Disintegration in Frames by Pavle Levi

Pavle Levi’s insightful and well-argued book, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema examines the evolution of the national Yugoslav and regional post-Yugoslav cinema within its shifting political and cultural landscape – initially, in the context of individual expression under the repressive government of Josip Broz Tito, then subsequently, as a reflection of ideologically motivated historical revisionism that sought to reinforce the myth of deep seated ethnic conflict and selective representation as a means of defining national identity through the artificial creation – and consequently, justified persecution – of the other. Rather than a natural regression towards pre-existing ethnic factionalism and decentralization resulting from Tito’s death in 1980, Levi proposes that the factionalism itself is the artificial construction (rather than the notion of a Yugoslav federation that was only bound together by Tito’s strong arm leadership) – created as a means of cultivating regional autonomy, solidarity, and empowerment in the political vacuum of post-Tito Yugoslavia.

In the chapter, The Black Wave and Marxist Revisionism, Levi frames the emergence of the new Yugoslav film (also called the Black Wave) in the 1960s within the cultural context of rejecting the social realist aesthetic that characterized the country’s postwar cinema. Integrally connected to the evolution of the Soviet cultural doctrine of Zhdanovism from the 1930s, this aesthetic rejection reflects the country’s broader sentiment of striving to achieve greater autonomy from the Soviet Union. Represented by such diverse filmmakers as Dusan Makavejev, Bostjan Hladnik, Aleksandar Petrovic, Zivojin Pavlovic, Ante Babaja, Vatroslav Mimimca, Kokan Rakonjac, Krsto Papic, Matjaz Klopcic, Bato Cengic, and Zelimir Zelnik, the movement not only becomes a critical assessment of the nebulous, artificial nature of the “realism” embodied by these early partisan films, but also proposes, as Levi argues, the idea of subjective realism as a filmmaker’s individualist expression against restrictive cultural policies (leading to an idiosyncratically subjective, “psychological” aesthetic that is embodied in Hladnik’s Dance in the Rain and Klopcic’s Paper Planes):

In no small measure, this critical dimension was, in fact, a quality generated out of a desire to assert the autonomy of the subjective truth and of the independent authorial vision (even if, as was often the case, the filmmaker chose to produce ‘ambiguous images,’ to speak in open metaphors’). It was born, inevitably as it were, out of that ‘valuable characteristic of the new Yugoslav film,’ recognized by film theorist Dusan Stojanovic, in the fact that ‘on the philosophical, ideological, and stylistic planes, it [the New Fiilm] offers a possibility – which in practice it realizes on a daily basis – to replace one collective mythology with endless individual mythologies’.

Within this idea of subjective, independent authorship, Levi further examines the cult of personality inherent in Dusan Makavejev’s third film, Innocence Unprotected. Reworking footage from the eponymously titled first Serbian “talkie” by strongman and acrobat Dragoljub Aleksic with documentary footage featuring Aleksic’s daredevil stunts, Makajevev captures the illusive nature of representation that speaks directly to the mythology of proletariat hero, Tito.

With the ‘Hymn to Aleksic’, composed in the spirit of Yugoslav Partisan songs and repeatedly played throughout the film, the sense of the acrobat’s bravura being mythologized in a manner reminiscent of the methods used by the Yugoslav socialist cultural establishment is given its final touch. As such, the film seems to ask, how can these acts still be experienced as liberating? How can they still symbolize unbound human freedom?

Levi examines the national uncertainty and inertia left in the wake of Tito’s death in the chapter, Aesthetics of Nationalist Pleasure, citing Emir Kusturica’s When Father Was Away on Business as a metaphor for a country figuratively sleepwalking (as embodied by the young boy Malik) in the absence of the father (who, in the film, has been sent a work camp after being denounced by relatives):

When Father Was Away on Business is ultimately an emotionally charged lesson on political maturation: on the necessity of Yugoslavs dismantling and leaving behind the myth of the omnipotent Tito (who, not unlike Mesa, widely enjoyed the status of a loving patriarch, of a powerful and at times strict protector, but not a tyrant).

Nevertheless, despite the apparent nationalist perspective of post-Tito Yugoslavia in When Father Was Away on Business, Levi argues that Kusturica’s cinema evolved towards a more ethnocentric stance that culminated in Underground, creating a paradoxical elegy for the dissolution of a Yugoslav national identity even as it reinforces ethnic stereotypes and cultural division. To this end, Levi cites the inclusion of two distinct documentary footages, implicitly linked by the use of same German song accompaniment, “Lili Marlene”: one capturing the terrible aftermath of German bombing in Belgrade, Serbia during World War II, the other showing Germans marching into Maribor, Slovenia and Zagreb, Croatia amid cheering crowds:

The ‘message’ embedded within this sequence could not possibly have been missed by ‘domestic’ audiences – whether in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, or Bosnia. Its primary function is to cinematically empower the discourse on ‘Serb victimhood’ – one of the pillars of Serb nationalist resentment ever since the late 1980s – while discrediting other Yugoslav nations… For, in the context of the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines – in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in Croatia with the war in Bosnia still raging – Underground‘s documentary ‘reminder’ about the ordinary, everyday Croats greeting the Nazis could hardly be seen as having any other effect but that of suggesting, as Stanko Cerovic notes, ‘a continuum of Croat fascism from World War Two to the present day’ and, by extension, a continuum of the Serb national victimhood.

The idea of an indefinable enemy as an ethno-nationalistic justification for war has led to what Levi calls the abstract representation of “ethnic enemy as acousmetre” in post-Yugoslav cinema, an aesthetic that is reflected in Srdjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame through the metaphor of an abandoned tunnel once dubbed as the “Tunnel of Brotherhood and Unity” that Serb fighters find themselves trapped in – hearing (but never seeing) the voices of the enemy above them. To contrast Dragojevic’s use of acousmetre while retaining an essentially ethno-nationalistic stance, Levi also considers its visually analogous role in the final sequence of Muhamed Hadzimehmedovic’s Bosian television feature, After the Battle, where a sniper is unable to determine the ethnicity of his target, having earlier witnessed the Muslim fighter assemble a makeshift cross to mark the grave of his Serb companion (who had also deserted):

What the viewer witnesses in this scene is the alignment of the sniper’s perspective – visually conveyed by means of the cinematic point of view structure – with the gaze of ethnic hatred directed at the ‘other’. And, as the sniper’s puzzlement with what he sees suggests, the object of his hatred is first of all a fantasized other – an idea, a notion mapped across the empirical reality, ‘superimposed’ over the actual individuals existing in it.

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