Želimir Žilnik’s unemployed bodies

by Greg de Cuir Jr

Želimir Žilnik is a filmmaker who has shown a consistent interest in the situation of the working class in his native (ex-Yugoslav) territory as well as the situation of migrant workers in a variety of locales. His cinema takes stock of the disenfranchised and the disregarded in an effort to expose the blind spots and injustice produced by official state ideology and politics. Žilnik has always been a chronicler and crusader for those who are not empowered to tell their own stories or show their own images. He is a humanist, what the film theoretician Nicole Brenez would perhaps call an “internationalist,” in the sense of those who take their cameras across borders to help people in various struggles. This essay will consider Žilnik’s short documentary film The Unemployed (Nezaposleni ljudi, 1968), particularly with regard to its depictions of workers’ bodies. The Unemployed is an eight-minute documentary that narrates the situation of workers who are living in a dormitory between jobs as they ponder the need to leave Yugoslavia and enter West Germany as gastarbeiters (guestworkers). Many of the workers speak about the physical toll that work has taken on their bodies as well as the general lack of stability in their working situation. A picture is painted of workers who are exploited and undervalued, which is at odds with the mythical glorification of labor as a norm in the socialist ideology that governed Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe at the time.

The 1960s was a golden age in Socialist Yugoslavia; a period of openness had blossomed as a result of governmental actions that had been undertaken in the previous decade. In the cinematic arts New Film (Novi Film) appeared in 1961 with a new generation of filmmakers who practiced the principles of freedom of expression in both form and content. This new wave of filmmakers included Boštjan Hladnik, Ante Babaja, Bata Čengić, Puriša Djordjević, Žilnik, and many others. The Unemployed was screened at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival where Žilnik won the Grand Prix, which cemented his status as a promising director. That promise was realized only a year later when Žilnik won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his debut feature Early Works (Rani radovi, 1969). Some of Žilnik’s other memorable films treating the issues of labor and the working class include

In order to establish the wider context for this work, I will sketch the key events of the postwar era in Yugoslavia that ultimately structured the 1960s. On 27 June 1950, Yugoslavia’s Law on the Management of State Economic Associations by Work Collectives, establishing self-management in the workplace, was introduced with the goal to decentralize all segments of the economy and society. Daniel Jakopovich described it as the paving of a “truly anti-Stalinist alternative road,”[1] [open endnotes in new window] which resulted from the Cominform expelling Yugoslavia as a member, also the Tito/Stalin split in 1948. However, as Jakopovich further noted,

“This third way between central planning and conventionally understood ‘market socialism’ remained only an abstract possibility, as did the prospect for democratic socialism in general.”[2]

In his monumental study Yugoslavia as History, John Lampe wrote that from 1953 until 1961 Yugoslavia’s economy grew at a faster pace than most others in the world, including those of the Soviet bloc.[3] This economic boom was followed by a period of stagnation and regression spurred on by a number of factors, both internal and external, which were points of contention for many intellectuals and state officials. Suffice to say, as Lampe does,

“The period from 1963 to 1966 witnessed the most intensive political debate over economic reform in the history of the second Yugoslavia.”[4]

This intense debate led to the general economic reform of 1965, which Lampe considers “the most ambitious set of market-oriented changes undertaken anywhere in the Communist world prior to 1989.”[5]

The economic reform of 1965 aimed to find a solution for the growing inequities between the various Yugoslav republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and two autonomous provinces located within Serbia—Kosovo and Vojvodina) as well as to increase standards of living for the large rural population. The number of Yugoslav guest workers in Western Europe increased from 50,000 to 280,000 by 1968.[6] Lampe feels that during this particular time the main concern of Yugoslavs centered on individual efforts to study or work in an expanding, modernizing economy. Lampe goes on to state,

“Yugoslav enterprises were already inordinately large and overstaffed. They now faced a labor market that continued to swell during the 1970s due to the postwar baby boom and reduced opportunities to work in Western Europe.”[7]

The economic situation quickly soured, as 300,000 guest workers returned to Yugoslavia by the 1970s while the number of registered unemployed doubled for the years 1971-75.[8]


