in a scene from the film Innocence Unprotected (1968).
2. Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic) at work exterminating rats in Love Affair (1967).
3. The “reflexive interval” as nonsensical play on the frame in Love Affair (1967).
4.Love Affair (1967) — the correlation of archival sources.
The following was reported by Julius Strauss in London’s Daily Telegraph, regarding Serbian involvement in the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s:
Furthermore, the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America reported in April 1995 that nearly 90 percent of all the atrocities in the Yugoslav Wars up to that point had been committed by Serb militants. Not being sure of the official margin of error on that statistic (assuming one exists), perhaps it would be fair for us to round up and say “nearly” 100 percent! Taking yet one more rational (and humorous) leap, screenwriter and film critic Branko Vucicevic in his book Paper Movies proposes the following theorem: “If Serbs are fond of slaughtering people, there must be a method of film cutting that corresponds.” And if such a method exists it seems logical, as he does, to call it “Serbian cutting.”
Serbian cutting is an act of displacement that posits the following question: “What would happen if an image, or a series of moving images, were to be ripped asunder from their original habitat and relocated to a new one—what would happen to the images themselves as well as to their new housing?” This essay will attempt to gauge the significance and resulting resonance of filmic assemblage in a uniquely Balkan (or, more politically correct for some—Southeast European) manner and context. Serbian cutting has historical antecedents in Soviet montage theory, which is where this analysis will begin.
In his theoretical writing Dziga Vertov defined intervals as “the transitions from one movement to another.” As such, “Intervals are the material, the elements of the art of movement, and by no means the movements themselves.” This theory of intervals as material elements is echoed in Serbian cutting in the use of archival materials to aid and abet cinematic movement. These materialist intervals “draw the movement to a kinetic resolution”—a resolution that Vertov labels “kinochestvo.” By that, he means the ciné-ness of things, a sort of cinematography personified in its natural form.
Vertov goes on to note that “the visual ‘interval’ … is … a complex quantity.” This complex quantity “consists of the sum of various correlations,” of which the fundamental ones he notes are: planes, foreshortenings, movements, light and shadow, and recording speeds. However, Serbian cutting offers an additional correlation that Vertov leaves out: the correlation of (displaced) sources. It is this correlation that gives Serbian cutting a unique identity.
Serbian cutting seems to embody Vertov’s idea of a “montage battle:” movement between shots and of adjacent shots in relation to the whole. This battle reflects the compilation of diverse shots (and sources) struggling for supremacy over the narrative—struggling to convey meaning. Just like kino-eye, Serbian cutting “plunges into the seeming chaos of life” in search of a “resultant force amongst the million phenomena related to the given theme.” The only difference is that Serbian cutting dives into the chaos of recorded history of life in an effort to plunder and raid, to resurrect and reassemble for its own filmic humanity or, kinochestvo. Serbian cutting is therefore not concerned with documenting life but rather that documentation which is performed by others. It is a critical inquiry which, as filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha has written, is less about “attacking the illusion of reality” than “displacing and emptying out the establishment of totality.” Serbian cutting gives you the world in fragments.
For Trinh the interval is a break, “what persists between the meaning of something and its truth.” Here again the interval aids and abets or acts as a bridge—not for aesthetic ends but rather political ones. The correlation of displaced sources that is Serbian cutting is construed with meaning that “can be political only when it does not let itself be easily stabilized and when it does not rely on any single source of authority, but rather, empties it or decentralizes it.” This notion of decentralized and destabilized meaning characterizes Serbian cutting in both formal and thematic ways. The variety of archival sources utilized in this method is “at once plural and utterly singular.”
The reflexive interval is the “core” of representation in Trinh’s conception while the overtly-reflexive nature of Serbian cutting is conducive to realizing the “play within the textual frame [which] is a play on this very frame.” Serbian cutting as an anarchic practice is a destabilizing force that “causes the work to fall apart” at the same time that it fuses odd ends together. This destructive play frees the work from “the tyranny of meaning” for Trinh, which dictates that the films to be analyzed in this essay cannot be categorized simply as either documentary or fiction. The films exist “on the borderlines of the textual and extratextual, ... where the work ... can only be itself by constantly risking being no-thing.” Assemblage is an anti-authoritarian form. This rebellious spirit “allow(s) the work to live, and to live on independently of the intended links …”
Defining Serbian cutting on a very practical level it is a mode of assemblage that results in a cinematic form that is very similar to a compilation film. To explicate this mode we can utilize the concept of “collective assemblage” as outlined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus. This collective assemblage “does not speak ‘of’ things; it speaks on the same level as states of things and states of content.” The refusal to speak “about” mirrors Trinh’s interval which persists between meaning and truth. “I do not intend to speak about/just speak nearby,” she intones in her 1982 film Reassemblage. Collective assemblage rejects “the tyranny of meaning” in favor of collectivizing content (and form).
