Wild Innocence: The Films of Dušan Makavejev

A major New York retrospective provides a chance to take stock of Yugoslavia's most well-known director and his oft-controversial career.
Lawrence Garcia

Dušan Makavejev was born on King Milutin Street in Belgrade on October 13, 1932. This was about nine years before the city was occupied by the Nazis, at which point the Chinese embassy across the street became the headquarters of the German Chief Command of the Southeast. As a child, he watched German officers go in and out of the building, one of whom, Kurt Waldheim, would later become the Secretary of the United Nations—though of course the young Makavejev didn’t know this at the time. Following the Second World War, it was under Tito's Communist, but anti-Stalinist Yugoslavia that Makavejev first emerged as a major Eastern European filmmaker, initially associated with the loosely defined Novi Film (new film) movement. His eclectic career, the subject of a major retrospective at New York's Anthology Archives, garnered praise from the likes of Amos Vogel, Robin Wood, Stanley Cavell, Jonas Mekas, and Roger Ebert, among many others—though it would also get the much less sympathetic attention of his government, causing him to book a one-way ticket out of his home country in the early seventies. Years later, he recalled the experience of returning to Belgrade and visiting a local military museum, belatedly realizing that his birth city in fact had a rich past: “When you grow up there you don’t have this sense of history. You just have the sense of fruit markets and flower markets.”

There was also the cinema. An avid moviegoer from his early childhood, Makavejev recalls viewings of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), classroom 8mm projections of Felix the Cat, and a particularly memorable screening of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). But it likely wasn’t until the Yugoslav Cinémathèque was established in 1952 that his cinematic education began in earnest. A major catalyst was Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, who visited Belgrade in 1954, accompanied by prints of French classics by René Clair, Louis Feuillade, and Marcel Pagnol, and landmarks such as Luis Buñuel’s L’age d'or (1930) and Un chien Andalou (1929). By this time, Makavejev was “First Secretary” of the Belgrade Film Archive Club, and in the years that followed he would get a psychology degree from Belgrade University, study direction at the Academy for Theatre, Radio, Film, and Television, and go on to make a few shorts and documentaries of his own. In 1958, his pointedly titled Don’t Believe in Monuments resulted in his first encounter with censorial authority.

Two years later, the French New Wave crested and Makavejev saw those films, too—though even more than Godard or Truffaut, it was Claude Chabrol whom he recalls was most important to him in those early days. As he would say in 2001: “Some of the images from Les bonnes femmes have stayed with me for forty years.” Certainly, they must have been in his mind when he made his debut feature, Man Is Not a Bird (1965), in which one finds numerous echoes of Chabrol’s early masterpiece, even beyond Aleksander Petković’s lustrous black-and-white cinematography and the film’s general working-class focus. Set in a remote town in Yugoslavia’s Bor mining district in the northeast, the film is, understandably, often synopsized in relation to its male characters: Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), a middle-aged engine assembly expert who arrives in town and takes up with a local hairdresser Rajka (Milena Dravic); and Barbulovic (Stole Arandelovic), an adulterous smelting worker who’s first seen participating in a bar brawl and later shown verbally abusing his wife. Dravic does qualify as one of the film’s leads, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a version of the film entirely reconfigured in the manner of Les bonnes femmes, around the film’s women: Barbulovic’s wife, his mistress, and the bar singer Fatima who’s stabbed in the aforementioned bar fight. In any case, Makavejev directly lifts the climactic countryside stroll of Chabrol’s feature—observing as Jan seems poised to kill Rajka for sleeping with a young man the night prior—but chooses to spare his heroine its final tragedy.

Reportedly inspired by a field trip the director took to the region in his youth, Man Is Not a Bird includes a rather literal class tour (“Here he is. This is a worker!” a guide says to a group of schoolchildren while gesturing to Barbulovic). Though of course, Makavejev doesn’t stop at depicting just labor, reducing the worker to a pair of hands as a Soviet-style propaganda film might. Like Les bonnes femmes, which makes time for excursions to a local zoo, a striptease bar, and a cabaret show, Man Is Not a Bird incorporates scenes of working-class leisure and entertainment alongside the drudgery: a bar-set burlesque near the start of the film; a travelling circus sequence towards the end; and, most significantly, a hypnotist’s talk—a kind of vaudeville lecture—midway through. The script explicitly links the notion of individuals under the sway of state ideology to Jan’s model worker status. But throughout the runtime, there’s also an acknowledgement of the film’s capacity for mesmeric suggestion: It’s no coincidence that the first scene of Man Is Not a Bird, which includes the hypnotist’s initial remarks alongside the film’s opening credits, conflates not just the viewer with the lecture’s working-class audience, but the act of hypnotism with cinema as a medium.

