Blacky abducts Natalija and attempts to force her to marry him.

Blacky, Marko and Natalija sing “Moonshine” at Jovan’s wedding in a shot which very explicitly repeats the earlier shot and links us back to the first abortive wedding.

Blacky abducts Natalija for the second time at Jovan’s wedding, further reinforcing the link between these two scenes.

After fighting with Marko over his attempt to seduce Natalija at their wedding, Blacky forces Marko to carry him on his back while braying like a donkey.

In yet one more repeated shot between the two wedding scenes, Natalija forces Marko to carry her on his back around the workshop.

Bato (Davor Dujmovic) celebrates the miraculous recovery of his legs in the final scene of the film in what initially seems to be a utopian reprieve for all the misery that has gone before it.

Blacky is reunited with his dead wife, Vera (Mirjana Karanovic), however, tensions immediately arise between them as they start to argue over Jovan’s age and Natalija’s presence at the wedding. Natalija and Marko also immediately resume old quarrels in a scene that is perhaps more pessimistic than Kusturica’s critics allow for.

Blacky is often cited by critics as exemplary of Kusturica’s celebration of the “Balkan Wildman,” although he appears to be more like a character straight out of a silent era slapstick comedy.

A cartoon hero? While escaping from captivity in a trunk Blacky succeeds in blowing himself up with a grenade.

Marko celebrates his membership in the communist party by going to the local brothel. Given the weight of ideological critique of this film, there is very little said about its appalling sexual politics.

In order to fool the partisans living underground that World War II is continuing, Marko stage manages an extremely elaborate theatrical set-up, including bombing raids, old news reports and constant updates on the progress of the war.

After hiding Blacky and his partisans in the cellar, Marko seizes the opportunity to seduce Natalija. As she succumbs to his embrace, she whispers, “You lie so beautifully.”


From Bosnian “emancipator” to betrayer

With the theatrical release of Underground in 1995 the already open divisions between Kusturica, his former associates and the city with which he had become so closely identified were complete.[14] [open endnotes in new
] Kusturica’s status as an emancipator (to use Gocic’s term) of Bosnian culture, language and identity was transformed into that of a betrayer of the national ideal. The film was widely acclaimed by many Western European critics and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. At the same time, it was greeted by howls of outrage by critics from the non-Serb republics, who attacked the film for being nothing short of Serbian nationalist propaganda. The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut brought this debate into the wider European public domain when he wrote in Le Monde:

"In recognizing Underground, the Cannes jury thought it was honouring a creator with a thriving imagination. In fact, it has honoured a servile and flashy illustrator of criminal clichés. The Cannes jury highly praised a version of the most hackneyed and deceitful Serb propaganda. The devil himself could not have conceived so cruel an outrage against Bosnia, nor such a grotesque epilogue to Western incompetence and frivolity." (qtd. in Iordanova 2001, 117)

A key point of contention in the film was the use of documentary footage portraying Slovenes in Maribor and Croats in Zagreb cheering and welcoming Nazi troops in contrast to the footage of devastation wrought on Belgrade by Nazi bombers, the fairly obvious implication being that the Croats and Slovenes were collaborators while the brave Serbs resisted the occupation. Kusturica defended his use of this documentary footage, arguing that he was trying to counter the selective humanism of the West in showing only the Serbs as the aggressor. He was, he insisted, against ethnic cleansing of all kinds, whether it came from Bosnians, Croats or Serbs.[15]

Slavoj Žižek also intervened in this debate with a short article entitled “Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means” (1997a) which subsequently appeared as a section in The Plague of Fantasies (1997b) and his influential essay “Multiculturalism, or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism” (1997c). As Žižek’s reading of the film has set the tone for the wider reception of the film by many on the Western European Left, I want to follow his argument here. Žižek took as his starting point not so much the film itself as the political controversy surrounding it and Kusturica’s own, often unfortunate, response to the criticism.[16] The political meaning of Underground, argued Žižek,

"does not reside primarily in its overt tendentiousness, in the way it takes sides in the post-Yugoslav conflict — heroic Serbs versus the treacherous, pro-Nazi Slovenes and Croats — but, rather, in its very 'depoliticized' aestheticist attitude" (1997c, 37).

