Krsto Papić: When the Dead Start Singing (Kad mrtvi zapjevaju, 1998)

reviewed by Boško Picula © 2011

when the dead start singingAt the small apartment of two Croatian guest workers in Berlin, one of them watches in amazement as his friend steps out of a coffin, and asks him: “What do you need a coffin for when you’re alive?” His roommate answers handily: “But I am not alive any more. I died this morning at eight o’clock....” These are the opening lines in the film that marked the year of 1998 in the eyes of critics and filmgoers alike. The film’s author is Krsto Papić, one of the most significant Croatian film directors, whose contribution to the seventh art in Croatia is mirrored in feature films and documentaries of equal importance. Furthermore Papić chalked up a series of international successes: participation in the Berlin festival, nomination for the Golden Globe, an award at the Montreal festival.

Born in 1933 in Vučidol, Montenegro, Papić earned his university degree at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, and began to work in film in the mid-1950s as an assistant to directors such as Fedor Hanžeković and Veljko Bulajić. Ever since he made his debut in 1965 as director of the segment Waiting  (Čekati) in the New Wave omnibus The Key (Ključ) (the other two segments directed by Vanča Kljaković and Antun Vrdoljak), his films are regularly considered to be creations manifesting a unique opus despite the variety of film types, genres and themes he takes on. This variety within his recognizability as an author has remained a constant of Papić’s creative work until the present as he is preparing a new film project. Established as a Croatian cineaste in the years and decades in which Croatia was a federal unit within the former Yugoslavia, Krsto Papić shot his first feature film in independent Croatia in 1998. This was the tragicomedy When the Dead Start Singing which in many respects draws on, interprets, and unites his thematic, generic, and ethnographic preoccupations from his most famous and familiar earlier films, be it feature or documentary. It is therefore hardly surprising that When the Dead Start Singing was greeted at its premiere as the great return of a great director.

when the dead start singingHaving declared that he likes mixing the tragic and the comic in his films, Krsto Papić chose the the play Cinco and Marinko (Cinco i Marinko) by prominent Croatian playwright and musician Mate Matišić for his return to film after a seven-year absence dating from the movie Story from Croatia (Priča iz Hrvatske, 1991). He had already worked with Matišić as screenplay writer on Stories from Croatia, and this cooperation logically extended to the next film. As soon as Papić saw the play performed, he decided to adapt it as a film. Ever since his first movie, Papić had himself written or co-written all his screenplays, which made him, among other things, one of the leading representatives of what is known as authorial cinema. Thus as co-screenplay writer he can be credited with the adaptation of Matišić’s original play which was given new sub-plots and screenplay solutions. The film When the Dead Start Singing is a true tragicomedy, and it is a tragicomedy of confusion in which the comic is first in the lead, and the tragic comes at the end of the story. But independent of the prevailing intonation, the film does not pull back for a single frame from the synergy of the humorous and the sad. Regardless of which part of the story he told, or which character he worked with, the director, also co-writer, firmly remain in the position of creating an atmosphere of the interwoven nature of human comedy and tragedy. Even in the funniest situations, one tastes bitterness somewhere. Shakespearean, one might say: in a manner adapted to this part of Europe.
when the dead start singingThe central protagonists of the film are two Croatian emigrants in Germany who have been sharing an apartment for a year. They are Cinco, who went to Germany for economic reasons and Marinko whose main reason was political, fleeing the Yugoslav communist regime as a Croatian nationalist. 1991 was the year when the Yugoslav federation reached its turning point after the democratic changes in which several of the republics, including Croatia, opted for independence, while members of the Serbian minority in Croatia opted for armed rebellion. This is what was happening at the moment when Cinco and Marinko set out from Berlin for their homeland, though they were making the trip for prosaic reasons. Cinco has falsified his death so that he might enjoy a German pension at home upon his return, while Marinko happens to help in getting the coffin over the international borders. What looked at first like a perfect plan soon comes upon a series of obstacles: Cinco’s physician who signs the fake death certificate is actually involved in the sale of human organs; Marinko is attacked by a Yugoslav secret agent who ultimately kills him, while Cinco in his coffin ends up in a vehicle headed for Turkey instead of traveling in a hearse to Croatia. And finally, the destination of the two friends is becoming a war zone in which the Yugoslav army and Serbian rebels are attacking the Croatian village...

when the dead start singingThe play from which the movie was filmed premiered in 1992 at the Zagreb Kerempuh Satirical Theater, and was honored as the best dramatic text at the Days of Satire. Krsto Papić had already been successful at filming theatrical work in the past. One of his best films, Acting Hamlet in the Village of Mrduša Donja (Predstava Hamleta u selu Mrduša Donja), with which he participated in the official program at the Berlin film festival in 1973, is an adaptation of a play by noted Croatian writer Ivo Brešan, also with a tragicomic approach. Papić definitely plumbed the experience of working on that film, drawing from the original the most cinematic aspects, building them into a new cinematic form of expression applicable to the whole. The movie When the Dead Start Singing unfolds at a lively pace in which various plot settings easily follow one after the other, and their interchange—from the peaceful and prosperous German capital city to a little town in Dalmatian Zagora facing wanton wartime destruction—signal the shifts in coordinates of the tragicomedy. As the saying goes, the further south you go the sadder things become, but with no loss of wit. And furthermore, when he was a young director in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Krsto Papić stepped forward as the strongest film interpreter of the rugged Dalmatian landscape and the people who live there. His film Handcuffs (Lisice) of 1969 is on all the lists of the best Croatian feature films of all time. This is a case of a unique melding of a modernist approach, a documentary-like atmosphere, and ethnographic authenticity which uses the example of the regime settling accounts with a dissident to enunciate a concrete setting and concrete politics. Intimate and contextual at the same time.

