Monday, 3 December 2018

Marco Ferreri: The Veterinarian of Wo/mankind

-->

(This article was originally published on Cinema Scope)


“I make physiological cinema”—Marco Ferreri (1928–1997)

The 20th anniversary of Marco Ferreri’s death failed to elicit much attention, the exception being Anselma Dell’Olio’s valuable documentary, presented at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Marco Ferreri: Dangerous But Necessary. Eschewing biographical linearity, the documentary explores the prescient significance of Ferreri’s work rather than dwelling on personal anecdotes about his life, either personal or artistic. The documentary implicitly proves that Ferreri’s authorial mark was self-effacing, as his films are more prominent and memorable than the director himself. Yet Ferreri’s films remain unfit for celebratory sanctimony, too uncomfortably relevant to our current predicament to be canonized—and even prophetic, had this term not been abused to the point of insignificance. Almost 30 years before Spike Jonze made Her (2013), Ferreri cast Christopher Lambert in I Love You (1986), the story of a man who falls in love with an electronic keyring. Shaped in the face of a woman, the keyring electronically squawks, “I love you” every time the alienated protagonist whistles, providing all necessary warmth and care.

In the Year Zero AW (After Weinstein), Ferreri’s cinema constitutes a confrontational reckoning with the long and tortuous river of gender asymmetry that has finally cracked the dam of patriarchy. He had diagnosed the early symptoms of the alpha male’s violent demise in iconic films like Bye Bye Monkey (1978). Set against the phallocratic skyline of Manhattan, the film sees Marcello Mastroianni and Gérard Depardieu rescuing the son of King Kong, the ultimate symbol of bestial masculinity, whose corpse lies on the shores of a post-apocalyptic, rat-infested Manhattan. Depardieu plays a lightning technician who works in an off-Broadway theatre and in a wax museum dedicated to ancient Rome that burns down in the climactic finale. One day after spraying a troupe of feminist actresses with a bottle of Coca-Cola, the semen of consumerism, he’s raped by them. Even more graphic is the end of 1976’s claustrophobic La dernière femme—the protagonist (Depardieu again), after failing to manage his urges, castrates himself with an electric knife. The irreversible and politically incorrect realization that patriarchy was already sleepwalking towards historical impotence was an intrinsic part of Ferreri’s perceptive vision. Through the prism of his cinema, our social agony is refracted in ways that, though seemingly absurd, lay bare the existential inadequacy contemporary men and women are still experiencing.



Ferreri was born in Milan in 1928 and little is known about his early years or his personal life in general. He studied veterinary medicine “because I liked animals and wanted to be of assistance to them,” but, after dropping out of university, he decided to make movies, “because I liked humans too.” After working as an assistant director for Michelangelo Antonioni and Cesare Zavattini, and as a unit producer and film equipment sales agent, Ferreri found the freedom and funds for his directorial debut in the most unlikely place: Franco’s Spain. Paradoxically and yet somehow fittingly, the Italian director honed his subversive cynicism under the nose of a fascist regime, and in 1960 he reached his poetic maturity with his third feature, El cochecito, the story of a perfectly retired priest who nonetheless wants a motorized wheelchair like the one his invalid friends drive; when his family refuses to comply with his bizarre request, the cheerful old man poisons them all. This vitriolic black comedy stands as a counterpoint to the preposterous pietism of, say, De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952). In Spain, Ferreri befriended Rafael Azcona, the satirist and screenwriter with whom he collaborated on most of his films. Together they moved to Rome, and Ferreri went on to inject a reinvigorating dose of irreverence into the body of Italian cinema, which had been narcotized by the reconciliatory lies of neorealism.

For Ferreri, the relation between man and woman, often reduced to a mere narrative trope passively mirroring the dominant value system, becomes a field of dramatic action, the stage on which societal anxieties, aggressive inequalities, and obsessions take place and shape. In The Conjugal Bed (1963), Ugo Tognazzi, Ferreri’s unflattering alter ego for a good part of his artistic life, plays Alfonso, a wealthy 40-year-old bachelor desperately looking for a virgin to marry. He finally finds her and fulfills his Catholic duty; then his wife, Regina, overeager to have a child, literally screws him to death and, aided by a priest, inherits her husband’s business. (First banned and then released in an edited version, the film inaugurated Ferreri’s life-long dispute with Italian censors.) Roles were reversed in The Ape Woman (1964), with Tognazzi once again playing an unscrupulous impresario who marries a very hairy woman (Annie Girardot) living in a monastery and turns her into a circus performer. “I married her, she now belongs to me,” he tells those who object to the inhuman treatment to which he subjects his wife, forcing her to play an ape while he impersonates a colonial explorer. The holy sacrament of marriage was blasphemously catechized again in The Wedding March (1966), possibly the first film ever to feature an inflatable sex doll in its cast.



