Underground constantly draws attention to the medium itself through its technical apparatus, such as the use of unusual framing.
An extreme low angle side frame close-up of Natalija at her wedding.
Kusturica also has a preference for unusual camera angles, such as positioning the camera as if in the womb for Jovan’s birth.
The constant formal emphasis on the artifice of the image reminds us that Underground itself is no less a construct and therefore no less partial and selective.
Blacky kills the “Fucking Fascist Motherfuckers” on the set of Spring Comes on a White Horse in one of the frequent slippages between fiction and diegetic reality.
Kusturica plays a cameo role as a war profiteer negotiating the purchase of arms from Marko, flanked by UN “blue helmets.”
Kusturica concludes his arms deal, self-consciously drawing attention to the role of filmmakers profiteering from the conflict.
A helicopter rises above the tree line and swoops down upon the beach in a shot reminiscent of Apocalypse Now (1979), intertextually linking Underground with a tradition of critical anti-war filmmaking.
A poster for the partisan blockbuster Walter Defends Sarajevo (1972), Underground’s intertextual reference to Yugoslav new film of the 1960s and 70s again links it to a tradition of critical and anti-war filmmaking rather than nationalist propaganda.
Marko opens a cultural centre in honor of his “dead” friend and comrade Petar “Blacky” Popara.
Politician, hero of the resistance, poet and stage director, Marko would appear to be the ideal renaissance man, where it not for the fact that he is fraud from beginning to end, as Kusturica never fails to remind us.
Marko and Blacky (as Laurel and Hardy) in slapstick mood as they head-off to abduct Natalija.
Natalija’s theatrical performance is sheer melodrama, but no more so than her performance for the partisans in the cellar.
The inclusion of archival documentary footage raises the issue of cinematic representation and historical truth.
“A war is not a war until a brother kills a brother.” Ivan confronts Marko with his lies and deceptions before killing him and committing suicide himself (his second suicide attempt in the film).
1992, Blacky is still fighting his own “personal” war against “Fucking Fascist Motherfuckers” in a seemingly relentless cycle of violence.
As Blacky leads his men and refugees back into the cellar he abandoned 30 years previously, the utter senselessness of these cycles of violence is underscored.
UN “blue Helmets” transporting refuges through the underground tunnels for a price, as the UN are consistently shown to be complicit in the recent violence in Bosnia.
Žižek and Levi are right, I think, on a number of counts. Kusturica is clearly a film maker who is playing to Western audiences and critics. He is now more popular abroad than at home. His films deliberately exploit an aesthetics of self-exoticization taking up Western European clichés of the Balkans and playing them back to us in exaggerated form. I have already mentioned the example of the Balkan “Wildman” which Kusturica celebrates. We can see this especially in the figure of Blacky in Underground, who is shown to have voracious appetites and superhuman strength. [open endnotes in new window] Indeed, one could argue here that similarly to Žižek’s often repeated example of political resistance, Laibach, Kusturica is adopting a strategy of “over-identification,” and by completely identifying with Western stereotypes he reverses the western gaze (Gocic 84). From this perspective the New Primitivs can be seen to be adopting a similar strategy to Laibach and the NSK but identifying with different aspects of Yugoslav culture. This, however, only serves to highlight for me the very problematic nature of such a position and political strategy — what one critic (Gocic) can take to be the ironic over-identification with Western stereotypes and myths, another (Žižek) takes to be the unconscious ideological fantasy of the director. As Levi’s points out, however, the SNP were never an explicitly politicized group, unlike the NSK who they parodied (76). The cyclical narrative structure of Underground — The War, The Cold War, The War — is also ideologically loaded, replicating Western European views of the Balkans as an atavistic, barbaric space outside of time and history. What I want to argue here, however, is that it is the very multilayered and self-referential aspect of this film, which Žižek so quickly dismisses and Levi does not address in his analysis, that is the whole point of the film and not simply some cynical ideological ploy on the director’s part. There is clearly a politics to Underground but not where Žižek is looking for it.
Underground represents the history of modern Yugoslavia from 1941, the outbreak of WWII, to 1992 and the Bosnian conflict. The narrative is divided into three parts: The War (1941 — ); The Cold War (1961 — ); The War (1992 — ). Each of these dates represents key moments in Yugoslav history: 1941 — the dismemberment of the old Yugoslav state and the beginning of the Partisan resistance; 1961 — the first formal meeting of the Non-Aligned movement in Belgrade and the opening up of Yugoslavia to the West; 1992 — the Bosnian conflict and effectively the end of the Yugoslav state.
