Zrinko Ogresta: Fragments: Chronicle of a Vanishing (KrhotineKronika jednog nestajanja, 1991); Washed Out (Isprani, 1995);  Red Dust (Crvena prašina, 1999); Here (Tu, 2003); Behind the Glass (Iza stakla, 2008)

reviewed by Tomislav Šakić © 2011

red dustAn audiovisual inscription of the external world, film has always been understood as “moving pictures” or a real record of the world beyond the camera. Even within the illusory film realm, the fictional truth is factual since it is realizable in the material world, and the camera is always objective inasmuch as it records settings, costumes, actors… Notwithstanding its inherent immanent realism—along with its other half consisting of fantasy and the telling of stories in the traditional clash of Lumière and Méliès—it has often been interpreted as a reflection of the environment from which it originates. According to the simplistic theory of reflection, “film is seen as a ‘reflection’ of the dominant beliefs and values of its culture” (see Graeme Turner, Film as Social Practice, 1999: 152).

The film industry participates in the construction of “nation” (Turner, 156) and the concept of national culture has always been narrowly tied to the idea of national cinema—what is more, the traditions in world cinemas are customarily prefixed by national determinants—German Expressionism, the Soviet Avant-garde, French Poetic Realism, Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, etc., a part of the cultural industry,[1] film is seen as a form of representation and as belonging to broader societal and cultural processes of creating meaning through images, sounds, and signs. Social meanings are generated through culture (Turner, 1999: 48) in a circular process (in the sense that they are produced and consumed). Film impacts the systems of meaning in a given culture, but is, at the same time, their product (Turner, 152). In other words, film is an arena of ideology.

red dustBesides this co-relation between film, culture, and ideology, film directors themselves often do not shy away from the contexts in which they work and choose to confront their national cultures, taking on the roles of representatives, opponents, critics, or at least witnesses. In socialist Croatia Veljko Bulajić belonged to this group. In the period since Croatia’s independence (1991) we should mention Krsto Papić and the more recent works by Antun Vrdoljak (Long Dark Night/Duga mračna noć, 2004; Tito, 2010). If one had to point to a director in the post-1991 period, however, who made topics of national and social interest his top priority the choice would likely fall on Zrinko Ogresta. His stories are deeply embedded in society and appear to be at the same time narratives about the nation. In this sense Ogresta is perhaps the only direct successor to Krsto Papić with whose recent films—Story from Croatia (Priča iz Hrvatske, 1991); to a degree also My Uncle’s Legacy (Životom sa stricem, 1988), and When the Dead Start Singing (Kad mrtvi zapjevaju, 1998)[2] —he shares both visual aesthetics and narrative patterns containing a national dimension, especially in Fragments: Chronicle of a Vanishing (Krhotine 1991) and Red Dust (Crvena prašina 1999).

red dustWhile Papić is more direct—the author of the renowned Handcuffs (Lisice, 1969) overtly sets his films as national narratives depicting various historical traumas from the recent past, such as clashes with the followers of the communist party, the Croatian spring of 1971, economic and political emigration—Ogresta opts to pursue a seemingly more circuitous path. For instance, in Papić’s Story from Croatia the character played by Ivo Gregurević functions as a common Croat through whom the harrowing junctures of newer Croatian history are refracted, and who stands completely disillusioned by the end of the film (he loses not only his ideals but also his family because of his imagined homeland). In this film the national narrative is turned into national trauma. By contrast, in Ogresta’s Red Dust the character played again by Ivo Gregurević (known for his roles of the “common” Croat from the neighborhood), the local Yugoslav policeman (Kirby) first undergoes a process of transformation into a Croatian policeman—even by changing his manner of speech from Serbo-Croatian to the official version of Croatian used by authorities—only to find himself facing the failures of the new society, beating up a local petty criminal/member of the nouveau riche (the Boss, the embodiment of all the negative aspects of the Croatian war economy and privatization in the mid-90s). This scene stands as a symbolic resolution of social contradictions (see Turner, 155) i.e., of accumulated social trauma, and serves as an outlet for a cathartic purging of all the negative elements that accumulated in the body of the nation during the Tuđman era.