As the ’60s reached their revolutionary peak, Ferreri apocalyptically anticipated the postmodern end of grand, ideological narratives, to even more controversy. After Her Harem (1967), which inverts the traditional concept of the harem, with a woman having four men at her disposal, and The Seed of Man (1969), in which the cultural infertility of man is told through the end of civilization, Ferreri made one of his most enigmatic films. Starring Michel Piccoli, Dillinger Is Dead (1969) disintegrates narrative propulsion by concentrating all the action into one single night, all myths and icons into one-dimensional images. It’s a film with barely any dialogue and with hardly any pathos, even if a murder eventually happens; it’s the sublimation of bourgeois boredom and the repressed longing for a romantic action that will never take place, since everything has already been mythologized by fiction. The same feeling of helplessness is experienced in Papal Audience (1971), an adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle wherein a man unsuccessfully tries to get a private meeting with the Pope. Ferreri was booed off the stage in 1972 when La Cagna (literally “The Bitch”) premiered in Paris; the sight of a bohemian comics writer (Marcello Mastroianni) swapping his middle-class life for an exotic island, only to enslave a bored tourist (Catherine Deneuve) and treat her like a dog, proved too much for the audience’s complacent expectations.

But it was in Cannes with La grande bouffe (1973) that Ferreri was almost lynched. Both Bergmans (Ingrid, who was then the jury president, and Ingmar, who was presenting Cries and Whispers out of competition) walked out of the premiere, and angry spectators insulted a smiling Ferreri, who blew them kisses in return. All this just because his film told of four men (Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, Tognazzi, and Piccoli) who lock themselves up in a Parisian villa for a mournful feast of sex and food that will eventually kill them. (“The French couldn’t stand having their national icon [Piccoli] farting his way to the grave,” Ferreri sarcastically quipped in retaliation.) Though Ferreri vehemently denied any political intention, it’s hard not to see La grande bouffe as a caustic commentary on consumerism and the commodification of just about everything (Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society had been published only three years earlier). It’s on this occasion that Ferreri coined the expression “physiological cinema”—a term that retrospectively describes his films rather accurately, based as they are on a corporeal rather than intellectual conception of moving images. His cinema illuminates the most painful contradictions without ever resorting to intellectual verbosity, favouring startling narrative expedients over ideological proclamations. Though he was often accused of formal slovenliness, Ferreri’s erudite relation to the grammar of cinema was always unhindered and instinctual. Memorable in this regard is his appropriation of the Western, whose ideological and visual codes Ferreri adapted for the new urban frontier of gentrification in Touche pas à la femme blanche (1974), which takes place in the heart of Paris, where a huge hole was dug to replace the old market of Les Halles with the current underground station/shopping mall; inside the canyon-like crater, Ferreri re-enacted the Battle of Little Bighorn.



Around this time, Ferreri presciently sensed the lifeless fate awaiting European city centres and started to film in their featureless outskirts, where a new suburban humanity lived in alienated silence. Such is the setting of one of his most unfettered creations, Seeking Asylum (1979), shot in a peripheral neighbourhood of Bologna that Ferreri metaphysically transfigures. The film takes place during the occupation of a kindergarten by children, their teacher, and parents. The occupied kindergarten grants asylum to a little orphan (asilo in Italian means both political asylum and kindergarten), while the teacher (Roberto Benigni) gets pregnant. Evicted by the police, the resisters move to a remote location in Sardinia to continue their (doomed) anti-authoritarian pedagogical experiments.

The lunar landscape of the Italian ’80s serves as the hallucinated backdrop of Ferreri’s “feminist” diptych The Story of Piera (1983) and The Future Is Woman (1984). The former, starring Hanna Schygulla and Isabelle Huppert as mother and daughter, centres on their incestuous relationship, while the latter prefigures a fatherless family. Both inscribe the melancholic impotence of men onto a suburban landscape where traditional roles no longer apply, and where only women seem able to pull through. Love survives in the hospice of The House of Smiles (1991), where a couple of elderly guests live their carnal passion in a watermelon-shaped trailer parked in a camp alongside African immigrants (and with whom the female protagonist, played by Ingrid Thulin, will eventually escape). Awarded the Golden Bear in Berlin, it’s one of Ferreri’s greatest films, an ode to disinterested love and, along with Tokyo Story (1953) and Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a lucid indictment of how capitalism disposes of those who are no longer useful and productive.


