Films made after 1991 set in socialist Yugoslavia keep the former country present in popular culture. From Tito and Me (1991) to How I Learned to Fly (2022), from Slovenia to Serbia and beyond, from nostalgic tales to dark thrillers…the post-Yugoslav cinematography remembers Yugoslavia. Similarly, Czech directors have tackled the socialist period in their own ways.
With Mirko Milivojević and Vladan Petković (YU) and Veronika Pehe (CS). Featuring music by Spirituál Kvintet and others.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your projectionist, Peter Korchnak.
Four episodes ago I delved into the history of Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav cinema (make sure you listen to that introduction before you get to today’s story, it’s Episode 72, “An Incomplete Guide to Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema”).
One particular genre stuck with me: films made after Yugoslavia’s dissolution that are set in the former country. In other words, movies that remember Yugoslavia.
Let’s reprise with the Bosnian-Swedish film scholar Sanjin Pejković:
SANJIN PEJKOVIĆ: There are mostly two ways of remembering the former Yugoslavia. And the first way would be through very exaggerated nostalgia. And the second way would be through maybe more of an optics of tyranny, or that Yugoslavia was, you know, a prison for the nations, tamnica naroda. The most films would fall in some of those groups.
PETER KORCHNAK: As I continued watching post-Yugoslav films featuring Yugoslavia and talked to more people about it, the picture became a little more blurred, if not more complicated.
I also kept thinking about my former country’s cinematography dealing with the socialist period. To be more precise, because Czechia’s production was so much richer and wide-spanning than my native Slovakia’s, I thought about Czech films and how they might hold up in comparison.
And so showing for you today will be films about the socialist period from the former Yugoslavia, mostly Serbia and Croatia, and from the Czech Republic.
Before we begin, let me acknowledge a few new crew members who made this episode possible. Thank you Adela, Anne, Dan, Dušan, Lev, Sotir, and Tamara for your contributions and pledges. You keep the show rolling.
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MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: Yugoslavia is even more present now, in popular culture and everyday culture, than it used to be in the strict terms in some stages of the Yugoslav existence, the existence of Yugoslav socialist state, at least in some periods.
PETER KORCHNAK: Mirko Milivojević is an independent researcher of popular culture, PhD candidate at the University of Giessen, and nonprofit communications professional. He spoke with me from Belgrade.
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: And it has certainly outlived the Yugoslav state by far because it’s now still a vibrant, lively, but also negotiable space. And as far as the movies are concerned, Yugoslavia is alive in productional sense, as represented in the feature movies, in documentaries, being researched, restaged, also on TV, with various facets from various actors, various generations, various nationalities, transnationally as well, transcending the former borders of the Yugoslav state and so on. And also including the variety of political standpoints, and probably most importantly, memory modes, and politics of memory.
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s take that as a starting point: Yugoslavia is present in post-Yugoslav cinematographies.
VLADAN PETKOVIĆ: There have been various representations in various national cinemas. And they originally depended on this public perception of what Yugoslavia used to be, which is, of course, built by the media and by the ruling structures.
PETER KORCHNAK: Vladan Petković is a Belgrade-born, Zagreb-based film critic, journalist, festival programmer, and educator, focusing on Central/Eastern European and Balkan cinema.
VLADAN PETKOVIĆ: Yugoslavia had a better maybe reputation in Serbia and or Bosnian cinema. Perhaps, especially in Bosnian, it’s just that Bosnia had very little production until maybe 2005 or so, because it was the country that had the worst of the war.
And while in Serbia, there was there is the whole very wide variety of approaches to [the] depiction of this era, which would then correspond to sort of maybe genre the films were made in and also through their topics, which are most often current ones and then are reflected in various ways towards the past.
Of course, then there were films by Srdjan Dragojević like Pretty Village Pretty Flame, which was also one anti-romanticized look, and then a number of films that also sometimes portrayed Yugoslavia as this dungeon of the nations. And others, we can sees [that] as the time goes on, as more time passes since the war and the breakdown of Yugoslavia, there is a certain nostalgic slant.
PETER KORCHNAK: So to Serbia we go. Of course—
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: Yugoslavia in Serbia was still present at least nominally after the breakup of the socialist Yugoslav state.
PETER KORCHNAK: That is, another, third Yugoslavia replaced the second, socialist one. It comprised only Serbia and Montenegro, from 1991 to 2006, and is often referred to as rump Yugoslavia.
The last Yugoslav or the first post-Yugoslav film, depending how you look at it, was in fact one that dealt with socialist Yugoslavia’s legacy head on.
Tito i ja (Tito and I) by Goran Marković was released in 1992. Period footage showing Tito touring Yugoslav cities to the citizens’ adulation plays under the opening titles, and additional such period footage peppers the movie.
Ten-year old Zoran lives in the 1950s Belgrade with his parents (played by Miki Manojlović and Anica Dobra), aunt and uncle and cousin, and grandmother in a shared apartment whose walls he eats. Defying his elders, the short-round boy adores Tito, even sees him in his daydreams. An essay assignment glorifying the president in the contest, “Why do you love Comrade Tito?” earns Zoran a hiking and camping trip to Tito’s home village of Kumrovec. After various adventures and misadventures, headlined by his girl crush Jasna, an older boy, and the adult tour leader Raja, played by Lazar Ristovski, Zoran gives a speech next to Tito’s statue, clarifying his statements in the essay to say he actually loves his parents and a slew of others more than the president, after all.
Little Zoran attends Tito’s birthday party at the Beli Dvor residence, during which the big man proclaims his birthday to be a future Day of Youth, but splits during the photo op to attend to the buffet.
In an interview for B92, Goran Marković, by the way a graduate of the Prague film school, called the film autobiographical (as a boy Marković had met Tito himself once, at Beli Dvor no less); he also called it a kind of an epitaph on Yugoslavia’s grave. In fact, because of the situation on the ground, scenes taking place in Tito’s Croatian home region of Zagorje were filmed in Serbia’s Fruška Gora while Yugoslav airforce planes flew overhead toward Vukovar. Still, concluded Marković, the film is “joyful and innocent, as Yugoslavia was remembered by those who had lived in it.”
If you’re a regular listener of Remembering Yugoslavia, which I hope you are or will soon be, you’ve already heard me say that it was the movie Podzemlje (Underground) that had kick-started my journey through Yugoslavia’s memory that finds me here and now over a quarter century later.
The film by the director Emir Kusturica won the Palme d’Or prize at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.
In period reviews, the LA Times called it “a dazzling epic allegory” and “a sprawling, rowdy, vital film laced with both outrageous absurdist dark humor and unspeakable pain, suffering, and injustice.”
The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it a “feverish, whimsical allegory elevated by moments of brilliant clarity” and an “impassioned metaphorical fable about the tragic fate of [Kusturica’s] homeland.”
And Variety called it “a three-hour steamroller circus that leaves the viewer dazed and exhausted, but mightily impressed” and “one of the most emotionally engaging and exhilarating films at Cannes.”
The movie begins with a Balkan brass band running down the road playing a čoček and casting shadows on a wall. The story indeed unfolds in a Plato’s cave-like world, bookended by wars and parties and punctuated by sometimes subtle, sometimes heavy-handed metaphors and allegories.
We find the protagonists, Marko played by Miki Manojlović, one of Kusturica’s and Yugoslavia’s favorite actors, and Blacky, played by Lazar Ristovski, as wild and crazy friends in Belgrade on the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Animals freed from the bombed out ZOO roam the streets and the duo fight the occupators by smuggling arms, making munitions, and conducting raids. In one daring action, Blacky is injured and Marko hides him and a host of other people in the titular underground basement. But rather than freeing them once the war is over, Marko cultivates for the undeground contingent an illusion the war is still raging, replete with fake air raid sirens and sounds of bombing, thus achieving his ultimate goal: to win and keep for himself Blacky’s love interest, theater actress Natalija. The two keep Blacky and others hidden in the basement, making weapons (even a tank!) for the war to be yet concluded with Tito’s final battle. Above ground, Marko enjoys the privileges of a top party official, hobnobbing with Tito, even unveiling a monument to the supposedly fallen hero Blacky, all the while dealing the underground-made arms on the black market.