The Unemployed is a sensuous film about workers’ bodies that also offers a critique on socialist realism and history, especially as it affected workers. Socialist ideology in the 20th century was often incarnated in the aesthetic form of socialist realism. The novelist Maxim Gorky outlined the tenets of socialist realism in a pamphlet written on the occasion of the 1934 Soviet writers’ congress. In short, the genre was intended to be programmatic, optimistic, and educational in relation to the working class and depictions of workers. The critic Boris Groys wrote,

“The specificity of socialist realism therefore lay not at a level susceptible to formal analysis, but rather at the level of its contextual work with form.”[9]

This contextual work often made use of folklore and other elements of mass culture for the purposes of the “industrialization of the mind,” as Hans Magnus Enzensberger would describe it.

Socialist realism as a doctrine was promulgated to the satellite states of the Soviet Union in the postwar era. The film industry in Yugoslavia was founded upon these tenets, resulting in what I have described elsewhere as “Partisan realism”[10] — a unique genre of war film that generally perpetuated the founding myth of Yugoslavia, with Josip Broz Tito as the leader of an army and a nation. The tradition of documentary realism in postwar Yugoslavia was initiated by the state-sponsored Filmske novosti (Film Newsreels), which enacted a national realism that explicated current events. The newsreels tended to run ten or so minutes and had a bright, upbeat nature. Before television became widely dispersed in the 1960s as a form of mass communication in Yugoslavia the Film Newsreels in the cinema were the only way for people to get moving-image reports on the state of their homeland. As such, these newsreels played a key role in forming the consciousness of the people.

In order to establish the wider cinematic context, I will briefly trace key examples of the visualizations of workers throughout the international history of documentary cinema. Sergei Eisenstein’s film Strike (Стачка, 1925), though not a documentary proper, presents a revolutionary image of workers in the Soviet Union. The workers are often depicted as a surging mass of energy. One particular scene is of consequence here: the workers as they bathe together in a body of water. The homoerotic content of this scene has been commented upon by other critics. Of more interest for the purposes of this essay is the emphasis on the sensuous contours of the workers’ naked bodies. We will come back to this fetishising of workers’ bodies in the subsequent analysis of Žilnik’s film. In his book Blurred Boundaries, Bill Nichols includes Eisenstein’s film within the genealogy of documentary. Nichols feels that Eisenstein thoroughly rethinks the representation of workers:

“It is only when they are not workers that some small taste of a better life becomes possible (illusory, if they are ultimately still workers).”[11]

Relating this to Strike, the scene where the workers frolic with each other while bathing presents them as something other than workers, if only for a fleeting moment. This transformative notion of play or idleness resurfaces in the aforementioned films by Žilnik, particularly in The Unemployed, where workers are never seen doing anything like working (though perhaps this stands to reason given the title of the film). This “alternative way of being’ does not necessarily harbinger a better life in The Unemployed. Rather, it traps the workers in a purgatory of sorts, from which there is not a desirable escape on either end of the spectrum (deadening work, or a total lack of work).   

In 1933 the film Industrial Britain, directed by Robert Flaherty and produced by John Grierson, presented a vision of industrial labor. The film opens with images of windmills as the voice-over intones that the old must make way for the new. In the context of this film this signifies a shift in the mode of production and of labor. In Industrial Britain national concerns are associated with work and workers. The coal industry is the first area explored in this film; we see miners going about their work in dark and dangerous conditions. Here we begin to observe a deglamorized vision of workers, and we gain proximity to their plight through a series of close-ups on faces and bodies. The idea produced is that we must engage an intimate approach in order to understand workers. In one early image we see a coal miner strip down out of his shirt before he begins his tasks. This concern with bare bodies echoes Eisenstein’s workers and points the way toward Žilnik’s workers. The desire to move closer to workers begets an urge to inspect the contours of their bodies; this is particularly true with regard to manual laborers. This would also be the case for the visual style of socialist realism, with its focus on workers’ bodies and appendages.  

