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October 11, 2009
Enthralling the West, Confounding the Censors
By DAVE KEHR
AT the 2008 Telluride Film Festival, the madcap philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek presented Dusan Makavejev’s 1968 film “Innocence Unprotected” as part of a program of personal favorites: a shout-out from the Balkans’ current international superstar of intellectual provocation to his most illustrious predecessor.
Mr. Makavejev, now 76, hasn’t made a major feature since “Gorilla Bathes at Noon” in 1993. But for several years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was an art-house and film festival favorite whose blend of sexual frankness and political critique, served up with a strong dose of black humor, kept Western audiences enthralled and Eastern bloc censors in a state of simmering outrage.
The boiling point came with “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” (1971), Mr. Makavejev’s hilariously unstable blend of fiction and documentary that suggested orthodox Communism was little more than a giant act of sexual repression. The film was immediately banned in Yugoslavia, and Mr. Makavejev embarked on a life of artistic exile, making films in Canada and Western Europe (“Sweet Movie,” 1974), the Netherlands (“Wet Dreams,” 1974), Sweden (“Montenegro,” 1981) and Australia (“The Coca-Cola Kid,” 1985). By the time he returned to Yugoslavia to film the 1988 international co-production “Manifesto,” the country was in economic collapse and would soon begin to tear itself apart in ethnic infighting — a fateful dynamic that can already be felt in Mr. Makavejev’s first features.
The Criterion Collection brought “WR” and “Sweet Movie” to DVD in 2007, and now Criterion has added “Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical,” a boxed set of three early features, to its no-frills Eclipse line. These films — “Man Is Not a Bird” (1965), “Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator” (1967) and “Innocence Unprotected” (1968) — may arrive as ghostly dispatches from a vanished country, but thanks to Mr. Makavejev’s bounding wit they seem as full of unruly life as ever.
After training as a psychologist at Belgrade University, Mr. Makavejev began making documentaries in the early 1950s. “Man Is Not a Bird,” his first feature-length film, seems like the natural next step in his development. Apparently begun as a documentary on the mining industry in the Bor district of Serbia, the film quickly evolves into an erotic fable — with a strong resemblance to contemporaneous films of the Czech New Wave — involving a middle-aged engineer (Janez Vrhovec) and the female barber (Milena Dravic, later to star in “WR”) who is the sole ornament of the dirty and crowded industrial town in which she lives.
Unlike the Czech filmmakers, however, Mr. Makavejev accentuates the political context of the action: the film opens with a bearded man, identified as “the youngest hypnotist in the Balkans,” lecturing on the dangerous power of irrational beliefs. Just as he hypnotizes his victims into flapping their arms like birds, so does the engineer fall under the spell of his blond paramour. Framing the love story with more documentary material, including the preparations for a workers’ awards ceremony featuring a performance of the “Ode to Joy” by a visiting orchestra, Mr. Makavejev suggests that hypnosis functions on a social level as well. That is, until the inevitable moment of betrayal brings all belief systems crashing down.
In his book “The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism,” J. Hoberman describes Mr. 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. In “Love Affair,” Mr. Makavejev began making use of found footage and cinematic quotations, lifting, for example, an extended, uncomfortable sequence from Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece of montage, “Enthusiasm” (1931), in which happy peasants strip a church of its religious icons, only to replace them with portraits of Lenin and Stalin.
The central couple of “Love Affair” echoes that of “Man Is Not a Bird”: a middle-aged technocrat (here, a Muslim expert in rat extermination) falls hard for a radiantly sexual blonde (a switchboard operator of Hungarian extraction). In between lectures by a sexologist, a tour of a Belgrade crime museum, performances of East German workers’ hymns and detailed mini-documentaries on how to install a shower and bake a strudel, we watch as the affair turns from liberating force to instrument of oppression, its meanings multiplied by Mr. Makavejev’s droll juxtapositions.
An early act of postmodern appropriation, “Innocence Unprotected” takes a curious cinematic artifact — the first Serbian talkie, also titled “Innocence Unprotected” and produced during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia by a Belgrade weightlifter and escape artist — and recontextualizes it as a mordant national epic.
The metaphorical nature of Mr. Makavejev’s strong man hardly needed to be underlined in the Yugoslavia of Marshal Tito. Yet Mr. Makavejev views Dragoljub Aleksic, the diminutive body-builder who wrote, directed and starred in the 46-minute feature from 1942, with genuine affection, if something less than awe. Intercutting Aleksic’s 1942 exploits — which include biting through chains, balancing head-down on a unicycle and dangling by his teeth from an airplane as it flies across the city — with the grayed but no less dynamic Aleksic of 1968, Mr. Makavejev seems to admire his unflagging energy and optimism, suggesting that the unprotected innocence of the title belongs to his hero as well.
No Germans appear in the 1942 film, an omission that Mr. Makavejev corrects by introducing newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers trooping through the center of Belgrade. A scene in which the heroine is threatened with rape by a devious businessman is intercut with graphics from a German newsreel, illustrating the advance of German troops across the Balkans. Aleksic arrives at the last minute, swinging through the window on a rope just in time to preserve the virtue of his beloved, perhaps alluding to Tito’s self-cast role as the protector of Yugoslavian virtue during the occupation.
Aleksic’s heroism may be a tawdry fiction, but it had the desired effect on the masses: newspaper photos show crowds lined up in front of the Belgrade cinema where the 1942 film had its premiere. After the war, we learn, Aleksic was prosecuted for collaboration — nobody believed his story that the Germans weren’t involved in the film’s production — but eventually the charges were dropped, and his film entered the history books. In Mr. Makavejev’s version, a few scenes have been hand colored to give them a kind of sad, sloppy exuberance. This is history replayed as farce; the tragedy would arrive a few decades later. (Criterion/Eclipse, $44.95, not rated)