Whether you read quote unquote “underground” as the actual physical basement, or as a cellar dungeon of nations, or as communist resistance, or as the netherworld of the dead, the conclusion is that both Marko and Blacky live in an illusion, one imposed on him by a wily political operator, while the purported friend is helping to create his own lie in self-denial. The artificial underground cave is a Yugoslavia created for the common people by the communists; the above-ground Yugoslavia is likewise built on false narratives, reinforced by monuments and Partisan films and profiteering. The two realities often clash, often magically.
The most dramatic collision occurs in a classic Kusturica fashion, at a party, specifically a basement wedding of Blacky’s son. A chimpanzee climbs into the tank, blasts a hole in the wall, and Blacky and the groom escape to the outside world to finish off the fight against the Germans. They stumble onto what they don’t know to be a set of a film fictionalizing Blacky’s story. So the two mistake the filming for reality, a classic tragic end ensues, and then a few more in the film’s 3rd act, the 90s wars.
On the surface, the story reinforces the idea the Balkans are all war all the time. “The underlying presumption is that all Yugoslav wars are reincarnations of the Ur-conflict,” writes the film scholar at the University of Belgrade, Nevena Daković. At the same time, war seems to be imposed from the outside, be it by invasion in the first part of the film, in World War Two, by communist regime propaganda in the second act, and by the country’s breakup in the third, when, even though it’s brothers killing brothers, we actually don’t even know who the real enemy is or why we’re even fighting anymore or what the point of all that violence is and who won and who lost.
All the while, truba, or Balkan brass music, maintains the frenetic pace, turning its author, former Bijelo Dugme auteur, Goran Bregović, into a global world music star. The director, Kusturica, has been quoted as saying his films are closer to the circus or musical theater than to serious literature.
In the final scene, cows come home and there is yet another party, with all the characters, now mostly dead, celebrating on a chunk of land splitting off from mainland and floating into the distance. The final line: “With pain, longing, and joy we’ll remember our country when we tell our children stories that begin like a fairy tale with, ‘Once there was a country…’” Perhaps the party is a dance on a grave. Finally, a caption: “This story has no end.”
The Bosnian Muslim director was accused of pro-Serbian bias in the telling of the story. The film is set in Belgrade and all the characters are Serbian and portrayed as victims of circumstance. Period footage of Slovenes and Croats welcoming their German occupiers rankled. The chief of Serbian secret police and Arkan both attended the premiere in Cannes.
At the same time, Serbs come across as opportunists and collaborators, as both the perpetrators and victims of communist crimes, daring and fun and perhaps not so smart, and in fact the story shows conflict between two different breeds of Serbs, Marko’s more sophisticated, urban ones in Serbia and Blacky’s wilder, more Balkan ones outside Serbia proper.
So this old bias chestnut both erases the multilayered nuance of the narrative and ultimately speaks more to the viewers’ biases than the artist’s (of course, Kusturica later went full on pro-Vučić and pro-Putin…but that’s another story).
Dark-humored and accusatory as it is, the film presents an obituary of sorts to Yugoslavia, or, as Daković sees it, a “subtle expression of grief for a ‘country that was once upon a time’ and of the growing awareness that the past should be blamed for the present.” End quote.
Back in 1996, in the safety of newly independent Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, the repressed university student that was the younger version of me watched the film with fresh experience of having witnessed Yugoslavia disintegrate in war on the TV screen. Kusturica’s alternative take on his disappeared country’s history, set against the frenetic pace of čočeks and rakija and magical realism captured my imagination. It was more complicated down there than what the media were saying. I was hooked—and here I am, unclenched.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the Slovenian film Autsajder by Andrej Košak from 1997, a teenager named Sead is new to Ljubljana, in tow of his Yugoslav People’s Army officer father, who is Bosnian, and housemaker mother, who is a Slovene. Sead makes fast friends with some local punks and becomes their frontman, nicknamed Sid.
Sead falls for Metka, whose name etymologically means pearl but, in true Chekhovian pistol fashion, in Bosnian it means bullet. Sead/Sid’s story of perpetual rootlessness and outsider status, friendlessness thanks to frequent relocations, and targetless teenage depression unfolds against the background of Tito’s end-of-life illness in the local hospital. Nothing funny about this coming of age, or perhaps adulting, story with a somewhat foreseeable ending, but the punk angle both points and gives the finger.
Tito i Ja, Underground, and Autsider are post-Yugoslav-era films that, as Nevena Daković, has observed, “directly record the changes in the social context that influence the (re)interpretation of the socialist past.” In these films, Yugoslavia acts as a character in and of itself, with its own development arc and plotline. Additionally, these films attempt to come to terms with the socialist Yugoslav past and do so by incorporating historical footage into the narrative. Whether it’s Marko hanging out with Tito or Zoran daydreaming about Tito or Sead watching Tito in a television newscast, fiction and history blend together to the point as to be nearly indistinguishable. In such hindsight, Yugoslavia can be read both as history and as fiction—really as just a story.
Whether they’re comedies or dramas, the three films actually blend the nostalgic and dark elements. What the docufiction technique also does, especially when paired with meticulous reconstruction of the historical-material reality, from cars to furniture to clothing to food products in ways that would be familiar to any Mad Men fan, is to inject nostalgia into the narrative. Even when the treatment of Yugoslavia is critical and its end emphasized as a tragic failure, the viewer can’t help but feel a tinge of nostalgia for the good things that preceded, if not outweighed, all the bad ones. Indeed, as Daković points out, these so-called nostalgia films, quote, “differ from broadly defined historical films in that they do not reconstruct the past but rather evoke feelings of the past” through the use of metonymy, parody, and pastiche.
The mere setting in the former Yugoslavia may evoke in many viewers the feelings of nostalgia. The rites and rituals of the socialist era, from pilgrimages to Kumrovec to unveiling of monuments to people’s heroes to even punk rock bring back memories and recollections of how things were and now are long gone. And the films underscore the darker sides of brotherhood and unity, including alienation, alcoholism, and authoritarianism. Propaganda and the personality cult, whether coming from the media or from schools, are ever present. “To explain the recurrent disasters of the Yugoslav past,” writes Daković, “the films’ narratives reach for myths, fate, and ghosts that haunt the nation.”
Let me mention a couple of lesser known films made in rump Yugoslavia, that is de facto in Serbia, whose stories take place during the socialist period.
In Tri karte za Holivud (Three Tickets to Hollywood), from 1993, by Božidar Nikolić, residents of a generic Serbian village at the time of the Cuban missile crisis await the arrival of President Tito. Soon the village splits into pro-American and pro-Russian factions and chaos ensues. Interestingly, the words Tito or Yugoslavia are never uttered, instead it’s the president or leader and the country.
And Lajanje na zvezde (Barking at the Stars), from 1998, by Zdravko Sotra, takes place in 1963 in a fictional small town played by Sremski Karlovci. High school seniors at the very end of their studies pursue love and fun before adulthood begins in earnest, including teasing a professor who bought a Fića but can’t drive well or a school trip to Belgrade and Boka Kotorska.
As in any cinematography, films set in secondary school carry the greatest nostalgia-evoking potential. Plus this one, which has been labeled as a cult classic by now, is told as a memory, a flashback to the good old days. Yugoslavia isn’t present as a character per se, but the automobilization storyline, travel to other parts of the country, and actors, especially the older ones, all connote the former country—where you could do anything, including bark at the stars.
