Rajko Grlić: Border Post (Karaula, 2006)

reviewed by Vida Johnson © 2011

Border Post (Karaula) is the tenth feature film by Rajko Grlić, one of the best Yugoslav/Croatian directors, who belongs to the well-known Prague School of filmmakers. When asked in an interview (in this issue) about this film’s “multiple narrative levels: a metanarrative level, the level of true reality, and an ironic level,” Grlić answered that he is a child of Central Europe, that he spent his formative years in Prague, and developed his world view which has “irony, playfulness, and the need to tell the most serious stories with some distance, laughter, and ambiguity. I do not believe in one-dimensional stories, but rather I think that stories ought to have several layers and that film is precisely a tool that plays with this multiplicity of levels. The viewer essentially chooses how many and which layers he wants to pursue.” 

In a close textual and visual analysis of the film, I will attempt to demonstrate how an ostensibly comic story, full of realistic details of life in a military outpost in the far reaches of Yugoslavia several years after Tito’s death, becomes a metaphor for Yugoslavia’s demise. Aware of the many war films about Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s, Grlić did not want to make a typical war film with good and bad guys (interview here), but chose 1987, one of the last years before the war, as “the turning point in what ensued. […] It seemed to me that it would be much more interesting to see where and why the whole thing happened, how the people were prepped through the process of socialism for the war, how simple it was with the aid of a small TV set to pour hatred into people, and how the same TV set turned people into victims, blood-spillers, murderers.”  But in this film, Grlić does much more than explore the causes of Yugoslavia’s break-up. In the opinion of this reviewer, he takes a nostalgic trip down the memory lane of Yugoslav cinema itself—the multi-national Yugoslav film industry that produced world-renowned black comedies, tragic-comedies, farces full of social and political critique, as well as sex, and rich, juicy language. For native speakers, this film is a reminder that no language has such creative swearing as the mother tongue—Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian as it is now called! (Viewers who must rely on subtitles, unfortunately miss much of this linguistic richness). In this sense, the film is also about the language(s) and the dialects that both united and separated the various nationalities of Yugoslavia.

Many reviews have noted that this is the first post-Yugoslav “Yugoslav” film, in whose production almost all parts of the former Yugoslavia participated. Private companies and ministries of culture in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo (Montenegro is absent) provided funding and support, along with, Hungary, Austria, and England. The long list of production credits that opens the film attests to the multi-national nature of small-budget filmmaking in Europe, but is also a statement on the part of the director that cooperation among the former Yugoslav republics, the new countries in the Balkans, is possible. Moreover, the well-known and new names among the actors span the former Yugoslavia, and at the film’s end, the full credits of the production teams reveal, if one studies the names, representatives of all the former republics. Thus the theme of “Yugoslavism” is introduced in the credits on a black background even before a single frame of the film’s action is screened, and it is repeated again in the film’s concluding credits. This theme is openly re-stated in the introductory note that follows the credits, still on a black background (in my translation): “The Yugoslav People’s Army was founded during World War II by communist leader Josip Broz Tito, and for the following 50 years it was a symbol of the unity of multi-national Yugoslavia. All men between 18 and 27 had to spend at least 12 months in one of the units which numbered representatives of all the Yugoslav nationalities.” An abbreviated translation of the latter part of this statement (seen on the screen) that the men had to serve “in one of its multi-ethnic units” loses the director’s emphasis on “all”—that the army was a true unifier of Yugoslavia.

Only after the titles and this statement does the film actually open with a long tracking shot over water, culminating in an enigmatic and symbolic explosion in the water, which is never explained in the film’s realistic narrative plane, but which clearly has metaphoric meaning and presages the explosion of Yugoslavia to come. The film is shot in wide-screen, foregrounding in the repeated tracking shots of the lake and the surrounding countryside the pristine beauty of the landscape that was once Yugoslavia. The explosion is reflected in an eye, shot in close-up with a cut to the actors’ credits, and a tilt shot up to the sky. This sequence is repeated at the very end of the film, thus creating a circular metaphoric and stylistic connection.