 Ferreri was one of the few European directors never to surrender to either Orientalism or white guilt when dealing with the Other, instead poking fun at the superiority complex of Western civilization. In 1988 he directed what remains the greatest film ever made about the business of humanitarian aid, its neocolonial function and patronizing arrogance. Ya bon les blancs follows a group of volunteers stranded in sub-Saharan Africa during a humanitarian mission; devoured by their own greed, lust for power, and idiocy, they are eventually eaten alive by the locals, who are very happy to do without their charitable “help.” Cannibalism is also how the most peculiar love story in The Flesh (1991) comes to an end after she (Francesca Dellera) casts a spell on him (Sergio Castellitto), causing his penis to be constantly erect and at her pleasurable disposal.

Shortly before dying, Ferreri paid homage to a cinema intended as a physical place where people meet, warm up, eat, make love, and, while at it, watch a movie. Nitrate Base (1996) was made to celebrate the first 100 years of cinema; its working title was Poor People’s House, as in it the history of cinema is seen from the audience’s perspective—what is celebrated is the life unfolding both on and in front of the screen. It’s a love letter written to a lover that was already changing beyond recognition, and yet there is not a glimmer of nostalgia to be found in it.



Stylistically, Ferreri never composed images to articulate his aesthetic or ideological convictions: he merely focused on those aspects that appeared featureless but that, through his lens, leapt out as emblematic. The metaphysical glimpses his films conjured were the effigies of a latent social disquiet, which is why interpretation of them can never be definitive even as their significance is always palpable. A dead King Kong by the Hudson, the enlarged head of Marlene Dietrich in a shopping mall, cowboys and Indians in the heart of Paris, a giant Mazinger Z parading in deserted streets, a couple making out under a towering, uprooted tree being transported in the back of a truck…The symbolic elevation of these unforgettable images exemplifies the essence of Ferreri’s cinema: the difficulty of the male specimen to find harmony in a world that no longer acknowledges his alleged superiority. Which is why Ferreri’s voyeuristic corrosion and grotesque provocations feel almost naturalistic—even though they may appear outlandish, they effectively tap into our innermost sentiments and fears. That his films have not been consecrated is both a pity and a positive sign. Ferreri’s oeuvre belongs to the present of cinema rather than its history: his films illuminate the challenges that we’re now facing with an urgent clarity that’s hard to come by. But, then again, maybe his films really are destined to remain a marginal oddity rather than a guiding light, for he never deluded himself that cinema could ever change anything, let alone the world. Once asked how he would like to be remembered, Ferreri drily replied, with a bittersweet grin on his lips: “I couldn’t care less!”

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Rossellini's War Trilogy: Neorealism or Historical Revisionism?



Two years before Roberto Rossellini started shooting Rome, Open City on January 18, 1945, the famed Italian director had just completed another war trilogy. Inaugurated with the 1941 navy flick The White Ship, followed a year later by A Pilot Returns, and crowned in 1943 with Man of the Cross, the trilogy celebrated the Italian army’s questionable exploits in the war fought on the side of Nazi Germany. Awarded the National Fascist Party Award at the ninth edition of the Venice Film Festival where the film premiered, The White Ship extolled the virtues of the Italian navy and its fearless German ally while depicting the English as little more than barbaric cowards. Based on a story by Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio and produced by the company he presided over, the Italian Cinematographic Alliance (ACI), A Pilot Returns begins in the sky’s blue heights where an Italian pilot is downed and captured by the English in Greece only to valiantly escape to rejoin the Fascist army’s ranks (whose military record in WWII went from one humiliating defeat to another). Like the film that would follow it, Man of the Cross features a priest in a prominent role, only this time our heroic man of the cloth is not fighting the Nazis but the godless Red Army (at a time when Franklin D. Roosevelt was praising it for its “magnificent achievements, unsurpassed in all history” in the war against Hitler’s Werhmacht).

Though on its face opposite politically, Rossellini’s following trilogy—Rome, Open City, Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948), recently released in a Criterion Blu-ray box—shares with the first one a similar penchant for the wishful recreation of (very recent) historical events. Universally praised for their perceived authenticity, the films that effectively constitute the foundation of Italian neorealism—a supposedly genuine representation of “things as they really were”—present a highly debatable version of reality, historical and otherwise. “Italy had been the Third Reich’s main European ally, but this film redeemed the Italians in the victors’ eyes and also in their own: they too had fought Nazism,” remarks the voiceover in the 2006 documentary Once Upon a Time…Rome Open City by Marie Genie and Serge July (included in the extras of the Criterion box). As the Italian historian Claudio Pavone spent his life pointing out and proving, the nationalist idea of the majority of Italians having disapproved of, and fought against, Fascism was a myth. This was a very carefully constructed myth, one which neorealism helped to cement into the collective imagination of Italians and their new allies (willing to overlook their former enemy’s past in exchange for their political loyalty). One thing Rossellini’s trilogy faithfully mirrors is the transformist zeal with which Italy, having shifted alliances, swept its recent past under the carpet and contrived a new national reputation. This reputation was founded on an unseemly feeling of victimhood and an (un)conscious determination to bury deep 20 years of Fascism along with the responsibilities for its crimes.

