Croatian Film in the Yugoslav Context in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

By Ivo Škrabalo

© Ivo Škrabalo, 2011

Croatian film entered the twenty first century with an array of awards and favorable reactions from numerous international film festivals. Let us mention only the most relevant. Vinko Brešan’s Witnesses (Svjedoci), a psychological drama about dark aspects of the Croatian Independence War was featured in 2004 on the official program of the Berlin film festival where it took two awards. In addition, it received the highest recognition at festivals in Jerusalem, Karlovy Váry and Motovun. Awards were also taken home by other filmmakers from festivals with a focus on Eastern European cinema. Particularly noted were directors belonging to what is called young Croatian film (Ogresta, Sviličić, Matanić, Nuić, Hribar), but also veterans who had appeared first on the Yugoslav scene (Grlić, Radić, Schmidt, Šorak).

In the festival season 2009/2010 the psychological war drama The Blacks (Crnci, 2009) by directorial tandem Zvonimir Jurić and Goran Dević resonated widely in international circles, receiving awards at Cottbus and Linz as well as at Belgrade and Ljubljana. At the Sarajevo Film Festival, which in recent years has become the most important regional forum for authors and works of post-Yugoslav cinema, but also for films from the broader field of Southeastern Europe, Croatian actors have been particularly praised (Leon Lučev, Rakan Rushaidat, Marija Škaričić, and Zrinka Cvitešić). “The Heart of Sarajevo”—as the principal award in the regional competition is called—was given in 2008 to Buick Riviera by young Croatian director Goran Rušinović.

In addition to regular invitations to an increasing number of international festivals catering to art film, broad recognition of Croatian films suggests that this country’s cinema is acquiring its own identity which is distinct from that of the other post-Yugoslav and similar “small” film industries. Although Croatian production is recognized in its own right, it has nonetheless not yet launched world-renowned works such as the recent Romanian films (and earlier, the Czech, Hungarian, and Polish films), nor has it taken home awards from the so-called “A” festivals.

ninth circleCroatian film goes back further, however, than the newly founded state. It is generally unknown that more than half a century ago, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, two Croatian films were granted the highest forms of recognition.  The Year-Long Road (Cesta duga godinu dana, 1958) by visiting Italian director Giuseppe De Santis, filmed and made in Croatian production, won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award among five foreign-language nominees. Two years later The Ninth Circle (Deveti krug, 1960) by Francé Štiglic, a tragic love story about the efforts of residents of Zagreb to rescue several Jewish citizens from persecution by the criminal Ustasha/Fascist regime, received the same nomination. These were, in fact, the first successes of the nascent Yugoslav film industry and, as a result, little note was made of these movies as Croatian films, produced at Zagreb’s Jadran Film. Namely, in Tito’s Yugoslavia there was only one brand: Yugoslav film. At the moment when the first state institution for film production was established by political decree in 1944, the rising Yugoslav film industry was not shackled by tradition. Not one of the six republics of the newly pronounced federal state—with the relative exception of Croatia—had inherited an organized film industry. One should say, however, that since the early days of the twentieth century they had all shared an ambition to get a domestic film industry going. These film enthusiasts, operating mostly in isolation, lived to see the undoing of their dreams as a shared fate.

Development of an organized film industry in Yugoslavia was in fact accomplished by the victorious communist government and, as a result, film was treated exclusively as the domain of so-called socialist (rather than nation-specific) culture. First and foremost, diligent party ideologists followed Lenin’s famous statement from 1922 that “film, for us, is the most important of all art forms.” This justified their need for film production, but also gave them reasons for increased vigilance in terms of its ideological control.

Film Production in the Independent State of Croatia

lisinskiIn April 1941 when Hitler’s Blitzkrieg collapsed the military and state structures of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (which, following Hitler’s plans, the occupiers divided into as many as nine districts with different forms of governance), the Independent State of Croatia was established. This provisional quisling creation was ruled by the Ustasha regime with an extreme fascist/Nazi orientation. For all practical purposes the political and military domination of the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy turned this totalitarian quasi-state (comprising also of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina) into a protectorate. Already in the first months of its governance, the Ustasha regime commenced with film production for the purposes of war propaganda, and it soon founded a film production company called Croatian Motion Pictures (Hrvatski slikopis). A film journal (as a form of war propaganda) was regularly put together and showed there, a practice which lasted until the Axis powers capitulated in May 1945. It was within the context of this production that the first Croatian sound feature was made, Lisinski (1944), directed by one of the most renowned film pioneers, Oktavijan Miletić (1902-1987). The film focused on the biography of Vatroslav Lisinski, composer of the first Croatian opera during the nineteenth-century National-Revival period. Despite its overly emotional depiction of Revivalist ideas and focus on patriotic fervor, the production quality of Lisinski, evidentin the area of cinematography, set design, music, and sound testified to the professional level of expertise of Zagreb film enthusiasts.
Paradoxically, it was during the Ustasha regime that the material and technical infrastructure for film production was created. As propaganda was the principal function of film during this time, much of the modern equipment was obtained from Germany. At the end of the war, despite the plans to have the equipment transferred back to Germany, all of it was salvaged. In order to make this possible, the employees of Hrvatski Slikopis, working subversively with the Partisan movement, secretly filmed the retreat of the defeated armies and the Partisans entering Zagreb. From these materials Branko Marjanović made his documentary film Liberation of Zagreb (Oslobođenje Zagreba, 1945), which was also known as Film News No. 1 (Filmske novosti broj 1) since it marked the beginning of regular production of a film journal in new Yugoslavia. This unique cinematic gaze witnessing the collapse of the Ustasha regime can be taken as both a real and a symbolic juncture in the continuity of Croatian cinema. It also meant a new beginning for professional development within the communist Yugoslav context in which Croatia was one of six federal units.

