Paul Branko

Two Roots of Yugoslav Cinema
(Report from the Pula Festival 1968)

    Before, participation in the fiction film festival in Pula offered a way of getting to know practically the bulk of Yugoslav production. This was mainly due to the fact that in addition to the screenings in the “competition” section, informative sections were part of the program as well. Nevertheless, since last year’s festival, Yugoslavia has produced as many as 36 pictures, which represents an all-time high, in terms of quantity. It was this year when, paradoxically, the informative section was cancelled which until now allowed, by comparison of the rejected and accepted pictures, a deeper insight into the internal criteria applied by the organizers and the critics. Now, even if the outside observer had been following the production for several subsequent years in the past, his present estimations [with regard to this year’s achievements] were far more determined by the selection, as the 15 selected titles represent not even one half of the overall production. The confrontation of the prizes awarded by the jury with one’s own personal hierarchy of values reveals the discrepancy between the domestic and international criteria. And this although out of the three key prizes the first two are hardly disputable: Živojin Pavlović’s [Zhivoyin Pavlovitsh] Kad budem mrtav i beo [When I Shall Be Dead and Pale], which received an award already in Karlovy Vary, and Puriša Đorđević’s [Purisha Djordjevitsh] Podne [The Noon], the conclusion of a tetralogy wide in scope, containing Devojka [The Girl], San [The Dream] and Jutro [The Morning]. However, the jury nearly omitted the original debut of Branko Ivanda’s Gravitacija ili Fantastična mladost činovnika Borisa Horvata [The Gravitation or The Fantastic Youth of the Clerk Boris Horvat], a picture introducing new tones into Yugoslav cinematography. Conceded that the picture manifests some derivations, as it often happens with debuts: a shadow of Fellini's I Vitelloni, shadows of our Forman and Němec [Nyemets]. But these are melted into the original form of a sharp satire on the socialist variation of the Oblomovian disease. If such a picture is being brushed aside by awarding it merely a sort of consolation prize, inevitably the question arises whether there could not have been other undetected pearls among the majority of the omitted films.
    Conceded that the selection criteria were basically quite approvable – obviously centered on pictures engaged in current issues or gauging the recent past from the angle of the present,  and on pictures stressing new forms of exploration or experimentational tendencies. The majority of the rejected titles seem to incline, instead, to the past or the conventionally treated partisan topic, or they are spectacular films: pictures, that is, that are stressing the exquisite in staging. Nevertheless, that may only be superficial impression, as the brief indications of subject matter and the thematic characteristics are incapable to reflect the intensity of the concrete achievements and the depth – or platitude – of humanistic soundings which makes these 'default judgments' relative.
    Similarly to last year, this year, too, doubtlessly two highly outstanding works have been presented and rightly awarded the top prizes. In their poetics as well as their philosophy they are as contradictory as one could imagine. Thus, representing the entire range, they appear as two opposite poles or fundamental roots, the synthesis of which represents the modern Yugoslav cinema or, at least, its aesthetically most original part. This synthesis stands for a “trade mark” distinguishing it from the new Czechoslovak or Hungarian cinema and representing its most specific contribution to the contemporary profile of world cinema.
    One of these roots springs from the tradition of proud mountain people, elements of Balkan folklore flavoured by Islamism, from the national, naive art. These are the sources of that strong and pure ballad-like tone that resounds most intensely in works like last year's Skupljaći perja – [Feather Buyers] by Aleksandar Petrović [Alexandar Petrovitsh] or Puriša Đorđević's tetralogy, concluded by The Noon. The second root springs from the existential experience of life of Central Europe's modern intellectual in the countries of the socialist camp who, in the course of the past quarter of this century, has become a witness, participant or victim of such a discrepancy between the theory and practice of socialism, of such a failure of intuitive faith, while being faced with such an extent of disillusionment that the burden can hardly not be too heavy for the shoulders of one generation.
    The synthesis of these two distant elements is to be traced  most easily in the borderline cases where one of the segments is dominant – which is, especially, the case in the two initially-mentioned pictures. When I  Shall Be Dead and Pale is a cruel probe focused on the social periphery, which probably constitutes a part of every society, admittedly or not. You feel here the roughness as well as the humanism of Maxim Gorky's pictures of the social bottom, enriched by the very existential sense of life, a sceptical outcome of the realization that the irrational forces of history equal in strength the rational ones if they are not in fact exceeding them.
    The Noon, instead, is a ballad whose creator dared to replace the supernatural mythical forces by political powers, finding courage to entangle the balladic texture with such non-poetical and in this respect defying material as political resolutions. His story of a Yugoslav Julia and a Soviet Romeo is set in one day and one night of the year 1948 when the anti-Yugoslav resolution of the Informbureau was published. The extensive quotations of documents make the picture a pamphlet in which the characters represent types of political attitudes. Nevertheless, this feature complies excellently with the ballad principle as well as the tragic accent that is similarly typical of ballads. Thus, in conclusion, the only real reproach appears to be its half-joking frame indicating that, after all, it has just been a game. A movie in a movie. Nevertheless, it was not a game – on the festival's opening day when the picture was shown (while the pressure of the Warsaw Pact’s emissaries on the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was reaching its peak), it was perceived by everyone with deep intensity, exceeding the strict territory of art. The picture sounded nearly like a prophecy, as well as a materialization of Yugoslav sympathy towards post-January Czechoslovakia, because the quotations sounded literally like the Warsaw letter just published (despite their being 20 years apart). That's why the frame appeared to be especially inappropriate.
