Kristijan Milić: The Living and the Dead (Živi i mrtvi, 2007)

reviewed by Nikica Gilić © 2011

During the 1990s, Croatian-Bosnian soldier Tomo with his group tries to reach his comrades and approaches a location called Graveyard Field (Grobno polje), unaware of a similar destiny shared by his grandfather Martin in the 1940s. The film concentrates on the two groups of soldiers fighting in wars at different points in history (with different enemies and even against one another), only to face the same tragic consequences at the end. In both wars, the military units lose more and more troops to the enemy, until, in the end, everybody meets at Graveyard Field, where dying Tomo (the last of his group) is surrounded by the ghosts of all the warriors who were killed.

posterThis Croatian-Bosnian co-production uses the two most recent wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina as its centerpiece, focusing mostly on the role and destiny of the Croats indigent to that country (the screenplay was written by an ethnic Croat from Bosnia and Herzegovina), but also taking into consideration the complex political and ethnic relations in the entire region. It is important to note that in the story from the last war of the 1990s, the featured Croats are fighting against Bosniaks, more or less following ethnic lines of division, while in the story from the earlier war (World War II), to make things more complex, Croats and Bosniaks mix in a Croat-led army, fighting the Partisans (the anti-fascist resistance army that was itself ethnically “mixed,” that is, composed of Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs, Jews, and so on), who appear in this film though they are not developed as a theme or defined as a political or social force. This, of course, may be contrary to the expectations of local viewers and possibly even more so of viewers from abroad whose notion of war films about the former Yugoslavia and its region was formed by the popular Partisan genre and directors such as Veljko Bulajić (Orson Welles and Yul Brynner, among others, starred in The Battle of the Neretva), Hajrudin Krvavac, Žika Mitrović, Stipe Delić, Fadil Hadžić and many others. The war films from the socialist era were generally ethically clear-cut, with good guys and bad guys as easily recognizable as in a western; some of these films (particularly those made by Žika Mitrović) were even openly compared to American westerns (for more on this genre see the article by Ivo Škrabalo in this issue).
The Living and the Dead crafts a more complex picture through a particular distribution of narrative threads. To make things more easily comprehensible to viewers, this action-packed and often violent war film chooses a strategy that is not frequently used in recent films dealing with these topics. The Living and the Dead takes the tradition of genre cinema (mostly American war films, action films, and thrillers), mixes it with the tradition of the fantastic, and, in addition, uses a modernist mixing of temporal planes thus artfully interweaving segments of recent and less recent history. This storyline strategy works well concurrently, and the viewer of The Living and the Dead not only easily understands the reasons for a direct juxtaposition of the two wars, but is also forced to generate an ethical perspective that questions the purpose of warfare in general. For instance, the first jump from 1993 to the past is motivated by a discussion of a cigar-case with a picture on it of Travnik (Travnik is a Bosnian town associated in the 1990s with Muslim-Bosnian community and identity). The cigar-case was given to the 1990s character by his grandfather, who in turn had received it during the tumultuous events of 1943 (the same actor plays both characters).
living and deadIn this film where all sides lose, there is no real hero, rather the narrative relies on a conglomeration of characters all of whom play important roles. The viewer can nonetheless easily recognize the typical profiles of the genre—a seasoned war hero, a confused novice who might endanger himself and others, a wise older commander, etc. On the other hand, the cinematography (often strikingly beautiful despite the limited production budget) will remind viewers of Walter Hill’s, John Carpenter’s, and John McTiernan’s best cinematic achievements, particularly those taking place in the forests (Southern Comfort or Predator, for instance). The Yugoslav, Croatian, and Bosnian traditions of war films dealing with World War II in a modernist or otherwise unconventional way (some of the films by Antun Vrdoljak, Vatroslav Mimica, Bato Čengić, or Puriša Đorđević), interestingly enough, seem to be far less consequential for Kristijan Milić’s film.