red dustThe characters in Papić’s films are marionettes of history, politics, and the Balkans (which itself has become his almost obsessive theme); they are actors in the larger narrative about the nation that determines their fates. By contrast, characters in Ogresta’s films are not so much the bearers of a national narrative, as they are representatives of “ordinary people” who constitute the majority in the nation.[3] Ogresta is clearly on the one hand heir to the established traditions in Croatian cinema (note for instance his title Fragments: Chronicle of a Vanishing in which “chronicle,” a social form par excellence, recalls Papić’s Story from Croatia),[4] while on the other, he relies indirectly on Polish cinema (Washed Out/Isprani, 1995, is a paraphrase of Marek Hłasko’s The Eight Day of the Week, a novel which was made into a film by Aleksander Ford in 1957) and its line of “moral concern” (Krzysztof Zanussi, Krzysztof Kieślowski). This orientation had a significant influence on Croatian cinema in general, and is visible, for instance, in the “social-essay films” of Fadil Hadžić and Bogdan Žižić of the 1970s, and films by Zoran Tadić in the 1980s.[5] Ogresta’s work, focusing on ethical issues, thus continues the cycle of films by his older colleagues, i.e. it relies on the trend of social essays, created in the shadow of the political oppression which descended upon Croatia and its intellectuals after the Croatian spring. One could argue that Ogresta’s films have a somewhat less blunt critical edge, as do Hadžić’s and Žižić’s in the 1970s. After all, Red Dust ends with a dramaturgical solution and fictional emptying of accumulated frustrations that was not a common occurrence in Croatian real life at that time. What Ogresta gains through such authorial choices is precisely an ethical, Catholic habitus.  His moral concern is a worthy successor of a similar orientation in Kieślowski’s work precisely because Catholicism is at the root of both (The Decalogue serves as a remote model to Ogresta here).

behind the glassMoralizing with a Catholic provenance comes forth particularly forcefully in Ogresta’s more recent films in which he seemingly abandons national topics—such as in Behind the Glass (Iza stakla, 2008)—only to have social issues hit back hard as a boomerang. The private soap-opera story about marital infidelity is established as a narrative about emotions burdened with upbringing, prejudice, tradition, moralizing, feelings of guilt, etc. In other words, existing societal and cultural patterns (or stereotypes) are perpetuated. Even when he chooses an intimate love story, Ogresta, for whom film is first and foremost social art, unravels it as a story about collective values rather than as a transgression of societal or religious norms. It is precisely with regard to the romantic themes that we can see how far Ogresta is from some of the standards of Croatian and (post)Yugoslav film (Rajko Grlić’s 2010 film Just between Us is a close comparison, due to a similar story). Sexual relations are never shown overtly,[6] moreover, there is no “Balkan” mindset that indulges in uninhibited physical pleasures, alcohol, folk music, elements present even in Papić’s work. More than anything else, Ogresta’s cinematic world is full of suppressed anxiety and hopelessness.

washed outAs already pointed out, the common thread in most, if not all, of his films is the fates of ordinary people. In Washed Out these are a young couple who cannot find a place to make love, petty criminals, grouchy and frustrated mothers disappointed with life, a father who longs for a sunny day to go fishing…The rain pours incessantly, while the psychological states of the characters are indicated already by the film’s title. Similarly, in Red Dust there is not a single character who is not a person from the street and events take place in an imaginary part of the city meant to represent Croatian everyday reality. The focus is on typical loci and profiles through which Ogresta gives a portrait of fallen society: a coffee shop with resident drunkards, neglected kids, a soccer club, a local brick factory (with no future), an altruist priest, a good/harsh policeman, petty criminals and a local Mafioso, a sick girl, an ex-girlfriend beaten (and eventually killed) by her new husband/criminal, a neighborhood boy who idolizes the main character, and finally the main character himself who is a fugitive from the Yugoslav Army and a hero of the Homeland war, but also a boxer with nothing to look forward to and a former prisoner (imprisoned on false charges).

washed outThe main protagonist in Red Dust, appropriately named Luka Crnjak (the last name means “Blacky” in Croatian) crosses the borderline of what is permissible and takes social justice into his hands when, unrelated to his other problems (although they are caused by the same person, the Boss), he is shattered by the death of his young neighbor Sonja (suffering from a heart condition) with whom he has become romantically involved. In the same spirit, when policeman/father Kirby beats the Boss at the end of the film in front of people from the neighborhood, his primary motivation is Crnjak’s death, but in this moment of justified rage he also channels the society’s wrath towards the Boss as a symbol of the new Croatia—an incarnation of numerous tycoons and usurers in the phase of transition.[7] Duplicity and hypocrisy prevail in this bleak picture of the nascent state and even the Boss himself dares to allude to the “common good” when he buys a local brick factory in order to build a new soccer field from which only he will profit. It is clear that a capable and genuine protector of the interests of ordinary people remains elusive, and herein lies the true tragedy. Crnjak—opposed to the Boss who serves as pitiful symbol of new Croatian reality—has to perish as an embodiment of an ethical line so that the neighborhood boy, Zrik, for whom Crnjak is an idol, will “no longer believe in the fairy tales.” Crnjak is further contrasted to the Boss as a hero of the Homeland war who has emerged from the war untainted and is now asking himself “What did I fight for?” There is no more cigarette smuggling business for Crnjak. He goes to work honestly at the brick factory until its work is halted in the process of privatization, which sets in motion a series of events leading to the final tragedy.