This history, however, is told through the personal histories of the three main characters, two resistance fighters and communist party members — Marko and Blacky — and Natalija, an actress and sometime mistress of Blacky and Franz and later wife of Marko. After being informed on for stealing an arms shipment Marko hides Blacky and his relations in a cellar for the duration of the war. But he then tricks them into believing the war is still continuing and keeps them there for over twenty years. The lives of these three main characters are shown to be inextricably bound up with the history of the country and it was precisely this analogy that many of Kusturica’s critics picked up on. Stanko Ceroric, for instance, was one of Kusturica’s most outspoken critics; he claimed that it was not by chance that in Underground:
If we scrutinize the film a little closer, though, this ideal image of national heroism becomes a little difficult to sustain. As well as being an international arms smuggler, Marko is a rather awful nationalist poet and something of a stage director himself. Marko manipulates the partisans into remaining hidden in the cellar and believing that World War II is still going on through a complex fabrication of reality. He constructs an elaborate mise-en-scène, through news reels, music, bombing raids and special performances by his actress wife, Natalija. Marko in fact writes the scripts that he and Natalija will perform in front of the partisans in the cellar, scripts that constantly glorify Marko’s own historical role but invariably involve her being humiliated and abused by the Nazis. In this script within the script Marko arranges for Natalija to escape her captors and arrive at the cellar just in time for Jovan’s wedding. She has been tortured and raped and is to arrive at the cellar on the verge of death. Natalija refers to this script as “trash” and insists that what is missing from it is “The truth!” Marko responds:
This postmodern relativization of truth and representation is consistently emphasized within the film, at a generic level, as I will discuss below, but especially in relation to Marko. In a similar scene between Natalija and Marko earlier in the film, Marko attempts to seduce Natalija by reciting some of his poems to her. Natalija resists him repeating “You’re lying. You’re lying,” to which Marko replies “I never lie, never, never.” As she succumbs to his embrace and kisses him, Natalija whispers “You lie so beautifully.” It is precisely Marko’s skill at deception and lying that makes him so attractive to Natalija but these are also the very qualities that make him completely inappropriate as a national hero in any ideal sense.
If we are supposed to take Marko as exemplary of the brave Serbian nation then we also have to accept that he is a fraud from beginning to end. It is here, then, in relation to Marko as a character that Žižek’s comparison to Radovan Karadžic as a poet and ethnic cleansing as a continuation of poetry by other means has resonance and not to Kusturica as director. Given the explicitly deceitful and manipulative nature of this particular character, however, this would suggest that the film is a critique of such nationalist poets rather than an apology for them. Indeed, we are left in very little doubt that this very selective view of history is not to be taken at face value. History is always contested.
Underground is a very self-conscious cultural artefact. Both Gocic (2001) and Iordanova (2002) see Kusturica as a distinctively postmodern filmmaker in terms of his films' self-reflexivity, his use of parody, and above all through his representation of history. Gocic distinguishes five levels of narrative reference in the film: the film diegesis itself, Kusturica’s own body of work, Yugoslav cinema history, Yugoslav political mythology and Yugoslav history (146). Iordanova, on the other hand, outlines four broad criteria characteristic of postmodern historiographic film that particularly apply to Kusturica:
In the remaining sections of this paper I will broadly follow Iordanova’s criteria and consider Underground 1) as a self-reflexive text, 2) as a parody of nationalist films, 3) as a subversion of historical truth through the blurring of generic boundaries and thus opening up the possibility of a more radical questioning of the past.
Let me begin then with the issue of formal and narrative self-reflexivity. Underground is not just a film about the history of a country that no longer exists but also, to borrow the dedication from another controversial film on the Bosnian conflict, a film about “the film industry of a country that no longer exists.” Underground constantly draws attention to itself as film and as the production of a specific film industry. I have already mentioned above Kusturica’s so-called “magic realism” — flying beds, flying characters, telekinetic powers etc. — and Underground is no exception in this respect. In the central wedding scene of the film, Jovan and Jelena’s wedding in the cellar, we have a shot where the bride flies across the screen with her veil and wedding dress billowing in the wind. This is a wonderfully romantic and Kusturician image, as the bride, angel like, descends into her seat. However, as we see Jelena flying across the screen, the camera tilts down to reveal a rather crude dolly on which she is being carried and then cuts to a side shot so that we can see both the dolly and wind machine constructed by the partisans in the cellar to create this magic realist effect. Not only therefore do we see the magic realist effect but also the technology used to create this effect and the means of its staging.
Similarly the frequent use of low or unusual camera angles, for example, the positioning of the camera as if it inside the womb for Jovan’s birth as well as the use of unusual framing, such as side framed close-ups or upside down frames, all draw attention to the medium itself and the mise-en-scène. In other words, the spectators’ attention is constantly drawn to the artifice of the image. All of these features point to a very self-conscious piece of film making. And if we do not want to fall into the rather tired postmodern cliché that Underground is yet another film about film making and historical relativity, then we would need to say more about the purpose of such self-referentiality.