Continue reading here.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Trump Symposium: Japanese Relocation



The wave of indignation and outrage that met the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America reflects a general inability to reckon with the past. Liberals have reacted to it as if the new President came from another planet (or was sent it from Russia, which is just as alien), an aberration prone to steer America away from its constitutional course into an illiberal future. That Trump represents a singular specimen in the history of American politics is clear, and yet at the same time he is the very outcome of its systemic failures. Blaming his election on Putin, the FBI, or the feral ignorance of the lower classes won’t help unveil the root causes of a sociopolitical disease of which Trump is the mere symptom.

continue reading here.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Toni Erdmann


That Europe is nothin' on earth but a great big auction, that's all it is, that bunch of old worn-out places, it's just a big fire-sale, the whole rotten thing.
—Tennessee Williams
We must laugh at this disgrace, not over this disgrace which would be detachment, but rather by amicably deepening the discussion of central issues such as sabotage as a function of self-valorisation. Every act of sabotage is happiness and the risk it implies fills us with feverish emotion, like waiting for a lover.
—Toni Negri, Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage
 
 
Of all the prizes Toni Erdmann has been awarded so far, the LUX Prize, given out by the European Parliament to those “films that go to the heart of European public debate” is the most fitting and paradoxical at the same time. Fitting because Maren Ade's film is the film that has finally captured the existential crisis of a continent that welcomes the free flow of capital but not that of its casualties. Paradoxical because the European Parliament, an extra-democratic institution with no effective powers, is symbolically responsible for having turned Europe from a union of welfare states, to an expendable offshoot of the global financial market.   The choreography of the film is in fact the plastic outcome of a business plan gone astray, a business plan some still refer to as the European Union. Purged from the iconographic stereotypes only Woody Allen can be excused to still associate Europe with, Toni Erdmann represents the first pertinent formulation of what a truly European cinema could look and feel like. A cinema that doesn't hide in the festival circuit and its self-referential irrelevance, but that looks in the eyes the ongoing catastrophe of a continent squeezed between neoliberal radicalization and a resurgent fascism. Gone are the annoying French couples running through museums (mere by-products of the Marshall Plan), defunct are the impotent lovers of an Italy that never was, and in their wake a featureless corporate Europe has emerged: the culmination of the consumer holocaust Pasolini had foretold. A continent increasingly divided between aseptic ghettos of privilege where the past has been mummified so that tourists can consume it, and rancorous suburbs of blind rage. An inhuman landscape where high-living is a window away from the slums and the Wild East has “the biggest mall in Europe” but “none with enough money to buy anything.” A finally Americanised Europe meritocratically divided between winners and losers.
 
Continue reading here.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

ALI BOMAYE!




Black is not a colour, it’s an attitude.

- James Baldwin


Heavyweight champion in the fight for racial equality and social justice, poet, rhapsodic loudmouth, adorable smart-ass, magician, wisecracker extraordinaire, Muhammad Ali, né Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., had survived his own death long before dying. No screen, big or small, will ever capture, let alone contain his boundless genius, for in Ali’s case the ring was but a launchpad to the world stage. Rather than simply a man history will remember him as a demiurge of his own time, the creator and protagonist of outsized dreams of liberation. There is nothing to be written or said about Ali’s relationship with cinema, for the man himself was cinema. Very much like the seventh art at its uncompromising best, Ali transcended reality to project and inspire something nobler and more beautiful than the injustice of life on earth. A mythopoetic figure necessarily larger than life, Ali guided the steps of an exploited humanity at a time when it was still thinkable to demand the unthinkable. He conducted his life-long fight against the forces of oppression on multiple fronts, always on his own terms. As stylish and implacable in a television studio as he was in the boxing ring, his adversarial raps against the privileged white condescension of a William F. Buckley or a David Frost are as memorable as his jabs against Joe Frazier or George Foreman.

Continue reading here

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

"11 Minutes" by Jerzy Skolimowski



Here is my idea of dramaturgy: a character moves from point A to point B. And then from B to C. Life is like this, constant movement, which is a physical as well as a spiritual act,” Jerzy Skolimowski once remarked in an interview.

