The Grotesque as History, History as Grotesque: The Meaning of the Grotesque in Recent Serbian Cinema

By Srdjan Vučinić (Belgrade)

© Srdjan Vučinić, 2009

This text is an attempt at analyzing recent Serbian cinema’s image of history through the aesthetic category of the grotesque. One can ask immediately: what are the reasons for reducing a variety of historical experiences to a single, seemingly separate, concept? Are the distorted, unusual, funny, caricatured, but also freakish and monstrous—which would be some of the outward qualities of grotesque—really the prism through which Serbian filmmakers in the past fifteen years have seen and interpreted the protean face of history?

I would say that the grotesque is a considerably deeper, multi-layered experience of reality then the one suggested by the abovementioned qualifiers. Aiming to pinpoint the essence of the grotesque in art, Wolfgang Kayser in his authoritative study The Grotesque in Painting and Poetry [1] among other things, notes that the grotesque is an alienated world where the structure of our reality is abolished, and along with it, the things which used to be familiar and intimate, suddenly disclose something alien and mysterious. We are seized by dread as our world shows itself to be apparition appearing to dreamers. The creator of the grotesque, according to Kayser, neither can, nor should establish some sense. However, he also concludes that giving shape to the grotesque is an attempt to restrain the demonic in the world.

These points from Kayser’s study give us some of the basic assumptions for elaborating the meaning of the grotesque in recent Serbian cinema. Alienation, dread, abolishing the known world, a dream-like quality, the absurd, an attempt to subdue the demonic—are some of the key themes and procedures of interest to Serbian filmmakers. It seems that the directors—from Makavejev, Radivojević and Drašković, to Kusturica and Dragojević—find those lucid moments in which they can fathom the hidden essence of history and historical time precisely in the grotesque’s destruction of order and in the comical/horrific experience of losing one’s ground. It is as if, at least for a moment, they need to pull our common-sense ground out like a rug from under our feet of sobriety and reality, in order to talk about the century behind us through a twisted, oneiric illumination.

Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses tells us that history is a nightmare from which he trying to awaken.This sentence hides one of the passwords of modernism: the modern artist’s desire to escape from historical time into the landscape of his own imagination. It seems that Serbian filmmakers, in one post-historical (non)time (in Serbian also meaning “bad weather”), after the destruction of the communist empire and the established order, consciously and intentionally are immersing themselves in the nightmare of history. They strive, unlike Joyce’s hero, to discern the truth in its grotesque images.

In the following analyses of concrete works I will try to establish the meaning of grotesque elements, in some instances through particular scenes, in others, through characters or the plot as a whole.

Comrade Lenin’s Headache: The Gorilla Bathes at Noon (Gorila se kupa u podne), directed by Dušan Makavejev, 1993.

lenin's headacheThe Soviet officer Lazutkin (Svetozar Cvetković), the hero of The Gorilla Bathes at Noon, miraculously left behind in Berlin when his army withdrew after the fall of the Berlin wall is, during his bizarre wanderings, haunted by unusual dreams whose protagonist is no other than the leader of the October Revolution (played by the actress Anita Mančić). In the last dream, comrade Lenin is complaining to our hero about his headache, caused by the bullet buried in his scull when he was shot by Fanny Kaplan. At that moment, the devoted Lazutkin makes a hole in Lenin’s bald head with his bare fingers and manages to extract the bullet. [2] Here, the grotesque functions as satirical comedy: Lazutkin’s dreams are interwoven with documentary shots of the removal of Lenin’s monument from East Berlin. The marble head of Vladimir Ilyich, cut from the pedestal in reality, and his apparition, suffering from headache in the hero’s dream, are interconnected here. 

The oneiric nature of the image, its unexpected, illogical quality and black humor – all this underscores a special kind of grotesque. An important episode from the biography of the October Leader is distorted by the logic of a dream; “history” is thus transformed into a grotesque theatrical piece. Nightmare is another face of “history,” Makavejev suggests – and, what is more interesting, in the banal lives of individuals, that very nightmare is often interspersed with erotic daydreams, tied here to the charismatic image of the Leader.

Evil Spirits in the Robes of State Security: Introduction to Another Life (Uvod u drugi život), directed by Miloš Radivojević, 1992.

