The Dionysian Past and the Apollonian Future of Serbian Cinema (Žilnik, Kusturica, Dragojević)

By Goran Gocić (Belgrade)

© Goran Gocić, 2009

Probably the dichotomy most relevant for understanding Serbian cinema (and Serbian culture, as well as its relation to the ruling global model) is Nietzsche’s division of art into Apollonian and Dionysian.[1] The Serbian affinity or immersion in a Dionysian type of culture postulates something uncultivated and wild in content and, in plain language, messy in form. Simultaneously, in its dirtiness and rawness also lies its vitality, its relentless and uncontrolled power. That applies both to the content (which is the basic selling point of Serbian culture in foreign markets) and to the original, but uncultivated form—the so-called “black wave”that appeared in the 1960s in Serbian cinema with collage editing strategies, Brechtian shouting of paroles, picaresque, absurd or surreal plots and the fetishizing of marginal groups.The unbridled, surreal collage strategy in the films of Dušan Makavejev—which would turn out to be a key Serbian contribution to European cinema—was generated from pure improvisation and need. When the already shot feature material was found to be too short in Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (Ljubavni slučaj, or tragedija službenice PTT, 1967), the resourceful Makavejev filled in some documentary material in order make the film longer than sixty minutes. He squeezed the maximum from relatively bad working conditions, that is, he included bad installations and a broken string in his most successful collage: WR: Mysteries of the Organism (WR: Misterije Organizma, 1971), the anti-stalinist docu-drama on Wilhelm Reich, sprinkled with archival material and nudist sketches.

Social Horror, a Manifestation of the Dionysian Pole
Another concept essential for understanding Serbian cinema can be unofficially named “social horror.” Social horror was generated by crossing the Dionysian concept with strong social/political satire and a type of theater of cruelty. Through social horror Serbian cinema channeled the suffering of the so-called “little man,” and Serbian filmmakers found a safety valve for a trenchant liberal criticism of communism. The quintessence of social horror remains the Serbian Black Wave from the 1960s, but it continued to reproduce later: in the 1980s it captured the difficult economic and political crisis, while in the 1990s it delved into the wars of Yugoslav succession. Its screenplays marked a string of sobering facts: horrors of the suburban underworld, maladjusted poor folks, pariah ethnic communities, petty (rather then career) criminal subcultures and other social outcasts.[2]

Just as the majority of Serbian films are “war” films  (the so-called “partisan”  film being the most representative Serbian film genre), so the majority of Serbian films can also be classified under the meta-generic term “social horror” (including, apart from the Black Wave, brutal social/political satires made more recently, anti-war films and black comedies). Simply put, through Serbian history/cinematography is unmistakably woven that middle-European existentialist thread: the cruelty of social and historical circumstances that fatefully corrupts heroes and destroys their destinies.

The basic question is whether the audience wants to know the tough, sobering truths about itself, that are expressed in social horror. Apparently, squaring this circle was solved by the best Serbian dramatic writer Dušan Kovačević, who would continue the tradition of the great Serbian comedy writers. He would cultivate and develop social horror in a sublimated, absurd, multi-layered, more digestible style—and still in a typically Serbian version of black humor. Thanks to the miraculous pairing with the directing of Slobodan Šijan, one of his plays and one short screenplay would grow into masterpieces. The Marathon Family (Maratonci trče počasni krug, 1982)and Who’s Singing Over There (Ko to tamo peva, 1980) will be remembered as most significant moments in Serbian cinema.[3]

The contemporary residue of  social horror are sagas of drug addicts, begun in films such as Just this once (Još ovaj put 1983, Dragan Kresoja) and the more radical, Landscapes in the Mist (Pejzaži u magli, 1984, Jovan Jovanović). In the 1990s drug abuse, combined in film  with pyramid-scheme banking and street crime, will become a social constant in Serbia in films such as  Three Summer Days (Tri letnja dana, 1998) by Mirjana Vukomanović, The Absolute Hundred (Apsolutnih sto, 2001) by Srdan Golubović and Virtual Reality (Virtuelna stvarnost, 2001) by Ratiborka Ćeremilac.