History as repetition: from tragedy to farce
Marx once wrote, paraphrasing Hegel, that all great events of history and world historical figures occur twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (1973 , 146). The notion of history as repetition is inscribed within the three part narrative structure of the film but also within the film’s mise-en-scène through the repetition of scenes, shots, songs and dialogue. This idea is most conspicuously evident in the central section of Underground, “The Cold War.” Part II is all about the making of a film, but not just any film: it is the filming of the events we saw in Part I. With respect to the film’s overall view of history, as I noted above, this presents us with a particularly conservative, fatalistic and pessimistic view, in the sense that nothing can be done to escape this endless cycle of violence.
The structural and formal repetitions, however, could also facilitate a radically different reading of the past. The film within the film is a Second World War partisan movie entitled Spring Comes on a White Horse and is based on Marko’s own memoirs of his “dead” friend and comrade Petar “Blacky” Popara. The scene we see being filmed is Blacky and Natalija’s wedding on the boat containing stolen arms. In contrast to the first scene, however, Marko is shown heroically defending the arms shipment while Blacky is captured trying to rescue Natalija and then executed. Marko and Natalija are invited onto the set to give the film their official stamp of approval and we are presented with the image of Marko (Miki Manojlovic) first embracing an actor (Lazar Ristovski) playing the character of Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and subsequently the actor (Miki Manojlovic) who plays the character of Marko (Miki Manojlovic), while Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) kisses the actress (Miki Manojlovic) who plays the character Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), all the time commenting on how life like the actors look. The situation becomes even more farcical when the “real” Blacky appears on the set and attempts to rescue himself, killing a number of the cast of German soldiers in the process.
In this play of mirror images where performance and reality, truth and fiction, past and present become blurred what we should not forget is that what is being rewritten is History itself, both in terms of the film’s diegesis (Marko’s memoirs) but also in relation to Underground as a text. As if to underscore the director’s own self-consciousness of, or complicity with, this fabrication of history towards the end of the film, when we move to the present conflicts and wars of succession, Kusturica himself plays a cameo role in the film as an arms dealer and war profiteer. This very overt narrative repetition and doubling of characters within the film serves to open up a critical space whereby we can see the past being constantly rewritten, reconstructed and manipulated and therefore always open to alternative and more radical interpretations. An example of such an alternative reading would be the location of the film within the history of Yugoslav cinema as well as the broader socio-political history of the former Yugoslavia as I shall now discuss.
A film industry that no longer exists
The parody of partisan films is more than simply farce. Partisan films were one of the principal and most popular genres produced by this film industry that no longer exists. The classical period of Yugoslav partisan films was between the end of the Second World War and the early 1950s, what is usually referred to as the Red Wave. In the 1960s a new generation of film directors, the most well known in the West being Dušan Makavejev, reworked the genre into more personal and ambiguous visions of the past, much as Hollywood directors of the 1980s have done with the Vietnam War. What was known at the time as New Yugoslav cinema but has posthumously been labelled “Black film” or the “Black Wave” was particularly critical of the ultra-realism and kitsch of the Red Wave. After the political clampdown across Yugoslavia in the early 1970s, there was a revival of Red Wave films. Partisan films have continued to have a resonance in post-Yugoslav film production and the influence of the Black film of the 1960s can be seen in both Underground and Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. Partisan films were also central to the New Primitiv critique of official culture; No Smoking called their first album Walter after the Partisan blockbuster Walter Defends Sarajevo (1972).
Originally, partisan films served purely propaganda purposes, idealistically glorifying and confirming a revolutionary past and at the same time reinforcing this revolutionary spirit in the heroic struggle to construct a socialist society out of the ruins of the war. Partisan films also represented a particular national aesthetic, “nationalist realism,” which Tito’s government promoted as an alternative to the “socialist realism” of the Soviet Union. These films were technically crude, stereotypical and simplistic. They were initially directed for a domestic audience and were very popular films. For instance, the second Red Wave also tried to break into the international market with big multinational productions and such international stars as Richard Burton in the role of Tito. As Daniel Goulding (2002) writes, partisan films were also imbued with an intense sense of nationalism and pride as a result of Yugoslavia’s unique historical experience:
Partisan films are frequently referred to as Yugoslav Westerns, and they share something of the mythic structure of the North American Western, in the sense that they stage a primal "conflict between civilization and wilderness." For the partisan film, this meant
This is, of course, precisely the territory of Kusturica’s Underground as well as of the film within the film.