[SOUNDBITE – “Bandiera rossa” by Unknown (Instrumental)]
PETER KORCHNAK: “Bandiera rossa” is an Italian labor movement song glorifying the red communist flag. It was (and remains) popular with Yugoslav communists. The punk bands Pankrti, from Ljubljana, and KUD Idijoti, from Pula, covered it in the 1980s (why punks would sing commie songs is a story for another, upcoming episode of Remembering Yugoslavia).
PETER KORCHNAK: I do not recall the song at all from my life in socialist Czechoslovakia. I don’t think it was played there, in fact. Perhaps it’s because, even though it was a communist tune, it was a Western invention and sung in a Western language.
You also won’t hear “Bandiera rossa” in any of the films made there after 1989 about the socialist period.
The 1990s in the Czech Republic saw the release of a few blockbuster films that were set in the communist past. All were comedies.
VERONIKA PEHE: Comedy is a genre, which, by default, is conciliatory in its message, right. There’s some kind of reconciliation usually at the end between different characters who have differences. And this meant that the messages conveyed by comedies about the socialist past were usually also quite conciliatory in the sense that, you know, there were the protagonists who were somehow trying to resist in small ways and then there were the Communists who are usually also portrayed as kind of laughable, sometimes even pitiable characters, you know, kind of, often stupid, vulgar.
PETER KORCHNAK: Veronika Pehe is a historian at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, where she researches memory, popular culture, and the systemic transformation of the 1980s and 1990s in Central Europe. She is the author of Velvet Retro: Postsocialist Nostalgia and the Politics of Heroism in Czech Popular Culture. She spoke with me from Prague.
And we discuss additional topics throughout in the extended version of this episode, available to Patreon and PayPal supporters.
Pehe was born in 1988 so her research entails exploring the past that was the lived experience of her parents and grandparents and that her generation knows only second hand.
VERONIKA PEHE: My initial impulse for studying this topic was that I was thinking, well, people who didn’t experience socialism themselves, how do they learn about the past. U nless their parents talk to them, or their grandparents, their main point of access to the past is probably popular culture, it’s probably films or TV series that they watch. And that’s how they gain some kind of shared idea of what socialism was.
The most successful film about socialism in the first half of the 1990s was Tankový prápor (Tank Batallion), directed by Vit Olmer and released in 1992. More than two million people across the former Czechoslovakia saw the now classic comedy—almost twice as many as those who saw Titanic. The first privately produced movie in Czechoslovakia takes place in 1953 and pits a regular guy serving his compulsory military service, played by the dreamboat, Lukáš Vaculík, against his officers and especially the one, played by Miroslav Donutil, whose wife he pursues.
Another military service film—
VERONIKA PEHE: —was called Black Barons. It was about the 1950s, so the most repressive period in the history of Czechoslovak socialism, and it was about the service of political prisoners in the army. We have the political prisoners who are obviously opposed to the system. And within this very repressive setting of forced military service, they somehow try to outwit and make fun of their communist superiors, of the soldiers who are in charge, who are portrayed as generally very dimwitted, and a lot of the humor revolves around that in the film.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the 1950s Czechoslovakia, politically suspect people, like kulaks, clergy, and burgoisie offspring, served in so called Technical Support Batallions. The service lasted four years, twice as long as regular conscription, and they were forced to perform hard labor in mines, quarries, or forests. The existence of these battalions wasn’t made public until 1989; Černí baroni (Black Barrons) popularized it, bringing to the fore different ways the recently concluded socialist period was perceived and interpreted in the country, then still part of Czechoslovakia.
Tank Batallion and Black Barrons were the early examples of films set in the socialist period; both continued the tradition of military service films and TV shows and both contributed to the ongoing public debate about the socialist past.
VERONIKA PEHE: Like other postsocialist countries, the Czech Republic had to deal with the past on a political and legislative level after 1989. And of course, there was also a big discussion about how we as a society talk about the past.
And in the Czech Republic, the discourse of anticommunism was very strong and really dominated this discussion. And in the public sphere, it became basically the only kind of permissible way of speaking about the past: the communist regime was a totalitarian dictatorship, we have to condemn it, and that’s the only way that we can move on. That was kind of the dominant narrative.
It’s important to point out that that period was a dictatorship and there were many injustices committed and that’s also why legislature [sic] was put in place that was supposed to remedy those in justices to an extent. But we also need to be aware of how the political and media ecosystem worked and continues to work in the Czech Republic from the 1990s onwards.
How this kind of cultural production approaches the past is one thing. Then we also have memory politics: how politicians, opinion makers in the media talk about the past, that’s another level.
Then we also have something we could call vernacular memory, so how regular people, different social groups, remember the socialist past.
And these different levels don’t necessarily correspond with one another. You know, they can produce very different pictures. And the memory of socialism is very different on these levels and for different social groups as well.
If we focus on popular culture, we can talk about nostalgia to an extent. But my argument would be that actually, it’s probably more pertinent to speak about retro.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nostalgia versus retro has come up a number of times on the show. To refresh your memory:
VERONIKA PEHE: Nostalgia is an emotion relating to the past. There’s an element of longing. And of course, we can discuss those different types of that longing, you know, that for instance Svetlana Boym defines as reflective or restorative. But it is some kind of emotion about the past.
Retro is actually a kind of very unemotional approach to the past, right? It’s an aestheticizing way of looking at the past but one that doesn’t really have this emotional dimension. And it’s kind of this decoupling of emotion that allows us to view the past in this kind of pick and mix way. So what’s typical of retro representations, of their aesthetics, is that they kind of choose visually attractive elements of the past which aren’t necessarily even historically accurate. But that’s not the point. It’s all about packaging the past in a kind of visually attractive look. This kind of aestheticization allows cultural producers to push the political dimension into the background, right. It’s something that’s rendered non-threatening through this aesthetization. And perhaps that’s also why these retro films and TV series were very popular, and they were popular across generations.
PETER KORCHNAK: As in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, the generational change affected the pop cultural discourse.
VERONIKA PEHE: It’s important to realize that the people who got into decision-making and opinion-making positions were often people who, in 1989, were of the kind of generation that was coming of age. Often they were involved in the Velvet Revolution directly, so they were very much opposed to communism, they were very anti-communist. And these were the people who then formed the new media which were then creating a public discussion about the past. And a lot of these people continue to hold important positions in the media, even today, 30 years on. And this kind of discourse of anticommunism continues to be very prevalent in [the] Czech public debate, even though I think that it doesn’t necessarily correspond to vernacular memory, or kind of what different levels of society think and how they remember the past.
And there were moments in the past where we could get a sense of that kind of discrepancy, right, that there’s some kind of opinion-making level within society that says one thing about the past and then there are other people, let’s say, regular readers or viewers, who thinks something else and who perhaps have a bit of a more positive or even nostalgic appraisal of their experience of socialism.
PETER KORCHNAK: At the end of the 1990s, for example, there was a big debate in Czechia. On one side were anti-communists who said singers from the socialist era, like Karel Gott, the Czechoslovak Tom Jones, let’s say, should as collaborators no longer be allowed to perform. On the other was the populace who continued to love their Karel Gotts as part of their lives, if only for continuity’s sake. In film, the television series Třicet případů majora Zemana (Thirty Cases of Major Zeman) was paradigmatic.
VERONIKA PEHE: The 30 Cases of Major Zeman was a series produced in the 1970s, about a police officer who is a good communist, and he kind of solves 30 different cases, as the title suggests, there were 30 episodes, and manages to kind of get rid of various dangerous characters who are perhaps, spying on Czechoslovakia, and so on. The series actually portrayed the 30 years after the Second World War, each episode is set in one year from 1945 onwards.