In the Beginning: The Soviet Model

Hindsight sometimes lets us see history as full of unexpected paradoxes. The existence of the criminal Ustasha-Nazi regime (for four years), followed by the oppression of the Partisan-Communist era (for forty-five years), brought about both fortune and misfortune in terms of the formation and development of Croatian as well as Yugoslav cinema.

Without the political and propaganda needs generated by the totalitarian regime, the state would not have secured funds for the film industry, and without monetary support the film pioneers would not have enjoyed the opportunity for continuous work. On the other hand, technical prosperity was, needless to say, paid for in spades by constraints on artistic freedom and a servicing of the antidemocratic and inhumane regimes. The choice of topics was dependent on the political tides, and there were times when the filmmakers did not even have a say as to style. Nonetheless, the most important task in this first period was to master the craft of making movies, even if this was to be done at a cost and while abiding to the prescribed ideological strictures.

“We voluntarily castrated ourselves,” said director Branko Belan when explaining in retrospect why the first filmmakers did not even question the ideological premises to which they had to hold if they were to remain artistically active. After these first enthusiasts came new ones, inheriting the accrued knowledge and supplementing it with new skills. So it was that the film profession in Croatia was begun. One should keep in mind, however, that the creation, development, and survival of Croatian and Yugoslav institutionalized cinema with a continuous production of feature films as well as other genres was at its core bound to politics, its historical permutations, and pragmatic metamorphoses.

Even before the end of the war, in the fall of 1944, the Partisans organized the Yugoslav State Film Company (Državno filmsko preduzeće Jugoslavije) with branch offices in each of the federal units. Its principal purpose was to seize from the occupiers the film equipment, supplies of raw materials, and archives found at each of the film centers. The private movie theaters (approximately 180 in Croatia) were gradually appropriated or nationalized in the course of the first postwar year.

The Yugoslav cinema was organized on the basis of the Soviet model (this was true, after all, for almost all other aspects of life immediately after World War II), and the movies focused on the Partisan heroic victories that ended the war. Because it now owned the technology, Croatia was able to make the first documentaries. Among these, special attention was given to Jasenovac (1945), showing the notorious concentration camp for Jews, Serbs, Roma, and Croatian anti-fascists, and filmed immediately after the liberation of the camp in the spring of 1945. As Zagreb had inherited more or less fully equipped studios that were taken over undamaged after the Partisan liberation, they provided technical services for the other film centers in Yugoslavia in those first years.

Despite strong centrist tendencies present in all spheres of social life, the film production of new Yugoslavia was not all concentrated in one location, but instead was organized on federal principles from its very inception. Thus it never yielded to a Yugoslav Hollywood, Babelsberg, or Cinecittá. One could say that even the ideological monism of the winning Communist Party was not absolute, since film life in each national center developed at a different pace, allowing for the distinct traditions, mindsets and cultural interests of each community. Still, for the survival and development of both Croatian and Yugoslav film it was decisive that the state took the industry under its wing.

A Brief Phase of Socialist Realism  

Croatian (as well as Serbian and Slovenian) films of the 1940s and early 1950s followed Soviet models. This aesthetic and ideological approach known as socialist realism was a requirement for any form of creative activity. The term was never elaborated further in Yugoslavia so its interpretation relied on the Soviet definition as proclaimed at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers as early as 1934 when one of Stalin’s favorite collaborators, A. A. Zhdanov, announced in his introductory speech that artists were “engineers of people’s souls” and used this expression for the recommended aesthetic orientation in literature and the arts in general (the term had actually first been used in Literaturnaja Gazeta in 1932). Although never formulated precisely as an obligatory political directive in Yugoslavia, it was still imposed as a strong suggestion, which requested that art “depict life in a realist manner,” and foregrounded the struggle of the masses for a better future in communism when ideas of justice and equality would prevail and the collective would be superior to the individual.

blue 9Not many Partisan films were made in Croatia during the period of socrealism. For a full seven years (from 1949 to 1956) not a single war movie was made, but rather the beginner- directors were learning the ropes of the filmmaking process. They were also broadening their interest to include a range of topics and genres while not departing from the canon of the official aesthetics. Within a rather modest scope (typically one, or exceptionally two, films per year), Croatian film production may have been tainted ideologically, but it was diverse in terms of themes and genre: the film industry probed the interests of the audiences and, at the same time, it chalked up experience. The first film of a “lighter genre,” The Blue 9 (Plavi 9, 1950) by Krešo Golik (1922-1996) had, for that time, a phenomenal audience reception. This was a didactic sport comedy which explored the affirmation of a new type of socialist ethics in the realm of physical fitness.

