6. Innocence Unprotected (1943) — the gaze of the heroine.

7. Displaced and resonant documentary footage in Innocence Unprotected (1968).

8. Innocence Unprotected (1968) — “Allied/Axis” cutting.

9. The viewer as the final link in the human chain of solidarity in WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971).

10. WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) — the reflexive pull of Maoism.

11. The infinitesimal loop of ideology in WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971).

12. The title sequence introducing the Katyn footage in Sweet Movie (1974). Documentary footage as indirect discourse.

13. Soviet cutting in Sweet Movie (1974).


14. The archival impulse in Sweet Movie (1974).

15. Sweet Movie (1974) — Archival work is similar to an autopsy.

16. Sweet Movie (1974) — “That which one has already known and loved.”


The entire basis for and structure of the film Innocence Unprotected is an extended assemblage. Makavejev found a forgotten movie in the Yugoslav Film Archives called Innocence Unprotected (1943) directed by Dragoljub Aleksic, a film that had been cited as the first sound feature made in Yugoslavia (and which he subsequently named his own film after). In as much the work of a film historian as an archivist Makavejev decided to resurrect this production in the form of a documentary about the film’s making and its director/star Aleksic. Throughout this documentary compilation Makavejev utilizes long sections of the original Innocence Unprotected, so much so that the original film almost plays out in its entirety as a reported statement within the larger reporting statement that is Makavejev’s film.

The original Innocence Unprotected is a traditional story about a young girl named Nada (Ana Milosavljevic) hopelessly in love with Aleksic (playing himself) though relentlessly pursued by an objectionable older man named Petrovic (Bratoljub Gligorijevic). One of the more powerful moments that exemplifies Serbian cutting comes in an early scene in the film within the film when Nada fends off the advances of the persistent Petrovic. She moves away from him to a nearby window and, despondently, looks out of it while thinking of her true love. [Figure 6] After she glances out of the window (her glance close to a direct address as she looks just past the lens of the camera) Makavejev cuts to actuality footage of the aftermath of the World War II bombardment of Belgrade. Fire spews out from shelled buildings and rubble dots the streets, people scramble to find loved ones or just to escape the hellish carnage, corpses lie in rigor mortis awaiting recovery. This displaced and resonant documentary footage is substituted for the gaze of the heroine. [Figures 7-8]

The original Innocence Unprotected was shot amid the German occupation of Belgrade—two years before Rossellini shot Roma, città aperta/Rome, Open City (1945) in the streets of a freshly-liberated Rome. This actuality footage affixes a sub/contextual meaning to the reconstructed film and simultaneously makes it palpable while the indexical tie to reality presented functions as Trinh’s break between meaning and truth. The very title of the film refers to Nada, the modest heroine who is stalked by the menacing invader Petrovic. Nada is also made to represent the city of Belgrade itself suffering under a relentless attack. This is the pluralized meaning of the text. The truth of the text is rendered in documentary form with the actuality footage of a battered Belgrade. However, this truth is decentralized, as it is used in the form of Serbian cutting to represent the point of view of a fictional character.[30] [open endnotes in new window] Through this decentralization or displacement, again as Gokhale notes, the documentary images lend resonance to the scene as a whole by pluralizing meaning.

Makavejev directed WR: Misterije organizma/WR: Mysteries of the Organism, his most well-known film, in 1971. Similar to Innocence Unprotected two narrative strands are woven together: a documentary investigation into the life and work of sexual psychologist Wilhelm Reich and a fictional tale about a Yugoslav woman named Milena (Milena Dravic) who searches for an improved socialism through sexual liberation. Near the opening of the second act in the film Milena delivers an impassioned speech from her apartment building balcony addressed to her neighbors, advocating for the position that there can be no conflict between socialism and physical love. Milena’s speech ends with the neighbors embracing hands, dancing the kolo,[31] and collectively singing about life not being worth a thing without sex. When the audience of neighbors locks hands and begins dancing up the stairs and across the floors Milena is eventually reached and absorbed into their train. As Milena forms the final link in the human chain of solidarity while approaching the camera she suddenly reaches out and grasps the hand of the cameraman—thus absorbing the viewer, as the camera can be seen to reflect our point of view. [Figure 9] This is yet another reflexive interval that triggers the play on the frame that is Serbian cutting.