This statement, clear in its meaning but open to multiple interpretations, accurately describes his filmmaking. Rather than mainstream recognition, the director of 11 Minutes has pursued throughout his career a radical sort of victory in a world populated by successful losers, where even love is beset by violence and speed is a necessary dash toward the unknown. “Never in the right place at the right time,” observed Serge Daney of Jerzy Skolimowski at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, where his Moonlighting, a movie about the recent military coup in Poland entirely set in a London flat under refurbishment, had won best screenplay. Skolimowski's cinema cannot be assigned to a specific chapter of film history, let alone movement or school. Even his feature length debut, Walk Over (1965), which emerged from among the waves of the Polish nouvelle vague, was decidedly anomalous, like the boxer not turning up for the final match in that film. Its self-effacing follow-up, Identification Marks: None (1965), reiterated the director's eclectic indolence, his reticence to comply with societal or artistic impositions. In his films identification is usually bypassed, the protagonist is always someone else, here is always elsewhere, margins are the only (im)possible center, and shelters do not offer refuge. There is no gravity in Skolimowski’s universe; rather than being bridled into straightforward narratives, events are observed and recounted following their fragmentation.

Continue reading here.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

High Rise, JG Ballard and the Cinema



As they cheered and hooted, they were far more confident than the film actors on display, who seemed ill at ease when they stepped from their cars, like celebrity criminals ferried to a mass trial by jury at the Palais, a full-scale cultural Nuremberg furnished with film clips of the atrocities they had helped to commit.

—J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes


Posthumously ascribing prophetic qualities to defunct writers is a trite and dubious habit, but in the case of J.G. Ballard it can hardly be helped. The novelist from Shepperton, the featureless London suburb where he’d lived most of his adult life after returning from a prison camp in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, had in fact glimpsed in the murky waters of modernity the technological tadpoles that have today grown into pathogenic mutants. Moreover, Ballard had prematurely deduced that fiction was the most authentic form of reality and violence the ultimate expression of civilization. From climate change to gated communities, digital perversions to totalitarian consumerism, his novels have traveled the spinal highways of the 20th century at premonitory speed. Missives from a future past, they remain the most practical maps to navigate the maze of data, images and excessive sensations that make up our daily future. High-Rise (1975) follows the brilliant intuition of Concrete Island (1974) to further explore the anti-social implications of progress and marks a definitive departure, at least stylistically, from his experimental phase (Atrocity Exhibition [1970] and Crash [1973] as well as his devious advertising campaigns). Ben Wheatley’s new cinematic adaptation of High-Rise is a wasted opportunity, if not a well-meant affront to the source material. Where Ballard was an astute pathologist of social diseases, Wheatley seems to indulge in the exterior manifestation of their symptoms. While violence for the British novelist always came with an unexpected meaning and purpose, for Wheatley violence is often meaningless and morbidly lensed. Their antithetical visions of violence and its role beneath the veneer of civilized living visibly clash in this High-Rise adaptation.

Continue reading here.

A Love of UIQ by Félix Guattari



There will soon be nothing more than self-communicating zombies, whose lone umbilical relay will be their own feedback image – electronic avatars of dead shadows perpetually retelling their own story.”


—Jean Baudrillard in Telemorphosis




Around 1979 the American filmmaker Robert Kramer and the French schizo-analyst Félix Guattari started working together on a film about two Italian fugitives from the Italian Autonomia Movement, Latitante. The film, which was to star Pier Paolo Pasolini's regular actress Laura Betti, was meant to be a sort of first person collective reflection on the finitude and fragility of the body, “opposing the enormous weight of things-as-they-are, systematically defined by vast power.” A film about the intimacy of resistance. Somewhere along the way the film morphed into a significantly different creature, the science fiction flick A Love of UIQ, a formal shift (sub)consciously informed by the wider political changes taking place off screen: from the grand ideological narratives of the 60s and 70s, to the videodrome mutations that would characterize countercultural developments in the 80s.


Guattari's narrative somehow bridges these two currents, borrowing the resolve from the former and the conceptual tools from the latter. The headless body of workerism with its absence of political organs prefigured some of the most politicized forms of cyberpunk and its anti-authoritarianism. Hamburg's early incarnation of the Chaos Computer Club, underground zines like Hackerfür Moskau or the British Vague, the militant sci-fi of Italy's editorial collective Un' Ambigua Utopia or the galactrotskyist novels of Mack Reynolds, YIPL or the soviet cyber-fantasy flick Kin-dza-dza (1986) and other undetected influences all seep through Guattari's unfilmed script. At the time of the first draft (1980-81), Kramer was to direct the film and Guattari himself wanted it to be produced in Hollywood. He had in fact sent a copy to Michael Philips, the producer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Taxi Driver, who took it to be “too political” for US audiences. A second draft, still co-written with Kramer, dates back to 1983 while the final version that has just been published in English for the first time was completed by Guattari alone around 1986. Kramer himself will flirt with science-fictional tropes in his 1985 Diesel, his first and last foray into commercial filmmaking, a film that might have been aesthetically influenced by his work with Guattari, but bears none of its narrative characteristics.

Continue reading here.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Not Reconciled: The Cinema of Želimir Žilnik

Early Works


The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned.