In addition to showcasing all the political intricacies of the story (difficult, perhaps, to grasp for those viewers unfamiliar with the complex history of the region, but whose viewing pleasure will be unaffected), The Living and the Dead clearly reveals personal and family histories often hiding behind political turmoil, thus allowing the central problem of the characters to become the central problem for the viewers as well, regardless of their cultural background. There are at least two main techniques facilitating this narrative—but also political—strategy. First, as mentioned above, World War II in Bosnia and the Bosnian war of the 1990s are constantly intertwined in the storytelling, with events from the two periods reflecting, explaining, and mirroring each other, and with the ghosts of victims of both wars uniting in the narrative finale. Also, the very title of the film itself suggests some sort of leveling among the characters.

living and deadThe second technique that makes the characters’ fates more immediately relevant for the viewer lies in the astute decision to cast the same actors for roles in both historical periods. They are sometimes explicitly playing the members of the same family, sometimes they just appear in the chaos as a familiar face and voice. For instance, the supporting walk-on character of a Bosnian soldier in the 1990s war gets killed by a Croatian soldier, who himself is the grandson of the man who was, at least apparently, in the same unit with the Bosnian soldier’s grandfather, Ferid, during World War II. The two different generations of Bosnian Croats are played by Filip Šovagović (in the roles of Tomo and Martin) while Enes Vejzović plays the two Bosnian Muslims (“Bošnjaci”)—Ferid and his unnamed grandson. Some of the casting choices further frustrate the horizon of expectation for a viewer who wants to see a clear-cut ethnic division. For instance, despite his Muslim name and ethnic heritage, Enes Vejzović, who plays Ferid, is one of the better known younger Croatian actors, a fact that may easily escape an international viewer but is immediately apparent to local filmgoers.

Taking these directorial choices into consideration, one can underscore with a certainty that the entire structure of Kristijan Milić’s film supports its essential anti-war orientation. Not only that the theme of mindless killings in wars in general is laid bare and criticized on moral grounds in this film, but also the very fabric of its narration and characterization skillfully carries the heavy burden of explaining the particularities of the recent wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, rendering history as a series of cyclical tragedies. War in this artistic vision is not, in my opinion, linked exclusively to the region depicted in The Living and the Dead; Milić’s film reveals war as a universal human occurrence—with equal horrendous consequences no matter when and where it takes place. 

living and deadAs the film reaches its logical end, probably at least partly hinted at by the genre aspects of the story, the fact that a character belongs to a specific army (the Home Guard, Croatian Defense Council, BH Army, etc.), or even his ethnicity, becomes increasingly more irrelevant for the viewer, because it is conveyed as less and less significant for the remaining characters. Their only aim becomes to survive, rather than to achieve anything significant or prove something to “the other side,” whatever the side may be. This change of focus is also a very effective narrative strategy for achieving an emotional connection between the viewer and the character regardless of the character’s ideology or other characteristics. In addition, the different visual styling of the past (sepia) and the present (more-or less “realistic” color) helps not only to differentiate events and eras, but also to suggest to the viewer that, although so similar, these events are still not easily understood or reducible to simple explanations. For instance, although the commanding officer of the Ustashi (a World War II fascist force), played by Robert Roklicer, is extremely  unlikeable, to say the least, and unpleasant, even this group is shown as lacking homogeneity and several other individuals among the Ustashi project quite a convincingly human motivation.

The general fatalism and pessimism of Milić’s film is particularly evident in the dwindling number of surviving characters (a tradition that includes McTiernan’s Predator, but goes back at least to John Ford’s The Lost Patrol). As the characters die, the visuals get darker and the camera slowly closes in on the remaining figures, conveying the claustrophobic sentiments they are feeling until everything is leveled by death, the only thing everyone has in common regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ideology.

Nikica Gilić

The Living and the Dead (Živi i mrtvi) 2007, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Color, 87 min.
Director: Kristijan Milić
Script: Josip Mlakić (based on his own novel)
Director of Photography: Dragan Marković, Mirko Pivčević
Music: Andrija Milić
Editing: Goran Guberović
Set Designer: Kemal Hrustanović
Cast: Filip Šovagović, Velibor Topić, Enes Vejzović, Borko Perić, Slaven Knezović, Marinko Prga, Miro Barnjak, Robert Roklicer, Božidar Orešković, Izudin Bajrović, Ljubomir Jurković, Nermin Omić.
Production: Mainframe, Olimp produkcija, Uma, Porta, Croatian Radiotelevision, Bosnia and Herzegovina Radiotelevision


Kristijan Milić: The Living and the Dead (Živi i mrtvi, 2007)

reviewed by Nikica Gilić © 2011

Updated: 19 Apr 11