After a fade to black, there is a repeated cut in close-up to the eye of a soldier, lying in a boat as he watches another soldier having sex with a woman. Sex, it seems, is all that is on the minds of these young soldiers, and as they joke around about women, the film’s “stud,” soon to be identified as the Serb Ljuba Paunović, speaks, in the official socialist clichés that will mark the ironic linguistic level in the film. Berating his friend for seemingly not taking the opportunity to have sex with a local girl, he tells the young “doctor,” in a double entendre, that the soldier’s primary task is: “the sweet dreams of the population.” As the naked men run and dive into the water, the final critical piece of information that places the film in its historical place and moment is written across the screen: “Lake Ohrid, 1987, Yugoslav-Albanian border.” Could this heedless jump into the depth of the water by these bare-bottomed innocents, serve as a metaphor for what, perhaps, awaits them in the future?

borderpostAs the more experienced man continues to joke about the other soldier’s innocence, the younger man produces a pair of woman’s panties with teddie bears on them, with the afterthought, that “gentlemen don’t tell…”.  It is precisely this seemingly innocent, handsome, and beguiling young man, the “doctor,” who will bed the wife of the commander of the outpost, and set in motion events that will lead to tragedy. As the men race to get back to their outpost, to arrive before their lieutenant, Safet Pašić does (his name suggesting he is a Bosnian Muslim), the more-experienced man continues his well-practiced official jargon, now describing the men’s race as an Olympic event, and identifying himself as the Serb Paunović and his buddy, the “doc,” as Siniša Siriščević from Split. So a Serb and Croat could still be bosom buddies in this prewar Yugoslavia. What unites them is not only their age, but clearly their middle-class upbringing, their education, and their light-hearted, and ironic attitude towards their military service and, by extension, the country that required it of them.

The men arrive in time to line up, but without a lost boot that Paunović lies to the commander he has had to clean. As Paunović clearly pokes fun, the commander asks: “Are you screwing with me?” (Or literally: “Are you fucking me?”), and then answers his own question with a yes. (He employs the most frequently used verb not only in the film, but in army jargon, and the broader society at large). It is here that the struggle begins between the smart-ass soldier and the frustrated, clearly outwitted commander, a struggle that will take a tragic turn at the film’s denouement.

The everyday details of the soldiers’ daily lives in this god-forsaken border post—what they eat, how they exercise, but mostly how they relax and horse around listening to contemporary music-—are given in an almost documentary fashion, with an energetic moving camera following their activities in mid-shot and close-up. The real-life nature of this place and time is underscored by repeated TV reports which document the larger social and political events that reach even this distant corner of Yugoslavia. Barely heard, as the men go about their business, is an announcement that there is to be a scholarly conference titled: “After Tito: Tito,” and that workers have visited the birthplace of this “greatest son of the nations and the nationalities” and that a Slobodan Milošević was to visit Kosovo… This seems to have absolutely no effect on the men, and is part of that official jargon that, on the one hand, still retreads the Titoist past, and on the other, presages the major events to come, of which the men, and, the population at large, are blissfully ignorant.

Once the director has invited the viewer to relive the last days of innocence, or at least, ignorance, in a Yugoslavia that is still clinging to its socialist past, the plot, as the saying goes, thickens. In a comic scene, the commander Pašić, orders Siniša, the “doc” (who has graduated from medical school but never practiced), into his office to show him (and us!), in close-up, the sore on his penis. Syphilis, says the doc. A telling conversation takes place as Pašić asks for the doc’s “communist word of honor,” to keep things quiet, only to find out that the doc is not a party-member, and moreover, isn’t sure he can give his word, because he “doesn’t want to die.” Pašić, for all his flaws, belongs to the older communist generation, while the baby-faced doctor is part of the cynical generation which seems to believe in nothing. When the commander discovers that it will take three weeks of shots to cure his syphilis, he orders a lock-down and full combat preparedness at the outpost, cancelling all passes (including his own) because “Albanians are lining up on our border,” and “the enemy never sleeps.” When the soldiers ask how long this will last, his answer is, at least three weeks. It is not farfetched at this point to identify the commander’s made-up Albanian threat (so he can hide his syphilis) with the imaginative and deadly warmongering of higher-ups that lead to Yugoslavia’s disintegration.

In order to be cured and to fool his wife, Pašić sends Siniša, the young doc, to town to get the necessary medical supplies, and to tell his lonely and suspicious wife that he, as commander on duty, cannot visit her. Back at the border post some soldiers fall for this ruse, training for a fight with Albanians, while Paunović (Ljuba), who continues to horse around, points out that none of them has ever seen an Albanian. Siniša’s trip to town (shot on location in Macedonia) yields an image of useless, frenetic military activity, and a Serb colonel, nick-named Rade the Orchid (the director’s ironic nod to a well-known war criminal of the 1990s from the region), who worries about his flowers, which “produce oxygen without which we cannot breathe.”  In the outpost, suspicions about the non-existent Albanians and Pašić’s motivations for the lock-down are merged with continuing TV news that on “the 42rd anniversary of the victory over fascism and the 7th anniversary of Tito’s death” a Yugoslav youth relay was to be run from Kosovo all the way to Belgrade to “demonstrate that we are still following in Tito’s path.” Much of the film’s black humor is found not only in the situational comedy (“until we heal his prick, we are at war with Albania” says the town doctor), but in the various linguistic puns, the raw, juicy, swear-laden language of the recruits, and the stultifying and soporific official government jargon, delivered on television, and repeated with wonderful irony by the doctor’s buddy, Ljuba Paunović. The ever-present mother-swears, addressed by everyone to everyone, may be funny, but they also point to the deeply patriarchal machismo culture, not only of the military, but of the whole Balkan society. Everyone gets either literally or metaphorically “screwed” in this film.