- Antonio Gramsci


This article originally appeared on the 65th issue of Cinema Scope.


Both radically marginal and televisually popular, Želimir Žilnik’s work stands as a critical counterpoint to contemporary film culture and its sectarian impasse. His films blow up the contradictions that are depriving cinema of its public voice and role. The world beyond and before the screen is too often reduced to mere ornamental backdrop for elaborate selfies, while originality has become a fetishistic obsession rather than the natural outcome of an idiosyncratic practice. There is no denying art cinema’s increasingly isolationist tendencies—which is not to say that mainstream acceptance is the ultimate and only form of relevance, only that there is a difference between being marginalized and marginalizing yourself for the sake of coolness. 

It is precisely in this regard that Žilnik’s cinema represents an exemplary case in point. Here is a director whose filmmaking militancy never surrendered to elitism, let alone to any form of dogmatism, be it political or aesthetic; a director whose formal approach and working method has always been incidental to the worlds and lives his camera has interacted with over the years. The ostentatious individualism of auteurism has no place in Žilnik’s films, which are based on dialectic exchanges, interferences, and the sabotage of (good-)mannerism. The reactionary essence of the auteur theory and its implicit reduction of a collective negotiation into an act of private creation is the very antithesis of Žilnik’s cinema. Thanks to the inspired impudence of Boris Nelepo, Doclisboa and the Cinemateca Portoguesa, the former-Yugoslav/Serbian director got his first complete retrospective at this year’s festival. The holistic contextualization of Žilnik’s (almost) entire oeuvre brought to the surface of film history a deliriously lucid director, one that no censorial system ever managed to silence or co-opt. 

Born in Niš in 1942, Žilnik came of age in the ‘60s, which in Yugoslavia, as elsewhere, was a time of tumultuous prosperity and ingenuity. But while the economic renaissance and consequent cultural upheaval in countries like France, Germany, and Italy was essentially a by-product of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia’s was a different case. In 1961, in an attempt to unhinge the cold-warring duopoly of Washington vs. Moscow, the Non-Aligned Movement was founded in Belgrade, with Tito’s Yugoslavia (which had already rejected Soviet hegemony in 1948) playing a prominent role, along with newly liberated countries from the so-called Third World. That same year, the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to the Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić; a year later, some of the shorts produced by the Kino Klub Belgrade, one of the creative epicentres of the New Yugoslav Cinema, coalesced into the omnibus film Kapi, vode, ratnici (by Živojin Pavlović, Vojislav Rakonjac, and Marko Babac), which marked the outset of what would be derogatorily termed by official critics the “Black Wave.” Filing for Borba in July 1969 about these “dark and degenerate films,” Vladimir Jovicic, voicing the regime’s disapproval, writes: 

We are all aware that for quite some time our cinema is mostly suffused by an impenetrable blackness. It seems to be obsessed with dark events, violence, obscene spectacles, spectral visions, poverty, lewd and coarse scenes, social ugliness of all kinds. This fixation is almost pathological: apocalyptic sufferings, disillusionment, desperation, apathy, perversions...These topics form the basis of a warped stoic ideology and defeatist cults. All expectations are turned on their head, all light is seen through a glass darkly.” 

Compared to the nouvelle vague and its pampered quirkiness, the New Yugoslav Cinema looks like the negative print of ’60s cinema, its far-seeing and nihilistic offshoot. Žilnik’s feature debut (“about the impossibility of changing the world by romantic means,” according to the director) is in effect the very opposite of Godard’s pseudo-political twaddle: where the nouvelle vague was fanciful and desultory, Žilnik’s Early Works is brusque and drenched in the most lyrical pessimism. This first feature had been preceded by a series of revealing shorts: Newsreel on Village Youth, in Winter (1967), about sociality as an occasion for creative disorder and the libidinal need for music (Žilnik’s songbook is an eclectic delight); Little Pioneers and The Unemployed (1968), about those neglected figures which official narratives never (truthfully) feature; and June Turmoil, which features the only existing footage of the student protests that shook Belgrade in June 1968, in which Žilnik had participated as both a participant and a filmmaker.


Early Works


Early Works (which The New York Times described as an “evocation of lucid idealism and of a dim reality that turns everything into confusion and defeat”) follows four young idealists—three men and a woman called Yugoslavia—in their doomed attempt to inject new life into the lifeless body of Marxism (Marx & Engels are credited for “additional dialogues”). But their theatrical Molotov cocktails won’t light up any revolution, either cultural or political: beaten up by peasants, their heads shaven by the police, they return to their daily grind where, to say it with Amos Vogel, they “discover that an unfinished revolution, while changing the face of power, has failed to change the nature of man.” Seen today, Early Works’ clairvoyant intuitions about the defeat of the New Left emerge in all their prescient genius, the film sympathetically but nonetheless critically foretelling how conformism would bleed into romanticism and (male) chauvinism into rebelliousness. 