No one, not even the creators of the Black Wave, could predict that their maxims would one day become the norm: firstly the norm of contemporary Serbian cinema through social horror, and later also the formula for the Serbian existential breakdown. Films about petty, charming con men would be replaced by films about career mafiosi. The underworld would not be an anomaly anymore, as immortalized in the theatre of cruelty films: Rage (Do koske, 1996) by Slobodan Skerlić, Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta, 1999) by Goran Paskaljević, Wheels (Točkovi, 2000) and The Mechanism (Mehanizam, 2002) by Djordje Milosavljević. The rats would awaken, and the hard-working, quiet, and respectable world would move out of film and the media, remaining present in the public arena only as a statistic.[4]

Žilnik: Dionysian Content and Style

Želimir Žilnik (the only “black wave” director who is still making films) is the best in caricaturing the lawlessness of “badly” made cinema. Žilnik’s opus rests on extreme carelessness in form: a reporter’s camera, the asymmetrically composed shot, basic technology, amateur actors, improvised dialogues and so on. When this is combined with the uncommon presence of outcast, marginal, sexually and politically alternative lifestyles and unbridled Dionysian content—we get a filmmaker who probably most thoroughly incarnates in film the Dionysian ideals of Serbian culture.

kenediIn dedicating himself to the labor market and sub-themes within it Žilnik’s variant of  social horror has a smiling face whether he covers unemployment in Unemployed People (Nezaposleni ljudi, 1968) and Hot Salaries (Vruće plate, 1987), emigrants in Second Generation (Druga generacija, 1986), Fortress Europe (Tvrdjava Evropa, 2001), and Europe Next Door (Evropa preko plota, 2005)  or sexual sub-cultures in Early Works (Rani radovi, 1969), and The Marble Ass (Dupe od mramora, 1995). Striking is the readiness of the director, who is now in his sixties, to react quickly to micro-social and macro-political changes, for which his economical and speedy filming is an ideal option.

Apart from the prejudice that films on the Roma might in some way compromise the Serbian cinema industry, the facts in the case are proving  the opposite to be true. The Roma are, at least where the Balkans are concerned, the guardians of the Dionysian mood and the pagan, eastern unruliness in music and in cinema. One might say they make Serbian cinema competitive on the world scene, and play a significant role in the tradition of Serbian cinema—from the above-mentioned classics of Petrović, Šijan and Kusturica, all the way to documentary hits such as Pretty Diana (Boris Mitić, 2003) and The Shutka Book of Recordsutkaknjiga rekorda, Aleksandar Manić, 2005), and the feature films: Gucha—Distant Trumpet (Guča, Dušan Milić, 2006), Hamlet (Hamlet, ciganski princ, Aleksandar Rajković, 2007) and Žilnik’s docu-dramas on Kennedy Hasani.

kenediIn the first decade of the new millennium, Žilnik discovered one of his heroes. Following the life of the charismatic Roma, Kennedy, year after year and film after film--Kennedy Goes Back Home (Kenedi se vraća kući, 2003), Kennedy Lost & Found, (Gde je bio Kenedi dve godine? 2005), Zilnik once again refreshes his well-known themes: unemployment-emigration-sexual sub-cultures. The culmination is Kennedy is Getting Married (Kenedi se ženi), where the young Roma, deported from Germany back to Serbia, now wants to emigrate from Serbia by hook or crook. In Kennedy is Getting Married, the best Serbian film of 2007, an odd balance is established between hilarious comedy and bitter social horror.

Kusturica: Dionysian Content, Apollonian Style

Ideally, the Dionysian force should be, as much as possible, captured in the plot, the atmosphere, or set design, in the method of work with actors/players and the pristine, unmessy, professional Apollonian elements should be found in the film’s form, but without compromising the film’s authentic energy. The champion of such bold synthesis in Serbia is Emir Kusturica. He has used his culture in a raw, authentic version of folk wisdom, aphorisms and proverbs, combining it with film knowledge and formal competence rarely seen in the region. His success, aided by his considerable production and promotion abilities, was quite unexpected.