Czech Television wanted to rescreen it at the end of the 1990s. So debates about that started in 1998 on whether it should be aired or not. And there were a lot of people, influential opinion-makers in the press at the time, saying, Well, no, this is a really highly ideological product of the 1970s, it presents a very distorted picture of the past. And there was a lot of anxiety amongst anticommunist commentators at the end of the 1990s that this would somehow be perhaps dangerous to young people who don’t remember the period themselves. And that this would present a false picture of the past. And there was a lot of discussion about whether the public broadcaster should show the series.
PETER KORCHNAK: A private channel in Slovakia had screened the show the previous year without controversy. The attitude of the Slovak public toward the socialist period had something to do with it—for that check out Episode 71 comparing Yugonostalgia with nostalgia for socialism in Slovakia—but it was also a private, not public channel.
Side note: For about a decade to 2017 there was a divey restaurant in downtown Bratislava called At Major Zeman’s.
In Czechia, a compromise was reached whereby the public broadcaster showed the series but added a documentary and a discussion after each episode explaining the TV show.
VERONIKA PEHE: From a historians point of view, this is kind of funny. You know, at the time, the series claimed, we, the communists, have the correct interpretation of the past, and now here’s Czech Television in 1999, saying like, well, actually, no, here’s our kind of liberal democratic interpretation of the past, and that’s the correct one.
PETER KORCHNAK: While the controversy dominated the public sphere, Czech Television and the press also received countless messages, letters, and other responses from the public expressing gratitude for the rebroadcast and satisfaction with it, pointing out the show had been part of life and was today not harmful in any way.
And, adds Pehe, members of younger generations who had limited or no lived experience of socialism saw it as postmodern entertainment, seeing the heavy-handed ideologization and the formulaic aesthetic with irony, as a retro parody of itself.
VERONIKA PEHE: This discrepancy has definitely widened over the years, for various reasons.
On the level of popular culture, cultural producers have generally reproduced this kind of anti-communist discourse. So even though a lot of films and TV series have been made, which, in a way, look kind of nostalgic in their visual aesthetics, in the sense that they display fashions and hairstyles and the material culture of the period with, you know, recreating it quite lovingly, right, and allowing viewers to kind of indulge in these aesthetics.
At the same time, the political messages of many of these films and TV series, and also also novels that were made in the Czech Republic after 1989 are pretty clear that, you know, the communist regime was bad. The heroes that these representations focus on are usually anti-communist in some way, they’re setting themselves up against authority, against communist authority, and they engage in some kind of form of resistance, even if it’s very minor.
PETER KORCHNAK: The best movie in the genre is Kolja by Jan Svěrák. Released in 1997, the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and is probably the best known Czech film since independence. Kolja is a prototypical example of Czech comedies about the socialist period that heavily employ retro elements and softly depict petty resistance amongst the citizenry amidst the absurdities of the socialist regime.
VERONIKA PEHE: This Czech man, a kind of older bachelor who never had any children of his own, is left with this little Russian boy. And the film is about the relationship that develops between them. It’s a comedy of sorts, as practically all Czech films of this period that that portrayed the past.
That then changes later on. In the 2000s, we start to get a lot more crime films and thrillers about the communist past as well. But not in the 1990s, it seems that at that time, humor was really the kind of principle mechanism of coming to terms with the past kind of laughing away things that were perhaps difficult, traumatic, or that people didn’t really want to deal with, you know, like the fact that many people were members of the Communist Party, and many people did cooperate with the authorities and they considered it probably quite normal and perhaps didn’t even think about it very much. But this is something that filmmakers kind of tried to mitigate by offering these very, kind of self congratulatory tales, which Kolja also is, about how people managed to resist communist authorities in small, often quite petty ways.
The character’s name is Louka. And Louka is somebody who’s been demoted from his job for political reasons and in order to make a living he plays music at a funerals, even though previously he was a member of the of the Philharmonic. And in various small ways, which are also moments of humor in the film, he expresses his opposition to the communist regime.
For instance, he doesn’t want to put up red flags in his window on a particular communist anniversary. But then, eventually, he does because he, he realizes that he might draw attention to himself if he doesn’t, and he’s got this little Russian boy now and he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen with him. And then there’s this kind of humorous scene where he’s trying to pretend in front of someone that he didn’t put up the flags, because that would kind of be an expression of his conformity with the regime and he wants to appear oppositional and brave, in fact, for not putting up the flags, but the little boy enters the room and puts up the blinds and the flags are there and Louka is exposed as in fact being a coward.
And these are the kinds of small moments of what I call petty heroism that are then somehow deflated and generate humor in these films. And there are a lot more moments like that in Kolja and in many other films where characters go out and, you know, do something that gives them personally some kind of sense of doing something resistant even if then, the story shows that actually, whatever they did was quite meaningless or didn’t have any effect.
PETER KORCHNAK: That element of resistance, petty or otherwise, to socialism, or rather to the totalitarian regime, is very much present in the Czech society.
VERONIKA PEHE: The important thing to realize about this kind of nostalgia for resistance, because, you know, in a way, it is nostalgic, you know, it’s like, oh, look at those good old days, when, you know, we could tell a joke, and you know, it was already really subversive, and we could get in trouble for telling it, but we told it anyway. We can’t do that nowadays. So you know, nostalgia for this kind of emotion of resistance with perhaps being a little rebel. That’s something that that comes up a lot. But it’s very much focused on the notion of the ordinary person, right? All these films, novels, TV series are about, so to say, ordinary people who somehow get by, through these kinds of resistant gestures.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ironically, at the same time the debate about how to portray the socialist period (or not), another blockbuster about those times came out; Miroslav Donutil again played a conformist character.
VERONIKA PEHE: In 1999, the film Pelíšky was released, directed by Jan Hřebejk, who went on to make a whole set of films about the socialist past. And this was an extremely popular film, it was seen in cinemas by more than 1 million people in the Czech Republic. And at the time, you know, there were 10 million people living in the country. And it’s been repeated on television so many times since. So really, you know, it’s a very, very well known film.
And this was a film which definitely could be, in a way, seen as nostalgic, certainly for this kind of aesthetics of socialism. But precisely because it kind of mocked characters who represented communist authority, kind of, you know, maintained this this kind of ironic gaze, it didn’t really upset those same anticommunist commentators who were so worried about the continued presence of socialist popular culture in the Czech Republic, because these films like Pelíšky did allow for that kind of anti communist interpretation.
PETER KORCHNAK: A few years after Pelíšky (Cozy Dens), in 2003, Hřebejk made another socialism-era film, Pupendo (the name refers to a coin trick one does on a person’s body). While still containing elements of humor, Pupendo is a more serious film, perhaps marking a transition to the next phase of films about socialism (more on that later on in the show).
Like in Pelíšky, in Pupendo stories of two families intertwine: one is involved with the Party and the other, of artists, quite the opposite (the film is set in 1984). Matters come to a head when the banned sculptor accepts a commission for a statue of a World War II-era Red Army general.
[SOUNDBITE – “Jednou budem dál” by Spiritual Kvintet]
PETER KORCHNAK: The cover of “We Shall Overcome” by Spiritual Kvintet was one of many folk-like songs that formed the soundtrack to the Velvet Revolution in my homeland, Czechoslovakia, and particularly in Prague. I am playing it for you with the kind permission of the label Supraphon. Follow the band (Facebook) and the label on social media (Facebook / Instagram) and buy their music online! All the links are at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2006, the movie Karaula (Border Post) by Rajko Grlić made a splash across the Balkans just around the time Montenegro became independent and Yugoslavia was truly no more. The movie marked a decisive inflection point in the post-Yugoslav cinematic history. While coproductions and collaborations had already been happening, particularly since the wars of Yugoslavia’s disintegration ended, Karaula was the first coproduction of entities from all former Yugoslav republics.
