Dušan Makavejev—Free Radical. Eclipse series 18. The Criterion Collection, 2010. (DVD Review)

?ovek nije tica [Man Is Not a Bird], 1965. Written and directed by Dušan Makavejev, and produced by Dušan Perkovi?, 78 minutes, Black and White, 1.66:1, Serbo-Croatian.

Ljubavni slu?aj ili tragedija službenice PTT [Love Affair, or The Case Of the Missing Switchboard Operator], 1967. Writen and directed by Dušan Makavejev, and produced by Aleksander Krsti?, 68 minutes, Black and White, 1.66:1, Serbo-Croatian.

Nevinost bez zaštite [Innocence Unprotected], 1968. Written and directed by Dušan Makavejev, and produced by Bosko Savi?, 75 minutes, Black and White, Color, 1.33:1, Serbo-Croatian.

Criterion’s Eclipse series is a selection of “lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics,” and Dušan Makavejev’s set of three films from the mid-to-late 1960s, Man is not a bird, Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator and Innocence Unprotected, certainly fits the bill. Most people are probably more familiar with Makavejev’s later, more extreme work. This DVD package includes a brief, but inspired and wide-ranging leaflet, which puts the films and director in context, and should be very useful to those new to Makavejev’s work. The films are fascinating reflections of the moods, concerns, and even fashions of an era, and, viewing them from today’s perspective, the words from Innocence Unprotected “in Yugoslavia at the time, back when it was Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia” take on a new resonance now that Yugoslavia no longer exists.

Man is not a bird (1965) is Makavejev’s first feature film, coming after years of experimental shorts and documentaries, and although all three of the films in this set are carefully structured as feature length films, they retain many of the stylistic devices and sense of spontaneity more often associated with short films. This film incorporates many of the themes, issues, and devices the director uses in future films, including the irreverent treatment and often absurd juxtaposition of ideology, sexuality, morality, and social issues.

The plot of Man is not a Bird is simple. Set in the Yugoslav mining town of Bor, near the Bulgarian border, it depicts what happens when a respected construction foreman, Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), comes to the copper mill to install turbo-blowers, in order to make working methods safer and more cost effective. Upon arrival he has his hair cut by the younger, attractive, flirtatious Rajka (the effervescent Milena Dravi?), and ends up having an affair with her. All seems to be going well, but at the moment he is being awarded a medal for his work, rather than being there to celebrate with him, Rajka abandons him for a local lothario, the coarse truck driver, Boško (Boris Dvornik). With neat circularity, this is the man who drove Rudinski to the site in the opening frames of the film. A secondary plot involves a drunken, philandering factory worker, Barbulović (Stole Arandjelovi?), whose abused wife decides she has had enough, but in this case the film ends with them both transformed and together again.

In 1949 Makavejev had been on a school field trip to Bor, and had been so shocked by the grim reality—harsh living conditions, dangerous work environments, deeply unheroic workers—after years of being fed Communist propaganda, that he was determined to reveal its ugliness to the public. When, years later, he requested to film on location, the authorities naturally expected a paean to labor, a celebration of “one of the world centers for producing cooper,” as the diegetic tour guide puts it, but, typically, he did not oblige and made this film instead.

Parallels can be drawn in this respect between Makavejev’s film and those of the Soviet Union, particularly from 1932, the year he was born. This was a pivotal year for Soviet cinema, celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the revolution, and embracing the advent of sound. Many films of this year were on the theme of construction, and many experimented with factory noises and music echoing the sounds of industrial labor. These works were supposed to portray the building of a new socialist world and the creation of a new socialist person in the process. Man building the perfect future society literally and figuratively though his own transformation. Yet even in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s there were those who sought to subvert the genre as far as possible under the circumstances, and who revealed the un-heroic side of construction sites, the unreconstructed person. Workers are revealed as lazy, drunk, rude, and uneducated. Needless to say, in order for the films to be passed for release Soviet directors had to ensure that things ended well and that the workers were seen to be mending their ways, as ideological enlightenment prevailed.

