My first exposure to Serbian director Dušan Makavejev was reviewing his experimental 1971 feature WR: Mysteries of the Organism when Criterion released it on DVD a couple of years ago. As is immediately obvious from reading that piece, I was not altogether won over by Makavejev's style. WR was both too all over the place and too on the nose for me. Though his filmmaking was playful, it was also too heavy in its intentions. To say I wasn't all that excited when this new boxed set came around would be to put it mildly.
Well, I was wrong. I should have been excited. Dušan Makavejev: Free Radical - Eclipse Series 18 strikes me as having everything I felt WR was lacking. The three films here, representing Makavejev's earliest full-length work, are as stylistically inventive as anything out of the French New Wave and rooted enough in traditional storytelling to keep them from showing their age. If what was radical yesterday was content on being merely radical and nothing more, it can appear predictable or mundane today; if it has a solid foundation to give the experiment something firm to stand on, the material can sustain its freshness and speak to audiences regardless of the era. Such is the case here.
Dušan Makavejev: Free Radical showcases work the writer/director made in the former Yugoslavia over a four-year span, from 1965 to 1968. It kicks off with Man is Not a Bird, a romance wrapped up in the politics of everyday struggle. Set in a mining town near the Bulgarian border, it involves the arrival of a revered construction foreman named Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec). Rudinski has been charged with updating the copper mill to be compliant with safer, more efficient modern standards. He meets Rajka (Milena Dravić, the sexy star of WR), an attractive young hairdresser who is used to turning heads in her sleepy 'burg and just as used to putting those heads back where they belong. She sets Rudinski up with a room in her parents' house, and she and the older man eventually have an affair. Perhaps it's the appeal of the new and the different, or maybe it's the attraction of the temporary that brings them together. Maybe it's the fact that they can have an intelligent conversation, or even his indifference. It's hard to say how the fires of passion are stoked, but Rajka also ends up with a local truck driver, the rapscallion Bosko (Boris Dvornik), whom she beds on the night Rudinski is honored for his good work.
Perhaps Rakja is punishing Rudinski for valuing his job over her. That would actually make it ironic that she ends up having sex with Bosko in his truck, his mobile workplace. There are a couple of thematic threads that run through Man is Not a Bird that suggest valuing one's work over one's personal relationships is not a good thing. Running parallel to this story is the tale of Barbulović (Stole Arandelovic), a boozer whose antics keep getting him in trouble. He is stepping out on his wife (Eva Ras), who makes no bones about confronting the other woman and raising a stink about how Barbulović is always moaning about having to work at the factory but then blows his money on harlots. Our introduction to the cad actually comes at the beginning of the film when he is arrested for a nightclub brawl he claims to have had no involvement in. The violence ended with the stabbing of the performing chanteuse, whose cautionary tale about the roving eye of love could have saved all of these folks a lot of trouble had they heeded her warning. The film is bookended with a more grandiose orchestral concert, the one given in Rudinski's honor. There is a subtle commentary here, of the low-culture performance for the workers vs. the high-culture performance for the boss. Both musical interludes indicate some form of betrayal.
These two music numbers are interwoven into the narrative in their complete form, shot as if part of a documentary. Makavejev also shoots the factory scenes with a similar style, showing the effort of the workers in all its dirty detail, sharply contrasted against the more staged cutaways to the factory owner far away in his office. He is portrayed as corrupt and clearly in control of the communist party, dictating their policies like some kind of mobster lobbyist. There is no question where Makavejev's sympathy lies, and he clearly has affection for the working class. He doesn't believe they are perfect, but he does appear to enjoy showing them slacking off and doing whatever else it takes to get back a little of their own from those who would exploit them. Their foibles are shown with humor, whereas the higher-ups are far more sinister.
Not that it's so black-and-white. The director also has a sympathetic interest in Rudinski's predicament. He is a man who is neither one side nor the other, a sort of industrial mercenary who gets the job done when required. Makavejev shoots his encounters with Rakja in an expressionistic manner, capturing their lovemaking in tightly framed abstractions. Even in this early film, Makavejev is exhibiting a penchant for a freeform style, refusing to be locked down to any particular narrative aesthetic. The story takes many detours, seemingly going off track, but then coming back around to sew each added element into the main fabric. The most notable of these sidelines is the hypnotist (Roko Cirkovic) who provides an evening's entertainment by goading his volunteers into doing all manner of crazy things, like thinking they are birds and then watching them flail around on stage, unable to take to the air. Barbulović's wife directly references this stage act by telling her husband's lover how she believes that hypnotism is Barbulović's true talent, that all men lead women into a trance to get what they want. Man is Not a Bird extends this theory to include all social constructs. The need to work, political ideology, romance--these are all a form of social hypnosis, a great con to make us believe we are happy and that we can escape the mundane. Rakja seeks escape from love, for instance, only to have neither lover take her out of this tiny town. This is why man is not akin to birds, because man can't truly fly free.
Sex, crime, science, art, nationalist politics--these all return in some form in Makavejev's 1967 feature, Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator. Once again working with a mish-mash of documentary footage and fictional narrative, Makavejev establishes an alternating formalist structure for the film. It opens with a real-life sexologist, Dr. Aleksandar Kostić, lecturing about man's fundamental needs before introducing us to Izabela (Eva Ras) and her friend (Ruzica Sokić), two switchboard operators out on the prowl for a good time. They meet a Turkish man named Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudić), a sanitation expert, who takes Izabela home. So begins a long, loving relationship, both tender and sensual, which plays out while trading off with more educational interludes, all of which connect to the main narrative in some way. Izabela playing patriotic music is followed by footage of a real political rally, or a scene of her baking leads to a lecture about the physiology of chicken eggs. (The close-ups of Eva Ras breaking an egg into flour are later echoed in WR.)