Karl Marx was very much concerned with bodies and their nature as visible evidence of the effects of labor (of course, with an eye toward the destabilizing nature of work and its relation to predatory capitalism). As he wrote in his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,”

“the more the worker by his labour appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of means of life.”[12]

So for Marx this external “sensuous nature’ has an adverse effect on the very sensuous nature of the worker’s body—of her very means of life. This cruel irony of the worker’s body being somehow estranged from that which it engenders is extended in another of Marx’s more well-known postulations:

“the better formed his product, the more deformed becomes the worker.”[13]

This deformity manifests itself in both physical and social terms. If we relate this to Žilnik’s film, again, he takes special care to reveal this physical deformity as evidence of the social deformity of exploited labor. For Marx this elemental deformity can also be viewed in economic terms, as the laws of political economy. Capitalism is inherently unequal, even vampiric, and it necessitates that one’s success must come at the expense or expenditure of another. So capitalism’s very structure deforms man. However, Žilnik also indicates that the socialist obsession with work and workers can be just as cruel and deformative toward human beings.

Michel Foucault writes of the Western modern age that

“the human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it.”[14]

The economic machinery of work invades the body for the purposes of subjugating it, while in the process almost destroying it. Modern work can be seen as a discipline (in the Foucauldian sense: new technological power) that domesticates and even punishes bodies. Here we can begin to see the links with regard to how socialist ideology was concerned with a certain power struggle, why it prioritized and celebrated the bodies of workers—with an intent to discipline and punish those that would not conform; to create docile bodies, just as capitalism requires. Foucault quotes the early modern French writer Nicolas Delamare:

“Sleep is the image of death, the dormitory is the image of the sepulchre.”[15]

Žilnik’s film is set almost entirely in a worker’s dormitory and, indeed, we see many of the workers attempting to sleep. A very strong link is made between the numbing, fatal sensations of work and the workers as the living dead who must navigate this graveyard. The decay of the human body in Žilnik’s film then is something of a funeral procession or a requiem for the working class.

Marx (channeling Hegel) wrote “to be sensuous is to suffer’ and that because man feels what he suffers he is a “passionate being.”[16] The anthropologist Paul Stoller has argued for a “sensuous scholarship’ to match a passionate content—a scholarship tuned to the subtle human materialities of life that are often elided in formal, objective affectations. Stoller feels that many scholars consider the body a text to be read and analyzed:

“This analytical tack strips the body of its smells, tastes, textures and pains—its sensuousness.”[17]

If we relate Žilnik’s film work to that of an analyst more than the work of an artist, if only for the moment,[18] we will find that he practices a very sensuous method in his approach to shooting the film The Unemployed. Žilnik is interested in the textures and pains of the workers in an effort to elucidate their situation rather than to aestheticise it. In my book on the Yugoslav Black Wave I wrote that Žilnik uses the camera like a scalpel rather than a paintbrush in his efforts to achieve a social analysis.[19] We can certainly ascribe a social scientific approach to his work if we remember that he was trained as a lawyer rather than an artist.

Stoller defines sensuous scholarship as when

“writers tack between the analytical and the sensible, in which embodied form as well as disembodied logic constitute scholarly argument.”[20]

Citing the example of African Songhay griots, he says that for them

“history is not a subject or text to be mastered but a force that consumes the bodies of those who speak it.”[21]

Stoller deals with cinema in his writing and felt that images can be physiognomically transformative. His primary examples of this type of imagery are drawn from the work of Antonin Artaud as a theater artist and the cinema of Jean Rouch, both of whom he felt were “reacting to the power of the State to manipulate images and erase pain and suffering.”[22] This brings to mind the iconography of socialist realism, which glorified workers and the “nobility” of their “work-hardened bodies” at the expense of the cruel realities of industrial and rural labor. When Stoller theorized a “cinema of cruelty” by way of Artaud’s conception, he said that the goal is

“not to recount per se, but to present an array of unsettling images that seek to transform the audience psychologically and politically.”[23]

Žilnik utilizes cruel images of workers to similar ends, as there is very little shining nobility in his vision of laborers, and rather than work-hardened bodies—broken-down, docile, and work-battered bodies.