DIJANA JELAČA: One could make a very convincing argument that in the contemporary landscape of post-Yugoslav cinema, Yugoslavia is recreated time and again because if you look at the list of coproductions that are happening, it’s sort of a definition of Yugoslavia. All of the countries are working time and again together to coproduce films because neither of the individual industries is strong enough to turn out number of films on its own. So coproductions are a way to keep going and survive.
PETER KORCHNAK: That was Serbian-American film scholar Dijana Jelača in a previous episode.
On the creative end, co-productions revived Yugoslavia in a way through cross-border collaborations, and on the consumption end, films from the various republics (and particularly such co-productions) increasingly circulated through the rest of the former country as well. Co-productions tone down the particularist rhetoric of national and nationalist cinemas and, conversely, bolster themes and stories that speak to broader audiences and interpret and re-interpret the socialist past in more palatable ways. What can often seem like nostalgia is more a matter of economics than anything.
On top of all that, Karaula was a comedy, or rather tragicomedy, that dealt with the socialist period as well. And it, too, centered around the military, the JNA, the Yugoslav People’s Army, being one of the glues that held socialist Yugoslavia together. The year is 1987, the place is a border post between Macedonia and Albania over Lake Ohrid.
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: The director Grlić himself actually described it that the overall idea of the movie actually was to present the allegorical image of Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Film scholar Mirko Milivojević again.
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: Rajko Grlić being one of the most popular Yugoslav directors, there is a trademark of his movies, the melodrama and the comedy elements, singling out also some of the interethnic stereotypes and then really deconstructing them, reflecting on them and so on, even during the Yugoslav period.
PETER KORCHNAK: Two buddies, Ljuba, a Serb, and Siniša, a Croat, serve at the border post, doing the best to shirk their duties, chase local skirt, and generally make their conscripted lives more interesting with pranks and banter. When the post commander, Safet Pašić, who is Bosnian, falls ill—
—he recruits Siniša, who is a doctor, to both cure him and to act as a courier between the post and his home in a nearby town (real-life Bitola) where his Macedonian wife goes about her disenchanted life.
To buy some time for his antibiotic treatment, Pašić declares an emergency at the border, claiming the Albanian enemies are preparing to attack, and forces the soldiers to prolong their service and make defensive preparations. Predictably, things get out of hand…and there’s a yet another tragic end.
The period, location, and plot settings, interethnic romances and bromances, the soundtrack, and other elements combined for the film to be commonly read as nostalgic right out of the theater.
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: There is this kind of the sense of the of the closure the sense of the beginning of the end, and the plotline suggests that. The soldiers and their commander, they belong to different generations: whereas the lieutenant symbolizes the army, the official setting, the official symbol of the state, strict with rules, with socialist doctrine, the overall Yugoslav myth of the Yugoslav National Army, brotherhood and unity, Tito cult, and so on. Which is basically the top down narrative of the Yugoslavia [sic].
And the bonding that is actually created among the soldiers, and in particular, these two, of course, the Serb and the Croat, the brotherhood among these two ethnic groups and representatives, that actually comes from bottom up, from within. Aand not only does it go like on their ethnic lines, but more generationally and more following the lines of this alternative identity of the New Wave music and culture, popular culture and so on, where they find their identification. And, in a sense, kind of create the new collective identity or suggest at least, which is set in conflict with the lieutenant and everything that it [sic] also symbolizes.
It also has this bittersweet, affective component, which again is not necessarily the idealization or romanticization regarding of the Yugoslavia, the state, but also of personal and collective experiences, and collective and personal memories, and also showing up its ambivalences, paradoxes, contradictions, and so on.
So it all both fits and recreates and even develops the narrative or the overall idea of nostalgia and Yugonostalgia.
PETER KORCHNAK: One of the funniest and most poignant moments in Karaula is when Ljuba plucks red letters from the slogan on a barrack with Tito’s quote “Let’s take care of brotherhood and unity like the apple of our eye” to write “Električni Orgazam,’ Electric Orgasm, which is the name of a Belgrade new wave band. This does not go over well with the afflicted commander.
Yugoslav-era rock music is often a character of its own in these films. It evokes the era and references it in a non-political way, which in turn helps to reinforce the nostalgic element. It is also often connected with urban and urbane characters standing in sort of opposition to the more lowbrow folk music, or zabavna muzika, favored by people affiliated with the regime. The long standing divide in the former Yugoslavia is less ethno-religious and more urban-rural.
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: Yugoslav rock and pop music is being then recreated and reused and giving it furthermore the afterlife in the post-Yugoslav cinema. These movies that are dealing with Yugoslav pasts almost necessarily include this music as their soundtrack. So they then recreate, rebuild, help [the] dissemination of Yugoslav popular culture and music as well to go then across the media, to go across the national boundaries, to go transgenerationally and so on, which then also, in a way, further develops even the discourse on yugonostalgia.
It is now used as a nostalgic element. It’s open for multiple readings, including the escapism, commodification, commoditization of this culture of this music, of this entire production as well in the overall context.
Whereas, for instance, a lot of these songs, a lot of these bands, a lot of this, this old production, the scene, and so on, were not necessarily non-political. That does not mean that they were all absolutely antagonistic to the Yugoslav socialist regime or the ideology or so on, that they were nationalist instead of socialist, no. But that they have actually performed musically, lyrically, performatively, and so on, in terms of their appearance, generationally, of course, that they brought another element that they brought at least another kind of input to even the overall political discourse, the overall cultural production and cultural imagination of the period as well.
The new wave and the scene of the of the Yugoslav popular and alternative music of the 1980s, that was the production that really looked forward in the future, so to say. That was a futuristic (musically lyrically, productionally [sic]) scene that is now being actually looked at backwards, either by the recipients or the researchers or the audience or even on the other hand by the very same producers and actors from that period as well in terms of revivals of the bands, covers of the same songs by other bands and use it in in completely different purposes in contexts, and so on.
PETER KORCHNAK: Back in Serbia, a number of films made in the teens picked up on the 1960s themes from the previous decades.
Doktor Rej i djavoli (Doctor Ray and the Devils), from 2012 by the late Dinko Tucaković, combines acted and documentary footage to compose the mysterious story of the American director Nicholas Ray, of the Rebel Without a Cause fame, who spent a part of the 1960s in Belgrade to make a film, which never got made.
Falsifikator (The Counterfeiter or Forger), from 2013, by the usual suspect from the outset, Goran Marković, also features late 1960s documentary footage in telling the story of an elementary school principal in today’s Republika Srpska who forges diplomas out of the goodness of his heart. Events of 1968 that presaged the end of Yugoslavia converge on the protagonist’s own personal drama.
At any rate, while directors who were making movies in the socialist period continued to make films that take place there, younger directors tend to focus on more contemporary themes.
VLADAN: Rajko Grlić was making films in the 70s and the 80s, and, you know, Kusturica is Kusturica. And I think these authors are perhaps less cautious because they’re kind of very big in their careers and there is nothing much that anyone can do to them and maybe feel more free to address it. And also, they are the authors who lived through this period.
Unlike most of the authors working now who are now in their 40s and 50s and who only kind of experienced the end of the country. They’re mostly more interested in what came after than necessarily in the underlying causes, which could be probably seen in many films of the late 70s and 80s period in Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Recall what art historian Dina Iordanova wrote about post-Yugoslav cinematographies: “reassessing the communist years is not a major theme in (former Yugoslav) cinema, partly because this critical project had already been carried out in the 1980’s and partly because of the gruesome breakup that imposed a different set of concerns around the aura of Tito’s legacy.”