We also get a glimpse of Ahmed's job in newsreel-like footage about Yugoslavia's rat problem. He is part of the crew of exterminators who are trying to rid the country of gray rats, which themselves were allowed to enter the land so that they would get rid of the black rats. It's the nasty cycle of power, one political party coming in to oppress another. It's also meant to make us distrust Ahmed, as he is a suspect in Izabela's homicide. As if flipping the switch between fiction and documentary weren't enough, Makavejev has also worked a little murder mystery into the script. Structured like a true police drama where we know there has been a killing before we know how or why, the second interlude shows Izabela's body being retrieved from a well while we hear a criminologist, Dr. Zivojin Aleksić, explain the process of cleaning and identifying a corpse. It's a harsh, clinical lecture, and it makes us feel uneasy even though our connection to Izabela is not all that strong as of yet.
Love Affair connects back to Man is Not a Bird in that some of the tragedy is born out of infidelity. Izabela is constantly being hit on by the postman (Miodrag Andric) who delivers to her work, and she eventually relents. In a scene reminiscent of Godard, Izabela breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly, to confess that she is weak and, as she puts it, not made of wood. It's a reasonable appeal. Makavejev seems to be saying that our social structures, our fear of sex and our subsuming our individual desires to the greater need of the State leads to unnatural reactions. Unhappy people act in unhappy ways, and once we finally see the death occur, we realize that Ahmed is not simply some cold-blooded killer. This is not a grandiose revelation, Makavejev doesn't underscore it with an ironic orchestral swell the way he does the sexual ruining of Rajka in Man is Not a Bird, but rather shows it in a very plain fashion. It's sad enough as it is. The scene perfectly illustrates the ease with which the filmmaker moves between styles. The cuts between the fact and fiction are seamless; in fact, in Love Affair, he really blurs the lines between the two. The naturalistic staging of the drama makes it almost indistinguishable from the documentary footage. It's like meta-Neorealism.
1968's Innocence Unprotected gives Dušan Makavejev a remarkable opportunity to obliterate the lines between fictional filmmaking and documentary storytelling. In this movie, Makavejev repurposes an old film that had long gone out of circulation despite being Yugoslavia's first sound picture. It was made during WWII by Dragoljub Aleksić, an acrobat and strongman. Though it was shot entirely on the sly, it was later misconstrued as a film made in collaboration with the Nazi occupiers and not just banned from being shown, but also removed from the history books.
Makavejev takes this bizarre melodrama and recontextualizes it. Having tracked down the living actors and crew members, including Aleksić, Makavejev creates a non-fiction frame around the old footage, moving back and forth between the original production and people's memories of the same. The tale is pretty fantastic, including performers hiding in a soundstage darkroom while the German propagandists shot their own footage outside. Aleksić made Innocence Unprotected in the hopes of making money, and in its original form, it's mostly a self-aggrandizing excuse to show off his freakish stunts. Breaking and bending iron with his teeth, making his muscles dance, dangling from an airplane by holding a leather bit in his mouth--Aleksić is the kind of sideshow performer that Makavejev loves (see also the circus scenes in Man is Not a Bird). He's a true original, an individual who lives his life as he wishes, and one that also ran afoul of a bureaucracy that refused to let such characters roam free.
In Makavejev's hands, Innocence Unprotected becomes both propaganda for the common man's power to resist oppressive governance, but also a parody of the propaganda. I actually started watching the movie believing it to be a pitch-perfect mockumentary, right down to the bad acting in the "found" film; only midway through did I stop and read the liner notes and realize this was entirely real. An incisive social critic, Makavejev has found a greater meaning in a particular piece of art by examining its historical context. He uses newsreel footage of German atrocities and maps illustrating the warmongers' advances on his country's border to embolden Aleksić's ridiculous fictional romance with greater meaning. A wicked stepmother (Vera Jovanovic-Segvić) selling out her orphaned stepdaughter (Ana Milosavljević) to a wealthy scoundrel (Bratoljub Gligorijević), only to have her rescued by the unflappable hero makes for a wonderfully blunt allegory (complete with twist ending: Aleksić pretty much ran off with whatever money was made before the film was banned, leaving his comrades out in the cold). It illuminates the struggles of the Serbian people, first under the Nazis and then under the Socialists, as well as the personal struggles Dušan Makavejev must have gone through in order to make movies under the censoring eye of the government. Not unlike Aleksić, Makavejev would eventually be persecuted for his art. After his next film, he would be exiled from his homeland for nearly two decades.
Seen as a whole, the three films collected in Dušan Makavejev: Free Radical - Eclipse Series 18 show the emergence of a new cinematic voice, a singular artist who would go on to further challenge his audience and often alienating people--including this particular stuffy critic. This trio is playful, creative, culturally rich, and full of insightful commentary on the human condition, particularly the way our personal lives become entangled with society's imposed restrictions. Dušan Makavejev proves himself to be every bit as inventive as his European contemporaries, and as full of cinematic whimsy and film knowledge as anyone who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema. This boxed set is a true treasure.
For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.