged documentary.” Despite such genre-flouting contradictions, Makavejev’s mix-and-match aesthetic creates visual and thematic harmony rather than Dadaist discord. In the most memorable sequence, a lovely shot of Izabela’s bare buttocks is graphically matched to eggs and then a mound of flour, into which a yolk is dropped, followed by images of hands mixing and kneading strudel pastry, all set to Verdi. Then Makavejev sandwiches in another layer, cutting to an excursus from a sexologist, standing by a chicken coop, on that “most highly developed reproductive cell,” the female egg.
Such joyous absurdities are somewhat undermined, intentionally, by Makavejev’s ominous, nonchronological approach. Early on, we’re suddenly in a morgue, looking at a familiar young woman’s body, reclaimed from a well, while doctors dispassionately discuss the effects of water on the corpse. Makavejev shows us a locket found on the body, which we know belongs to our heroine. Thus Izabela’s death hangs like a shroud over the rest of the film, despite the infectious vitality with which Makavejev presents her. This idea of violence bubbling below “decent” society would continue to haunt Makavejev’s work, especially the outrageous Sweet Movie (1974), whose bitter mix of sugar, chocolate, and blood took Love Affair’s death and pastry making to delirious depths.
Innocence Unprotected: Muscle-Bound
The international art-house and festival attention that had greeted Man Is Not a Bird and Love Affair encouraged Dušan Makavejev to continue making just the kinds of films he wanted to, on meager budgets that didn’t disturb the preoccupied local film board. His next feature would cost even less (it consisted greatly of found footage), but the expansive, ambitious end result belied those modest means. Makavejev’s first two features blurred the line between fact and fiction by scattering bits of old and documentary footage throughout their mostly scripted new sequences; here, in his third, the outré Innocence Unprotected (1968), he did the opposite, using as its basis a preexisting film and shooting new material to create a whimsical, wide-ranging narrative framework around it.
This project was, first and foremost, an excavation, beginning with the mysterious 1942 Innocence Unprotected, the first Serbian talkie. That musty melodrama starred and was made by a decidedly unusual figure—Dragoljub Aleksic, strongman, acrobat, locksmith, and Houdini-inspired escape artist—under undoubtedly unusual circumstances, the Nazi occupation of Belgrade. Because of the history of the production, after the war Aleksic was accused of being a fascist collaborator and profiteer (the charges against him were dropped in 1945, but he was still persona non grata for decades), and the film was excised from the official Yugoslav record. For years, it wasn’t seen but—as the first film ever made in Serbia’s native tongue—was whispered about. Fascinated by this cinematic black sheep, Makavejev tracked Aleksic down; twenty-six years later, he still burst with vitality, strength, and immodesty. Loving all that he found, Makavejev decided to present much of the original black-and-white footage, adding hand tinting to create subtle splashes of expressive color, alongside new interviews with Aleksic and the surviving crew members—plus a whirlwind of historical tangents.
The most collagelike of his features to date, Innocence Unprotected was, in Makavejev’s words, “a new production of a good old film,” an ironically simplified way of describing something quite complex. In fact, the original Innocence Unprotected was already a bit schizophrenic, as its silly central romance is intercut with documentary images from Aleksic’s public feats of derring-do. Makavejev uses this hilariously self-aggrandizing hybrid work as the basis for, among many things, a study of individuality amid societal repression and an account of Serbia’s “rape” by the Nazis. Viewed in 1968, Aleksic seems both superman and clown, less a symbol than a mere man and laborer marked by both vanity and an odd kind of artistry.
Innocence Unprotected, despite its thematic obscurity, proved to be one of Makavejev’s most widely embraced films internationally, receiving plaudits from such influential critics as Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, and winning the Silver Bear at the 1968 Berlin Film Festival. With its stimulating mix of reclaimed and new footage, the kitschy and the erudite, it also points the way toward Makavejev’s first true cause célèbre, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), an investigation of sex and politics that led to his indictment for being a “dissident Marxist.” His resultant 1973 exile only reinforced his status as a free man. To be an outcast, he believed, is the only true liberation.
Thanks to Lorraine Mortimer, author of Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev, for her invaluable assistance.