In addition to the, let’s say, uncontroversial 1960s, other time periods get their share in the projector light.
Plavi voz (Blue Train), from 2010 by Janko Baljak, takes place during the week of mourning following Tito’s death in May 1980 at a high school where students vie for each other’s sympathies and compete in a beauty pageant. In a trend we’ve seen in the U.S., the successful film was turned into a TV series.
Atomski zdesna (Holidays in the Sun) from 2014 by Srdjan Dragojević, of the Pretty Village Pretty Flame fame, opens with period footage of children splashing in the sea and the caption: “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia guaranteed every worker two weeks of free summer vacation.”
The film takes place in the present day, at a time share resort, but those free vacations in coastal resorts are used as a sales technique to underscore the faults of socialism and advantages of capitalism; the past anchors the piece featuring characters from all the former republics.
Bičemo prvaci sveta (We Will Be World Champions), from 2015 by Darko Bajić, fictionalized the story of Yugoslavia’s first gold medal at the 1970 world basketball championships. This film too was turned into a television show.
And Toma, from 2021 by Dragan Bjelogrlić, himself a star of the popular 1980s Yugoslav show Bolji život as well as the aforementioned Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, is a megapopular biopic of the poet, chansonier, and bohemian Toma Zdravković who achieved the zenith of his fame in the 1960s and 70s Yugoslavia.
“Toma’s popularity, the nostalgia factor (sometimes played for shameless sentiment) plus sizable excerpts from his appealing songbook should attract viewers from across the republics of former Yugoslavia and the diaspora,” wrote Variety in a review. Time period plus music equals nostalgia.
More importantly, reflecting Serbia’s nationalist turn in recent decade-plus—
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: —this would be probably overshadowed by the most recent production, that was thematize Yugoslavia but as the kingdom, the first Yugoslav state, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which would then in [the] past 10 years, actually be more present in the cinematic and TV production in Serbia and will gain more popularity than the representation of socialist Yugoslav period, which would then be left again, to some some excessive elements or the already critically acclaimed and popular Yugoslav directors, such as Goran Marković.
PETER KORCHNAK: One example, available in the U.S., is the series, now in its third season, Senke nad Balkanom, which translates as Shadows Over the Balkans but is streaming under the title, The Black Sun. This crime drama directed by and starring Bjelogrlić, takes place principally in the 1920s and 30s Belgrade.
[SOUNDBITE – “Pochod samopalníků” (March of Machine Gunners) by Unknown]
PETER KORCHNAK: “The March of Submachine Gunners” was one of the most popular compositions in the former Czechoslovakia. Composed by Jan Fadrhons in 1952, it was one of the main military marches of the Czechoslovak People’s Army.
Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) was one of the few Czech films set in the 1960s. The other rarely depicted elements of socialism were the normalization period, that is the 20 years between the invasion and the revolution, and dissent.
VERONIKA PEHE: Very infrequently has Czech popular culture portrayed dissidents, dissidents like Havel and others…
PETER KORCHNAK: Only about 20 films made between the end of socialism and the pandemic in the Czech Republic were set in the socialist period, that’s about 12 percent of all production in the country, including the period of Czechoslovakia.
“There are not many references to the Czechoslovak past in Czech films, and those that do appear are seldom more than superficial hints or background for melodramas or comedies,” wrote the film critic Petra Dominková. “Can it be that Czech society, together with Czech film directors, is experiencing a sort of amnesia towards its recent history?”
VERONIKA PEHE: There have been a few films, but actually, there’s something that seems somehow uneasy for filmmakers or writers in approaching the topic of dissent because it was such an exception, right? Very few people actually signed Charter 77, it was, you know, a relatively small group of people who were very important in terms of global human rights initiatives in the second half of the 20th century (they were very significant also internationally) but they were, you know, not very numerous. And in fact, many people in Czech society were probably not particularly aware of what Charter 77 was, and what what they were doing.
VERONIKA PEHE: And for filmmakers, you know, in this cultural memory, it’s somehow quite difficult to handle this exception of dissent. So there have been a few films, but actually, they portray this dissident milieu as hedonistic, they focus a lot on this kind of element of open relationships, which is something we also know from memoirs, from interviews with people who were dissidents that, indeed, within this community, there were a lot of kind of atypical family setups, lots of parallel and open relationships and so on. And this is something that’s perhaps quite attractive to filmmakers, because it’s, you know, it’s kind of juicy, so to say, as a topic for portrayal. You know, that you can make a film about Havel and the troubles he has with his wife, because he also has several other women, whom he’s seeing at the same time, and, you know, how does he do that? But what gets lost in in these narratives is actually the kind of political dimension of dissent, right?
If we look at a recent film, which was called simply Havel, and it was a biopic about Václav Havel, it’s all about his, basically his troubles with women. But it’s completely not clear from the film, why he was such an important oppositional thinker, why Czechoslovak dissent actually coalesced around him, why his personality was somehow so significant and enticing for others. You know, none of that really comes comes across, nd we don’t really get a sense of what his ideas were and what he was fighting for. We get a sense that he was a kind of wimpy womanizer.
This is quite an interesting aspect of the Czech memory of socialism that, you know, we have this very strong focus on ordinary people who somehow tried to resist communist authority. But there’s a lot of uneasiness about portraying dissent.
PETER KORCHNAK: If we think of The Tank Batallion and Havel as bookends to the evolution of how the Czech cinema depicted socialism, the shift from comedy to drama in the middle was a significant one.
VERONIKA PEHE: This kind of movement from comedy, which was very prevalent in the 1990s, to more serious genres is something that’s maybe quite typical of cultural memory in general, in the sense that those early cultural appraisals of the socialist past were quite ambivalent.
With the passage of time, representations start to get much more black and white in their portrayal.
PETER KORCHNAK: The context for the shift was the opening of secret police archives and, in 2007, the launch of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and the public debate that surrounded it.
Funded by the state, the Institute has its parallels in Poland or in my native Slovakia where since 2002 the Nation’s Memory Institute studies repressive state regimes from 1939 to 1989.
And so, from the late mid-aughts on, in Czech literature and cinema, stories about ordinary people resisting the communist regime in petty ways shift toward grander dramatic, even heroic narratives of resistance. Comedies give way to dramas, which tend to center on the conflict between the secret police, as the villains, and the protagonists, often artists.
VERONIKA PEHE: Around 2009, let’s say, there’s this kind of whole crop of films like Pouta (Walking Too Fast, in English) which is the story of a secret police agent, a kind of really evil secret police agent, it’s a thriller.
And then we have Ve stínu (In the Shadow), again a kind of crime story from the 1950s, where this kind of very good hearted, honest old-school detective is also trying to kind of serve justice in a situation where the secret police has its own nefarious designs.
We also get stories about the 1970s, 1980s. For instance, in the world of sport, the film Fair Play directed by Andrea Sedláčková, is about a professional sports woman who resists the kind of official doping policy of the Czechoslovak authorities. And so on.
So, you know, these are stories about people really kind of making big statements and people who are willing to risk a lot in order to maintain their kind of moral integrity. Which is something we didn’t have in those comedies that much, right, we kind of have people who performed the small acts of resistance without taking any big risks.
This is the main development we see in cultural memory in the Czech Republic, this kind of movement from retro comedies to more much more serious, but also quite black-and-white depictions of the past.
PETER KORCHNAK: And most recently—
VERONIKA PEHE: With the arrival of streaming platforms, you know, which have changed a lot the way we consume television, there’s also been a whole crop of TV series that aspire to quality TV but also portray the socialist past produced, for instance, by HBO.