After this reflexive pull at the audience Makavejev cuts in a correlative pattern that creates another reflexive pull. The next shot arrives as a result of a match cut in movement and composition but comprised of a huge disjunction in space and time when we are immediately transported to Peking’s Red Square in China and a huge demonstration in support of Maoism. On the exact same axis of the previous shot walking in the same screen direction along a balcony are Chairman Mao and a few party officials. [Figure 10] This archival footage plays under the continued sound of the Serbian singing and creates a dialectical opposition and linkage. The fictional strand is given a documentary correlative in reality and as we witness the massive Chinese crowd surging forward with their little red books held high Makavejev delivers an ironic underscoring and warning: what starts as a spark can quickly grow into an unchecked revolutionary inferno with misguided principles and disastrous outcomes (as was the case with Mao’s Cultural Revolution). The power of Serbian cutting as a practice, as cinematic rhetoric, is expressed here. The alternation between fictional and documentary footage produces a third logic that is greater than the sum of its parts yet is able to maintain a continuity of form through discontinuity.

After the newsreel footage of Chairman Mao’s rally the “montage battle” continues, not only with a correlation of displaced sources but also a continued correlation of movements within the frame. The next cut introduces footage from the Soviet fiction film Pitsi/The Vow (1946) by Mikheil Chiaureli. The contrast between the surging mass that is the Chinese crowd and the stationary spectators who wait in frozen anticipation for the arrival of Stalin in this scene recalls the rhythmic artistic whole that is Vertov’s kinochestvo. The ideological implications in this short sequence are animated by the respective representations of Yugoslav self-managing socialism, frenzied communist fervor in China, and dogmatic totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. They are visually symbolized by the celebratory movement of Yugoslavia in the form of a culturally-specific dance (as self-managing socialism was a unique path toward communist goals), the powerful human wave of movement in the Chinese footage, and the rigidity in the Soviet clip. Makavejev uses visual styling to comment on and criticize these respective socialist ideologies presented in this collective assemblage.

The controlled movements of the actor playing Stalin (Mikheil Gelovani) along with his high party functionaries bring this collective assemblage full circle. Milena and her train of collaborators dance in a counter-clockwise direction towards the bottom of the frame; the Chinese crowd matches this movement, continuing towards the top of the frame; Stalin appears from the top of the frame and continues the movement again, slowly pacing downwards in the frame. [Figure 11] This correlation of movements is also a correlation of planes. Makavejev links the ideologies in question in an infinitesimal loop, which is either a polemical appeal to solidarity or an equalizing critical view on ineffectuality. This juxtaposition is dialectical in nature; the elements in the equation inflect each other in a transformative pattern as was the case in reality, as Stalin’s break with Tito in 1948[32] ultimately led to Yugoslavia’s unique socialist path while the youthful fervor of Maoist revolution in the 60s helped spark a generational break in Yugoslavia which culminated in the Belgrade student demonstrations of 1968.[33] The socio-historical picture evokes the complex quantity that is Serbian cutting.

Makavejev directed Sweet Movie in 1974 as a Canadian-French-West German co-production. In this film, yet again, two (fictional) narrative threads are correlated: the journey of sexual awakening for Miss Canada (Carole Laure) and the fateful boat journey of one Captain Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal). The most affecting instance of Serbian cutting in the film is the insertion of a scene detailing the Katyn Forest massacre. [Figure 12]

The Katyn Forest scene is composed of archival actuality footage shot by the Nazis in 1943 when they excavated the site of the mass killings of Polish officers and civilians by the Soviets in Katyn Forest. This disturbing documentary footage is not necessarily used as a surrogate for incomplete scenes but more as a thematic extension of those scenes, as indirect discourse that reports on atrocities and hushed memories. The actuality footage realizes the capability of the documentary to bear witness and it also serves as visible evidence in a literal sense. When Nazi Germany discovered the mass graves in the Katyn Forest and documented their exhumation they used the footage as proof of Soviet culpability and the fact that there were butcherers of men in the world other than themselves (perhaps we can call this an instance of “Soviet cutting”). [Figure 13]

The Katyn sequence in Sweet Movie also symbolizes the archival impulse that governs Serbian cutting in a multi-faceted way. Archival work functions on two axes, like Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of assemblage. It can bury items for safekeeping, deterritorializing them for future reference; it can unearth items, rescuing them, or reterritorialize them in an effort of rediscovery (or reassembly). Here, the archival impulse as digging into the past for clues to understanding the present is mirrored by the Germans digging in the ground to unearth corpses. [Figure 14] When these corpses are raised they are examined for the evidence they contain. Archival work is akin to an autopsy and ironically then, Serbian cutting reanimates rather than slaughters. [Figure 15]

In his book The Laws of Imitation the sociologist Gabriel Tarde writes that

“the work of art answers, not to the need of knowing something new, ... but to the truly loving need of seeing again, of finding again with tireless and ever keener eagerness, that which one has already known and loved ....”[34]

The actuality footage in the Katyn sequence testifies to this need of seeing again. The corpses that are raised are not scientific objects but rather former human beings. [Figure 16] We see evidence of this as the examiners look through identification cards, pictures, and other effects that reveal smiling faces and indomitable spirits. These corpses were once known and loved and the proof of this refuses to stay buried.

