The “Cheerful Anarchy” of Dušan Makavejev

On Film / The Daily — Jan 28, 2019
Dušan Makavejev

When Dušan Makavejev arrived in Chicago in 1975, Roger Ebert found him to be “a big, bear-like man with an embracing personality.” After the final screening of a four-film retrospective, Ebert joined the crowd that had quickly formed around Makavejev, one of the leading directors of the Black Wave, a movement led by filmmakers who aimed darkly humorous jabs at Yugoslav society in the 1960s and early ’70s. “Almost immediately, there’s a sense of conspiracy,” he wrote. “Makavejev’s films, as much as his personality, have the ability to get us on his side. They invite us to share his view of very serious subjects like Stalinism, sex, Marxism, pornography, Wilhelm Reich. His view is that such subjects are best approached in a style of cheerful anarchy; that it’s better to lose our bearings than our humor.”

Makavejev, who passed away last Friday at the age of eighty-six, grew up in Belgrade, a city bombed and then occupied by the Nazis when he was still a boy, then bombed again by the Allies before being liberated from the Germans by the Red Army and Yugoslav communists. As the Second World War gave way to the Cold War, Josip Broz Tito, first as prime minister and then as president, steered the newly semi-independent republic along a precarious path between the Russian-led communist bloc and the influence of western capitalism. Richard Byrne, reviewing Lorraine Mortimer’s 2008 book Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev for the Nation, notes that “while Yugoslavia was freer than most of its communist neighbors, those tentative open spaces for intellectuals and artists could be smothered instantly when internal or external political winds changed.” Such was the volatile climate when Makavejev, studying toward a degree in psychology, began making short films in the mid-1950s, sharp little satirical bites with an erotic charge that would lead to his first run-ins with Yugoslav censors.

Makavejev had grown up “movie-mad,” as Michael Koresky puts it in an essay accompanying our release of three early features, eagerly taking in “Disney cartoons, Russian silent films, 1930s British documentaries, and Laurel and Hardy movies.” He fed his rabid cinephilia in Belgrade film clubs and honed his predilection for French surrealists and Soviet masters when Henri Langlois arrived in the city to present over fifty films from the Cinémathèque française. At the same time, Makavejev was becoming enamored with the work of controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich who, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in an essay on the centerpiece of Makavejev’s oeuvre, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)—note the initials—combined “radical left-wing politics with equally radical sexual-education advocacy.” Makavejev would come to see sex “as an unleashing of potentially dangerous energies that threaten not only puritanical and authoritarian systems but also, in some limit cases, sanity,” wrote Rosenbaum. “To cite a suggestive formula proposed by the late Raymond Durgnat, Makavejev’s vision is that of a tragic Rabelaisian Marxist.”

In Man Is Not a Bird (1965), Makavejev’s first narrative feature following a decade alternating between state-sanctioned documentaries and anti-authoritarian shorts, an accomplished engineer (Janez Vrhovec), the very ideal of the Soviet proletarian, arrives in a mountain mining town and succumbs to the allure of a much younger hairdresser (Milena Dravic). Ed Howard has found the film to be “an early indication of Makavejev’s later, more fully developed dichotomy of sex as containing the potential for both destruction and for radicalism and self-fulfillment,” while at Senses of Cinema, Constantin Parvulescu argues that what Man Is Not a Bird ultimately asks “whether socialist and social realism still express an actual concern with the condition of the worker.”

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) begins with a sexologist’s lecture about phallic cultures before jumbling the chronology of a doomed affair between a Hungarian Christian telephone operator and Serbian Muslim sanitation expert whose specialty is rat control. Bright Lights Film Journal editor Gary Morris has argued that the film “excels in its juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated elements, arguably replicating human consciousness with its twists and turns in scenes that mutate abruptly across the director’s nonlinear narrative. Throughout, hoary ‘revolutionary’ film clips are used to contrast the pompous ideals of the communist state with the lives of ordinary people.”

By this point, Makavejev was already drumming up enthusiasm on the international festival circuit, but Innocence Unprotected (1968) was something of a breakthrough, winning a Silver Bear and the FIPRESCI Prize in Berlin and the award for best feature in Chicago. Innocence Unprotected takes not only its title but its very backbone from Serbia’s first sound picture, “a 1942 melodrama of creaky naiveté and mysterious experimentation shot clandestinely under Nazi rule by a muscle-bound ham,” as Fernando F. Croce has phrased it. “Twenty-five years later it is exhumed, shuffled, colored, and interspersed with newsreel ruination and elegiac-ironic reflection, a thoroughgoing analysis and appreciation from one disjunctive daredevil to another.”