PETER KORCHNAK: The 2019 limited series show Bez vědomí (The Sleepers) is a tight, meticulously period spy thriller featuring a couple of exiles who return to Czechoslovakia just before the Velvet Revolution (the show was released on the revolution’s anniversary) and get themselves into bit of a pickle involving the Czechoslovak State Security, the Soviet Army, the British Embassy, and others with their own agendas.
Still, more than three decades or a generation after the fall of socialism—
VERONIKA PEHE: These two modes of representing the past, as either comedy or thriller, have kind of slightly depleted themselves by now, you know. There’s been a lot of these TV series and films. And cultural producers who want to portray the pre-89 period kind of have to come up with something else. And there have been some, some attempts at that, you know, there was, for instance, [a] Czech television series a few years ago, called Svět pod hlavou (World Under One’s Head), which was about the 1980s but it involves kind of sci fi elements and time travel. So you know, here you can really see a departure, right, that cultural producers are thinking like, Well, what else can we do to actually make the past attractive?
PETER KORCHNAK: In the rest of our conversation, Pehe made a few predictions about the direction that cultural production in Czechia is taking and compared cultural production about socialism in Czechia with Slovakia and particularly the former East Germany.
[SOUNDBITE – “Crveni makovi” (Instrumental) by Unknown]
PETER KORCHNAK: “Crveni makovi” (Red Poppies) is a song by the Croatian poet Mihovil Pavlek Miškina. For many it is associated with May Day, for others it’s a Partisan song. I was unable to track down the author of this instrumental rock version.
YU 3: Croatia
PETER KORCHNAK: The other major cinematography in the post-Yugoslav space, Croatia, presents a more clear-cut, if not complex, case of periodization, similar to the Czech case. In the 1990s—
VLADAN PETKOVIĆ: —the national policy was a total kind of an attempt to have a clean break with Yugoslavia in a certain building a national identity in opposition to the idea of Yugoslavia, and especially, of this common country that was shared with Serbs in particular. So it’s kind of with this whole national, nationalistic identity policy that the these representations were quite negative, quite reductive and simplified.
PETER KORCHNAK: Vladan Petković again.
Official, or mainstream cinematography in newly independent Croatia centered on national and nation-building themes. As Nikica Gilić has observed, this was merely a continuation from the 1980s Yugoslav era, when after Tito’s death the top-down reins on popular discourse loosened. Films in the 1990s deal with religion, nation, war, emigration, as well as contemporary economic realities. But Yugoslavia, too finds its way to the silver screen. By now you know we’ll be talking about comedies again.
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: In the Croatian national context, it will be more of a comedy based oppositional narrative to the official, nationalist memory discourse, that the representation of Yugoslavia will find its place.
PETER KORCHNAK: Leading the way was Vinko Brešan. His 1996 film Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku (How the War Started on My Island) pits Croatian villagers on an unnamed Adriatic island (the real life location is a fort near Šibenik) against the Yugoslav People’s Army refusing to leave their garrison after Croatia’s independence proclamation. The locals try everything to coax the military unit, under the command of an ethnic Serb, to leave: music, speeches, impersonation of military command…but nothing works. A ruse orchestrated by the father of one of the soldiers solves the problem but not until, you guessed it, something tragic occurs.
Kako je rat… ended up becoming one the most popular Croatian films of the 1990s, winning a bunch of awards, both domestic and international, and voted one of the best Croatian films of all time.
PETER KORCHNAK: Brešan’s next film, Maršal (Marshall Tito’s Spirit), is from 1999. The story takes places on the island of Vis where Yugoslav Partisan veterans start seeing Tito’s ghost. Scenarios unfold, including an armed insurrection to restore socialism and yugonostalgic tourism to capitalize on the event.
MIRKO MILIVOJEVIĆ: The setting is in the present day but it’s actually dealing with the leftovers with the legacy, unwanted or unwanted, discovered, rediscovered, haunted and so on, the legacies, dealing in the post-Yugoslav present with the leftovers and symbols, and various elements of the Yugoslav past and recreating that in various manners.
PETER KORCHNAK: The turning point in how Croatian cinematography deals with the socialist Yugoslav past can be traced to the death of the first president of independent Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, in 1999 (and to a lesser extent the death of Slobodan Milošević in 2006). Similar to Tito’s death, with the two strongmen who drove the Serbo-Croatian conflict in the 1990s gone, pop culture in both countries found a way to move on.
VLADAN PEKOVIĆ: Films that are built exactly on this nostalgia for the certain era started appearing in Croatian cinema since 2010s. I think after this initial tension sort of dissolved and Croatia kind of moved away and became part of the EU and so on, maybe there was this feeling among authors that now maybe it’s safe to bring back this, this sort of feeling.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ne dao Bog većeg zla (God Forbid Something Worse Would Happen) from 2002, by Snježana Tribuson, is a story of an enamored boy becoming an enamored young man in the 1960s Bjelovar. Like most coming of age stories, the film, scored by Darko Rundek, carries a nostalgic tinge. To be sure, the nostalgia is for youth, rather than the country, though some of the story does take place in the realities of socialism, brought to life by Tito’s speeches on the radio and scenes around the Relay of Youth.
In 2011, the film Koko i duhovi (Koko and the Ghosts) became so popular it spawned a sequel, Zagonetni Dječak (Mysterious Boy) two years later. While neither film ever directly or specifically acknowledges its setting in Yugoslavia, the stories take place in the 1970s Zagreb and they’re based on popular children’s books by Ivan Kušan, who wrote them between 1956 and 1996 and whose son Danijel directed both films.
PETER KORCHNAK: The 2016 film, ZG80 (Zee-Gee Eighty, ZG being an acronym of Zagreb, and 80 the year…of Tito’s death) by Igor Šeregi, takes place in 1989 and portrays fans of Dinamo Zagreb on a trip to Belgrade for a derby against Red Star.
The Bad Blue Boys get into all kinds of trouble in the country’s capital, in large part thanks to their Delije counterparts. The foul-mouthed road trip tale of sorts pulls no punches, pointing fingers both at the causes of Yugoslavia’s dissolution (looking at you ethno-nationalism and your followers) and at potential sources of reconciliation (in short, the Man).
VLADAN PETKOVIĆ: It’s a comedy. And it is [a] really very engaging film, which works for me really well. I expected it to do a lot better in cinemas, and I expected a release in Serbia, I think there was a small one, but for some reason, this film didn’t come out.
But putting it into this milieu of football supporters, these are not the kind of hooligans that we are seeing today in Serbian or Croatian football. Still every big game, there is a big street fight.
With a very good period detail, and with this sort of very believable atmosphere and the kind of conflicts they would have. Already this thing is bubbling up, you know, Tito has died, the country is no longer what it used to be.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2019, two major films were released in Croatia, premiering at the Pula Film Festival.
VLADAN PETKOVIĆ: One was the film called [The] General, this very patriotic, very nationalistic film about Ante Gotovina, the general and war criminal.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ante Gotovina is a retired French legionnaire and Croatian army general infamous for his role in the 1995 Operation Storm which cleansed parts of Croatia of its Serbian population. He was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for war crimes and crimes against humanity, went into hiding like so many cowards of his ilk, and was eventually captured and found guilty on most charges. All his convictions were later overturned and he returned to his homeland to a hero’s welcome. Posters of his likeness still hang on electrical posts and trees around Lika.
VLADAN PETKOVIĆ: So there was this very triumphant, old school, very obsolete style. I think it sold 75,000 admissions, which is almost an incredible result for local film in Croatia. And there was this whole sort of national celebration thing with flags and fireworks and so on.
But the film that ended up winning the most important awards is docufiction drama called the Diary of Dijana Budisavljević, which is a completely opposite film of this one, because it’s about a woman who was, during the Second World War and fascist Independent State of Croatia, helping save Serbian children, which is then, you know, in this ideological sense a complete opposite of the other film that had lot of admissions but very few awards.