    The third picture with features of greatness, Mali vojnici [Little Soldiers], by the director Bata Čengić [Tshenghitsh], has already represented Yugoslavia in Cannes. This depiction of a war orphans’s home in the post-war years reminds the viewer of the rough pathos of Tarkovsky´s Ivan's Childhood with its portrait of the war-deformed child's psyche. The combination with motives of a revolutionary character immature and not up to the tasks assigned to him is akin to the subdued pathos of The First Teacher by Michalkov-Končalovskij [Mikhalkov-Kontshalovsky], based on Čingiz Ajtmatov [Tshinghiz Aytmatov].
    Here we approach the neighbourhood of the war and partisan topic, based on its classical heroic form that is already practically extinct. Mount Olive implements the partisan theme above all by the differentiation of moral aspects, reflecting solidly the conflict between the various concepts of party affiliations and party discipline. The March treats, in a weaker analogy, the existential philosophy developed in our Slovak film The Bells Toll for the Barefooted (1). Only The Wolf from the Damned Mountain presents a story in line with the original patterns of partisan cinema, where good and evil are clearly distinguished – this time set in a milieu interesting in terms of folklore.
    That is where we strike in the most transparent way the divide between the more complicated esthetical and ethical criteria of the vanguard of the Yugoslav cinema and the preferences of the Yugoslav mass audience. Pictures like When I Shall Be Dead and Pale and, especially, Little Soldiers, received, in the case of the first one, a cold welcome, and in the second case even a spontaneous disapproval towards its humanistic message. The audience voted especially for The Wolf from the Damned Mountain and, in second place, for the Macedonian Bloody Wedding, a more cultivated twin of Master Executioner (2). Obviously, the second, existential, sceptical, critical and relativizing root of the modern Yugoslav film has not won the favours of the public. Similarly to anywhere in the world, the mass audience feels the psychological need for a primarily compensational, consoling function of dream factory products rather than for the de-mythifying, iconoclastic function of modern art. There are not many who succeed in combining both functions in the way of Aleksandar Petrović with his Feather Buyers.
    As for quantity, the present period was strongly represented. As for quality – except in the case of When I Shall Be Dead and Pale and Gravitation…– the representation proved to be less impressive. Štrbac's [Shtrbats] picture On the Crossroads must be classed as strict social journalism with weaker esthetical sparkle; Hađić's [Hadjitsh] Three Hours for Love pretends by way of its questionnaire-like frame to embody a certain social insight into the issue of the "socialist household helpers" but, except for the exact and authentic imaging of the ball sequence marked by a sharply observing eye, the picture as a whole is no more than a 101st re-edition of the sentimentalism associated with the poor maid left pregnant. Rakonjac's  [Rakonyats] Before the Truth is a long-winded rehabilitation story with all the trappings of a  pseudo-modernist director’s ambitions. And Milutin Kosovac  [Kossovats] brings in his Sun of the Strange Heaven a quite genuine picture of a workers group leaving to find jobs abroad, including much of the social reality and accurate characteristics. Nevertheless the untypical quality, even literacity, of the plot, as well as the stylistic mishaps, disrupt the critical, maybe a little too dark picture of the results of social tensions and wrongs affecting the class highlighted by Marxist ideology as the leading force of revolution.
Thus finally the attention in the next to first class centers on the rather simple comedy by Kreša [Kresha] Golik, I've got two Mums and two Dads, educationally actual and also much liked by the audience. In spite of acting and situation prefabs, it resorts to common, ordinary situations in divorced marriages which touches the hearts practically of all parents, offering a quite convincing causality of collisions in the course of up-bringing.
    What is left is the last component, the strictly avant-garde movie emphasizing the formal elements, for many years represented mainly by the work of Dušan Makavejev [Dushan Makaveyev]. This year, it was his whimsical remake of the first Yugoslav sound movie, The Defenceless Innocence. It exuberates with gags, nevertheless, it stands more for effect than for any deeper meaning.

   -  Translation by Zuzana Dudášová
      (revised by AW and PB)


1) The Bells Toll for the Barefooted, directed in 1965 by the Slovak director Stanislav Barabáš [Barabash], is an existentially conceived chamber drama treating the theme of war. It starts with a shot presenting a rear view of a small group of  two partisans and a German prisoner between them. They march up snowy hill and on the back of the last one swings a pair of boots. The picture finishes with a nearly identical shot, only this time the man with the boots is a different one, which is also true of the swinging (and thus, metaphorically, "tolling") boots.

2) Master Executioner was directed in 1966 by the Slovak auto-didactic director Paľo [Palyo – Paul] Bielik who belongs to the first generation of post-war filmmakers. He directed some outstanding pictures which must be counted among the classics of Slovak cinema. But in his older days, he sometimes churned out trash characterized by the lowest of tastes. This work falls into the latter category.

Footnotes Paul Branko)

First published in the Slovak weekly Nové slovo, no. 13/1968, without the footnotes. Reprinted in the author's selection of published articles, Straty a nálezy [Losses and Findings] 1948 – 1998 in 1999.