In her influential treatise on political mimesis, the film theorist Jane M. Gaines maintains that

“there has been little or no discussion of the sensationalized [sic] body in radical documentary films.”[24]

Further on, she writes that this is

“perhaps because one tends to think of sense and body in terms of sexuality, and the committed documentary has always been seriously asexual.”[25]

We confront notions of sexuality in The Unemployed, as Žilnik’s rendering of naked workers’ bodies in close proximity—in addition to showering together and sometimes sleeping in the same bed—borders on the homoerotic, regardless of the fact that the constricted misery that the workers are forced to live in is a direct result of faulty socio-economic conditions rather than a lifestyle choice. When Gaines references an inventory of the sensual documentary that needs to begin with Eisenstein’s Strike we will recall the homoerotic overtones of the scene with the workers bathing together. However, Gaines later claims that in relation to Eisenstein she is “not thinking of the sensual scenes of the male workers bathing’ but rather “scenes of rioting, images of bodies clashing, of bodies moving as a mass.”[26] Hans Magnus Enzensberger thought that the decisive political factor of electronic media was its “mobilizing power,” which had been “crippled’ by those wielding state control. He feels that propaganda freezes this power, but also thinks that “marches, columns, parades, immobilize people.”[27] Indeed, the ideological line separating official and oppositional public demonstrations is thin. Though there is no rioting and clashing in Žilnik’s film we do see images of bodies moving as a mass. Bodies clash in a playful manner on beds rather than in violent conflict with forces in the streets. Notions of the body in sensual documentaries evoke notions of solidarity, in both theoretical and physical (thus sexual) terms. Perhaps Žilnik is moving toward a sexualized committed non-fiction filmmaking.

As Enzensberger implored,

“A “critical” inventory of the status quo is not enough.”[28]

Let us then proceed to a close reading of Žilnik’s film in a sensuous manner. The first interview in The Unemployed is conducted with a man who speaks about the injuries his job at the train station caused him as well as the resulting operation he had on his back. He lifts up his shirt to show a scar on his torso. His stomach is firm and work-hardened—if sucked in just a bit for the benefit of the camera. The scar runs from his underarm to his left pectoral muscle and certainly appears to be an injury from lifting or carrying heavy weight. This is the first instance in the film in which we see the burden of work played out on the body of the suffering worker. The second interview in the film features a man questioning the definition and viability of socialism—a socialism and ideology which has obviously not supported him as a worker. As he talks the camera pans down to frame his hands clutching a matchbox. Also visible is the relatively nice wristwatch that he wears with a leather band and shiny face; the comfortable woven sweater he is dressed in begins to produce the impression that perhaps he is a potential manager, or maybe an intellectual laborer.

After this interview Žilnik cuts to a title card with the fractured word “ljudi’ (“people”), maybe better in this instance to say “humanity.” The broken word split in half evokes the broken-down unemployed bodies at the heart of the film. Over this image we hear the sound of either an automatic weapon or some sort of automatic heavy drill—it is not clear which. This ambiguity, like that of the image of the matchbox and match hovering in the air in a sort of limbo, is full of ideological potential that is left unresolved. A few moments later we see a large group of men in a dormitory shower. Their naked bodies render them virtually indistinguishable from each other. The misty water rains down on them like a light summer storm as they rush to lather themselves with soap. Žilnik then cuts to a close-up of feet as a worker lies in a dormitory bed. His feet are dirty and bruised, heels coated with rough and dry skin. Žilnik then cuts to another close-up of a worker’s neck as he flexes and tenses his throat muscles. The veins connecting his neck to his collarbone strain and jut out against his skin, which folds up and wrinkles as it scoots closer to his chin. His stubby facial hair completes the image of a most unfamiliar bodily view. This brief montage continues as the camera pans to another close-up of a tensed and disembodied neck, this one a bit older and more wrinkled. What this quick pan has showed us is something of a summary of the accelerated aging process that results from intense physical labor. A third neck is displayed following another quick pan. By this point the body has become abstracted to an unintelligible mass of muscular contours and tactile skins.