Bakonja fra Brne (1951) is considered to be the most mature film of the early period, directed in a proficient yet static manner by Fedor Hanžeković (1913-1997), a director favored by the regime. This screen version of a wry novel on monastery life by Simo Matavulj (standard reading in every school curriculum) became, in the era when the communist government was settling accounts with the church, an anti-religious pamphlet populated with caricatures of Franciscan monks. The film unravels at a slow pace, spells out too much, and never hides its political slant. From first to last take it represents a true example of socrealism in Croatian film, never overstepping the boundaries set by the socio-political times during which and owing to which it was made.

ciguliThe first Croatian film which had the honor of being censored, Ciguli Miguli (1952) by Branko Marjanović, was also shot around the same time. This harsh and bizarre ban imposed by the Party was directed at Joža Horvat, scriptwriter, author of popular theater comedies much in the spirit of the new regime who had hitherto never been criticized. What is more, he was a veteran of the Partisan resistance and an influential member of Agitprop, the Party council which kept a vigilant eye on ideological suitability. The director, Branko Marjanović (1909-1996), was the most experienced and best-educated collaborator of Hrvatski Slikopis whose previous film on Partisan battles against the Ustasha, The Flag (Zastava, 1949), was even honored with an award by the government. The degree to which this banned film was harmless in mocking the ineptitude of the local bureaucracy could be judged only a quarter century later when the ban was finally lifted in 1977. Allegedly Tito himself had insisted on the censorship. The film had to wait until 1989 and the eve of the fall of socialism to be shown in regular movie theaters.
The Fifties: A Time of Easing

Stalin’s condemnation of Tito and expulsion of Yugoslavia from the communist bloc in 1948 did not immediately change cultural politics, but control gradually abated and the Soviet model was no longer obligatory. Artists sensed a greater freedom in the realm of style although an ideological commitment was still expected of them. There followed a period of relative liberation in the cultural sphere and this brought about significant new strides, especially in the visual arts. Film directors could now turn to other models. This, of course, did not automatically ensure spectacular results, but it did widen their horizons.

concertA dozen films were produced at this stage (some of which were made by future big names of Croatian cinema), and in them one can recognize an effort to examine and absorb the achievements of world and European film. In his first feature, In the Storm (U oluji, 1952), Vatroslav Mimica (1923) relies on the principles of the American thriller set on a Dalmatian island, while in his comedy Mr. Ikl’s Jubilee (Jubilej gospodina Ikla, 1955) he follows slapstick patterns. A prewar social story, Stone Horizons (Kameni horizonti, 1953), by Šime Šimatović (1919) relies on elements of Italian neo-Realism, while the poetic parable A Girl and an Oak (Djevojka i hrast, 1955) by Krešo Golik is characterized by the influence of Mexican cameraman Gabriel Figuero’s black-and-white photographic expression. Branko Belan’s (1912-1986) The Concert (Koncert, 1954) evokes associations with the French prewar film noir and is the best-directed film of this period although its qualities were not recognized at the time. It was re-evaluated only by the new generation of film critics two decades later to be pronounced the most accomplished Croatian film of the early years.

Croatian films of the fifties were the most interesting and mature within Yugoslav production thanks to their narrative structure, interesting directorial solutions based on a solid knowledge of world trends, and minimal concessions to the ruling ideology. One of the most productive and competent directors, Branko Bauer (1921-2002), started his career with two youth-adventure films Blue Seagull (Sinji galeb, 1953) and Millions on the Island (Milioni na otoku, 1955), neither of which was burdened with socialist didactic themes. He became fully established with the exceptionally well-directed urban war film My Son Don’t Turn Round (Ne okreći se sine, 1956), a psychological drama which stood apart from the clichéd coverage of Partisan subject matter in other film centers. To everyone’s surprise, the film triumphed at the country’s principal film festival in Pula. His subsequent movie, a Macedonian production, Three Girls Named Anna (Tri Ane, 1959), anticipated in part the critical treatment of social themes which became a focus of the so-called “black wave” (particularly in Serbian cinematography) in the coming decade.

my sonIn July of 1954 a film festival was begun in Pula: it was at first a modest screening of domestic films in the imposing ancient arena, but it soon grew to be the main Yugoslav feature film festival. As a hybrid that included audience screenings, critical evaluation of the gamut of Yugoslav film production, and a competition among the national cinemas within the multinational federation, the Pula festival gradually acquired the status of an event where criteria were defined and new values launched. Large audiences and open-air shows gave the event a special feel. Interaction between the audience’s populism and the critics’ elitism (and the unavoidable supervision by the political overseers) gave this exceptional “international festival of Yugoslav film” momentum, allowing it to have a real impact on the thematic and stylistic orientation of all Yugoslav cinema centers for more than three decades. The fact that Yugoslav President Tito had a summer residence on the nearby Brioni islands was yet another twist. As a movie lover he regularly watched most of the films at private screenings, and on occasion he joined the public screenings in Pula in a special seating area in the sold-out Roman amphitheater.

The unquestionable preeminence of Croatian films in the fifties was confirmed through a series of awards: starting with 1956 and Bauer’s My Son Don’t Turn Round, films in Croatian production took the top awards nearly every year and also drew large audiences in all the republics. One of the most-viewed Croatian films of the fifties was Master of His Own Body (Svoga tela gospodar, 1957), the last of Fedor Hanžeković’s three films, popular all over the country. It was an entertaining although rather conventional screen version of the eponymous play by Slavko Kolar, a sentimental tale interwoven with humor in the kajkavian (north Croatian) setting and dialect, depicting the grinding poverty of rural life.