Above: Man Is Not a Bird (1965)

An awareness of cinema’s coercive potential deeply informs Makavejev’s approach to film form, which consequently tends to irruption and discontinuity, frequently drawing attention to its own representational strategies, willfully derailing its narrative trajectories, and actively decentering the viewer. Though fairly easily summarized as a romance between a telephone worker and a rat exterminator, his sophomore feature, Love Affair, Or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), incorporates sundry scholarly digressions (from a sexologist, criminologist, and a coroner), not to mention a scene from Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931), and a brief sequence in which sex is replaced by footage from Akt-Skulpturen. Studienfilm für bildende Künstler, a sculptural study from 1903, directed by Oscar Messter, in which a nude couple perform a series of poses amid a rotating platform.

As it was for the Berlin-born Ernst Lubitsch (who might well have made a film titled Love Affair), sex is crucial to Makavejev’s practice, and no film of his would be complete without it. But whereas Lubitsch’s films were the pinnacle of poise, it seems unproductive to speak of refinement in Makavejev’s films—this, despite their evident formal innovations. Perhaps owing to their production contexts, there’s a certain directness to his films that might be reckoned as immaturity, which is not to be confused with naivete, as they evince a keen understanding of not just ideology, but the ways in which it is augmented by (or is otherwise inscribed within) aesthetic norms. Makavejev put this most forcefully when he said: “Narrative structure is prison; it is tradition; it is a lie; it is a formula that is imposed.” In this regard, his films might be said to carry on in the spirit of Jean Vigo, another significant figure for the director, with whom he shared not just what André Bazin called an “almost obscene appetite for the flesh,” but also a predilection for waywardness, unbound bodily energy, and a casual disregard for convention.

Given his cinephilic upbringing, however, Makavejev could no more unlearn what he had gleaned from countless hours of viewing than, say, a cinephilic contemporary like Godard could, and he’s spoken of how, in making films after 1960, he felt “condemned” to representing an “author’s cinema.” Put another way, the features of what Noël Burch, in his invaluable study Life to Those Shadows, terms the “primitive mode of representation” in early cinema, were no longer available to him in the same way. The inclusion of Messter’s four-minute short in Love Affair, which quite simply means something different in 1967 than it did in 1903, makes the point clearly. Nonetheless, Makavejev’s fascinations with the "immature" character of early cinema are embedded in his practice, and come to the fore most fully in his 1968 quasi-documentary Innocence Unprotected. Titled after the first Serbian talkie from 1942, it presents the majority of the original film—a melodrama in which a strongman and acrobat saves his orphan lover from her callous stepmother and a lecherous suitor—alongside interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew. The production, covertly carried out during the Nazi Occupation, is improbable and altogether remarkable, but no less so than its writer, director, and star, Dragoljub Aleksić, a real-life acrobat, escape artist, and strongman, whose charming amalgam of ingenuousness and immodesty is inextricable from the film’s appeal.

Much of the original Innocence Unprotected, which went largely unseen even after the Occupation—Aleksić was suspected of being a collaborator and a profiteer—is devoted to filmed recreations of the director-star’s daring feats. The film additionally incorporates tableaux of outdoor leisure, bursts of folk song, and scenes of traditional dance, alongside its main story. Makavejev astutely assesses the 1942 film as “the art of a metropolitan half-world… on the margins of an industrial culture and morality, somewhere between cafés and circus entertainment, cheap literature and melodramatic trash.” In this way, Aleksić’s original preserves various forms of working-class entertainment not unlike the ones Burch describes in his study of early cinema’s development in France, with its caf’concs and carnivals and travelling fairs. And it’s Makavejev’s perceptive understanding of these cinematic histories, as demonstrated by his additional interventions (intercutting contemporary newsreel footage, tinting specific frames with color), that makes Innocence Unprotected such a compelling object of pleasure and study.

Evidently, the jury of the 1968 Berlin Film Festival agreed, awarding the film the Silver Bear (albeit in a tie with Werner Herzog’s Signs of Life and Enzo Muzii’s Something Like Love). When he was invited back as a jury member two years later, though, controversy would erupt regarding Michael Verhoeven’s o.k. (1970), a war film that dramatized the infamous incident on Hill 192 (also the basis for Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War). Under the leadership of its chairman, the American George Stevens, the jury expressed reservations about the film and asked the selection committee for a reappraisal—a request to which other jury members, Makavejev foremost, protested vehemently, saying that Stevens and his supporters had chosen the “path of censorship.” The jury stepped down, the Berlinale Competition was cancelled, and no prizes were given out that year—an unprecedented outcome that has not been repeated since. For Makavejev, such controversies would only become more familiar in the years to come.