During this brief montage we hear the voice-over of a worker explaining the problems he is having with his teeth and an inability to visit a dentist to fix them. After an image of a group of workers’ naked backs, which recalls the first interview subject and his surgically-corrected back, we see an extreme close-up of a ruined set of teeth. The holes between these teeth create dark crevices in uneven rows. Their deformed structures scream out maltreatment through stains and other images of decay. Now we begin to understand the subversive nature of Žilnik’s film and his unveiling of the cruel reality behind glorifying myths. Marx’s nobility of work-hardened bodies is a false construct when seen in close-up. The iconography of socialist realism that exalts valiant and strong workers is attacked in this film with images of manipulable, instrumentalised, and subjugated workers—exploited workers. Over continued declarations of a lack of work and deplorable living conditions—which we are also able to see in the crowded dormitory—Žilnik pastes an upbeat communist march song that would not be out of place in a parade. This is another subversive pairing which functions as an implicit blasphemy toward optimistic socialist ideology, betraying Žilnik’s critical aims. As we hear this song a worker reads out loud a personal advertisement in a newspaper about a woman seeking to date a man. While he narrates her exhaustive description of the various delicious meals she can prepare, Žilnik cuts to an image of a group of workers devouring the plain bread that is given to them for subsistence. This is yet another ironic juxtaposition in a film that is full of them for rhetorical effect.

One of the final sequences of the film is of a worker walking across the naked bodies of his comrades as they lay in beds placed side by side. In this instance the workers are used as literal supports and as a living walkway. The path to communism is paved with the broken-down bodies of the working class. As the saying goes, the path to hell is paved with good intentions, which then opens the unresolved question about what the road to (a socialist) paradise is engraved with. The Unemployed is a film that does not pose straightforward questions about labor issues to then elicit routine answers about how to improve the situation of workers. This is perhaps where its unique resonance lies, as it is much more elliptical in its approach. Žilnik is not interested in teaching a distant and objective lesson but rather in moving us closer to the subjectivity of workers who have not often been given an acute reflection throughout the early history of documentary film. Žilnik does not treat his workers like a faceless mass, though he does focus on large groups of them. His project is to reconstruct the image of workers at a body-specific level, to resist the facile categorization that creates a binding ideology around workers rather than a liberated space with creative potential for growth and transcendence. Again, quoting Enzensberger:

“The author has to work as the agent of the masses. He can lose himself in them only when they themselves become authors, the authors of history.”[29] 


The era of Yugoslav New Film was connected to the international revitalization of film form and content in the 1960s. We can speak of this particularly in Europe with regard to Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and other countries. In Yugoslavia the openness of the new film era incubated an offshoot that would derisively be labeled the “Black Wave,” which was characterised by polemical engagement through a combative social critique as well as dark and morose themes and conventions. Žilnik was one of those filmmakers at the center of the controversy surrounding the Black Wave as it was then flourishing in the mid-to-late 1960s, reaching something of a zenith in 1969 when he made his debut feature Early Works.

Early Works was banned for a brief spell and Žilnik had to rely on his legal education to defend the film and his right to freedom of expression in court — which he did successfully. In fact, The Unemployed was censored as well, the authorities finding particular fault with a section of the film focusing on unemployed women. Žilnik’s response was to simply excise the offending section so that his film could be released. He keeps the reel of “unemployed women’ safe in his home studio. One can imagine an integral version of the film easily being reconstructed, should he choose to. So Žilnik ultimately paid a heavy price for being labeled as part of the Black Wave — in fact, he became unemployable. He was kicked out of the communist league for subversive leanings and provoked to emigrate to West Germany to live and work, where he remained a border-crossing troublemaker.[30]

Žilnik’s path to a “black” means of expression was tread by way of his early short films like The Unemployed; Little Pioneers (Pioniri maleni mi smo vojska prava, svakog dana ničemo ko zelena trava, 1968), about children living on the streets; or the aptly-titled Black Film (Crni film, 1971), documenting his attempt to deal with the homeless problem in his city as well as embodying his explicit response to official accusations made against him. These powerful and insolent films were all indicative of not only the larger world of modern documentary filmmaking and the international appearance of new interventionist and observational non-fiction modes, but also an entire inclination toward revolutionary change in both art and society. Returning now to the question about the path to heaven. Religious dogma states that the route is by way of the souls of your fellow human beings. For Žilnik, in The Unemployed, the road to an improved collective humanism is mapped by the very materiality of the body as a sensual, suffering, and noble intermediary.