The following year brought Nikola Tanhofer’s (1926-1998) H-8 (1958), a tense story about a collision between a bus and a truck, a movie that launched this excellent director known for his modern, lapidary expression. The polyphonic script by Zvonimir Berković and Tomislav Butorac allowed Tanhofer to display his directorial skills, opening the film with the announcement of the tragedy yet not revealing until the very end who the casualties would be. Among the passengers on the bus one recognizes people from all walks of life. Anticipating in a sense the future “catastrophe genre,” this classic of Croatian cinema truthfully tackles everyday themes as elegantly as any of the most recognized European film of the day, its well-deserved award at the Pula festival further reinforcing the impression of the preeminence of Croatian film within the Yugoslav film industry of the fifties. 

From the start the Zagreb film center was open to directors from elsewhere. However, a visit by Giuseppe De Santis (1917-1997), a great figure of Italian neo-Realism who directed the expensive production The Year-Long Road (Cesta duga godinu dana, 1958) had no lasting impact. This socially engaged story, though not altogether convincing, about a local initiative to build a rural road in the rugged setting of the Dalmatian hinterland featured several Italian stars (Massimo Girotti, Silvana Pampanini, Eleonora Rossi Drago) and a number of prominent domestic actors. The film was characterized by elements of a late and somewhat stylized neo-Realism. The local producer may have been disappointed with it, but the lengthy film did win a prestigious Golden Globe and was the first Croatian film (under the Yugoslav umbrella) to be nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. It also received a Golden Gate for acting (Girotti).

trainSoon another debut film was making ripples on the Croatian film scene: Veljko Bulajić’s (1928) Train Without a Timetable (Vlak bez voznog reda, 1959). The author made bold with the influences of the American classical western as well as resonances with Italian neo-Realism in this epic evocation of postwar colonization in which entire villages of people from the southern rugged combat zones are transported by train to the fertile northern plains. Unfortunately, he never hints at the fact that these new colonizers are appropriating land hitherto owned by members of the German minority (known as the Donauschwaben), who have been forcefully relocated by state decree to the western part of wartorn Germany. Because of its innovative subject matter and mosaic-like dramaturgy this film became a turning point in the development of both Croatian and Yugoslav film.

The formative period of knowledge and acquisition of the craft was drawing to a close. At this time the central Zagreb production company, Jadran Film, was a target of outraged criticism, especially by aspiring directors who resented the fact that visiting artists were brought in from other centers with no selection process. Indeed, a number of films of questionable quality was shot in Zagreb by minor directors from other parts of the country. Still, one positive exception justifies, at least to a degree, all the failures. Using a script by Croatian author Zora Dirnbach, the leading Slovenian director, Francé Štiglic (1919-1993), shot a tragic love story, The Ninth Circle (Deveti krug, 1960), about Zagreb inhabitants who saved Jews from deportation to concentration camps.  This work brought Jadran Film (and the Yugoslav/Croatian film industry) another Academy Award nomination in the category of foreign film. Even after half a century, this film remains at the very top in all the surveys, one of the finest Croatian films of all times.

The Sixties: Auteur Cinema

Auteur Cinema, as Croatian film in the nineteen sixties is customarily labeled, was the result of filmgoers’ dissatisfaction with the spiritual sterility and creative stagnation in the system controlled by the production companies. The idea that a decisive role in the complex process of filmmaking should be in the hands of those who made the films—the authors—seemed logical enough. The financial crisis of the federal fund (for which there was ever less funding for a growing number of films) accelerated its decentralization (1962). In a few years (starting in 1967) the system of financing was modified so support was not provided to production companies for their annual production programs, but rather to individual projects submitted directly by the authors via public competitions. In this way the authors partly assumed the role of producer, i.e. they moved into a stronger position in relation to dominant Jadran Film. Successful dissemination of the concept of auteur cinema (in Truffaut’s sense of cinéma d’auteur) was directly influenced by the Parisian publication Cahiers du Cinéma, which served as a theoretical source for the French New Wave. Works such as those by Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni furnished the arguments for a different understanding of film, while a political agreement reached by Tito and Khrushchev opened the door to films from the post-Stalin era, but also for those by Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak directors. In addition, there were Yugoslav films that departed from the usual conventions— the Slovenian Dancing in the Rain (Ples v dežju / Ples na kiši, 1961) and The Sand City (Peščeni grad / Pješčani grad, 1962) by Boštjan Hladnik (1929-2006), as well as the Serbian And Love Has Vanished (Dvoje, 1961) and Days (Dani, 1963) by Aleksandar Petrović (1929-1994)—inspiring others to shoot different types of films and to entertain greater creative ambitions.

prometheusIn Croatia, opposition to conventional film was most visible in the circle of Zagreb amateur filmmakers, especially at festivals which erased the division between amateur and professional film. These forums, called GEFF (Genre-film festival), were held as of 1963 in Zagreb every other year and included dissident filmmakers from all the Yugoslav centers. However, the closest source of inspiration for auterism was the Zagreb School of Animated Film. Its creative success, acknowledged worldwide, can be attributed to a more liberal creative climate as there was far less political supervision in animation than in feature film. In the late fifties and early sixties, international affirmation came with a series of important awards: in 1962 the first Oscar ever given to a non-American animated film went to Surrogate (Ersatz/Surogat) by Dušan Vukotić, and the Golden Lion in Venice was awarded to Vatroslav Mimica’s The Loner (Samac).         
kayaAfter a decade of working on animated film, where his hermetic style brought him international recognition, Vatroslav Mimica (1923) created the first auteur film in Croatia and among the first in Yugoslavia, Prometheus from the Island of Viševica (Prometej s otoka Viševice, 1964). Thematically the film remained within the context of the ruling ideology, but the main character’s personal settling of accounts broaches the sensitive issue of moral responsibility for revolutionary deeds that harmed other people. Its complex dramaturgy, cinematography, and editing, have made this film the hallmark of modern Yugoslav cinema. Mimica worked to bring his future films into sync with concurrent European tendencies (especially with the types of films shown at European festivals), which some critics ridiculed, labeling this approach socialist aestheticism (as opposed to socialist realism) whose purpose was allegedly to mask the sterility of the content with beauty of form. The general audience did not show much understanding for Mimica’s modernist orientation, and, not surprisingly, some ten thousand spectators in Pula’s ancient amphitheater booed one of his more suggestive films Kaya (Kaja, ubit ću  te!, 1967).

