“The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned.”
- Antonio Gramsci
This article originally appeared on the 65th issue of Cinema Scope.
Both radically marginal and televisually popular, Želimir Žilnik’s work stands as a critical counterpoint to contemporary film culture and its sectarian impasse. His films blow up the contradictions that are depriving cinema of its public voice and role. The world beyond and before the screen is too often reduced to mere ornamental backdrop for elaborate selfies, while originality has become a fetishistic obsession rather than the natural outcome of an idiosyncratic practice. There is no denying art cinema’s increasingly isolationist tendencies—which is not to say that mainstream acceptance is the ultimate and only form of relevance, only that there is a difference between being marginalized and marginalizing yourself for the sake of coolness.
It is precisely in this regard that Žilnik’s cinema represents an exemplary case in point. Here is a director whose filmmaking militancy never surrendered to elitism, let alone to any form of dogmatism, be it political or aesthetic; a director whose formal approach and working method has always been incidental to the worlds and lives his camera has interacted with over the years. The ostentatious individualism of auteurism has no place in Žilnik’s films, which are based on dialectic exchanges, interferences, and the sabotage of (good-)mannerism. The reactionary essence of the auteur theory and its implicit reduction of a collective negotiation into an act of private creation is the very antithesis of Žilnik’s cinema. Thanks to the inspired impudence of Boris Nelepo, Doclisboa and the Cinemateca Portoguesa, the former-Yugoslav/Serbian director got his first complete retrospective at this year’s festival. The holistic contextualization of Žilnik’s (almost) entire oeuvre brought to the surface of film history a deliriously lucid director, one that no censorial system ever managed to silence or co-opt.
Born in Niš in 1942, Žilnik came of age in the ‘60s, which in Yugoslavia, as elsewhere, was a time of tumultuous prosperity and ingenuity. But while the economic renaissance and consequent cultural upheaval in countries like France, Germany, and Italy was essentially a by-product of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia’s was a different case. In 1961, in an attempt to unhinge the cold-warring duopoly of Washington vs. Moscow, the Non-Aligned Movement was founded in Belgrade, with Tito’s Yugoslavia (which had already rejected Soviet hegemony in 1948) playing a prominent role, along with newly liberated countries from the so-called Third World. That same year, the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to the Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić; a year later, some of the shorts produced by the Kino Klub Belgrade, one of the creative epicentres of the New Yugoslav Cinema, coalesced into the omnibus film Kapi, vode, ratnici (by Živojin Pavlović, Vojislav Rakonjac, and Marko Babac), which marked the outset of what would be derogatorily termed by official critics the “Black Wave.” Filing for Borba in July 1969 about these “dark and degenerate films,” Vladimir Jovicic, voicing the regime’s disapproval, writes:
“We are all aware that for quite some time our cinema is mostly suffused by an impenetrable blackness. It seems to be obsessed with dark events, violence, obscene spectacles, spectral visions, poverty, lewd and coarse scenes, social ugliness of all kinds. This fixation is almost pathological: apocalyptic sufferings, disillusionment, desperation, apathy, perversions...These topics form the basis of a warped stoic ideology and defeatist cults. All expectations are turned on their head, all light is seen through a glass darkly.”
Compared to the nouvelle vague and its pampered quirkiness, the New Yugoslav Cinema looks like the negative print of ’60s cinema, its far-seeing and nihilistic offshoot. Žilnik’s feature debut (“about the impossibility of changing the world by romantic means,” according to the director) is in effect the very opposite of Godard’s pseudo-political twaddle: where the nouvelle vague was fanciful and desultory, Žilnik’s Early Works is brusque and drenched in the most lyrical pessimism. This first feature had been preceded by a series of revealing shorts: Newsreel on Village Youth, in Winter (1967), about sociality as an occasion for creative disorder and the libidinal need for music (Žilnik’s songbook is an eclectic delight); Little Pioneers and The Unemployed (1968), about those neglected figures which official narratives never (truthfully) feature; and June Turmoil, which features the only existing footage of the student protests that shook Belgrade in June 1968, in which Žilnik had participated as both a participant and a filmmaker.
Early Works (which The New York Times described as an “evocation of lucid idealism and of a dim reality that turns everything into confusion and defeat”) follows four young idealists—three men and a woman called Yugoslavia—in their doomed attempt to inject new life into the lifeless body of Marxism (Marx & Engels are credited for “additional dialogues”). But their theatrical Molotov cocktails won’t light up any revolution, either cultural or political: beaten up by peasants, their heads shaven by the police, they return to their daily grind where, to say it with Amos Vogel, they “discover that an unfinished revolution, while changing the face of power, has failed to change the nature of man.” Seen today, Early Works’ clairvoyant intuitions about the defeat of the New Left emerge in all their prescient genius, the film sympathetically but nonetheless critically foretelling how conformism would bleed into romanticism and (male) chauvinism into rebelliousness.