The archival impulse and assemblage of Serbian cutting represents this tireless and keener eagerness, this triumph of life in the face of death. Through the loving need of seeing again a method of montage is born that reawakens us to a world once lost and reclaims it.

“Cutting. Passage of dead images to living images. Everything blossoms afresh.”
— Robert Bresson


A number of questions arise when considering the particulars of this essay. Perhaps the most immediate is why this demonstration of Serbian cutting is focused on Makavejev and further, can this concept not be extended to cover the operations of other directors? This leads to the more pointed question, “Does Serbian cutting exist elsewhere?”

Certainly the influence of Serbian cutting can be felt elsewhere whether it exists, per se, as specifically explicated in this essay. Serbian cutting stands along the evolutionary continuum of radical forms of montage as a continuation and an outgrowth. In this particular iteration of that continuum it seems to find a unique housing in the films of Makavejev. The theory behind Serbian cutting can be used as a conceptual framework that opens up the films of Makavejev to a greater understanding, putting them in dialogue with this continuum—the theory was in fact conceived for this purpose and not to posit a broader classification or a generalizing national trend in Serbian cinema. This is maybe its shortcoming as a theory, being that theories typically generalize to achieve their effect. Of course then, Serbian cutting must likewise be critiqued for its particularizing use of the descriptive “Serbian.” Funny how that adjective in and of itself often requires an apologetic disclaimer upon its application.

Perhaps it is problematic to call this aesthetic mode “Serbian” cutting for any number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that the films referred to here were produced during the era of Yugoslavia when Serbia was not an independent nation but rather a constituent republic. Problems of this sort may arise if we want to air this conception out and test its functioning with other films and filmmakers (whether Serbian or not). Both Makavejev and Vucicevic are of Serbian ethnic origin, which lends some understanding to the humorous self-branding and identification initiated by the latter. In order to further understand its creation we must consider the era when Serbian cutting was conceptualized, which was after Makavejev ceased his filmmaking activities (and decades after the films described in this essay).

As previously mentioned the notion of Serbian cutting was a tongue-in-cheek response forwarded by Vucicevic during the time of the Yugoslav wars of secession. This was a time when Serbs were largely demonized both internally and internationally as the bad guys, as those that were at fault in the wars and who must ultimately carry the blame for “nearly 90 percent” of its horrors. A sly cultural and political commentator, Vucicevic’s joke can also be read as a cynical comment on Serbian nationalism, which was perverted and used by those in power to fan the flames of intolerance (and which ultimately made pariahs out of Serbs). With this sort of ironic contrast of essentialisms in mind Serbian cutting can only be “Serbian” to hold consistent as a critique, it can only be “Serbian” to redirect that critique towards an outside world that has been all too eager to participate in the continued “Balkanization” and dismemberment of the Republic of Serbia. Serbian cutting truly is a double-edged sword, as described earlier.

Because of its playful yet biting nature as satire it is possible that Serbian cutting (as cinematic practice) does not exist at all, which then provokes a question: “Can jokes be theorized?” The truth is that all theories are jokes because they are not reality—they simplify reality. They attempt to explain reality but only by creating their own (false) realities. Serbian cutting is part and parcel of the uniquely cynical sense of humor (often self-deprecating) and absurdity that permeates life in Serbia, which is often bitterly ironic because of the cruel conditions one must survive through. This savage and destructive sense of humor characterizes Vucicevic’s book Paper Movies from start to finish, just as an eruptive and often dark sense of humor characterizes the films of Makavejev.

Though all theories are false there is a little bit of truth in every joke. It is almost certain that Vucicevic would find laughable here the academic leaps and postulates that his writing has served as a launching ground for. We shall end this essay then as its point of departure began, with a wisecrack:

“A father from the Serbian countryside brings his son to the big city. The father asks his friend, a wealthy business owner, if he can help out and give his uneducated son a job. His friend says, ‘Sure. I can make him president of the firm. No questions asked!’ The father says, ‘No, that’s too much money. It will spoil him. Do you have something smaller?’ The friend says, ‘Sure. Why don’t I make him the manager?’ The father says, ‘No, he’s not ready for that. He’s not so smart. Do you have something smaller?’ The friend tries to think of something but draws a blank. The father says, ‘Can’t you just start him out as an assistant?’ The friend shakes his head and says, ‘Sorry. He needs a university degree for that.’”

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