Shortly after the film was released, the Public Prosecutor called for its withdrawal; prints were seized and the authorities claimed that the version being screened in theatres was not the final one. The trial of Early Works became a cause célèbre in Yugoslavia, with a lively public debate taking place in the national media and some sections of public opinion coming out in solidarity with Žilnik. Expelled from the party and accused of treasonably undermining the country’s political security, the director—who was also a lawyer—opted for the most effective form of defence: attack. Žilnik accused the Public Prosecutor of treacherously doubting the strength and political stability of the country if he thought that a mere film could actually undermine them. The court eventually ruled in favour of Early Works, which Tito himself is said to have watched and vehemently disapproved of (“What do these lunatics want?!” he reportedly shouted). The film was awarded the Golden Bear at the 1969 Berlinale along with the Youth Film Award, whose jury that year was chaired by Rudi Dutschke, one of the leaders of the German ’68 movement. 

Determined to continue testing the limits of censorship and dispel the self-congratulatory fabrications of Socialist Realism, Žilnik, with a healthy dose of ironic mischief, set out to address a quintessentially socialist taboo: homelessness. In Black Film (1971), the director welcomes a group of homeless people into his apartment and sets out to find a solution to their problem, until the unhelpful attitude of both the man in the street and government officials eventually leaves him with no other choice but to throw them out. On the film’s frames is engraved Žilnik’s manifesto (and professional dilemma) “Film: Weapon or Shit?,” a passage of which reads, “I must wrestle against two enemies: against my own middle-class nature which turns this commitment into an alibi and a business, and against those in power who benefit from silence.” When presenting Black Film at the Festival of Yugoslav Documentaries & Short Films in Belgrade in March 1971, the director read aloud from another manifesto he wrote for the occasion (provocatively titled “This Festival is a Graveyard”) in which he denounced “socially engaged films” which sought out “the most picturesque wretch that is prepared to convincingly suffer in front of the camera.” 

National mythmaking was another target of Žilnik’s sardonic realism. Thanks to co-production agreements and a cheap workforce, mainstream Yugoslav cinema had begun to lure Hollywood stars to its studios to slap their iconic faces onto cinematizations of national legends, with the likes of Richard Burton headlining glossy historical epics about the resistance against Nazi-fascism. Against this pious mystification, in Uprising in Jazak (1973) Žilnik sought out the real, homely, and destitute faces of those who had actually fought against Hitler’s and Mussolini’s armies. This questioning of the polished, official version of communist Yugoslavia’s founding myth got the director into yet more trouble, which eventually led him to a self-imposed exile in West Germany.


Hot Paychecks


Not many directors have had the artistic honour of being censored on both sides of the Iron Curtain. With a Golden Bear under his belt, Žilnik could have had a profitable career as a superstar dissident, that figure so coveted by Western liberals. In line with his subversive integrity, however, the young Yugoslav director let everybody down. Try to imagine Jafar Panahi, hypothetically freed from house arrest, going to Germany to make a film about the plight of refugees or about the cruel economic measures inflicted on Greece by Merkel’s government: that’s precisely what Žilnik did upon his arrival in free and democratic Western Europe. From the privileged viewpoint of the outsider, who by virtue of his position always sees things from a different angle, Žilnik turned his quick-witted camera on German society and its ills. Then existentially threatened by left-wing guerrillas, the German state was quickly brushing up its repressive apparatus, using terrorism as an excuse to militarize public life. In Public Execution (1974), Žilnik shows the televised execution of a bank robber, a broadcasted warning sent out to the German population and especially its dissenting elements. While the robber could have been simply incarcerated, the director argues, authorities opted for an exemplary form of reprisal. Problems soon arose between Žilnik and the Voluntary Self-Control Commission, the tellingly named German equivalent of a censorship board; Žilnik’s friend Alexander Kluge would help him with his legal troubles.

Filtered through the rambling lenses of a psycho-political parody, Žilnik’s German experience comes surreally together in Paradise: An Imperialist Tragicomedy (1976), one of the few surviving titles from the director’s German period. Initially intended to feature Fassbinder, whose The Third Generation (1979) bears recognizable traces of this film, Paradise tells a picaresque story about the owner of a struggling corporation who decides to hire a group of anarchists to fake her kidnapping in order to justify her company’s bankruptcy. The film was openly inspired by the fake kidnapping of Peter Lorenz, a right-wing politician who had allegedly spent two weeks held in “captivity” of the Bewegung 2. Juni terrorist group, and then managed to escape and exploit the case for the benefit of his election campaign. Accused of harbouring sympathies towards left-wing terrorists, Žilnik was forced out of Germany under the pretext of tax and visa irregularities. 