This creative climate also propelled several debutants who had to wait a long time to present their films. These supreme achievements departed in many ways from the ruling conventions, especially in terms of ideas and style, as evident already in Zvonimir Berković’s (1928-2009) Rondo (1966). This urban film about an unusual marital triangle received many awards and was one of the few Croatian films shown in movie theaters across Europe. Structurally evoking a complex piece of music, with stunning dramaturgy and refined camera work (Tomislav Pinter was director of photography), Berković’s thought-provoking film was essential for defining some of the dominant narrative patterns in Croatian film. Prompted by this film, critics recognized a general tendency to organize the plot in a circular manner and referred to the device as “Rondo-style dramaturgy.”

rondoThere are many good reasons to assert that the best Croatian films of the Yugoslav period came to life in the sixties, during the more inspired period of auteurism. These films were made by authors who were aesthetically isolated and were looking, each in his own way, for adequate expressive vehicles. They were not connected in any way by programmatic or generational commonalities. Another lone voice from this group belonged to Ante Babaja (1927-2010), an author for whom the medium of film was always in the service of an artistic Weltanschauung and who did not hesitate to experiment with unconventional expressive means. After several interesting short and documentary films, Babaja’s first feature, The King’s New Clothes (Carevo novo ruho, 1961)—a carefully stylized reworking of Anderson’s fairy tale—contained recognizable allusions to the cult of (Tito’s) personality. The supreme visual aspect owes a lot to the high-key technique[1] of the veteran Oktavijan Miletić and colorful effects achieved by Jagoda Buić’s vivid costumes. Thoughtfully stylized but insufficiently polished, the film occasionally stumbles in its pacing as it was expanded from a medium-length to a full-length feature. This flaw simplified the job of the ideological censors and, though it was not formally banned, the film never made it to the festivals or wider audiences, while the critics had a reserved response. It took Babaja a full six years to make another film, The Birch Tree (Breza, 1967), which showed the full range, however, of his creative skills. Based on a lyrical short story by Slavko Kolar about the fate of a gentle peasant girl who differs from village women as a birch does from the beech tree, Babaja painted a complex picture of both an ambiance and a mindset in which harshness and tenderness weave together. In collaboration with the masterful camera of Tomislav Pinter he enriched the visual aspect of the film in the spirit of the Croatian naïve painters and created a classic of the Croatian cultural heritage.

Liberalization in all spheres of Yugoslav society in the second half of the sixties was evident after Aleksandar Ranković was removed from his long-time position as head of the police and the secret service in July 1966. This atmosphere of decreased ideological control allowed Krešo Golik, one of the most respected pioneer directors, to return to feature film with great success after a ten-year hiatus imposed for political reasons. During a period of competing authorial idiosyncrasies, Golik bravely filmed his come-back piece I Have Two Mothers and Two Fathers (Imam 2 mame i 2 tate, 1968). This is a great exemplar of an ostensibly conventional narrative film, which, however, through its gentle and positive humor, focuses with sensitivity on the problems of children whose parents have divorced.

Golik’s next film was the musical comedy One Song a Day Takes Mischief Away (Tko pjeva zlo ne misli, 1970), a refined populist film on interwar Zagreb which achieved cult status with the viewers, while critics twice pronounced it the best Croatian film ever. These two films defined Golik as one of the most creative individuals in Croatian film. He also inspired a shift that had to happen after the ascent and then exhaustion of modernist auteur film: a return to an organized narrative.

Partisan Film

Very few Croatian films of the sixties occupied themselves with the anti-fascist war. For this reason newcomer Antun Vrdoljak (1931) surprised everyone with his Partisan feature When You Hear the Bells (Kad čuješ zvona, 1969). Equally avoiding ideological rhetoric and modernist challenges, he adhered to a recognizable but spirited narration (following the diary of hero Ivan Šibl) and depicted the experiences of a political commissar from Zagreb in the first days of the anti-fascist uprising in 1941. He also painted a vital picture of sensitive inter-ethnic relations and clashes between villages peopled with a religiously and ethnically mixed population. The film was well received by the audience as well as at festivals (a silver medal in Moscow). Vrdoljak soon shot the sequel The Pine Tree in the Mountain (U gori raste zelen bor, 1971) which had some 300,000 viewers in Croatia alone! By using an exceptional group of actors he was able to tease open the psychology and mindsets in the early stages of the uprising. Although Vrdoljak shot many other films (and left a negative mark as Tuđman’s trusted person and key player in film and media during the period of autocratic nationalism of the 1990s), these two films are generally considered to be a specific Croatian contribution to the genre of Partisan film (jokingly called easterns), one of the most authentic genres that emerged from the Yugoslav cinema.   

