Emir Kusturica on the set of Underground.

Kusturica on stage with the No Smoking Orchestra (2008).

Malik sleepwalking in When Father Was Away on Business (1985). Fantasy and reality blur in these early intimations of Kusturica’s “magic realism.”

In his controversial use of documentary film footage in Underground, cheering crowds are shown welcoming Nazi troops into Zagreb (1941).

Further jubilant scenes meet the occupiers in Maribor (1941).

The scenes in Zagreb and Maribor are juxtaposed to the devastation of Belgrade by Nazi bombers (1941).

In Underground, Kusturica’s aesthetics of “genitofugal libido” is created through the rotational movement of the characters.

Here the dissipation of energy is achieved through the band performing on a spinning wheel which spins at an ever faster rate until the image becomes a blur.

Alternatively the characters spin around the central axis of the camera, as in this shot of Blacky, Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) singing “Moonshine.”

In the final scene all the characters come back to life to celebrate Jovan (Srdjan Todorovic) and Jelena’s (Milena Pavlovic) wedding. The small piece of land they are on breaks off and drifts down the Danube, in what critics see as a final “utopian” gesture of Yugo-nostalgia.

Marko’s brother Ivan (Slavko Štimac) turns and talks directly into the camera recounting the tales they will tell their children, which will begin “Once a upon a time there was a country.”


Retrieving Emir Kusturica’s Underground as a critique of
ethnic nationalism

by Sean Homer

It is now fashionable for many Balkan intellectuals and scholars to dismiss the work of the former Bosnian Muslim, now Serbian Orthodox,[1][open endnotes in new window] film director Emir Kusturica for, at best, pandering to Western Orientalism and Yugo-nostalgia and, at worst, providing “the libidinal economy of Serbian ethnic slaughter in Bosnia” (Žižek 1997a; 1997b, 60-6; 2008, 174). In this paper I want to argue “against the grain” of what now seems to be the accepted and dominant reading of Kusturica’s Underground: Once Upon a Time There Was a County (1995). In sympathy with the editors of the volume Balkan as Metaphor (2005) I suggest that it is time to retrieve Underground as a site “of genuine resistance and triumphant critique, rather than as an apology for nationalism” (Bjelic and Savic 15).[2] In order to do so I will briefly situate Underground in relation to Kusturica’s earlier films and his association with the Sarajevo based subculture, the New Primitivs.[3] I will then outline the critique of Underground, as it has been expressed by some of Europe’s most prominent intellectuals, most notably Alain Finkielkraut and Slavoj Žižek, as well as more recently by the Balkan film scholar Pavle Levi (2007). Finally I will consider the film as a text that explicitly critiques the nature of historical construction in nationalist mythologies and the cinema’s complicity in these constructions. (I will leave the question of Kusturica’s more recent, apolitical, productions, Black Cat, White Cat (1998), Super 8 Stories (2001) and Life is a Miracle (2004) out of this paper.)

“New Primitivism” and the
subversion of official culture

In marked contrast to his current status as an exponent of Serbian nationalist culture and history, Kusturica’s early feature films, especially Do You Remember Dolly Bell (1981) and When Father was Away on Business (1985), emerged from a very specific cultural environment that was at once radical and subversive of official culture and ideology.[4] In terms of their cinematography these films were heavily influenced by the Czech New Wave and Italian Neo-realism (Iordanova 2002, 50-60), but this style, in Kusturica's hands,  was in turn inflected through the “New Primitivism” of Sarajevo. These “anti-communist” films (Gocic 21) were set in Sarajevo, and in both Kusturica used local and non-professional actors. The dialogue was in the local dialect rather than standard Serbo-Croat of mainstream Yugoslav cinema, and Kusturica also depicted local Muslim customs, such as the circumcision of the two young brothers in When Father Was Away. In these aspects we can see the influence of the Sarajevo New Primitivs (SNP), who were primarily a punk subculture that originated in the early 1980s, associated with two rock bands: Zabranjeno pušenje (No Smoking) and Elvis J. Kurtovic & His Meteors as well as the satirical radio and later television show The Surrealists Top-List. The name, New Primitivism, is sometimes referred to as a response to the “New Romantics” that emerged in the UK as a reaction against the politics, raw energy, do it yourself style and ethos of Punk. The name is also a response, however, to the more well known and sophisticated artistic movement based around the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) in Slovenia.[5] The art critic Nermina Zildzo describes the New Primitiv style thus:

