Wolfram Schuette

Critical and Destructive: Zelimir Zilnik's "Early Works"

In "Early Works" they not only hold molotiv cocktails in their hands very often, the film itself is hot and explosive. Zilnik goes beyond Makavejev ("Man is No Bird", "A Case of Love"), even though he has taken up much, methodically speaking, from him (and probably from Godard, too): the dialectical montage of image and sound, the use of quotation which breaks up the plot, ties it together as a string of small lectures and parables and at the same time preserves a bulkiness due to which you are always compelled to reckon without the host. Contrary to Godard who easily loses himself and who can fall into the trap of understatements, Zilnik's film is precise, exact. Even if not everything can be deciphered easily by us at the first try, you can nevertheless follow his great line.

The Oberhausen '69 festival presented a film by Zilnik about the Belgrade student unrests. They and August 21 [the date of the invasion that ended the Czechoslovak  attempt to create a different, more democatic  society within socialism; the editor] were the original starting point for this politically most advanced film of Yugoslavia. A group of young people breaks with the socialist society. They want to start anew, break down the various authorities within the family (father) and in personal life (sexual morality) and make real a society of permanent revolution. This is as much a return to the "Early Writings" of Karl Marx as it is a return to the promises of early Yugoslav socialism which were not resolved.

The group goes to the countryside because they hope to receive revolutionary support from the farmers: "They live like our fathers before the war."  Just as the group pushes forward sexual emancipation where especially the girl is the leading force, they also want to kindle the revolutionary spark in the villages. And as long as they help the farmers in the way of small reforms,  repairing old machines, informing about contraceptives, they are tolerated and get help themselves. But when they pronounce that the decline of the small farmers is inevitable, that the cultural revolution must start and the ruling position of males must be abolished, the farmers beat them out of the village. They recognize that their "humanism was abstract," train themselves to suffer tortures and prepare guerilla war. Allusions to the feared invasion of the Warsaw Pact Armies are sarcastically voiced, but soon the young revolutionaries are caught and their long hair is cut under police supervision.

Now they return "back among men."  If they cannot change anything because they find no base of mass support, they at least want to be at the material base of the masses and share their fate with them. They go into the factory, they work and they decide: "If you accept this life, you are yourself to blame." Once again they attempt agitation: after work they want to point out to the workers their intolerable living conditions and win them for the fight against the "red bourgeoisie." But no one listens to them. The girl returns to her family where she is forced to accept her food on the doorsteps like a dog. The others are shown asleep or dozing, lying on the floor; the camera travels along their resting bodies as if along people lying in state: dead while alive. But even now the girl is a provocation for them. They shoot her, pour gasoline over her body and set her aflame. A quotation of Saint-Just at the end: "The revolutionaries who perform the revolution only half-way are digging their own grave."  It targets not only these young people, with respect to whom Zilnik / who belonged to them himself  / ascertains an "inflation of radical phrases as opposed to a lack of radical action." Hit by the quote just as much is the socialism of the old ones who have promised after the World War a radical change of society but then stopped, after going only half of the way.

Zilnik's "Early Work" is a radical action of self criticism: critical, destructive. With regard to it, two insights are valid: "The destructive character knows only one watch-word: create room; only one action: clearing... The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destruction rejuvenates, because it clears away the traces of our own age; it cheers up because every clearing away means to the destroying subject a complete reduction, even an uprooting of his own state" (Benjamin). And: "The more the intellect makes use of pessimism to reach out for the truths of life, the more the will [...] arms itself with revolutionary optimism" (Visconti). It is with this that Zilnik's film "Early Works" corresponds.

(Wolfram Schütte's article was originally published in German, as part of a report on the Berlinale festival, by the FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU on July 7, 1969. - The author agreed to its publication in the last issue of TOUCH, which did not appear. Part of this material is now being used, to throw light on the cinéma engagé of a period that was ripe with revolutionary fervor of the students when the material situation of the West European wage or salary earning population - the only conceivable agent or "subject" of every important social transformation that aims at increased social justice and democracy -  had been improving year by year thoughout most of the 60s, at least in terms of their "real wage.")