Žižek supported this argument with reference to an interview Kusturica gave in which he claimed that the film was not political at all but a “deferred suicide” note for the Yugoslav state. For Žižek:

"What we find here [in Underground] is an exemplary case of  'Balkanism,' functioning in a similar way to Edward Saïd’s concept of 'Orientalism': the Balkans as the timeless space onto which the West projects its phantasmatic content. Together with Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (which almost won the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1995), Underground is thus the ultimate ideological product of Western liberal multiculturalism: what these two films offer to the Western liberal gaze is precisely what this gaze wants to see in the Balkan war — the spectacle of a timeless, incomprehensible, mythical cycle of passions, in contrast to decadent and anaemic Western life." (38)

Žižek, of course, acknowledges that Underground is a multilayered and self-referential film but immediately dismisses this as postmodern cynical ideology. What Kusturica unknowingly provides us with, concludes Žižek, is "the libidinal economy of ethnic slaughter in Bosnia: the pseudo-Bataillean trance of excessive expenditure, the continuous mad rhythm of drinking-eating-singing-fornicating" or ethnic cleansing as poetry by other means. Žižek even goes so far as to draw a parallel between Kusturica and that other infamous Serbian nationalist poet Radovan Karadžic, former President of the breakaway Bosnian Serb Republic and recently captured war criminal (38-39); I will come back to this point below.[17] The problem with Underground then, according to Žižek, is not that it is “political propaganda” but that it is not political enough.[18]

The libidinal economy of ethnonationalism

More recently Pavle Levi (2007) has developed a much more sustained critique of the libidinal economy of Underground, or, what he calls (following Sandor Ferenczi) Kusturica’s aesthetic of “genitofugal libido” (90). Underground’s highest aesthetic achievements, writes Levi, are when it causes the spectator to suspend all narrative/diegetic concerns in favour of sheer scopic gratification. These “libidinal choreographies,” he argues, produce “autonomous dynamic systems” that generate the effect of a dissipation of energy (91). The film accomplishes this through the centrifugal effect achieved by its use of low camera angles and ecstatic bodies organized in circular and rotational movements. An example of this is the extreme low-angle shot of the film’s three main protagonists — Marko (Miki Manojlovic), Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) — singing the song “Moonshine” directly into the camera, from above, as their bodies spin around its central axis. More importantly, Kusturica extends this idea of libidinal excess beyond the characters themselves to encompass Yugoslav culture as a whole. An excessive libidinal investment is seen to be the essence of Yugoslav culture in all “its dishevelled and polymorphous spirit” (92). In its explicit concern for Yugoslav history and politics, argues Levi, Underground

“establishes the sign of equality between this overwhelming enjoyment and the notion, the idea — or rather the Ideal — of ‘Yugoslavness,’ of Yugoslav national identity” (92).

The epitome of this Ideal of Yugoslav identity would be the final “utopian” scene of the film where all the characters come back to life to celebrate Jovan’s (Srdan Todorovic) wedding. While they wildly celebrate, the small piece of land they are on breaks away and drifts down the Danube as Marko’s brother Ivan (Slavko Štimac) turns and talks directly into the camera (having now lost his stutter) recounting a tale that ends, “Once upon a time there was a country…”

As with other critics of Underground Levi draws attention to the film’s use of montage and documentary footage. Regarding the scenes of Nazi troops entering Maribor, Zagreb and Belgrade discussed above he suggests that the “message” embedded within this sequence could not possibly have been missed by a domestic audience:

“Its primary function is to cinematically empower the discourse of ‘Serb victimhood’ — one of the pillars of Serb nationalist resentment ever since the late 1980s — while discrediting other Yugoslav nations” (97).

This message is further reinforced by an intratextual link within the film to a second montage sequence which is also accompanied by the song “Lili Marlene.” This second sequence also involves crowd scenes in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade but this time assembled for Tito’s funeral in 1980. Thus we have a striking juxtaposition of sound and image: a song with Nazi overtones is overlaid on the foremost icon of Yugoslav socialism, the image of Tito himself. Levi writes of this combination of image and song:

"The immediate associational effect thus produced is that of the 'death of a dictator,' but the musically established intertextual link with the earlier sequence evocative of the past ethnic conflicts also aligns the Yugoslav 'dictator' with the 'anti-Serb coalition' led by the Croats and Slovenes." (98)

Levi’s critique of Underground is by far the most persuasive I have come across but it remains, I want to argue, a rather selective reading of the film. I am absolutely sure that Levi is right that a domestic audience could, and indeed did, read the film in the way he says. But as Iordanova has pointed out, for an international audience if Underground is Serbian propaganda, then it is so cryptic that no one noticed it as such (2001, 118).

Ethnonationalist propaganda
and/or historical allegory?

The problematic relationship between political propaganda and historical allegory within Underground has been extensively addressed (Iordanova 2001, 111-35; 2002, 157-74) and I do not want to rehearse these arguments again here but, rather, to consider the nature of allegory itself. Allegory, in Fredric Jameson’s (1981) formulation, functions as an opening up of the text to multiple competing readings and, ultimately, to the untranscendable horizon of History itself. In this sense all texts can sustain not only different interpretations but also contradictory ones. Political propaganda, on the other hand, works through a process of reduction, the assertion of a single unambiguous meaning. Underground, I would argue, is an historical allegory in this Jamesonian sense of being open to multiple and, indeed, contradictory readings.