"[T]he main principle of SNP (Sarajevo New Primitivs) is the exploration of identity — an attempt to explain one’s self in one’s own words, through one’s own, un-imposed prism. It manifests itself in: an alleged anti-intellectualism; the use of local iconic and lexical properties; the manipulation of prejuduices about Bosnians, with a particularly productive use of elements from the Muslim milieu in the Sarajevo suburbs." (qtd. in Levi 63)

The New Primitivs were militantly provincial and anti-intellectual. Rather than rejecting Balkan stereotypes, such as the Balkan “Wildman,” they embraced these stereotypes and exaggerated them. They adopted an ironic stance regarding official culture and drew upon folk culture as well as the tradition of Yugoslav naïve painting in order to subvert it from within. While the movement was not directly involved in film making, Kusturica’s early films were clearly influenced by the movement’s aesthetics and he was an associate of the group.[6] As Dina Iordanova observes, Kusturica’s early films “confirmed his reputation as an indigenous director” through “the truthful and self-confessed devotion to his roots” (2002, 50). They also confirmed his status as an outsider developing a critique of official culture. According to Goran Gocic, Kusturica was seen to embody and indeed celebrate many of the characteristics of Sarajevo “buddy culture” and its cult of marginality (47-82).

The question arises, then, how did this radical critique of Yugoslav culture in Kusturica’s work apparently turn into its opposite? Pavle Levi notes that the central feature of Kusturica’s aesthetics, “the eruption of enjoyment in the public sphere” (85), is strongly indebted to the SNP. This aesthetic manifests itself in the exuberant wedding scenes, the sleepwalkers who tread a thin line between the rational and the irrational, the seemingly inexhaustible alcohol-induced states of trance and excess as well as the so-called magic realism.[7] Kusturica’s aesthetic is above all an aesthetic of excess which will find its fullest expression in Time of the Gypsies (1989) and Underground. In the early films this excess functioned as critique, very much in line with the main principles of the SNP, through Kusturica’s opposition to both socialist dogma and newly emerging nationalist discourse that was replacing it:

"What the group [SNP] aimed for was not merely a negation of the popular content pertaining to specific cultural ideology (whether state-socialist or ethnonationalist) but, rather, a deeper subversion of the elementary discursive coherence, without which ideologies cannot be generated in the first place" (Levi 70).

Through a systematic “exemption of meaning” (71) the SNP radically questioned all forms of identity, both individual and national. The one thing that they did not question, however, was the stability of their own identity, that is to say, their own “Yugoslavism.” As I will argue below, while the advocacy of Yugoslavism may have functioned as critique of the emerging ethnonationalist discourses to the 1980s, by the mid-1980s it had become irredeemably associated with Greater Serbian nationalism. In short, an uncritical assertion of Yugoslavism was seen to be synonymous with Serbian nationalism. It was this tendency, Levi argues, that Kusturica succumbed to in the 90s, transforming

"his aesthetic of the sociopolitically inassimilable energetic outpour into an ethnocentrically motivated, quasi-transgressive aestheticization of collective enjoyment" (105).

I will come back to this below but before turning to the main focus of my paper, Kusturica’s Underground, I should first say something of the historical context that it represents, as this is crucial to understanding the controversy that surrounds the film.