Kusturica’s third film, the pagan Gypsy saga Time of the Gypsies (Dom za vešanje, 1989) resonated most strongly with social horror, perhaps even marking its apex. It established direct connections with the local film tradition on the one hand (firstly in its extreme, Dionysian approach to content), and global mythological patterns on the other. Precisely this ethno combination between local themes and global transposition (most obvious in his “baroque” trilogy Time of the Gypsies-Arizona dream-Underground) would bring him world fame. In retrospect, Kusturica can also be called a Serbian director: he worked with Serbian actors from the very beginning—When Father Was Away on Business (Otac na službenom putu, 1985) was also a co-production between Bosnia and Serbia--and he subsequently shot a total of five feature projects in Serbia. Strangely enough, he has been more supported (and imitated) abroad than in the region of the former Yugoslavia.

life miracleEncouraged by the critical and commercial success of his comic-book hyperbolic, historical tragi-comedy Underground (Podzemlje, 1995) as well as the Gypsy slapstick Black Cat, White Cat (Crna mačka, beli mačor, 1998, his commercially most successful feature), Kusturica decided to settle in Serbia and, with a help from a Serbian crew and actors, apply that matrix in his following films Super 8 Stories, Life is a Miracle and Promise Me This (Priče super osmice, Život je cudo and Zavet, 2001, 2004 and 2007 respectively).

His thesis of the healing, therapeutic effect of the Dionysian, Rabelaisian hyperbolic, physical comedies, in which the antagonist, vital as nature itself, is castrated, delegated to shit, and ritually neutralized may be right. But unfortunately, the truth in its stubborn application regardless of the story, does not guarantee either success with the audience or aesthetic accomplishment.

Dragojević: The “Rosy (Pink) Wave” and the Apollonian Current

Miserable due to the effects of the war and violence in the neighborhoods and (in a modified version) the wars and violence on television, the Serbian audience in the post-Dayton-Agreement era, the second half of the 1990s, started to wail desperately for something quite the opposite—at last in cinema. In the new millennium, an increasing number of box office successes have been comedies, in the first place comedies without recognizable black and/or absurd ornaments, that is, romantic and/or juvenile teenage comedies. A genre, nick-named the “rosy (pink) wave” (“ružičasti  talas”) was started by Srdjan Dragojević in 1992 with the box office hit We are Not Angels (Mi nismo andjeli).[5]

woundsDragojević’s controlled Dionysian attempt Wounds (Rane, 1998) would connect with social horror and the criminal thematic from the war and post-war years, while a direct confrontation with the wars of Yugoslav succession would be immortalized in his cynical masterpiece, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore, 1996). The latter film, highly professionally shot in Apollonian language but employing Dionysian passions, is about people who strayed accidentally into the war and faced their demons during a siege. Not only would it reach much farther than the major Serbian war titles—Deserter (Dezerter, 1992) by Pavlović and Vukovar Poste Restante (Vukovar – jedna priča, 1994) by Boro Drašković—but it would, along with Underground, establish itself as the most striking Serbian film of the nineties.

pretty villageThe most persistent, and, at the box office, most successful champion, if not the hero of the “rosy” genre of teenage comedy is Radivoje “Raša” Andrić, who dedicated his whole output to it in Three Palms for Two Punks and a Babe (Tri palme za dve bitange i ribicu, 1998), Dudes (Munje, 2001) and When I Grow up, I’ll Be Kangaroo (Kad porastem biću kengur, 2004). Just like Andrić, Miloš Radović, in his surreal A Small World (Mali svet, 2003), and Miroslav Momčilović, in his impressive Seven and a Half (Sedam and po, 2006) work in a recognizable Belgrade key and with the aid of juvenile humor. These would be not only the best Serbian films in their respective years, but also untouchable blockbusters.

The End of Social Horror and the Glorious Genre Future

The young lions of the Serbian film scene want change, and they want it now. They maintain that the penetration of contemporary genres into Serbian cinema is inevitable, and they find their ideals in the professionalism of Apollonian authors, genres, industries, and aesthetics. The makers of Ringeraja (Ringeraja, Milosavljević, 2002), An Almost Ordinary Story (Skoro sasvim obična priča, Miloš Petričić, 2003) or We are Not Angels 3: Rock & Roll StrikesBack (Mi nismo andjeli 3: Rokenrol uzvraća udarac, Petar Pašić, 2006) for example, are horrified by the local “uncultivated” technique and/or the tradition of the messy shot. Instead they step into an intertextual relationship with mainstream Hollywood cinema. The successful embodiment of the Apollonian ideals is disputable in these titles; the final results threaten to alienate such films from the domestic audience, while not endearing them to the foreign one.