Above: Innocence Unprotected (1968)

His next and most well-known film, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), was banned in Yugoslavia for 16 years after it was made. Based on the work of the Austro-American psychoanalyst William Reich (the “WR” of the title), whose Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis Makavejev had come across as a psychology student, it drew criticism from leftists and Reichians alike. The ire of the former is easily explained by the loose narrative, in which a proletarian Yugoslav woman seduces a Soviet celebrity ice skater not-so-subtly named Vladimir Ilyich, who subsequently decapitates her with his skates. (The phrase “Red Fascist” comes up at least once, and it’s not so much evidence of Makavejev’s political misunderstandings, as it is a push against the procrustean tendencies of most any credo.) Since Reich was vital to the development of Makavejev’s ideas on sex and politics, the latter case is more complex, but perhaps comes down to the director’s ambivalent presentation of the now-obscure figure, whose work (particularly his research on “orgone” energy) was still banned in the United States at the time. Intercutting footage of Reich’s home in Maine, semi-documentary sessions of sex-related clinical studies, and interviews with Warhol star Jackie Curtis, WR is not easily parsed. And its comic, but controlled tone—exploiting the discrepancy between its equanimous voiceover and often absurd images—makes it difficult, without any additional context, to pin down even Makavejev’s own position regarding Reich. Not coincidentally, Robin Wood, who praised the director’s work in Richard Roud’s Cinema: a Critical Dictionary, identified WR as the point in Makavejev’s career at which the “active participation” encouraged by his permutations of disparate ideas, forms, and sources began to slip into “vagueness.” And in a sense, the director might have agreed. To Jonas Mekas, who devoted three articles in The Village Voice to WR upon its U.S. theatrical release, Makavejev said that he built the film “as a sort of machine for self-confrontation,” which suggests an artist struggling with ideological fixity, and finding recourse in rootlessness and wandering—features that would come to define his life and cinema in the years that followed, during which he lived in exile from his home country.

But first he made Sweet Movie (1974). In certain respects more controversial than WR, it follows the parallel, but never intersecting stories of Miss Canada (Carole Laure) and Captain Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal), the former a Miss World winner subjected to all manner of debauched coercions from Montreal to Paris, and the latter a failed communist revolutionary who drifts along the canals of Amsterdam on a ship named Survival. As is the case for most banned movies, Sweet Movie’s notoriety stands largely on its best-remembered scene, in which Laure's beauty queen, shocked into a post-coital state of catatonia, is brought into a commune setting populated by actual members of Otto Muehl’s Friedrichshof Commune. A dinner table scene erupts into an extended orgy of bodily convulsions and excretions: scatalogical acts of all varieties, vomiting, pissing, adult breastfeeding, and even mimed castration. The unbridled freedom of this scene—not to mention the childlike regression of its participants—recalls at once the dormitory climax of Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933) and the Last Supper sequence of Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), though the film goes much further than both in its depictions, pushing them into revolting, even frightening territory. (Claire Denis, who worked as an assistant on the film, recalls that Makavejev was interested in eating and sleeping with the Friedrichshof commune members, but was too afraid to do so, and thus had her try it instead: “It was terrifying.”)

Various commentators have connected this scene to the Rabelaisian tradition—and rightly so, as its emphasis (retained from Makavejev’s original treatment, which did not involve Meuhl’s commune), is on the regenerative, renewing aspect of its bodily depictions, which over the course of their unfolding bring Laure’s catatonic body back to life. A crucial difference, though, is that Rabelais inhabited a (medieval) world with clear lines between what was permissible in official life (i.e. sanctioned by the Church) and what was relegated to the domain of carnivals and feast days (e.g. the Feast of Fools), whereas Sweet Movie exists in a space of confusion, where the individual is bombarded by multiple competing ideologies, of which Muehl’s is no exception. Still, the body—and the physiological revolt that comes with it—remains. And in placing the commune scenes alongside documentary footage of excavations in Katyn Forest (the site of the Katyn massacre), Sweet Movie thus asks the viewer to interrogate their revulsion—to explicitly differentiate the ambivalence of what's shown in the former, from the unambiguously destructive character of the acts uncovered in the latter. Whether or not that justifies the film’s methods—and Laure, at least, had enough, eventually walking off set before the film was finished—its rhetorical force is difficult to deny.