Back in his native Yugoslavia, Žilnik started working for TV, which—due to the high demand for content and less time available for the authorities to monitor pre-production—left the director with a greater margin for creative insubordination. Judging from The Comedy and Tragedy of Bora Joksimović (1977), the room for mutinous productions was indeed generous. This hallucinatory reverie records the lyrical ravings of one Bora Joksimović, a heating maintenance mechanic at the Zrenjanin theatre who, bored with the plays he sees there, starts writing and performing his own. Along with the sublime Hot Paychecks (1987), a sort of Serbian Twin Peaks and a huge hit on national television, this has to rank among the most inspired and delirious heights small-screen creativity has ever reached. Even when dealing with more conventional or commissioned subjects, Žilnik always allowed space for the productive intrusion of the unplanned and the accidental: the electronic blues of Kraftwerk soundtracks Vera and Eržika (1981), an unsentimental elegy to the two eponymous women, the lives they spent working in a textile factory, and the difficulties they now face as they near retirement; Dragoljub and Bogdan: Electricity (1982) is a bucolic pastoral about electricity workers and the promised land of communism in all its illusory, heart-wrenching splendour. 

After Tito’s death in 1980, as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia started creaking under the weight of national revanchism and ethnic strife, Žilnik quickly picked up the earliest symptoms of its implosion to come. In the kaleidoscopic Pretty Women Walking Through the City (1986), his first and last foray into science fiction, the director imagines a Yugoslavia circa 2041 that has been ripped apart by a devastating war and turned historical memory into an undesirable social attribute—a rather accurate depiction of the political landscape that was only a few years away. A film of incredible courage, Brooklyn – Gusinje (1988)—set in a Montenegrin village on the Yugoslav-Albanian border, at a time when the Albanian minority was being targeted by xenophobic rhetoric—is an anti-fascist Romeo & Juliet that flies in the face of the nationalist flatulence that would soon after degenerate into a veritable shitstorm. As the drums of war got audibly louder, Žilnik called for nomadic desertion in Oldtimer (1989), his definitive take on the lethal idiocy of patriotism and a mutinous ode to the pleasures of a freewheeling life. 

Refusing to succumb to the sectarian hatred that was engulfing his rapidly disintegrating homeland, Žilnik continued to plead for solidarity among the oppressed in Black & White (1990), which, along with Whity (1971) and Django Unchained (2012), is one of the great westerns made about race relations. As Yugoslavia collapsed under the blows of a horrific internecine war, in Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time (1994) Žilnik staged a public happening that is part collective introspection and part political psychoanalysis. An actor dressed like Tito walks the streets of Belgrade and talks to the people, who, free to speak their minds, engage in surprisingly frank and heated discussions with their former leader about the ongoing war, its root causes and (im)possible solutions. Caught in the brutal heat of war, Žilnik demolishes warmongering testosterone with the wrecking ball of tragicomedy in Marble Ass (1995), the first Serbian film to feature a transgendered actress and one of the greatest films ever made about the folly of war.

Želimir Žilnik (on the right)

Having already sojourned in the Promised Land of capitalist democracy, Žilnik was not one to blindly embrace it after the fall of communism, like so many in the former socialist bloc blindly did. Instead, our quixotic hero once again chose to stand on what Brecht would call the “wrong side of history” as he embarked upon a cinematic confutation of neoliberal dogmas. Beginning with Fortress Europe (2000) and continuing with the Kenedi trilogy (about a Roma gypsy and his peripatetic itineraries across the xenophobic map of Western Europe), Žilnik inaugurated his vagabondage throughout the Old Continent and its tightening, barb-wired borders. And as the messianic promises of free-market ideologues failed to materialize and the most criminal forms of capitalism invaded the former Eastern bloc, Žilnik responded to the spreading cancer with one of the indisputable milestones of 21st-century political cinema, The Old School of Capitalism (2009).

The humanistic exuberance of Žilnik’s cinema, its unfashionable commitment to lost causes and its high-spirited indiscipline are part of an aesthetic whole that goes well beyond an idea of cinema. It is an intimate realization that social climbing, under any political system, leads inevitably to the desolation of greed, and that the only thing we’ll inherit from this life will be the treasure of human relations delivered from the corruption of power. Žilnik’s films are primarily celebrations of lives untouched by the suffocating etiquette of bourgeois living and its fearful calculations. For almost 50 years, the Serbian director has never stopped filming the struggles of those fighting for a less miserable world, always enjoying the pleasurable lightness of being and the untamed beauty of life on the margins, all while questioning whether film really is a weapon, or simply shit.

Heartfelt thanks to Boris Nelepo, for everything, and to Alpe Adria Cinema for kindly providing us with precious research material.