Shortly after the film was released, the Public Prosecutor called for its withdrawal; prints were seized and the authorities claimed that the version being screened in theatres was not the final one. The trial of Early Works became a cause célèbre in Yugoslavia, with a lively public debate taking place in the national media and some sections of public opinion coming out in solidarity with Žilnik. Expelled from the party and accused of treasonably undermining the country’s political security, the director—who was also a lawyer—opted for the most effective form of defence: attack. Žilnik accused the Public Prosecutor of treacherously doubting the strength and political stability of the country if he thought that a mere film could actually undermine them. The court eventually ruled in favour of Early Works, which Tito himself is said to have watched and vehemently disapproved of (“What do these lunatics want?!” he reportedly shouted). The film was awarded the Golden Bear at the 1969 Berlinale along with the Youth Film Award, whose jury that year was chaired by Rudi Dutschke, one of the leaders of the German ’68 movement.
Determined to continue testing the limits of censorship and dispel the self-congratulatory fabrications of Socialist Realism, Žilnik, with a healthy dose of ironic mischief, set out to address a quintessentially socialist taboo: homelessness. In Black Film (1971), the director welcomes a group of homeless people into his apartment and sets out to find a solution to their problem, until the unhelpful attitude of both the man in the street and government officials eventually leaves him with no other choice but to throw them out. On the film’s frames is engraved Žilnik’s manifesto (and professional dilemma) “Film: Weapon or Shit?,” a passage of which reads, “I must wrestle against two enemies: against my own middle-class nature which turns this commitment into an alibi and a business, and against those in power who benefit from silence.” When presenting Black Film at the Festival of Yugoslav Documentaries & Short Films in Belgrade in March 1971, the director read aloud from another manifesto he wrote for the occasion (provocatively titled “This Festival is a Graveyard”) in which he denounced “socially engaged films” which sought out “the most picturesque wretch that is prepared to convincingly suffer in front of the camera.”
National mythmaking was another target of Žilnik’s sardonic realism. Thanks to co-production agreements and a cheap workforce, mainstream Yugoslav cinema had begun to lure Hollywood stars to its studios to slap their iconic faces onto cinematizations of national legends, with the likes of Richard Burton headlining glossy historical epics about the resistance against Nazi-fascism. Against this pious mystification, in Uprising in Jazak (1973) Žilnik sought out the real, homely, and destitute faces of those who had actually fought against Hitler’s and Mussolini’s armies. This questioning of the polished, official version of communist Yugoslavia’s founding myth got the director into yet more trouble, which eventually led him to a self-imposed exile in West Germany.
Not many directors have had the artistic honour of being censored on both sides of the Iron Curtain. With a Golden Bear under his belt, Žilnik could have had a profitable career as a superstar dissident, that figure so coveted by Western liberals. In line with his subversive integrity, however, the young Yugoslav director let everybody down. Try to imagine Jafar Panahi, hypothetically freed from house arrest, going to Germany to make a film about the plight of refugees or about the cruel economic measures inflicted on Greece by Merkel’s government: that’s precisely what Žilnik did upon his arrival in free and democratic Western Europe. From the privileged viewpoint of the outsider, who by virtue of his position always sees things from a different angle, Žilnik turned his quick-witted camera on German society and its ills. Then existentially threatened by left-wing guerrillas, the German state was quickly brushing up its repressive apparatus, using terrorism as an excuse to militarize public life. In Public Execution (1974), Žilnik shows the televised execution of a bank robber, a broadcasted warning sent out to the German population and especially its dissenting elements. While the robber could have been simply incarcerated, the director argues, authorities opted for an exemplary form of reprisal. Problems soon arose between Žilnik and the Voluntary Self-Control Commission, the tellingly named German equivalent of a censorship board; Žilnik’s friend Alexander Kluge would help him with his legal troubles.
Filtered through the rambling lenses of a psycho-political parody, Žilnik’s German experience comes surreally together in Paradise: An Imperialist Tragicomedy (1976), one of the few surviving titles from the director’s German period. Initially intended to feature Fassbinder, whose The Third Generation (1979) bears recognizable traces of this film, Paradise tells a picaresque story about the owner of a struggling corporation who decides to hire a group of anarchists to fake her kidnapping in order to justify her company’s bankruptcy. The film was openly inspired by the fake kidnapping of Peter Lorenz, a right-wing politician who had allegedly spent two weeks held in “captivity” of the Bewegung 2. Juni terrorist group, and then managed to escape and exploit the case for the benefit of his election campaign. Accused of harbouring sympathies towards left-wing terrorists, Žilnik was forced out of Germany under the pretext of tax and visa irregularities.