So I think this is a good example of how these, these things work. There are no straight lines here or very little is black and white.
There’s this disconnect between not only the kind of audiences that will go see these films, but the discourse that is pushed from the top of the government and also with strong influence of both Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, on the other side.
I don’t know exactly who this audience is. Who are the 75,000 from Croatia? Because these figures, how realistic are they? If there are elementary school kids being taken as part of their curriculum to see these films, for instance, or the lobbying on the side of Catholic Church in Croatia for people to see General and organizing special screenings and talks and so on. So there is this whole chicken and egg situation, where there is certainly a large chunk of population that has been for 30 years listening only to like, state propaganda from the national broadcasting news. And on the other hand, you would have nominally more liberal, left-leaning, or in recent years weird libertarian kinds of bubbles within the society that are actively countering what they would consider a regressive cultural direction.
There’s this sort of discrepancy that goes to almost like, these are two different worlds, that if there was a Venn diagram, they wouldn’t even overlap.
Political parties, like the governments always utilize these divisions and prefer to kind of reheat the old hates, international hates between Serbs and Croats because it’s easier to rule that way, it’s the fault of Serbs, Croats, Albanians, or fill it in, than to admit to their corruption and etc. So, there is not a clear indication of what is the driver of the public opinion. Or is the public opinion driving the funding? Or is there a political directive?
Last year, the biggest, I think, non-American hit in Croatia was actually the Serbian film, How I Learned to Fly, by Radivoje Andrić, which was a coproduction between Serbia and Croatia, and I think Slovenia might have been involved. But it’s really important that this is the story that is kind of a continuation of what was sort of normal or regular regular thing in the 70s and the 80s when people in Yugoslavia, when there was a really strong middle class that for instance my family and our friends belong to, and we were always going to the seaside, to the Croatian islands. And this film puts a new girl from the present time going for the first time to a Croatian island from Belgrade. And there is this whole very nostalgia-tinged thing about it because this is a family coming back after 20 years and there is a break in relationships and so on.
PETER KORCHNAK: A 12-year old girl from Belgrade spends her summer vacation with her grandma on the Hvar island. The, quote, “feel-good, warm-hearted and entertaining family film taking you on a charming yet emotional summer sunny adventure by the sea”—
VLADAN PETKOVIĆ: —was a super popular film both in Serbia and in Croatia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Petković maintains that representations of Yugoslavia aren’t really all that.
VLADAN PETKOVIĆ: It’s not that it’s truly nuanced, this representation. I would rather say that it’s not in the focus of the film— of any of the respective films. So it is a background thing that can be interpreted in this way or that way, depending on the overall spirit of the film. To me it feels more like, okay, we are peppering the film with these ideas, rather than making it a point or fundamental thing for the story and the point of the film.
You know, if we were doing this 10 years ago, I think I would have had a lot of different answers and different reactions and different associations from your questions. These cinemas, they’re not necessarily moving away from this very topic, but I think the way societies themselves are moving further away from the idea of Yugoslavia
If anybody is collaborating, it is the filmmakers. And films was made in Yugoslavia were never really just Croatian, Slovenian or Serbian, they were people working across the lines everywhere. And this sort of continued from around the time of Karaula, and on.
And so there is a certain nostalgia, but more in the sense of, I would rather call it pride that there was one this country that really functioned that well and that it produced many great works of cinema. And then that these people after or their children, whether literal children, or the children of this, sort of heirs of these carriers of this flame, are still keeping this idea up, I mean the idea that this is a common cultural space and that there are common values that transcend the borders, and so on (this is more more obvious in documentary cinema, than in fiction cinema). And of course, artists, filmmakers, whenever we meet at international festivals, people from Yugoslavia end up sitting at the same table.
And then when there are these films that are very nationalistic, that are propaganda and so on, it doesn’t feel like part of the same art or the same cultural field. It feels like coming of a completely different place: it doesn’t come out of a place of creativity and humanity, but it rather comes out of this propaganda and the hunger for power and money and status and so on.
PETER KORCHNAK: As you’ve heard me talk about Underground a number of times, so it goes with Crno bijeli svijet (The Black and White World). The popular Croatian television soap opera directed by Goran Kulenović that ran for four seasons between 2015 and 2021 is set in the 1980s Zagreb, with each episode unfolding across one month. The period and socialist realities are recreated in meticulous, Mad Men-level detail, and so, as with many other such productions, despite being anything but nostalgic, nostalgia seeps out of every frame.
The country is ever present, though rarely mentioned by name, through major, real-life Yugoslav events like the Kosovo riots or youth actions or military service or the Sarajevo Olympics or many smaller, local ones. What does play a big, indeed a defining role in the story is new wave music, from the very title and opening song of the show, by Prljavo Kazalište, to songs framing the narrative in many episodes, to some of the characters portraying real-life musicians (Haustor, Idoli, and many others make an appearance) or even playing in bands (you heard one of the show’s stars, Kaja Šišmanović, briefly discuss her role as Una Miličević in Episode 66, “Inspired by Yugoslavia;” Anica Dobra, the mother of little Zoran from Tito i Ja, plays Una’s mother here).
And speaking of moving on: when I asked the show’s co-writer, Igor Mirković, who also made the 2003 documentary about New Wave, Sretno Dijete (Happy Child), for an interview, he kindly declined citing exhaustion with the whole topic of the 1980s.
There’s only so much one can say about a thing, I guess.
PETER KORCHNAK: There you have it, post-Yugoslav and post-Czechoslovak films, some anyway, that keep Yugoslavia’s and Czechoslovakia’s memory alive.
Three additional threads wove through the story for me. A surprising number of these films are based on novels. In a world where movies based on comic books rule the box office, watching book-based movies is both refreshing and makes for a different kind of story-telling. It also speaks to the level of literary culture in the Balkans.
Other than the behemoth of Underground and a couple other notable exceptions that go on for far too long, these films also tend to clock on a shorter side, averaging about 90-95-minute run time. This makes them tighter, more watchable.
The last and perhaps most important commonality is how Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are portrayed. Especially in comedies, things are funny—until they aren’t. You’ve heard me point out tragic episodes and ends in many of the post-Yugoslav films. It’s as if the cinematic narratives mirror the country’s fate: all was well until it didn’t end well.
The Czech case is opposite (things do end well for the country, with the overthrow of the communists and a peaceful disintegration of the common country) but within the film narratives, things tend to have at least a bitter ending.
Our story today can have a sweet one…if you take a moment to contribute toward making the future ones possible. Navigate to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and get your ticket to the extended version of this and all other episodes as well as future podcasting adventures around Yugoslavia.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.
Additional music courtesy of YouTube channels Canti di lotta, Bandi militare, and YU 0 [nula] Laki. The vintage camera sound effect by SoundEffectFactory.
The song “Jednou budem dál” courtesy of Supraphon. Buy their music!
Film clips used for review and educational purposes.
All the links are at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Special thanks to Sanjin Pejković and Vjeran Pavlaković.
I am Peter Korchňak.
- Contemporary Southeastern Europe Vol. 4 No. 2 (2017)
- Nevena Daković. “(Hi)stories of Socialist Yugoslavia.” In: Jana Dudková and Katarína Mišíková, eds. Cinema Transformation Processes in Post-Socialist Screen Media. Bratislava: Academy of Performing Arts, 2016
- Miller, Nicholas. “Review of Underground [Podzemlje] by Emir Kusturica. The American Historical Review Vol. 104, No. 3 (Jun., 1999), pp. 1047-1048
- Yarovskaya, Marianna. “Review of Underground by Emir Kusturica.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Winter, 1997-1998), pp. 50-54