battle of neretvaSuper-productions intended to enhance Tito’s personality cult drew particularly large audiences. The Battle of Neretva (Bitka na Neretvi, 1969) by Veljko Bulajić, sponsored by Marshal Tito himself, enjoyed considerable international recognition and was even nominated for an Academy award as best foreign film. Although directed by an author who resided in Croatia, in terms of production and ideology this is largely a Yugoslav film. All film centers as well as distributors from several republics worked together on its creation and marketing. It is remembered as the prototype of an extremely expensive project supported by the state well beyond what regular film funds allowed. The film included a team of nearly sixty domestic and world stars (among them Orson Welles, Yul Brynner, Hardy Krüger, Sylva Koscina, Franco Nero, Sergei Bondarchuk, as well as recognized local names such as Boris Dvornik and Bata Živojinović). The pompous premiere was a celebration of the Tito cult and it was held in Sarajevo on the most important state holiday in the presence of celebrated foreign guests flown in from Rome and Paris. The grandiosity of this project drew the audiences (an unbelievable three million viewers in Yugoslavia!), but it also attracted foreign distributors who showed the film in more than seventy countries. At a recent festival in Moscow it was pronounced one of the ten most important films about World War II.

In almost all the Yugoslav republics many similarly ambitious but less successful spectacles were made and they were all characterized by a combination of megalomania and mythomania. Among such films—ironically labeled the “red wave” as opposed to the negative and subversive “black wave”—the most well known is The Battle of Sutjeska (Sutjeska,1973), by Croatian director Stipe Delić (1925-1999) who tried to repeat Bulajić’s production and dramaturgical formula, with Richard Burton playing Tito.

Social Criticism and Black Wave

Croatian films from the period of auteurism did not show much interest for dealing critically with contemporary issues in society, but rather focused on individual psychological states, with particular attention to style and means of expression. At the same time, the creators of what is known as the “black wave” in Serbian cinematography perceived the auteur approach as a chance to delve into the most sensitive political and social issues. Still, the Croatian film Face to Face (Licem u lice, 1963) by Branko Bauer may have been one of the first titles to open the door to a more daring exploration of contemporary societal problems. Even in his earlier film Three Girls Named Anna (Tri Ane, 1959) this recognized master of the traditional narrative structure pointed to both the possibility and the need of addressing reality critically. Bauer was an exceptional director, but his orientation meant that he was not an aesthetic innovator. Still, his contribution is vast in terms of development of cinematic literacy, an articulation of film language, and an understanding of the potential that moving pictures could have in this part of the world. His constructively critical Face to Face treats a conflict between a worker and the omnipotent Party structures, and owing to its topic, it made quite a stir. It was also significant for the rise and spread of the socially critical film in Yugoslavia, which, as stated earlier, took particularly deep roots in Serbia.
handcuffsThe sixties yielded a corpus of important films capped under the somewhat simplifying term “black wave” (Croatian: crni val; Serbian: crni talas), a dangerous label launched by the re-activated overseers of ideology with the principal purpose of persecution. This period in Yugoslav cinema is not dominated by ideologically subtle films from Zagreb, but rather by spirited Serbian achievements from authors such as Živojin Pavlović, Dušan Makavejev, Želimir Žilnik and others. One Belgrade critic elegantly said that the Croatian films in these years were smart while the Serbian films were razor-sharp.

In Croatia Krsto Papić (1933) was among the first to join the trend of a critical examination of reality with his suggestive Handcuffs (Lisice, 1969). If judged from the social and critical perspective, this is to date the most incisive Croatian film. Focusing on the taboo-topic of the 1948 rupture and the purging of Stalin’s followers using his selfsame methods, the film won the Golden Arena in Pula, but the authorities banned its screening at the Cannes festival where it was supposed to appear in the official program.

Papić’s next film Acting Hamlet in the Village of Mrduša Donja (Predstava Hamleta u selu Mrduša Donja, 1973) is a heavily politicized screen version of a play by Croatian playwright Ivo Brešan, in which backward and self-serving local political figures insist on their vulgar interpretation of Shakespeare’s play at an amateur performance venue. Needless to say, the film received its share of ideological criticism and obstacles at festival showings. Papić had to wait a full fifteen years to shoot My Uncle’s Legacy (Život sa stricem, 1988), the third part of his trilogy on the ruthless relationship between government officials and the individual. Again Papić had to fight harsh political criticism and interference even as he was shooting the film.

 The Seventies: A Collective Self-Censorship

A fundamental change in the political and social climate swept Yugoslavia in late 1971. With a single stroke Tito and Party removed a group of leading politicians and suppressed the Croatian national-liberal movement known as the Croatian Spring. For all practical purposes this ended a five-year phase of relative liberalism in politics and culture. The following year liberal party circles in Serbia met the same fate. The ideological supervision of all segments of culture tightened soon thereafter. Many artists and intellectuals found their names on (never made public) black lists and were removed from public life. This often meant that it was impossible for them to pursue their profession. The most notorious case was the prison sentence served by Serbian director Lazar Stojanović for his film Plastic Jesus (Plastični Isus, 1971).  