Back in his native Yugoslavia, Žilnik started working for TV, which—due to the high demand for content and less time available for the authorities to monitor pre-production—left the director with a greater margin for creative insubordination. Judging from The Comedy and Tragedy of Bora Joksimović (1977), the room for mutinous productions was indeed generous. This hallucinatory reverie records the lyrical ravings of one Bora Joksimović, a heating maintenance mechanic at the Zrenjanin theatre who, bored with the plays he sees there, starts writing and performing his own. Along with the sublime Hot Paychecks (1987), a sort of Serbian Twin Peaks and a huge hit on national television, this has to rank among the most inspired and delirious heights small-screen creativity has ever reached. Even when dealing with more conventional or commissioned subjects, Žilnik always allowed space for the productive intrusion of the unplanned and the accidental: the electronic blues of Kraftwerk soundtracks Vera and Eržika (1981), an unsentimental elegy to the two eponymous women, the lives they spent working in a textile factory, and the difficulties they now face as they near retirement; Dragoljub and Bogdan: Electricity (1982) is a bucolic pastoral about electricity workers and the promised land of communism in all its illusory, heart-wrenching splendour.
After Tito’s death in 1980, as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia started creaking under the weight of national revanchism and ethnic strife, Žilnik quickly picked up the earliest symptoms of its implosion to come. In the kaleidoscopic Pretty Women Walking Through the City (1986), his first and last foray into science fiction, the director imagines a Yugoslavia circa 2041 that has been ripped apart by a devastating war and turned historical memory into an undesirable social attribute—a rather accurate depiction of the political landscape that was only a few years away. A film of incredible courage, Brooklyn – Gusinje (1988)—set in a Montenegrin village on the Yugoslav-Albanian border, at a time when the Albanian minority was being targeted by xenophobic rhetoric—is an anti-fascist Romeo & Juliet that flies in the face of the nationalist flatulence that would soon after degenerate into a veritable shitstorm. As the drums of war got audibly louder, Žilnik called for nomadic desertion in Oldtimer (1989), his definitive take on the lethal idiocy of patriotism and a mutinous ode to the pleasures of a freewheeling life.
Refusing to succumb to the sectarian hatred that was engulfing his rapidly disintegrating homeland, Žilnik continued to plead for solidarity among the oppressed in Black & White (1990), which, along with Whity (1971) and Django Unchained (2012), is one of the great westerns made about race relations. As Yugoslavia collapsed under the blows of a horrific internecine war, in Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time (1994) Žilnik staged a public happening that is part collective introspection and part political psychoanalysis. An actor dressed like Tito walks the streets of Belgrade and talks to the people, who, free to speak their minds, engage in surprisingly frank and heated discussions with their former leader about the ongoing war, its root causes and (im)possible solutions. Caught in the brutal heat of war, Žilnik demolishes warmongering testosterone with the wrecking ball of tragicomedy in Marble Ass (1995), the first Serbian film to feature a transgendered actress and one of the greatest films ever made about the folly of war.
Having already sojourned in the Promised Land of capitalist democracy, Žilnik was not one to blindly embrace it after the fall of communism, like so many in the former socialist bloc blindly did. Instead, our quixotic hero once again chose to stand on what Brecht would call the “wrong side of history” as he embarked upon a cinematic confutation of neoliberal dogmas. Beginning with Fortress Europe (2000) and continuing with the Kenedi trilogy (about a Roma gypsy and his peripatetic itineraries across the xenophobic map of Western Europe), Žilnik inaugurated his vagabondage throughout the Old Continent and its tightening, barb-wired borders. And as the messianic promises of free-market ideologues failed to materialize and the most criminal forms of capitalism invaded the former Eastern bloc, Žilnik responded to the spreading cancer with one of the indisputable milestones of 21st-century political cinema, The Old School of Capitalism (2009).
The humanistic exuberance of Žilnik’s cinema, its unfashionable commitment to lost causes and its high-spirited indiscipline are part of an aesthetic whole that goes well beyond an idea of cinema. It is an intimate realization that social climbing, under any political system, leads inevitably to the desolation of greed, and that the only thing we’ll inherit from this life will be the treasure of human relations delivered from the corruption of power. Žilnik’s films are primarily celebrations of lives untouched by the suffocating etiquette of bourgeois living and its fearful calculations. For almost 50 years, the Serbian director has never stopped filming the struggles of those fighting for a less miserable world, always enjoying the pleasurable lightness of being and the untamed beauty of life on the margins, all while questioning whether film really is a weapon, or simply shit.
Heartfelt thanks to Boris Nelepo, for everything, and to Alpe Adria Cinema for kindly providing us with precious research material.