This is also proven by the Serbian film emigrants from the 1990s. The expected results across the ocean either did not materialize (Slobodan Šijan, Stevan Pešić and Srdjan Dragojević), or in the best case, the films made in the U.S. by Serbian filmmakers turned into relatively barren hybrids, a criss-cross between quasi-Dionysian art and Apollonian conditions: Twilight Time (Suton, 1982) and Someone Else’s America (Tudja Amerika, 1995, Paskaljević), and The Savior (Spasilac, Predrag Antonijević, 1998).

The generation of Serbian filmmakers of the 1990s would be educated at home but, open to influences from abroad (especially American ones), would seek inspiration elsewhere. Both the Black Wave and the so-called “Prague school” filmmakers (of the 60’s and beyond), in spite of the few innovations they introduced, had clearly based their work on the Serbian cinematic (dominantly Dionysian) traditions. For this new generation, disappointed by the barren chauvinism of the 1990s, this example does not hold. They are expressing their apolitical stance by burying the resilient, politically engaged, social horror.

The rejuvenated “rosy wave” would console the distraught masses up and down the unlucky post-Dayton 1990s and beyond, gradually replacing the bitter examples of social horror with the war in the background from the first half of the 1990s as witnessed by such films as: A Night in my Mother’s House (Noć u kući moje majke, 1991) by Žarko Dragojević, Dark is the Night (Tamna je noć, 1995) by Dragan Kresoja, and the best among them, Better than Escape (Bolje od bekstva, 1993) by Miroslav Lekić. Even the Serbian economy since 1995 is lingering between the laws of liberal market and tribal community, which are parallel, respectively, to Apollonian and Dionysian principles.

Social horror itself branched out, growing in unexpected directions and almost withered—transforming slowly, but safely into the fully-fledged, generically defined horror in Déjà vu (Već vidjeno, 1987) by Goran Marković, Sacred Place (Sveto mesto, 1990) by Djordje Kadijević, Full Moon Over Belgrade (Pun mesec nad Beogradom, 1994) by Kresoja, T.T. Syndrome (T.T. Sindrom, 2002) by Dejan Zečević, and The Devil’s Warrior (Šejtanov ratnik, 2006) by Stevan Filipović. Aside from an attempt to open up the film market, the appearance of classical horror can be explained by a need for a stronger kind of catharsis from the one we in Serbia were used to in formerly less troubled times.

The groundbreaking year for Serbian cinema, then, was not 1991—the year of socialist Yugoslavia’s break-up. Only after the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995 one can note the sudden penetration of American (Apollonian) influence, which is to a degree parallel to a penetration of the liberal market principles into Serbia and the English language into its public sphere. Even the 1999 NATO intervention only managed to slow down but not to stop this trend as attested by films such as The Wounded Land (Ranjena zemlja, 1999) by Dragoslav Lazić, Sky Hook (Nebeska udica, 2000) by Ljubiša Samardžić, War Live (Rat uživo, 2000) by Darko Bajić, and The Land of Truth, Love & Freedom (Zemlja istine, ljubavi i slobode, 2000) by Milutin Petrović.

Judging by existing examples, Serbian film stands the biggest chance for success abroad with its home-grown, Dionysian variants and unexpected syntheses, as in the films of Makavejev, Žilnik or Kusturica. Judging by the success of dominantly Apollonian opuses at home, like are those of Bajić or Dragojević, a radical metamorphosis of Serbian cinema (and Serbian economy and culture) is more than a theoretical possibility.


1] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy, Out of the Spirit of Music, London: Penguin, 1993.

2] Demonstrations in Kosovo in the 1980s also left their trace on cinema: Srdjan Karanović’s A Film with No Name (Za sad bez dobrog naslova, 1988), A House by the Tracks (Kuća pored pruge, 1988) by Žarko Dragojević and The Hornet (Stršljen, 1998) by Gorčin Stojanović heralded the larger-scale crisis.

3] The latter was officially inaugurated by the short-lived Serbian Film Academy as the best Serbian film of all times.

4] Many would desire to become criminals like the heroes from the film Young and Healthy as a Rose (Mlad and zdrav kao ruža, 1971) by Jovan Jovanović, or to become bar singers from a film And God Creates... a Bar Singer (I Bog stvari kafansku pevačicu, 1972) by Jovan Živanović, or to become the killer who disappeared without a trace from the film I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupjači perja, 1967) by Aleksandar Petrović.

5] The sequel from 2006 was also number one at the box office. Perhaps there is some poetic justice in the fact that the third part of the "rosy" (pink) wave’s pioneering work was produced by the Serbian television channel Pink.