Once upon a time there was a country …

Modern Yugoslavia was born out of the conflict of the Second World War and the communist revolution of 1941 to 1945.[8] In fact Yugoslavia was created twice in the twentieth century. The first time through the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, after the First World War, as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.[9] This state was dismembered and partitioned by Germany and its allies in 1941. The country was then recreated by the communist led partisans in 1945 as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, consisting of six republics — Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina — and the two Autonomous Provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The partisans were led by the Croatian Josip Broz-Tito, who became the country’s Prime Minister from 1945 to 1953 and President from 1953 until his death in 1980. Tito was initially a close ally of Stalin but broke with the Soviet Union in 1948 and Yugoslavia was expelled from Cominform, the International Organization of Socialist States he had helped to found in 1947 in Belgrade. This early break with the Soviet Union as well as the fact that Yugoslavia was liberated through its own means and not with the help of the Red Army bestowed upon Tito’s socialist government a legitimacy that the other socialist states of Eastern Europe lacked.

After Tito’s death in 1980 the complex system of checks and balances that had maintained the unity of Yugoslavia and constitutionally guaranteed minority rights began to unravel (Gowan 1999). According to Susan Woodward (1995) two key factors contributed to the break-up of Yugoslavia: the fundamental changes that came about in the international order with the end of the cold war (Yugoslavia lost its strategic geopolitical position mediating between the East and the West as well as its role in the Non-Aligned Movement) and the global financial crisis and economic recession of the mid-70s and early 80s. In 1979 Yugoslavia had a foreign debt of $3 billion (Magaš 80), one year after Tito’s death this had reached $20 billion and was rising (94). The federal government response to this crisis was a harsh austerity programme that resulted in massive unemployment, a dramatic fall in living standards, consumer goods shortages, escalating inflation and falling wages (Woodward 51-2).

Political momentum grew in the country, particularly in Slovenia and Croatia, for a decentralization of power and greater democracy in order to address the crisis. This movement was in turn opposed by “party hardliners” demanding a greater centralization of power in Belgrade in the name of a unitary state.[10] This situation escalated throughout the 1980s as the social unrest, resulting from the austerity programme, intensified and the momentum for decentralization gathered pace. In April 1987 Slobodan Miloševic, then Chairman of the League of Communists in Serbia, delivered a virulently nationalist speech at Kosovo Polje, near the site of Serbia’s historic defeat by the Ottoman empire. Miloševic had risen to power by effectively uniting party hardliners and Serbian nationalists around the issue of Kosovo, he was elected President of Serbia in 1989 and the “liberals” within the Party were expelled.[11]

On the 1st March 1989 the Ljubljana Declaration was released in the Slovene capital calling for greater democracy, the recognition of minority rights and ethnic plurality and in November of 1990 multi-party elections were held in the non-Serb republics. Following these elections a “compromise” was offered to Belgrade — “the transformation of Yugoslavia into an association of sovereign states” (Magaš 105). Belgrade rejected this proposal and in June 1991 Slovenia became the first republic to break away from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Croatia followed suit in 1991 and declared itself an independent sovereign state. With the Federal Republic already disintegrating Macedonia declared their independence in September 1991, followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 1992. As Slovenia had the most homogenous population of all the former republics, its departure resulted in a tense stand off between Ljubljana and Belgrade but only a brief 10 day conflict before the Yugoslav army agreed to pull out of the newly independent country.[12]

The situation with Croatia, with a significant Serbian minority in Krajina (the border region between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina), was very different and in the summer of 1991 full scale war broke out, in 1992 this war spilled over into Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina was the most ethnically mixed of all the former republics and when it declared independence in 1992 Serbian forces invaded the following day.[13] Initially both the Serbian and Croatian leadership believed that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned between their respective republics but they had not taken into account the resistance of the Bosnian population. Under pressure from the European Union and NATO Croatia allied itself with Bosnia against Serbia and the war raged until 1995. It is this history from 1941 to the early 90s that Underground presents on an epic scale — the cinema release is 3 hours long and the television release over 5 hours — the controversy that surrounds the film is precisely how this history is represented.

Crowds mourn the death of Tito in Zagreb, overlaid with the sound track of “Lili Marlene,” a song with strong Nazi connotations. Similar scenes of mourning take place in Belgrade, with the same sound track, and strongly associating the death of one dictator (Hitler) with another (Tito).

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