Introduction to Another Life is an adaptation of a novel with the same name by Mirko Kovač, who was also the scriptwriter for the film. As in his other works, his acute sense for black humor and fantasy adorns Kovač’s narrative with a simultaneous and perpetual quest for signs of the other-worldly in concrete historical time. Here, grotesque expression functions to expose the monstrous role of the communist heritage. Kovač’s narrative, combined with the minimalist and original directing of Miša Radivojević discloses that it is precisely the early history of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, marked with absolutism and the crimes of the state security forces, that makes an ideal terrain for the appearance of other-worldly forces, above all those that belong to the Prince of Darkness. Evil spirits, ghosts of the dead, satanic black masses – all these demonological props brilliantly describe the period of early communist rule.

Through the characters of Rodin (Aleksandar Berček), a captain in the state security organization and his superior, an evil spirit incarnated in the figure of a major in Tito’s secret service (Predrag Ejduš), the grotesque in Radivojević’s film manifests the eerie and the demonic that is often hidden behind the idea of historical progress and its agents. With a stylized type of acting, masks, make-up, reduced lighting, and chamber-like ambiance, the demonic principle of “history” is embodied and made concrete in one epoch. Apart from all the horror and monstrosity carried inside the protagonists of this drama, Introduction to Another Life possesses a subtle sense of humor and the high spirits of a fairy tale, without which, dealing with the forces of darkness would not make much sense. Kayser’s idea that the grotesque is an attempt to restrain the demonic in the world is thus confirmed.

The Three Witches from Vukovar: Vukovar, Poste Restante (Vukovar, jedna priča), directed by Boro Drašković (1994)

vukovarIn one short sequence of Drašković’s film, in the thick of battle, a wounded hero, a soldier in the Yugoslav People’s Army (played by Boris Isaković) is wandering around Vukovar, a city demolished in the recent war. Three women come by (played by Olivera Marković, Sonja Vukičević and Aleksandra Pleskonjić). They look and comport themselves strangely, shrouded in smoke from the near-by charred remnants of war. They tend to his wound, and one of them says: “Which idea is today worth bleeding for, besides one’s monthly period!” The other asks him: “When you cook a pig that ate a man, what are you eating, pork or human flesh?” In these apparitions, perhaps the wounded soldier’s mere hallucinations, it is not difficult to recognize an allusion to the three witches in Macbeth. Setting Shakespeare’s witches on the charred remains of the levelled Vukovar, the filmmaker creates a grotesque based on shared cultural heritage, or, based on what Foucault in postmodern discourse would call the “fantasy of the library.” These three fortune-tellers of Macbeth’s fate, in Drašković’s film (together with the sounds of Mozart’s Requiem in the background) in fact, question the total heritage of western civilization – while facing the ruins of one baroque city.

“A Monkey is Entering the Tank, it’s a Catastrophe:” Underground (Podzemlje), directed by Emir Kusturica (1995).

undergroundThe elements of grotesque in Kusturica’s Underground do not surface just from the Monty-Pythonesque modeling of characters and their actions. Together with the writer Dušan Kovačević, Kusturica consistently puts into practice, on several levels, a grotesque subversion of historical reality. The first is the mixing of animal and human life (which will culminate with the “evolution” of one monkey into an excellent tank driver). On the second level, there is a bizarre synthesis of documentary and fictional material. On the third, there is an unexpected mixture of the music soundtrack and the documentary shots—for example, the shots of Ljubljana’s, Zagreb’s and Belgrade’s last goodbye to Tito are persistently underscored by the song Lili Marlene. And that can be labeled as some sort of “montage of attractions,” somewhat similar to that applied by Makavejev in his most famous films. But while the dethroning demonstrated by Makavejev is primarily blasphemous, a dethroning of historical fetishes, gods in human shape—the derision which Kusturica, thanks to unforeseeable grotesque combinations, puts into practice in Underground – has to do with the totality of the “historical process.” History as the Grand Narrative and the gigantic stage of an incessant tragic farce in Underground is removed from its throne, exposed as a fraud, a theatrical piece with a few false actors. [3] If we come back for a moment to Kayser’s terminology, we can say that Kusturica alienates the world of history from us, disclosing its totality to us as something alien, eerie and absurd

The Pink Mask of Death: Wounds (Rane), directed by Srdjan Dragojević (1998).