when the dead start singingThere is a similar connection as well in behind When the Dead Start Singing, but more as a dedication to Papić’s entire opus than as a determining factor of the story. In this sense the film is the breeziest piece in his career, whose feature films, with the exception of this one and, in large part, Acting Hamlet in the Village of Mrduša Donja, grapple with serious themes and discourses, and portray society in dark tones. From Handcuffs which speaks critically about the nature of Yugoslav totalitarianism clashing with Soviet totalitarianism after World War II, through The Rat Savior /La Nuit de la Métamorphose (Izbavitelj, 1976) as a metaphor for the birth of fascism in inter-war Central Europe, to My Uncle’s Legacy (Život sa stricem, 1988) which, again, from the perspective of an individual speaks on the nature of the Yugoslav variant of communism and anti-individualism (nominated for a Golden Globe). Always informed by the reactions of viewers as the key arbiters, Papić has attempted in the film When the Dead Start Singing to create as fluid a communication as possible with filmgoers, grounding the film in the comic plot.

when the dead start singingThis is what sets this movie apart from the rest of Papić’s feature films. What makes it typical of Papić is the uninterrupted interfusion of human destiny and social context. There is hardly a film in which Krsto Papić hasn’t used the characteristics of the environment and period in which the story unfolds to determine the fate of his characters. Setting his story in 1991 at the onset of the Croatian war for independence from Yugoslavia, whose federal institutions had been taken over by the regime of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, later indicted for war crimes, Papić gives us a unique moment in Croatian history with a keen and acerbic take. His personifications are the main characters of the movie: economic emigrant Cinco who risks his life and liberty to enjoy life with his family after years of privation while he lived and worked abroad, and political émigré Marinko who, despite the democratic changes in the country, harbors no illusions that anything will change in terms of the social status of people like himself. Their journey home is the journey of two of life’s losers or, as it was later often called, losers in the democratic transition, of which there were millions in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. The specifics of losers in the democratic transition in Croatia is that their position was made all the more difficult by the war, the outbreak of which is re-interpreted, also tragicomically, in the movie’s finale. In doing so Papić supplements the genre of tragicomedy with wartime action drama, taking care not to lose for a moment his critical tone and ironic overtone. Although it is very clear who started the war, not all defenders are innocent. This complexity makes the film all the more relevant and profound although some of the critics faulted the film for its sudden and unnecessary transition to a war-related theme.

when the dead start singingYet another important link between When the Dead Start Singing and the rest of Krsto Papić’s creative opus is the theme of Croatian guest workers in Germany. Papić dedicated some of his finest documentaries, for instance, to this topic, such as Hello, Munich (Halo, München, 1968) and Special Trains (Specijalni vlakovi, 1972). Regardless of whether they are documentaries or features, the Croatian economic emigrants in Papić’s films are almost fatalistically pre-determined for a bitter fate, in which they do not experience satisfaction in the place they have moved to, nor in the place they left behind. This is why the choice of preeminent Croatian actors with whom the director has worked before—Ivo Gregurević (Story from Croatia) and Ivica Vidović (The Rat Savior), playing the roles of Cinco and Marinko—is key to the final impact of the film. The characters of energetic swindler and melancholic stoic are given optimal interpretations, just as the macabre use of deceased singers from Sinj rera ensembles in the background of the story (hence the movie’s title), resembling a Greek chorus, effectively rounds out the depiction of the destiny of people from that time and place. And finally, the poster designed by Boris Ljubičić, himself from this region, was successful in promoting the movie.

The movie When the Dead Start Singing brought its director the Golden Arena for Best Director at the 45th film festival in Pula, 1998, at which composer Zrinko Tutić was also honored with an award, while the film itself was given the Golden Arena, an audience award conferred at the Pula arena, one of the largest open-air movie theaters in the world. Triumphing at the national festival in 1998, Krsto Papić confirmed that after Croatia’s independence the continuity of his creative works meant that he remains one of the leading names in the domestic film industry.

Translated by Ellen Elias Bursać

Boško Picula

When the Dead Start Singing (Kad mrtvi zapjevaju), Croatia, 1998
Color, 102 min.
Director: Krsto Papić
Script: Mate Matišić (based on his play Cinco i Marinko), Krsto Papić 
Director of Photography: Vjekoslav Vrdoljak
Music:Zrinko Tutić
Editing: Robert Lisjak
Set Designer: Mario Ivezić
Costumes: Ruta Knežević
Cast: Ivo Gregurević (Cinco), Ivica Vidović (Marinko), Mirjana Majurec (Maca), Ksenija Pajić (Stana), Boris Miholjević (Dr. Lučić), Matija Prskalo (Ana), Žarko Savić (Vlajko), Dražen Kühn (Ante), Đuro Utješanović (agent), Ivica Zadro (driver), Ljubo Kapor (Petar), Peter Carsten (Kurt Müller)
Producer: Ljubo Šikić
Production: Jadran Film, Croatian Radiotelevision


Krsto Papić: When the Dead Start Singing (Kad mrtvi zapjevaju, 1998)

reviewed by Boško Picula © 2011