As the men believe and don’t believe the story of the Albanians, some practice their drills and others, primarily Siniša and Ljuba, horse around, and smoke hash, deciding, however, not to give it to the guard dog, because “someone has to protect Yugoslavia.” When Paunović decides to rearrange the words of an official slogan on a building about protecting “brotherhood and unity,” into “electrical orgasm,” (the title of a musical band in Belgrade, he tells the commander), he sets in motion the conflict with authority that will end in tragedy. After Pašić slaps him for the offense, Paunović slowly seeks revenge by insisting, in his best socialist lingo, that he must go on foot to Tito’s grave in Belgrade to pay respects “for everything that he (Tito) has done for the brotherhood and unity of our peoples and our socialist collective.” The gullible Pašić wavers between belief and disbelief, but must, in the end, send Paunović to the colonel (Rade the Orchid) in town, to carry out his homage to Tito.

As Pašić continues to send the doctor on errands to town and to his wife, the physical attraction between the young doctor and the lonely, abandoned wife takes on a life of its own. Official public life and private fates intersect as the siren marking the anniversary of Tito’s passing is heard in the town marketplace over a private, sexually charged conversation between Siniša and Mirjana, who finally learn each other’s names, well on their way to their inevitable affair.

During his repeated meetings with his commander to give him shots in the behind (with some comic physical elements), the doc, Siniša becomes the lieutenant’s confidante, learning of Pašić’s own story, a typical biography of socialist progress from a poor peasant shepherd to a university-educated officer. Of course, in Pašić’s drunken retelling, he ran away from the sheep and the Bosnian mountains only to find himself in this mountainous, sheep-infested god-forsaken hole elsewhere in Yugoslavia, from which he is so desperately trying to escape. To keep the men at combat readiness, Pašić destroys the radios the men use to listen to pop music (but which also keep broadcasting Tito announcements), and seemingly believing in his own propaganda about the Albanians, works himself and some of the men into a paranoid frenzy, with night maneuvers in camouflage gear.

In the meantime, during their third meeting, as Siniša delivers Pašić’s salary to his wife, the two lovers finally consummate the visual and verbal affair they have been having since the moment they met. Their passionate coupling seems to be a momentary escape from this stultifying, provincial hell-hole, with Mirjana’s self-aware commentary on how “stupid it is to be a woman” (with your dowry, sheets, and towels stowed away even before you can walk). When Siniša tries to calm her, saying “everything will be fine,” she responds with “nothing will be fine,” a comment that foreshadows not only the fate of their relationship, but of the whole country as well.

Back at the border post, Paunović continues his campaign to go to Belgrade to pay homage to Tito, clearly playing Pašić for a fool. As he and Pašić get drunk together, they rope in the sober doctor to drive them to the local kafana to celebrate their last night before Ljuba is to report to Rade the Orchid for his trip.

borderpostWhile Pašić still cannot decide whether Paunović is kidding about walking to Tito’s grave and is going to “screw him over” with this stunt, the two men, in a drunken stupor, make up, despite the fact that, when asked, the doc says that Ljuba will in fact screw the lieutenant. It is no surprise, then, that when told by the colonel that a TV crew is all ready to accompany this pilgrimage to Tito’s grave, Paunović disavows the trip, saying he doesn’t want to go and with copious tears tells the colonel Rade the Orchid that Pašić made him do it. While the doc and Mirjana, in bed, discuss the possibility of telling Pašić about their affair (he might kill you, she says), the colonel is apologizing to the journalists for this fiasco, telling his assistant to “give them flowers and drinks” and then, back in his office, proceeds to beat Paunović as he continues to cry. 

The physical and verbal comedy in the “homage to Tito” narrative line is interspersed with the increasingly serious repercussions of the affair between the doc and the commander’s wife.  Moreover, the farcical tone of the film (carried out beautifully in the outstanding, over-the top acting of Sergej Trifunović as Ljuba Paunović), takes on a sinister note with a cut to the now gray and dark lake accompanied by ominous whooshing sounds, and, in close-up, the dripping water from a leaky roof back at the border post.