Makavejev was working in a different country at a different time but his concerns were similar. In his film Makavejev shows a factory manager dictating a speech and correcting himself to add the adjective “radiant” to the words “workers’ faces,” which is typical of 1930s Soviet socialist realist propaganda. In contrast, the children visiting the plant are told: “we’ve been studying workers and the working class, who they are and their historical origins, and how they eventually seized power from the capitalists. Here he is, this is a worker,” and ironically they are presented the alcoholic, cruel unfaithful Barbulović as a heroic example. This director is able to do what his filmic forbears desired, but could not.

Makavejev’s second feature film, Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, traces a seemingly idyllic love affair from its inception to its grizzly end. It is also about a reserved older man, the rat-catcher Ahmed “Meho” (Slobodan Aligrudi?) and a vivacious younger woman, Izabela (Eva Ras), the switchboard operator, who eventually betrays him with the younger postman (Miodrag Andri?) in her office. However, in this case she becomes pregnant and Ahmed murders her. The narrative is intercut, right from the start, with images of her lifeless body being pulled out of a well, with illustrated lectures by a sexologist and a criminologist.

By contrast, Innocence Unprotected is not a narrative, fiction feature film, but it incorporates one, and it is not quite a documentary either, although it incorporates elements of the genre too. The director explains that this work is “A new production of a good old film […] organized, ornamented and supplied by Dušan Makavejev.” Innocence Unprotected is originally the title of the first Serbian-language sound film, a ridiculous melodrama made in 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Belgrade. It was written, directed, and acted in by Dragoljub Aleksić, a stunt man, acrobat, and locksmith, and then banned as Aleksić was accused of collaborating with the fascists and profiteering. Although charges were dropped in 1945, the film was not shown and was excised from official records in Yugoslavia.

The plot revolves around an orphan, Nada (Ana Milosavljevi?), who is madly in love with Dragoljub Aleksić (playing himself), but her stereotypically wicked stepmother (Vera Jovanovi?-Segvi?) tries to marry her off to the far wealthier suitor Petrovi? (Bratoljub Gligorijevi?). Aleksić, of course, triumphs. Large sections of the melodrama are shown in Makavejev’s film, but these are interspersed with the more interesting sections of present-day interviews with the now much older Aleksić, a real character who insists on showing that he can still bend metal with his teeth, still strikes strong-man poses despite having been lamed during a stunt, and who talks volubly about his film and its fate.  Further filmic interjections are made by Makavejev’s use of footage of war damage in Belgrade and the subsequent reconstruction.

Innocence Unprotected shows Makavejev sabotaging a terrible melodrama, and his other films usually undermine the dramatic plot element of the narrative, but Makavejev knows how to hold a viewer’s attention as well as how to direct it away from straight story-telling. He perfectly understands the idea of early cinema as an “attraction” in the sense of popular entertainment, such as that provided traditionally by the circus. There are visual references to the actual circus in Innocence Unprotected and in Man is not a Bird, as well as to hypnotism, another form of mass entertainment.

Makavejev’s cinematic influences are enormously varied, ranging across genres, countries, styles and decades. In the context of these three films, the most evident are influences from the Soviet Union, both of the aesthetically experimental and ideologically driven 1920s-30s period and from the Thaw, when thematic complexity and darker reality entered the frame, but also stylistically from the American underground of the 1950s-60s. The sensual and sensuous–almost haptic–quality of the American underground films, as well as their dynamic camera movements and attention to unexpected detail, are present here.

One example is a scene from Man is not a Bird, in which Milena is filmed from within and from outside a car at night, her face pressed against the windshield as Boško hoses it. The light reflected on the drops of water in the dark is beautiful, and her hands are silhouetted to visually echothe enormous posters of workers’ hands seen earlier in the film. Another example is a soap bubble that is wonderfully shot to celebrate its aesthetic qualities, while Izabela is doing the washing in Love Affair. In addition to this, close-ups often temporarily crop or frame objects in unfamiliar ways, and Makavejev creates juxtapositions on the basis of visual rhymes, often to surreal and absurd effect.