Above: Sweet Movie (1974)

Of course, many did deny it, or else just ignored it entirely—Sweet Movie was banned in a number of countries, including Canada, where the film was partially financed. (Pier Paolo Pasolini, a director who knew something about controversy, put together an Italian dub of Sweet Movie, and even invited hostile journalists to meet Makavejev in his home in January 1975, just a month before he began shooting Salò.) It would be seven years until Makavejev made another feature. Unlike Mekas, whose artistic output was intimately bound up in his exile, and who remained productive for years before his death, the Yugoslavian luminary was never quite able to replicate abroad the success he achieved in his early years. He would go on to make films in Sweden (Montenegro, 1981), Australia (The Coca-Cola Kid, 1985), and Germany (Gorilla Bathes at Noon, 1993), but it became clear that though he was far from an unsung director, his hold on the tastemakers and producers of the day had begun to slacken by the eighties. In A Hole in the Soul, a 1994 episode of Director’s Place made for BBC Scotland, which includes a discussion on the contemporary state of film production, he talks of a project titled Yugoslavia that he would like to make. By this point, Makavejev was as far removed from 1968’s Innocence Unprotected as Dragoljub Aleksić was from his own cinematic achievement. Another quarter-century would pass before Makavejev died on January 25, 2019 (just two days after Mekas). Nothing ever came of that prospective feature.

The reasons for Makavejev’s declining audience are best left to the realm of full-length study. However, the implicit matter of a viewer’s autonomy was undoubtedly central to his ideas regarding the expressive possibilities of the medium. The act of isolating an image or scene from a whole, for instance, is a familiar procedure for those who would rather bowdlerize a work than engage with its contradictions. But his films are in myriad ways defined by such acts of excerpting—not for the purposes of censure or negation, but for their creative, renewing potential. Consider the director’s assiduous involvement in scholarship and academic discourse: In January 1978, Makavejev presented at Harvard University a kind of experiment—“not a definitive product, but only a research… a new kind of evidence in film studies”—a screening comprised entirely of nonverbal sequences taken from Ingmar Bergman’s films: “I. A single-screen projection of eleven black and white nonverbal sequences (30 minutes). II. A three-screen simultaneous projection of black and white sequences flanked by color sequences (25 minutes). III. A single-screen projection of the final minute and a half of Persona.” Here, Makavejev effectively takes the position of a scholarly figure in one of his features, and though we are far from the working-class halls of early-cinema shows, the presentation preserves something of their innocent character and sense of discovery, displaying no preciousness whatsoever about the ostensible “integrity” of its source material.

Stanley Cavell, who attended the lecture and later wrote a perceptive article titled “On Makavejev On Bergman” in an issue of Critical Inquiry, saw the director’s work as being engaged in a kind of “criticism by images” (echoing the oft-quoted aphorism by Godard, who at this point was approaching the end of his Dziga Vertov period). In relaying Makavejev’s perspicacious critical observations on Persona, Cavell goes on to say that “some significant filmmakers are also born teachers and this fact about them may enter into the experience of their films, yielding the ecstatic experience—perhaps therapeutic—of being encouraged genuinely to think.” This apt assessment of Makavejev finds support not just in the numerous scholarly digressions of his films and their frequent recourse to pedagogy, but in the recurring presence of children throughout his oeuvre. Worth stressing, though, is the fact that Makavejev is far from an ideologue: The life he lived cultivated an active suspicion of any credo, and the scene in Sweet Movie where Captain Anna Planeta explicitly seduces four barely pubescent boys is his most forceful expression of this conviction. This scene is perhaps the single most morally troubling of any that Makavejev has directed, but as Cavell observes, the fact that he risks obscenity, and even potential, perceived harm to his actors, displays a strong belief not just in the perniciousness of what these boys have likely already been subjected to in the course of their young years, but also in the possibility that something might be gained from these depictions—for those involved in their making, as well as the audience being confronted by them.

What’s at stake, ultimately, here as in the rest of Makavejev’s work, is the notion of innocence. In her exhaustive book-length study Terror and Joy: The Films of Dusan Makavejev, Lorraine Mortimer uses the term in the manner of William Blake, “as something that has no relation to ignorance or lack of wisdom, no fashionable cynicism or sourness, but involves a ‘knowing enchantment’ … which does not reject education but is enriched by it.” It is in this sense of the word that Makavejev’s cinema, for all its supposed provocations and obscenities, can truly be understood as innocent. His films give the constant impression of something being worked through. Or perhaps worked backwards, that is towards a fundamental essence—whether it be the body or a so-called “primitive” conception of the cinema, the twin fascinations of his lifetime. The “knowing enchantment” with which he infuses his associative networks of diverse materials and forms is not the product of callowness, but of hard-won study and a perpetual pursuit of knowledge—a continual uncovering that for him constitutes man’s most durable defense against the abject horrors of the world. A director with no utopian illusions or ideological certainties, Makavejev was incapable of imagining a world where innocence would not need to be protected. Indeed, if his career, so resistant to definitive statements, could be said to affirm any single thing, it’s that innocence must be protected at all costs.

"Dušan Makavejev, Cinema Unbound" is showing February 26 – March 8, 2020 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

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