hereUnfortunately, Goran Tribuson’s script remains burdened with his American models, from Martin Scorsese’s New York films to the prototypes of Rocky-style justice seekers. The dramaturgical conflicts caused by these incompatibilities are sometimes difficult to overcome for Ogresta through directing, and the transitions from the realm of the private to that of the collective are not always adequately motivated. Still, one needs to underscore a skillful sequencing of scenes such as the opening descriptive shots which establish the chronotope for the film and introduce the character of the military deserter (i.e. Crnjak), the transitional eclipse which joins the first and the second halves of the film, and the final medium-shot in which the characters leave the site of tragedy moving diagonally across the red dust of the brick factory. All is bleak and hopeless in the fates of the ordinary protagonists choked in the dust and the atmosphere of the incessant summer drought emphasized by the prevalence of brown-reddish colors.

hereIn his next film Here (Tu, 2003), Ogresta makes a significant shift, injecting his script with a different type of structure. This is a film in which Robert Altman’s directorial concepts are recognizable: an omnibus that follows some ten characters on six parallel tracks, stringing through these vignettes a story about contemporary Croatia here and now. It is precisely this type of poetic orientation providing a vertical cut into the tissue of society that allows him a way of escaping the traps that lurked in the script of his Red Dust. The later film does not insist on showing a naturalistic aspect of relations in society or clashing ideological positions, rather, it provides insight into a point of time chosen seemingly by chance. This temporal juncture is then used to depict a series of individual stories (i.e. slices of life) that are related and mutually entangled, forming a collective narrative at the associative level. The introductory war segment relies on the metaphor of a wounded bird and functions as a path marker telling the spectator that the foundations for the Croatian state were forged in recent war. The rest of the stories, however, are dramatically set up as “found situations” without the development of the events leading up to them. They are populated with people typical for Ogresta’s films, characters from the margins of society with no prospects who reflect the state of the entire nation.[8] Especially memorable is the second story, a modern and powerful echo of Trainspotting  (Danny Boyle, 1996) and Run, Lola, Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998), in which a girl desperately seeks a fix. The final story focuses on a family and epitomizes the culmination of traumatic experiences in Croatian society. In its final part the father, a former warrior in the Homeland war with shaky hands that intimate suppressed trauma (caused not so much by war as by a general disappointment in life) stands by a window smoking while his son stands at another window. And then just before the final darkening, as a global metaphor that puts into perspective all that has been seen up to that point, we hear the national anthem which is broadcast on the state radio every night at midnight. Perhaps unintentionally, this moment represents a sublimation of the trauma that has accumulated in the course of the film and which does not have a cathartic resolution as it does in Red Dust, but grows, rather, into a literal darkening that hovers over the entire nation.
In the period of Croatian cinema since independence Ogresta will be remembered for his ethically charged Red Dust and Here through which he has left a sobering statement about society in transition and the disillusionment of ordinary people. It is perhaps logical that after the ominous final scene in Here which summarizes the last twenty years of the country’s social condition he chooses to set the topics of national narratives aside and turn his attention to personal stories such as the one in his most recent film, Behind the Glass, in which, however, one can still clearly recognize in the shattered personal fates the impact of a traumatized society.

Translated by Aida Vidan

Tomislav Šakić


1] See Richard Johnson, “What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?” 1983, in John Storey, ed. What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader, 1996.

2] Story from Croatia /Priča iz Hrvatske was distributed abroad as Idaho Potato. My Uncle's Legacy was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.

3] This picture of “ordinary people” was pushed to the grotesque in Neven Hitrec’s 2009 film The Man Under the Table (Čovjek ispod stola), based on a script by Hrvoje Hitrec, which is populated by distorted creatures residing in a twisted imaginary suburb of Zagreb. Another representative of “dark Croatian realism” is Davor Žmegač’s The Golden Years (Zlatne godine, 1993), the first noted feature of independent Croatia.

4] The chronicle structure (a story following the life of a family over several decades and simultaneously refracting national history) is shared by Papić’s My Uncle’s Legacy and Story from Croatia, Ogresta’s Fragments, and Žmegač’s The Golden Years.

5] In this sense Papić is closer to Andrzej Wajda whose films also function as narratives about the key or traumatic segments in the national history.

