Memories of Taboo-Buster Dušan Makavejev

No filmmaker of his generation from Eastern Europe could match the charisma and originality of Dušan Makavejev. Forever bustling from festival to festival with his inspiring wife Bojana Marijan—who contributed to the sound and music on many of his workshe embodied all that was best in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Long before the six republics descended into bitter, vicious wars of attrition with one another, Makavejev was a unifying spirit, the cynosure for all filmmakers in Yugoslavia. Serbian born and bred, he inspired contemporary directors from Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro with his passionate discourse and his broad-minded dialectic. Over the years his voice grew huskier and his hunched back more pronounced, but his curiosity remained undiminished. He disarmed his critics with a laugh or a quip. “We in Yugoslavia are 100% Marxist,” he loved to repeat, “50% Groucho and 50% Karl.”

Makavejev was “First Secretary” of the Belgrade Film Archive Club in 1954 when Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française arrived in Belgrade with a diplomatic trunk filled with works by Clair, Feuillade, and Pagnol and other classics of French cinema—all uncensored. In the years that followed, “Wajda’s trilogy made a huge impression on me,” he told me in 2001. “Then came Jules and Jim, Breathless—freedom of editing without careless editing, plus the casual treatment of the story, with casual dialogue. I liked the dancing camera in Chabrol’s À double tour. He was for me probably more important than anyone else in the early days. Some of the images from Les bonnes femmes have stayed with me for forty years.”

Like many aspiring directors in Eastern Europe, Makavejev had to cut his teeth on shorts and documentaries, which set the template for his love of reportage and realism in future years. “One of my amateur films was screened at a festival of amateur cinema in Cannes in 1957. A group of us film society members traveled with two tents to the Riviera in December, and found a place to set them up in the hills behind the railroad at the back of the town, where the Algerians lived, and for one franc a day you could erect your tent!” His maiden feature, Man Is Not a Bird, released in 1965 and selected the following spring for the Critics’ Week in Cannes, revealed a socially committed filmmaker who took risks with both form and content, flashing forward and backward in time as it tells the tale of an engineer visiting the copper-processing town of Bor and falling for a young hairdresser. The visuals are bleak, but Man Is Not a Bird has an irreducible humor and impudence that deftly sidesteps pessimism.

Our first meeting occurred in a smoke-filled editing room in the bowels of one of those gloomy government buildings on Belgrade’s Knez Mihailova. It was March of 1967, and Dušan was editing what would become the first of his international art-house successes. The Serbian title was “Ljubavni slučaj,” and Dušan explained that this meant “Love Case” in English. I suggested he should call it Love Dossier, and he accepted this with alacrity. However, better brains than his and mine decided in their wisdom to entitle the film Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator. This enigmatic, amusing, and faintly sinister film opened at the Yugoslav national festival in Pula in July 1967, and was bought by Brandon Films for the U.S. following its New York Festival premiere two months later. It inaugurated the golden years of Dušan Makavejev.

Much influenced by Godard, Makavejev pushed to still further boundaries a dialectic that in each of his films opposed interludes of documentary to scenes of fantasy. At the same time he pioneered a forensic approach to cinema. In Switchboard Operator, an erstwhile revolutionary and civil servant who has been relegated to the status of rat-catcher, seduces and then inexplicably murders a young woman in contemporary Belgrade. The sex scenes in Switchboard Operator are stitched together with interviews with a sexologist, images of the autopsy on the victim’s corpse, clips from Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm, and laconic comments on the life of rats that roam the city sewers.

His next work, Innocence Unprotected, was selected for Berlin in June 1968, and WR: Mysteries of the Organism featured in the first edition of the International Forum for Young Cinema in 1971. Innocence Unprotected portrayed the Serbian athlete Dragoljub Aleksić, who in 1942 had made a film about his own gymnastic feats, interspersed with stretches of wide-eyed melodrama. Makavejev virtually “re-made” this exercise in vanity, tinting some sequences, and bulking it out with a collage of wartime newsreel clips and interviews with Aleksić himself and his original cameraman.

At the Berlin Festival of 1970, Makavejev was a member of the jury and showed his mettle off-screen when Michael Verhoeven’s West German entry, O.K., dealing with the rape of a young Vietnamese girl by four U.S. soldiers, aroused the wrath of jury president George Stevens. Makavejev argued forcefully that any filmmaker has the right to speak freely about world issues, and, accused by Stevens of being an agent for the East German government, he finally resigned. Rumors circulated that West German Chancellor Willy Brandt then personally intervened in the crisis, and Stevens agreed to reconcile with Makavejev and his fellow jurors.