Spring Comes on a White Horse is a classic partisan film in its low production values, stereotypical characters and over dramatization, and could be read merely as a parody of the genre, except that the actual “historical” events that it is supposedly based upon, and we saw in the first part of Underground, are no less a critique of the genre and the history that it represents. The two central characters of Underground, Marko and Blacky, are, as I have argued above, womanizers, crooks and liars who act more out of self-interest than ideological conviction. This is hardly the image of heroic resistance fighters and neither is keeping a population imprisoned in the dark for 20 years many leftist’s idea of how to construct socialism. Spring Comes on a White Horse is at once a nostalgic homage to a film industry that no longer exists and at the same time it foregrounds the complicity of that film industry in the construction of historical memory and national mythology. Without wishing to labour the point, if Underground is in any sense a propaganda film, it is because it is a film about propaganda films.
Generic discontinuities and historical truth
In the opening scene of Part II (The Cold War) Marko is opening a cultural centre in memory of his old friend and national hero Petar “Blacky” Popara, and he takes the opportunity to recite one of his poems. Politician, hero of the resistance, poet, stage director, script writer and actor, it would appear that Marko is something of a renaissance man were it not for the fact that he is a complete charlatan and motivated solely by self-interest. The character of Marko, however, also serves to draw attention to the existence within the film of a range of cultural forms and mutually exclusive genres. Most obviously there is the film within the film discussed above, but there is also a staged play within the film as well as the montage sequences of documentary footage. Underground contains elements of slapstick humour and Natalija’s theatrical performance is sheer melodrama.
But, as we have seen, it has been the inclusion of archival footage that has aroused most attention and criticism. The combination of different forms and genres: feature film and documentary, historical drama and personal memoir, lyric poetry and farce, serve to highlight the difficulties and tensions of representing the past but also how that past has been inscribed in a multiplicity of texts — films, books, poems, art works — thus creating a specific national mythology. The different texts and genres within Underground do not sit comfortably together but create their own internal tensions within the film text itself.
Documentary is conventionally understood to be the opposite of a feature film. A documentary presents us with “real” information and historical facts; it aims at the truth rather than the imaginative reconstructions of fiction films. What happens, therefore, when these two opposing genre are combined in a single artefact? Does the inclusion of documentary footage provide historical legitimacy for the fictional account, or does the fictional account undermine the veracity of the documentary presentation? As can be seen from the conflicting interpretations of Underground it clearly does both.
What I think is notable in Underground, however, is the very diversity of ways in which this footage is incorporated into the film. There are scenes in the film where the documentary footage is simply spliced in, such as the bombing of Belgrade in 1941 or the controversial scenes of cheering grounds in Maribor and Zagreb. The archival footage has frequently been tinted so that we are aware that this material has been touched-up and manipulated. The documentary footage is also used very crudely and obviously as back projection, while in other instances Marko is seamlessly edited into sequences with Tito — we see Marko apparently shaking hands with Tito or standing with him on a balcony watching a May 1st parade. The overall effect of this diversity and integration of archival footage and fictional characters is to stress, yet again, the way in which film can be used, and has been used, in the reconstruction of Yugoslav history and national mythology.
The gap between the representation and history itself is always quite evident, history as a text is always constructed and therefore always-already ideological. It is worth recalling here Fredric Jameson well known formulation from The Political Unconscious,
It is this level of textualization and narrativization that Underground consistently foregrounds and in doing so emphasizes the ideological operation inherent in all narratives of the past. To give one last example, in the concluding montage sequence of Part I we see Marko addressing a large crowd in Belgrade, his revolutionary rhetoric stirring the crowd to the defence of Trieste through armed resistance. The city of Trieste, on the border between Slovenia and Italy, was liberated by Yugoslav partisans in 1945 but almost immediately brought under Allied control and subsequently returned to Italy. It is always, it seems, the unreliability of Marko’s historical perspective that the spectator is left with.
Dina Iordanova has argued that Kusturica’s “choice,” as it is usually termed, of siding with the Serbs was not so much a choice for something (Serbian nationalism) as against something (nationalism in general and Bosnian nationalism in particular). However, as an active choice it did facilitate his recuperation, as is now clearly evident in his public profile in Serbia, into a nationalist discourse that he himself rejected (2002 20). Kusturica now lives, at least part of the year, in his newly built “traditional” Serbian village, Küstendorf, in the mountains Southwest of Belgrade. What we can see here is the difficulty facing critics of nationalism in the Balkans, of circumventing that ideology, or of maintaining a position outside of it that is not itself open to recuperation by nationalist discourses. I have argued in this paper that, however, flawed and contradictory, it is possible to read Kusturica’s Underground against the grain of ethnic nationalism and as a critique of this process rather than an apology for it. If we read Underground as a film, and not simply as a vehicle for the dominant ideology of Serbian nationalism, then we can see it as a critique of Tito’s Yugoslavia and the film industry’s role in reconstructing history and nationalist mythologies. This entails reading Underground as a film about propaganda though rather than as propaganda.