6] Except in Behind the Glass (Iza stakla, 2008), but even here the sexual act is accompanied with tears, accusations, and guilt.

7] Boss himself is in fact a ridiculous outsider on the margin of the big-ticket transactions taking place at the time this film was shot.

8] The film was described along these lines also in the trailers. It is important to note that Here received a special jury award at the festival in Karlovy Vary, a critics’ award at the festival in Montpellier, first place at the Milan festival, but also—and we should note the significance that lies in the name—the Krzysztof Kieslowski award at the Denver film festival.

Fragments: Chronicle of a Vanishing (KrhotineKronika jednog nestajanja), Croatia, 1991
Color, 100 min.
Director: Zrinko Ogresta 
Script: Lada Kaštelan, Zrinko Ogresta 
Director of Photography: Davorin Gecl
Editing: Josip Podvorac
Set Designer: Duško Jeričević
Costumes: Doris Kristić
Cast: Filip Šovagović (Ivan Livaja), Alma Prica (his wife), Slavko Juraga (Lovro Livaja, Ivan’s father), Nada Subotić, Semka Sokolović, Đuro Utješanović, Kruno Šarić, Ivo Gregurević, Ana Karić, Lena Politeo, Božidar Orešković (Tomo Livaja, Ivan’s grandfather)
Production: Jadran film, Croatian Radiotelevision

Washed Out (Isprani), Croatia, 1995
Color, 92 min.
Director: Zrinko Ogresta 
Script: Zrinko Ogresta (based on Marek Hłasko’s novel )
Director of Photography: Davorin Gecl
Music: Jasenko Houra
Editing: Josip Podvorec
Set Designer: Ivica Trpčić
Costumes: Maja Galasso
Cast: Katarina Bistrović-Darvaš (Jagoda), Josip Kučan (Zlatko), Filip Šovagović (Jagoda’s brother), Mustafa Nadarević (Jagoda’s father), Božidarka Frajt (Jagoda’s mother), Ivo Gregurević (Ivo), Božidar Orešković
Production: Jadran film, Croatian Radiotelevision


Red Dust (Crvena prašina), Croatia,1999
Color, 105 min.
Director: Zrinko Ogresta
Script: Goran Tribuson, Zrinko Ogresta  (with Tarik Kulenović)
Director of Photography: Davorin Gecl
Music: Darko Hajsek
Editing: Josip Podvorac
Set Designer: Ivica Frangeš
Costumes: Vesna Pleše
Cast: Josip Kučan (Crni), Marko Matanović (Zrik), Mirta Takač (Sonja), Ivo Gregurević (Kirby), Slaven Knezović (Boss), Kristijan Ugrina (Škrga), Sandra Lončarić (Lidija), Žarko Savić (father), Ante Vican (Father Grga), Božidarka Frait (neighbor), Marica Vidušić (Lela), Jelica Vlajki (Ruža), Vanda Vujanić (Julija)
Production: Inter film

Here (Tu), Croatia, 2003
Color, 90 min.
Director: Zrinko Ogresta
Script: Zrinko Ogresta
Director of Photography: Davorin Gecl
Editing: Josip Podvorac
Set Designer: Goran Stepan
Costumes: Željka Franulović
Cast: Jasmin Telalović (Kavi), Marija Tadić (Duda), Zlatko Crnković (Josip), Ivo Gregurević (actor), Ivan Herceg (Karlo), Nikola Ivošević (Lala), Barbara Prpić (tourist), Filip Juričić
Production: Inter film, Croatian Radiotelevision

Behind the Glass (Iza stakla), Croatia, 2008
Color, 80 min.
Director: Zrinko Ogresta
Script: Lada Kaštelan, Zrinko Ogresta
Director of Photography: Davorin Gecl
Music: Bernarda Fruk-Mišković, Tomo Fogec, Zbynek Mikulik
Editing: Josip Podvorac, Vladimir Gojun
Set Designer: Tanja Lacko
Costumes: Željka Franulović
Cast: Leon Lučev, Jadranka Đokić, Daria Lorenci, Anja Šovagović-Despot, Božidarka Frait, Nina Violić, Dara Vukić, Boris Svrtan, Krešimir Mikić, Bojan Navojec, Trpimir Jurkić
Producer: Ivan Maloča
Production: Inter film in cooperation with Croatian Radiotelevision

Zrinko Ogresta: Fragments: Chronicle of a Vanishing (KrhotineKronika jednog nestajanja, 1991); Washed Out (Isprani, 1995);  Red Dust (Crvena prašina, 1999); Here (Tu, 2003); Behind the Glass (Iza stakla, 2008)

reviewed by Tomislav Šakić © 2011