The initials WR stand for Wilhelm Reich, the Austro-American psychoanalyst who claimed to have discovered “orgone” energy, which enhanced one’s sexual energy. Reich’s written work was still banned in the U.S. when Makavejev began his research for WR: Mysteries of the Organism—and as late as 1960 his books had been literally burned at the request of the Food and Drug Agency of the time. Looking back from the perspective of 2001, Dušan said, “My cinema is one of essays—but the essays are not always evident, they are often hidden.” To some degree WR serves as a disquisition on the life and experiments of Reich; but to an even larger degree it’s a call to arms against censorship and intolerance. Makavejev offers a clear dialectic between the frustrations and stupidity of rigid ideology (read: Communism) and the freedom of a Reichian world. He then proceeds, like Magritte or Braque, to fill his canvas with a cluster of sundry clips from the 1946 Soviet film, The Vow, about Stalin, one of which follows a close-up shot of a plaster-cast phallus. The fictional thread of WR describes a doomed affair between Milena Draviċ and a Russian skater, contrasted with the zestful copulation of Jagoda Kaloper and “Comrade Ljuba.” Theory and practice, the irrational and the rational, thus meet in head-on collision, and the result is a film that mauls the sacred iconography of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, affirming that “Politics is for those whose orgasm is incomplete.” It’s a classic utopian parable, in the mood of Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s Animal Farm. Jagoda Kaloper traveled with WR to campuses across America, and I introduced her and the film at the University of Rochester. The undergraduate audience of the early seventies revelled in Jagoda’s nude scenes, even if the political references often seemed out of reach. In Yugoslavia, however, WR was banned without ceremony—for sixteen years—and in many other territories the film enraged the censors.

“At the end of 1972, the liberal leadership in Serbia was forced to resign,” Makavejev recounted to me in a 2008 interview. “An ideological/fundamentalist tsunami threw the media into a kind of psychotic vertigo. Already printed books were chopped up into old paper, theatre plays were removed from the repertory, and a campaign against the ‘black wave’ in films treated us as foreign agents.” It was time for this paradigm of the avant-garde to depart for new horizons. He acquired a charming apartment at the foot of the Rue de Seine in Paris, and pressed ahead with his next project. Entitled Sweet Movie (1974), it was shot in Montreal, Niagara Falls, Paris, and Amsterdam, with no contribution from Yugoslavia. A satire on everything from Communism to beauty pageants, and from chastity belts to coprophilia, Sweet Movie also addressed the ghastly crimes of the Stalinist era, notably the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn Forest. Scatological in the extreme, scattershot in its relentless assault on bourgeois values, Sweet Movie was premiered at the Cannes Festival. Meeting Makavejev in the Petit Carlton Café after the press screening, I said I had reservations about the film. Makavejev turned on his heel and stalked out of the bar. We would not talk again for several years. Looking back, I think that my disappointment stemmed not so much from the flaunting of taboos in the commune scenes as from the childishness of several sequences (although there’s a fine line between childishness and frivolity, or as Makavejev would say, between chocolate and excrement)!

In Montenegro, funded by the Swedes in 1981, Makavejev used such Bergman luminaries as actor Erland Josephson and editor Sylvia Ingemarsson. In Susan Anspach, he also found the perfect actress to play his bored bourgeois housewife, who kicks over the traces by setting fire to the bedclothes, and eventually poisoning her entire family. While her husband is abroad, she finds solace in an underground nightclub, where the Yugoslav immigrant known as “Montenegro” satisfies her sexual cravings. The film marked a return to Makavejev’s provocative form of the sixties and early seventies, even as its linear narrative helped to attract a large audience in numerous countries.

In October 2006, I recorded two interviews with Makavejev for Criterion, one on WR and the other on Sweet Movie. There he confirmed that he liked making satirical films, because he could then “smuggle across” some ideas and information that might otherwise be boring, and that for him editing was more important than shooting. The following year, he spoke to me for a book that the European Film Academy published to mark its 20th anniversary. “Our hand-held cameras were curious and critical,” he noted. “Instead of performing, our actors were asked just to be alive. Our stories on film became unpredictable, as in life.” Our final conversation was at the Berlin Festival in 2008, when we talked on stage at the Berlinale Talents program and Makavejev reiterated his desire that people should see his films more than once, that they could return to it as one returns to Mark Twain or Dostoevsky and gleans something fresh and new each time.

By the 1990s, Makavejev’s cinema lay like a beached whale on the sands of time. The Coca-Cola Kid, Manifesto, and Gorilla Bathes at Noon, made between 1985 and 1993, all failed to reach a wide audience. The antic wit was no longer so acerbic, the surrealism no longer so engaging, nor the political comment so trenchant as it had been in his heyday. Long into the future, nonetheless, Dušan Makavejev will remain a figure as emblematic of his period as Ken Kesey in literature or Velvet Underground in music. I like to think that Dziga Vertov and Salvador Dalí would have been his lifelong fans.