Deleuze and Guattari insist that “every statement of a collective assemblage of enunciation belongs to indirect discourse” and “indirect discourse is the presence of a reported statement within the reporting statement.” This explains the archival impulse in Serbian cutting, the attempt to “speak nearby”—displaced sources as indirect discourse(s). The notion of a reported statement within the reporting statement harkens back to Vertov’s idea that, “A composition is made of phrases, just as a phrase is made of intervals of movement.”
Deleuze and Guattari further elucidate on the multiple axes of assemblage. Regarding the vertical axis “the assemblage has both territorial sides, or reterritorialized sides, which stabilize it, and the cutting edges of deterritorialization, which carry it away.” Trinh’s decentralized and pluralized break is evoked again here, along with the idea of an interval that cuts both ways. The displaced sources that characterize Serbian cutting and the oftentimes harsh transitions that mark their passage threaten to carry the film off on a tangent at the same time they attempt to stabilize (and pluralize) the larger reporting statement. This disjunctive editing scheme is conceived upon a vertical axis, a burrowing trajectory which is produced by the archival impulse. These displaced archival sources are stacked against each other as building blocks and as such, assemblage has a staccato pattern—it is a resonant patchwork, not a self-effacing flow.
Vucicevic defines Serbian cutting in the following manner: “Using existing material, as in archive footage, to substitute as original footage within a scene in a film.” To this end the usual (though not only) form of Serbian cutting is an interjection of illustrative documentary material into the dramaturgy of a fiction film as a surrogate, producing an ideological effect through dialectical alternation. Here, we must allow a few cautionary notes on Vucicevic before concerning ourselves with illustrating his idea through textual analyses. [Figure 1]
Branko Vucicevic worked as a film critic throughout the 50s and 60s writing for important Yugoslav cinema journals of the day such as Filmska kultura and Film danas; he also eventually began writing screenplays (he co-wrote the film Rani radovi/Early Works  with writer-director Zelimir Zilnik, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival). In 1967 Dusan Makavejev asked him to be an assistant director on his film Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice PTT/Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (which Zilnik also worked on as an assistant) and the two teamed up again to work on the film Nevinost bez zastite/Innocence Unprotected in 1968. Vucicevic was interested in the theoretical constructs of editing, so he sat in on the post-production process of Love Affair and suggested certain creative choices. This partnership resulted in the style of Serbian cutting, which Makavejev exhibited in these and even his later films that Vucicevic did not work on (this style was not utilized in Makavejev’s first film Covek nije tica/Man Is Not a Bird , which predated his working relationship with Vucicevic). As such, being the birthplace of Serbian cutting, Makavejev’s early films will be at the center of this analysis.
In 2008 the film editor and director Mihailo P. Ilic published a book entitled Serbian Cutting (Belgrade: Filmski centar Srbije)—the first to attempt to investigate this radical form of montage in detail. Not coincidentally, displayed on the cover of the book is an iconic image from Makavejev’s Love Affair featuring the main character Izabela (Eva Ras) as she lays naked on a bed with a black cat perched on top of her. As the descriptive title of the film indicates Love Affair is about the love affair between Izabela and Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic) and its eventual descent into tragedy. Izabela, a Yugoslav-Hungarian, works as a telephone switchboard operator and lives alone as a single woman in the city of Belgrade. Ahmed, a Yugoslav-Muslim who is also a forthright member of the Communist Party, works as a sanitary inspector specializing in the extermination of rats. [Figure 2] The film gives a detailed (at times documentary) account of the pair’s meeting, relationship, infidelity and break-up, eventually leading to death for Izabela and imprisonment for Ahmed.
A demonstrative example of Serbian cutting can be found by examining the moment when Izabela decides to cheat on Ahmed. When the flirtatious postman Mica (Miodrag Andric) successfully seduces Izabela she sits on his lap and looks directly into the camera—the “reflexive interval” that Trinh discusses, introducing the nonsensical play on the frame that immediately follows. [Figure 3] Then, a sudden cut to archival footage titled “Adam und Eve” from the 1903 German film Akt-Skulpturen. Studienfilm fur bildende Kunstler/Live Sculptures (directed by Oscar Messter) details the sexual exploits of Adam and Eve through stylized alterations in their positions on top of a rotating platform, eventually ending with them sleeping. [Figures 4-5]
The brief correlation here produces the effect of being able to infer what happens next in the story: Izabela having illicit sex with her new lover. However, the archival footage only allows us to view a substitute for this scene while also commenting on the scene in question by adding a new level of meaning. Izabela has been called Eve earlier in the film by Ahmed, a religious reference to her tempting him to abandon his traditional values such as not drinking alcohol and refraining from having physical affairs with a woman who is not his wife. Through Serbian cutting this association is exemplified and reiterated, creating a moment that not only communicates narrative content but also comments on that content through an extra-cinematic plane of signification.