Even in this unrelenting film, dedicated to the phenomenology of the necrophiliac “culture” of Milošević’s Serbia, the grotesque should not be sought in concrete characters and situations. It should be looked for in the world ruled by the logic of kitsch in its very essence – in a bizarre coupling of everybody and everything, to the most cynical and most perverse degree. The socialist realist architecture of New Belgrade residence blocks is synthesized with glitzy iconography of chetnik-partisan patriotism; petit-bourgeois fetishes are mixed with the “turbo-folk” insignia of the new class; idols of communism are exchanged for idols of the nation, the underground, and sexuality; the wounding, murders, and burials become a part of show-business, and robbery a part of the national myth. Analogous to the world of Pedro Almodovar, in Dragojević’s film the grotesque, a manifestation of kitsch in its essence, reveals itself as the intoxicating mask of death. A golden charm with a crucifix is not by accident the central icon of Wounds and its symbolic core. It speaks of an eerie ability, the perverted “alchemy” of a community and a system of values, which can turn the source of life into its own shadow, and then into death. 

In summary, one can see that the grotesque, even within the narrow framework of newer Serbian cinema, possesses various tonalities, various shapes, and different meanings. From a satirical comedy (The Gorilla Bathes at Noon) to a war film (Vukovar Poste Restante); from fantasy (Introduction to another Life) to meta-historical fiction (Underground) – the grotesque is a basic expression of discord, agitation, and chaos. It is perhaps a far echo of the primordial chaos, during which, according to legends, cannibalistic rituals of “eating the gods” were performed. On the other hand, in the grotesque we can see an effort of the creators to give shape to that primordial restlessness and discord and to bring these into some kind of relation with our existence. The grotesque is always a sort of metaphysical subversion, the loss of the ground of everyday reality under our feet. Also, it is an active, critical stance towards history and its ghosts.

One should especially point out that the abovementioned films continue in the tradition of a grotesque perception of the modern world, which was a quality present in the work of some of the most distinguished Yugoslav filmmakers in the “golden years.”These are Dušan Makavejev  in Innocence Unprotected (Nevinost bez zaštite), W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (W.R. Misterije organizma (1971), Živojin Pavlović  in  The Awakening of the Rats (Budjenje pacova, 1967), Saša Petrović  in It Rains in My Village (Biće skoro propast sveta, 1968), The Master and Margarita (Majstor i Margarita, 1972),  Živko Nikolić in Beasts (Bestije, 1977), The Unseen Wonder (Čudo nevidjeno, 1984), Lordan Zafranović in The First Waltz (Prvi Valcer, 1971), Sunday (Nedjelja, 1969), The Fall of Italy (Pad Italije, 1981), Krsto Papić in The Saviour (Izbavitelj, 1976), Djordje Kadijević in  Butterfly Woman (Leptirica, 1973), Rajko Grlić  in In the Jaws of Life (U raljama života, 1984), Boro Drašković  in Life is Beautiful (Život je lep, 1985), and Slobodan Šijan in The Marathon Family (Maratonci trče počasni krug, 1982).

In that tradition, the spirit of humor and the carnivalesque atmosphere are recognizable, and at the same time there is questioning of the monstrous and the terrifying emanating from the Moloch of History. Even though in film encyclopedias there is no entry for grotesque, in Serbian film it is fairly domesticated, almost as much as in Becket’s dramas, Kafka’s stories, or Brueghel’s and De Chirico’s paintings. It teaches us, just like the nature of cinema, to be somewhat more cautious towards reality and somewhat more humble towards dreams.

We can also find the elements of the grotesque in the concrete social and historical conditions of the newer Serbian cinema, as in the works Tito and I (Tito i ja) by Goran Marković, Marble Ass (Dupe od mramora) by Želimir Žilnik, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore) by Srdjan Dragojević, Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta) by Goran Paskaljević, The Land of Truth, Love & Freedom (Zemlja istine, ljubavi i slobode) by Milutin Petrović, When I Grow up I’ll be Kangaroo (Kad porastem biću Kengur) by Radivoje Andrić, Seven and a Half (Sedam i po) by Miroslav Momčilović... It is a shame that the film Boomerang (Bumerang) made in 2001 based on a novel by Svetislav Basara, a writer who is the most distinguished representative of the grotesque in contemporary Serbian literature, was a total failure.

Translated by Goran Gocić with Vida Johnson


1] Kayser, Wolfgang, The Grotesque in Painting and Poetry (Das Groteske in Malerei und Dichtung, 1957) New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

2] We could draw an interesting parallel with an ancient Greek myth: just like the goddess Athena is born from Zeus’ head, from the head of the Leader of the Revolution his crown argument, a bullet, is born.

3] These are the important historical figures mentioned by Serbian novelist Milos Crnjanski in his novel Hyperboreans (Hiperborejci) and other works, whom he compares with third-rate actors from some provincial theater.