In Croatia several leading intellectuals and writers received prison sentences in 1972 which were several years in length, mostly for the “crime of reasoning” (delikt mišljenja). This was the most severe form of repression after World War II. Many cultural publications were shut down or disciplined. Although only one documentary was officially banned, a number of others were removed from the public eye without a formal ban. The atmosphere in Croatia during the seventies was marked by omnipresent repression and trauma, resulting in creative sterility in the realm of film. Ideological rigidity forced some filmmakers to remain silent (either by decree or voluntarily), while those who continued to shoot exercised self-censorship.

As far as the subject matter is concerned, the seventies in Croatia saw a number of fairly well made social essays, some of them distinctive in terms of visuals and editing, which dealt with marginal contemporary phenomena. They carried a dose of mild criticism which passed fairly unnoticed and presented reality in a truthful manner. The most relevant work from this lukewarm selection is Journalist (Novinar, 1979) by Fadil Hadžić (1922-2011).This is probably the most mature of Hadžić’s many films in which, with much bitterness, he depicts negative experiences in the area of journalism, his long-time profession.

living truthBogdan Žižić (1934) in his film Don’t Lean Out the Window (Ne naginji se van, 1977) was among the first to address the disheartening subject of the gastarbeiters (Croatian immigrants working temporarily abroad in Western countries, especially Germany) in a mode similar to the acerbic style of his documentaries, while Nikola Babić (1935), another great documentary maker, based the feature Crazy Days (Ludi dani, 1977) on the same theme, laced with bitter humor. The first feature by theater and TV director Tomislav Radić (1940),entitled The Living Truth (Živa istina, 1972), aroused great interest among filmgoers (and political suspicions). In this film Radić applies the cinéma direct approach ingeniously to realize a stunningly convincing portrait of a popular actress. It is easy to see that politically less risky genres were being favored as a result of the political circumstances.

Two children’s films made in the seventies stood apart and reached beyond Croatia: Lone Wolf (Vuk samotnjak, 1972) by Obrad Gluščević (1913-1980) is considered one of the most mature and emotional films to have emerged from this part of the world. It was seen by a large domestic and foreign audience and received five prestigious awards from several specialized international festivals. Similar praise could be given to Train in the Snow (Vlak u snijegu, 1976) by Mato Relja (1922-2006), a brilliant film based on the eponymous cult juvenile novel by Mato Lovrak. As some of the most memorable films from this period one should mention Golik’s Violet (Ljubica, 1978), a compassionate reflection on the position and psychological situation of a single mother, as well as two impressive screen versions of Slobodan Novak’s novels: Ante Babaja’s Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh (Mirisi, zlato, tamjan 1971) and The Lost Homeland (Izgubljeni zavičaj, 1980). After his brilliant first feature Berković shot only one more film in this decade, a complex psychological melodrama The Scene of a Crash (Putovanje na mjesto nesreće, 1971) which was appreciated by the critics far more than by the author himself.
occupation The film that marked the entire seventies both in terms of the number of festival awards and the huge controversies it sparked was a war feature by Lordan Zafranović (1944)entitled Occupation in 26 Pictures (Okupacija u 26 slika, 1978). Along with his colleagues from Zagreb, Belgrade, and Sarajevo who all studied film directing at the renowned Prague Academy of Film, Zafranović belongs the so-called “Prague school” characterized by an unstaged approach to reality and bitter humor and cynicism. Occupation in 26 Pictures is a provocative film which structures the events that took place in Dubrovnik in the first days of World War II into an epic framework. It is especially remembered for a chilling episode lasting approximately seven minutes in which the Ustashas slaughter and bash the passengers they have captured on a bus that moves through the backdrop of the glorious ancient city. This scene of brutal bloodshed as contrasted with the utmost beauty is handled with such unrelenting naturalism that it can be justifiably catalogued among the most cruel and effective scenes of political horror in domestic and world film in general. Drawn by the explicit images of violence and sex, audiences flocked to the Yugoslav movie theaters. The recognition which this film achieved at festivals, combined with the fact that it emphasized the criminal nature of the Ustasha regime, made Zafranović a poster boy of the Yugoslav communist establishment. In the revived atmosphere of iron-hand rule after the repression of the Croatian Spring, this film went hand in hand with the Party conviction that treated any attempt by Croats to forge an identity of their own as tantamount to the Ustasha program. Having been sensitized by the crackdown on the Croatian Spring, the unofficial public stance in Croatia was that Occupation in 26 Pictures was a malicious pamphlet intended to stoke anti-Croatian sentiment. For this reason there was a refusal to recognize certain stylistic merits which this cunningly conceptualized and beautifully shot film does have. During the period of creative repression Zafranović’s film became a paradigm for ideologically desirable substance in elitist modernist packaging, and it was thus officially imposed as a model for others.

The Weary Eighties

After the political success of Occupation in 26 Pictures, Zafranović made two more films about revolutionaries’ fates (The Fall of Italy / Pad Italije, 1982; and Evening Bells / Večernja zvona, 1986), combining them into a trilogy that was supposed to depict the dramatic history of the Yugoslav revolution through personal fates. The films, however, rapidly faded from the collective memory.
melody posterRajko Grlić (1947) is another member of the Prague school who made some of his most important films in this decade with record box office sales, among them Melody Haunts My Reverie (Samo jednom se ljubi, 1981). This is an unconventional postwar melodrama about a victorious revolutionary who is brought down professionally and personally by his love for a woman from the bourgeoisie. Perhaps Grlić’s next film, In the Jaws of Life (U raljama života, 1984), because of its film’s thematic and stylistic complexity, is the most suitable for identifying the attributes of the Prague school. Based on a popular novel by Dubravka Ugrešić with a simple story line, it branches its subject matter in an ironic direction and organizes the narrative into two parallel plots. These postmodernist stylistic interventions shape the film into a complex and somewhat stylized grotesque in which the life and kitsch-philosophy of a young secretary on the one hand and the sophisticated intellectual media elite on the other are treated with a hefty dose of sarcasm.