The cover of Amos Vogel’s influential book Film as a Subversive Art features a still from WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and inside, Vogel argues that the film is “unquestionably one of the most important subversive masterpieces of the 1970s.” What begins as a documentary on Wilhelm Reich explodes into what’s been succinctly described by Michael Bronski in Cineaste as “a critique of both capitalist and communist erotophobia using the theatrical antics of Andy Warhol diva Jackie Curtis and Fugs founder Tuli Kupferberg juxtaposed with a series of interconnecting, vaguely anagogical, fictional plots.” Writing for the New York Times in 2009, Dave Kehr noted that J. Hoberman once described Makavejev “as ‘the irresponsible heir to Sergei Eisenstein,’ using the montage techniques developed by that great Soviet theoretician to subvert the ideology they were designed to impose.” Makavejev himself, as quoted by Gary Morris, argued that a “guerrilla can use whatever weapons he likes, paving stones, fire, bullets, slogans, songs. The same with movies. We can use everything that comes to hand: fiction, documents, actualities, titles. ‘Style’ is not important. You must use surprise as a psychological weapon.”

Yugoslav censors fired back. WR was banned, and Makavejev left his homeland to make Sweet Movie (1974) in Canada, the Netherlands, and France with an international cast and crew (one of the four assistant directors was Claire Denis). Few films are as gleefully digressive as Sweet Movie, but the maelstrom of stimuli is more or less driven by two narrative strands, one involving a contest to discover “the most desirable, prominent, and well-preserved virgins.” It’s won by Miss Canada (Carole Laure) who’s then whisked off to Europe in a suitcase. The other storyline is led by Captain Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal), who pilots a boat loaded with candy and children. “Reich’s anarchic energy surges through Sweet Movie, especially in the explosive scenes featuring artist Otto Muehl and his Friedrichshof commune,” writes David Sterritt in an essay for our release. “Another spirit hovering over Sweet Movie is that of the great Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, who revolutionized cultural criticism with his idea that ‘carnivalesque’ art—boisterous, untamed, chaotic—is desperately needed to purge society of its pathetic subjection to codes of decency and decorum. Sweet Movie is carnivalesque with a vengeance.” And it was banned in more countries than WR.

In 2008, Senses of Cinema ran a piece by Makavejev in which he recalled how he first encountered Muehl, the Viennese Actionist, and his commune and managed to convince eight of its members to join eight Parisian actors for the sequences depicting a full-blown regression therapy session incorporating just about every bodily function imaginable. The piece ran alongside a chapter from Terror and Joy, and three years later, Lorraine Mortimer revisited Sweet Movie in Senses to consider the strategic uses and abuses of disgust. For Richard Byrne, “Sweet Movie’s essential flaw is that it dilutes the complexities that make WR so effervescent. Communism seduces and kills. Capitalism degrades humanity and drives it mad. Instead of pursuing questions, the movie is content to rest on those answers.”

Seven years later, Makavejev reined in the excess, or at least made it more palatable to arthouse audiences, in Montenegro (1981). The modest hit stars Susan Anspach as an American housewife who escapes her life in Stockholm with her stodgy Swedish husband (Erland Josephson) and discovers her inner Dionysian with the help of a band of Yugoslavs who run the Zanzi Bar. The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) follows an American marketing executive to Australia, and as Adrian Martin has noted, it’s “gone down in the folklore of the Australian film industry as a prime example as a project which looked great at the outset, but went horribly wrong in the making.” With Manifesto (1988), Makavejev adapted a novella by Émile Zola, setting the story of a ruler of a small, unnamed European country who plans to visit a village where revolutionaries are plotting to assassinate him, in the 1920s. For Richard Byrne, Gorilla Bathes at Noon (1993), in which a Red Army major is left behind in post-Wall Berlin, is “a film that has only become more profound with the passage of time.”

When the Austrian Film Museum staged a Makavejev retrospective in 2011, the programmers pointed out that the “much more subtle works” that followed Sweet Movie “never gained the acclaim of his earlier Yugoslavian work.” And they offered a possible explanation. Makavejev “always satirized ideological norms and established genres and images. But this quality was much more apparent to western critics when it concerned their ‘official’ ideological adversary. When the target of scorn became ‘us’ (the west), critics declined to follow.”

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