Probably unable to resist, Makavejev inserts lengthy extracts, intercut with other unrelated footage, from the “human bullet” episode from Grigorii Aleksandrov’s musical comedy Circus, made in the USSR in 1936, in which Marion Dixon (Liubov Orlova) performs a daring stunt. Makavejev retains the soundtrack of the original and then informs the viewer that “This Soviet film inspired Aleksić to make his own cannon,” which we are then shown, and this includes newspaper cuttings stating that “Aleksić charged in the death of human cannonball.” The Soviet clip is a diversion from the main film in terms of style, but thematically serves his purpose ideally.

Juxtapositions are often used in terms of different genres by Makavejev, particularly the insertion of documentary or newsreel footage to disrupt the narrative flow; the use of voice-over, and the fragmentation and re-arrangement of the plot elements through flashback or flash-forward. Such compilation of his material links Makavejev to experimental underground filmmaker Bruce Conner, to name just one influence, whose short, non-narrative A MOVIE (1958) was compiled purely from old newsreels and other films, which he re-edited and set to music. Makavejev likewise harnesses the power of such methods to simultaneously provoke and entertain.

Furthermore, as with the American underground artists, he works on multiple levels, capturing frames that are aesthetically striking, or pleasing, yet jarring and discordant in the narrative context. This shocks viewers out of any possible suspension of disbelief in terms of plot.  It creates a sense of distance, frequently of irony, and above all draws attention to the film as an artifact, to the process of making and watching a movie. This self-reflexivity of the film-making process explains why Makavejev chose to “ornament” certain objects in Innocence Unprotected by colorizing them.

The compilation technique is also one used in documentary and propaganda films, which Makavejev alludes to in his films, sometimes explicitly and at other times implicitly. The density of his material and the complexity of his editing techniques make this directors work very hard to present in script form, a problem faced by the most experimental directors in the Soviet Union of the 1920s-30s (as well as the American avant-garde). Bizarrely, when Izabela wants to seduce Ahmed, she switches on the television, saying that there is a good film on, and it turns out to be old Soviet footage of Communist marches with banners demanding to close the churches, and looters dismantling and replacing church crosses with red flags and communist stars. This is an extract from Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm, of 1931, an experimental documentary made with the compilation method. Echoing Vertov’s own sentiments, Makavejev complained that producers were asking for the impossible when they wanted to have in writing what he intended to put on screen: “A script is a verbal attack on a visual world.”(Ray Privett, “The Country of Movies: An Interview with Dusan Makavejev,” Sense of Cinema, December 2000 [http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/11/makavejev.html, accessed 13 May 2010].)

Under pressure to produce an outline for Love Affair, the director/scriptwriter wrote a few pages about eyes; a collection of jokes, proverbs, and facts, including a few words about the eyes of criminals and of lovers. This was not enough, so he approached the local police to see whether they had had any sensational cases. When they told him about a woman’s body being fished out of a well, that she had not been missed, and how long it took to find out that her husband was the killer, he based his plot on the case and added other elements, adapting his material on eyes. The hypnosis theme in Man is not a bird also fits with this, as Barbulović’s wife says that she will no longer allow her husband to hypnotize her, “you have eyes but do not see…”

Dušan Makavejev makes it clear that he wants his viewers not only to look, but to really see and hear what is being presented on screen, and he uses techniques of juxtaposition and dissonance designed to disturb and amuse—which were pioneered by Vertov and other Soviet directors, and later adapted and reinterpreted by the American avant-garde–to ensure that this happens. These three films are fascinating in themselves, but also as master classes in using what one has learnt in original ways. Makavejev does not attempt to hide his influences but, justifiably, wears them proudly on his sleeve. Such a context adds a further layer to the director’s statement that: “Movies always follow us as reference material or as some kind of dreamlike material for dealing with things we don’t understand in our lives.”(Ibid.)

MilenaMichalski. Image courtesy of the author.Milena Michalski is Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London. She is the author (with James Gow) of War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing Contemporary Conflict (Routledge, 2007). Recent work includes articles on Joris Ivens and Soviet film and photography of the 1920s-30s. Previous publications include articles on Yugoslav war films.