If we take Levi’s two examples here we can see how an international audience might read them in rather different ways. Levi reads the final wedding scene, for instance, as exemplary of Kusturica’s “Yugoslav Ideal” (94). This scene, however, does not exist in isolation and is in fact Jovan’s (Blacky’s son) second wedding and the third wedding of the film. The first abortive wedding takes place between Blacky and Natalija on a boat carrying stolen arms to the resistance. The wedding results in a fight between the two friends Blacky and Marko over Natalija and is then interrupted by the arrival of Natalija’s German lover, Franz (Ernst Stötzner). The wedding ends in chaos with Natalija running off with Franz, Blacky captured, and Marko abandoning Blacky and fleeing down the Danube.

The second wedding takes place in Part II in the cellar between Jovan and Jelena (Milena Pavlovic). Once again the wedding ends in chaos with the cellar destroyed, Jelena committing suicide and Jovan leaving the cellar with his father, where he will shortly meet his own death. The second wedding is clearly a repetition of the first:

  • the same Gypsy band plays the music,
  • there is precisely the same shot of the three protagonists singing “Moonshine,”
  • in both scenes Blacky has Natalija tied to his back,
  • both scenes result in a fight between Blacky and Marko over Natalija,
  • and finally we see Marko being ridden like a donkey first by Blacky and subsequently by Natalija.

The two weddings, then, are quite clearly linked within the film and are not simply scenes of exuberant celebration but sites of tension and ultimately violence.[19]

Is then Jovan and Jelena’s second wedding celebration a reprieve, a utopian compensation, for the conflicts and violence that have gone before? I do not think so. It is true that Natalija’s disabled brother Bato (Davor Dujmovic) can now walk, that Ivan has lost his stutter, furthermore, Blacky is reunited with his dead wife Vera (Mirjana Karanovic). However, Blacky and Vera immediately start to argue over Jovan’s age, and the tensions between Marko and Natalija, over her drinking, are equally evident. Although this wedding may seem to break the repetition established between the first two, the seeds of conflict are already present in this "utopian" scene. If the previous two weddings are anything to go by the future of their little island does not bode well. It would seem, then, that the ending is rather bleaker than at first appears. Herein we can note the conservatism and the pessimism of Kusturica’s politics but also a rather more critical view of Yugoslavism than his critics allow for.

Leonid Brezhnev attends Tito’s funeral along with many other Eastern European leaders, members of the Non-Aligned Movement and leaders of national liberation struggles, such as Yassar Arafat. Margaret Thatcher, along with members of the British Royal family and the Heads of all the major Western powers also paid tribute to Tito after his death and in marked contrast to their criticism of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Similarly, the montage sequence of Tito’s funeral is open to a number of different interpretations. As Levi notes, the association of one dictator (Hitler) with another (Tito) would be, for an international audience, an immediate effect of this sequence, and the idea of an anti-Serb coalition led by Croats and Slovenes would probably not enter into the picture.[20] From a non-Balkan perspective, what is striking in this scene is the parade of world leaders at Tito’s funeral, from the Duke of Edinburgh and Margaret Thatcher to Leonid Brezhnev and Nikolae Ceausescu. With post-1989 hindsight and five years of war in the former Yugoslavia, the sequence could just as easily be read as an indictment of cold war cynicism and the hypocrisy of both the East and the West — in the sense that the very powers, who in the 1990s were condemning Tito’s Yugoslavia for fostering conflict through its suppression of ethnic identity, as well as its economic mismanagement, were openly supporting the self-same regime in the 1970s and 80s for their own geo-political purposes.

What I am arguing here, therefore, is that we can read Underground as exemplary of Balkanism as Žižek suggests, or, as exemplary of Yugoslavism as Levi argues. But we can also read it as a critique of Balkanism and Yugoslav history. In other words, Underground functions as a critique of the myth of Tito’s Yugoslavia at the same time that it is a product of Yugo-nostalgia. The fact that Underground is a fundamentally “contradictory” text is what makes it one of the more interesting productions attempting to come to terms with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and its history.

The bride flies through the cellar to meet her groom in a quintessentially Kusturician romantic image. Jelena descends, angel-like, to her place next to Jovan.
The magic realist effect of this image, however, is immediately dispelled as the camera tilts down to reveal the two men operating the dolly. The camera then cuts to a medium side shot showing both the bride balanced precariously on the dolly and the men in front of her operating the primitive wind machine.

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