The rest of the film takes place in darkness and in the rain, as Pašić, berated by the colonel for supposedly making Paunović go on the pilgrimage to Tito’s grave, finally breaks down: seeing his career in ruins, with no hope of ever getting a transfer out of this hell-hole, he swears back at his superior. Now the raw swearwords and the ethnic slurs, which were funny throughout most of the film (as when the Macedonian Mirjana pokes fun at her Croatian lover from Dalmatia), acquire a life-ending fatality which is soon fulfilled. The sad Bosnian music that accompanies this scene announces an imminent tragedy. After saying to his underling, “bring me that circumcised idiot on a chain like a dog,” the Serb colonel smiles knowingly as he hears Milošević speak on the radio in Kosovo that “it was never in the nature of the Serbian and Montenegrin people to retreat when faced with obstacles, to demobilize when it is time to fight…” Once again individual personal conflicts foreshadow and parallel the larger conflict yet to come.

As everything begins to fall apart and take on a tragic tone, the lovers also feel the end is near:  Siniša, looking at Mirjana’s half-packed suitcase, ponders his commitment to her, and in vain tries to console her, telling her to wait until this is over, when “normal life” will come. She responds with a knowing finality that “there is no normal life,” that “everyone talks of normal life, but something more important always comes up.” As he makes love to her for what we know to be one final time, it becomes clear that even that life-affirming passion can no longer provide escape from the literally dark reality that surrounds them.

borderpostWhen Siniša leaves, a desperate, half-dressed Mirjana, fearing that her husband will kill her lover, races off into the night after him, hitching a ride to the border post on the army vehicle sent to fetch Pašić to the colonel.

A series of rapid events and misunderstandings, all played out in the dark, all but abandon the comedy in this tragic-comedy, or perhaps render the comedy, in the Yugoslav tradition, truly black. The rain-soaked meeting between Pašić and Paunović (“I was only joking,” the soldier tells his commander) takes a deadly turn when Pašić savagely beats Paunović after hearing from him that his wife is “fucking” another man. Paunović responds in kind, beating Pašić to death with a heavy stick. As the doc sees Pašić die, he nods to Paunović who is hiding in the bushes, and who presumably runs away, as we never see him again or find out if there were repercussions for his, now, deadly prank and fight. Is it coincidental, we might ask, that it is the Bosnian who dies, the Serb who kills and the Croat, perhaps somewhat wiser, was relatively unscathed at the film’s end? This seems too simplistic an explanation for the overall tragedy played out in the film’s final scenes.

As some soldiers come running to see the fight, others yell “Albanians,” mistaking the army vehicle sent by the colonel for the enemy. (The intermittent, poorly working car lights are seen as enemy signals). In the rapid firing that ensues, accompanied by bravado shouts of pride in Yugoslavia, one lone officer who escapes the army vehicle single-handedly gets the border post to surrender—a no longer funny commentary on the preparedness and commitment of military and its future in the coming war. The soldiers seem not to notice that this supposed Albanian enemy is swearing at them in their mother tongue. Unfortunately, other soldiers in the vehicle and Mirjana herself fall victim to the shooting.  As the doc leans over Mirjana’s dead body, looking up at him with innocent, open eyes (the first of many innocent victims of the war to come), the film’s main narrative ends with a close-up of her eye and then a moving train reflected in it.

This reflection serves as a transition in time and space, and from darkness to light, in the film’s epilogue. In overhead, panoramic tracking shots, the rushing train, with the Yugoslav red star prominently displayed on the locomotive and carrying the demobilized doctor (we ask where?), cuts through the bright, magnificent landscape, ending over the now blue water as credits roll. Presumably the doctor is headed back home to Dalmatia and the beautiful Adriatic Sea which he had promised to show Mirjana. Coming from land-bound Macedonia, she had never seen the sea and was fated never to see it, just as her now dead husband was fated never to escape the mountains. The last sequence of the film shows that rushing train of socialist progress taking the beautiful country into an uncertain future. The accompanying haunting music, heard intermittently in the film, of Bosnian sevdalinke, sad love songs, does not bode well for that future.

Vida Johnson

The Border Post (Karaula), Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Austria, UK, 2006
Color, 94 min.
Director: Rajko Grlić
Script: Rajko Grlić and Ante Tomić (based upon the novel Nothing Can Suprise Us by Ante Tomić)
Director of Photography: Slobodan Trninić
Music: Sanja Ilić (composer), Suzana Perić (editing)
Editing: Andrija Zafranović
Cast: Toni Gojanović, Sergej Trifunović, Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Verica Nedeska, Bogdan Diklić
Producer: Ademir Kenović
Production: REFRESH PRODUCTION, Sarajevo; VERTIGO / EMOTIONFILM, Ljubljana; SEKTOR FILM, Skopje; PROPELER FILM, Zagreb i NP7, Zagreb; Croatian Radiotelevision, Zagreb; YODI MOVIE CRAFTSMAN, Beograd; FILM & MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT, London


Rajko Grlić: Border Post (Karaula, 2006)

reviewed by Vida Johnson © 2011