In the course of Yugoslavia’s final decade, Croatian cinema reached a point of stability: competitions for funding were announced at regular intervals, sources of financing were determined by law, and production oscillated between five and eight films per year. A generational change was clearly on its way: some of the veterans made listless movies, and new names started cropping up. The authors coming from the Croatian segment of the Prague school were already established (Zafranović and Grlić), while for the budding new-genre film this was a particularly productive decade with directors such as Tadić, Ivanda, Tomić, and Šorak.
rhythm of a crimeShot with a low budget, outside the regular financing system, Zoran Tadić’s (1941-2007) black and white Rhythm of a Crime (Ritam zločina, 1981) has been pronounced the best Croatian film of the eighties and it has become a classic that has opened a new chapter in the history of aesthetic and stylistic orientations here. Tadić created a tense detective feature with elements of a fantastic mystery; he is thought of as the founder of new-genre film. This orientation is based on a return to established genre determinants in terms of style, in line with what was advocated by an influential group of critics, the so-called “Hitchcockians.” As they positioned themselves counter to ideologically colored conventions, this faction reached for traditional genres from the standard Hollywood production of the forties and fifties which had been re-discovered by the French New Wave in the sixties and the new Hollywood directors in the late seventies. With minimal funds but with the vast support of both critics and colleagues, Tadić shot six low-budget films in ten years. They resonated more within film circles than with the general audience. Nonetheless they introduced stylistic innovations not only in Croatia, but also in other film communities of the region. This refreshing take on the narrative film, following genre determinants, had an impact on many other directors, among them Dejan Šorak (1954) whose melodrama An Officer with a Rose (Oficir s ružom, 1987) was a major success in all the Yugoslav republics.
glembaysAfter a successful beginning with Partisan films Antun Vrdoljak turned his attention entirely to Croatian literature. His polished screen versions of two important contemporary prose and drama works—Cyclops (Kiklop, 1982) by Ranko Marinković and The Glembays (Glembajevi (1988) by Miroslav Krleža—were received surprisingly well across the country. Well received was also a debut film by Branko Schmidt (1957) entitled Sokol Did Not Love Him (Sokol ga nije volio, 1988). This was the first Croatian film which dared to show a column of exhausted soldiers and civilians on a forced march after the generals of the vanquished army of the Independent State of Croatia surrendered to the western allies near the city of Bleiburg in southern Austria only to be handed over to and executed by Tito’s victorious troops. The principal character of this war drama is a patriarchal peasant who tries to save his property and family during the war years, something that is only possible by astutely evading engagement by either the Ustasha or the Partisan armies. Poetic realism and a brutal truthfulness saved the film from the political censure that was expected but surprisingly never materialized. In the eighties even the censors were growing weary.

A New Beginning

Although film appeared as a new visual attraction in Croatia at the end of the nineteenth century—quite early and almost concurrent to other middle European countries—it took almost half a century for domestic film industry to take root as a sustainable system. Film production in Croatia has become not only continuous and more or less systematic since the 1940s, but other branches of the film industry (distribution, screening technologies, technical equipment, criticism, professional education) have been gradually building into a network. The most relevant perhaps is the fact that film as a medium of communication and artistic expression has become firmly rooted in Croatian culture and society in the course of the second half of the twentieth century.

countess doraThroughout this time Croatian film has been saddled, however, with an identity crisis. Namely, the cinema in Yugoslavia was regularly treated as a single whole and as a product of socialism, which implied that film art was an unquestionable outgrowth of Yugoslavism (understood as an ideology) and as such should favor a supra-national determination. It was not advisable to emphasize the national background of any film since this could easily have been qualified as nationalism. For this reason Croatian authors and their works inevitably appeared on the world scene under the Yugoslav umbrella.

The changing reality in the politics and society of the new state (Croatia was internationally recognized in January 1992) allowed its cinema to finally acquire a national identity. This has not proven to be an obstacle for a productive collaboration with colleagues from the neighboring countries with which Croatia has shared a great deal of common history in the twentieth century. Thus Croatian film found itself at the beginning again. Fortunately, this time the starting point was not zero. Most important of all is that its development has left us with a significant film heritage including a large number of fine films in a variety of genres and that these creations occupy central positions on the scale of cultural values in Croatia.

The new beginning has put forth an entirely new generation of young filmmakers, mostly educated at Zagreb’s Academy of Dramatic Art. In the first years of the country’s independence, film was an art that still had to find its way. There was nothing new coming out, but two of the older masters were finalizing work they had begun in the old system. For this reason the films Stone Gate (Kamenita vrata, 1991) by Ante Babajaand Countess Dora (Kontesa Dora, 1993) by Zvonimir Berković, both professors to a new generation of directors at the Academy, almost symbolically signify another link in the continuous chain of development. The future of Croatian film belongs to their students.

Translated by Aida Vidan


1] High-key technique yields a picture in bright diffused light with no shadows. The costumes and the elements on the set appear as a refined stylization with the effect of a dream or something surreal.


Updated: 15 Apr 11