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10 essential films from the Yugoslav Black Wave

Originating in Yugoslavia during the ’60s, the somewhat ominously titled Yugoslav Black Wave is a blanket term meant for films with vastly varying sensibilities that were produced as a reaction to the propaganda of the past. Through non-conventional storytelling and subversive humour, filmmakers like Aleksandar Petrović and Dušan Makavejev used the cinematic medium to rebel against oppression and ideological indoctrination.

The name for the movement was borrowed from an article called The Black Wave in Our Cinemas that came out in a daily newspaper at the time. Although many of the Black Wave films were considered to be controversial and censored, they resurfaced again after the communist regime of Yugoslavia collapsed. Thankfully, newer generations of film students and cinephiles are discovering these masterpieces all over again.

Inspired by other movements like the French New Wave and the Auteur theory of cinema, the Yugoslav Black Wave is characterised by intense creativity and a magical irreverence for cinematic guidelines. This movement was Yugoslavia’s response to the revolutionary works produced by auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, showing the world that artists from Yugoslavia were capable of reinventing the medium as well.

In order to understand the unique sensibilities of the Yugoslav Black Wave, we take a look at some of the essential works from the movement for this week’s spotlight on world cinema.

10 essential films from the Yugoslav Black Wave:

Three (Aleksandar Petrović – 1965)

A collection of three stories that are situated at crucial moments during the second World War, Three is a harrowing chronicle of the anguish and suffering that this cataclysmic event generated. Through unimaginable tragedy, Petrović paints a complete picture of the volatile sociopolitical climate of that time.

Three received global recognition when it earned an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and was screened at major film festivals. Just like Elem Klimov’s Come and See, Petrović constructs a disturbing meditation on the horrors of war by following the tradition of other Black Wave filmmakers as well as the spirit of anti-war masterpieces.

Man is Not a Bird (Dušan Makavejev – 1965)

The stunning debut feature by the most important Yugoslav Black Wave pioneer, Man is Not a Bird provided irrefutable evidence to the world that Dušan Makavejev was one of the most original filmmakers in recent history. The film uses innovative techniques to tell the story of a reputed engineer who gets involved in an affair with a pretty hairdresser.

Man is Not a Bird is remarkably transgressive for several reasons, the most important of which is its ability to conduct an exploration of human sexuality that is not fettered by conservative moral codes. It is a cultural artefact that manages to deliver a pointed commentary about society by combining gritty realism with elements of fantasy.

When I am Dead and Gone (Živojin Pavlović – 1967)

Considered by the Yugoslav Film Archive to be the second greatest film ever produced by the country, When I am Dead and Gone follows the life of a fascinating protagonist who arrives at a tragic conclusion due to his own inability to come to terms with the absurdity of his existence.

Imbued with the spirit of the Black Wave, Pavlović reaches the apotheosis of artistic achievement in When I am Dead and Gone. Even after all these years, the film remains a critically acclaimed gem because it is timeless in its investigations of existentialism and the human condition.

The Rats Woke Up (Živojin Pavlović – 1967)

This 1967 masterpiece revolves around an alienated and disillusioned man who is robbed by a girl while trying to send money to his disabled sister. The Rats Woke Up delves deep into the human psyche, creating a claustrophobic vision of human depravity.

The winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival, Pavlović’s brilliant work is often left out of discussions about the Yugoslav Black Wave which should definitely be a criminal offence. The Rats Woke Up is Pavlović’s revelatory insistence that nothing can save you.

I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrović – 1967)

Another well-composed opus by Petrović, I Even Met Happy Gypsies focuses on the Romani community in a Serbian province. It launches a relevant examination of the marginalised section of Yugoslavian society through the story of a gypsy and his love affair.

I Even Met Happy Gypsies is certainly a social critique but it is also a philosophical exploration of the concept of hedonism. Humorous and poignant at the same time, the film was a critical and commercial success that attracted large audiences and won several befitting accolades.

Early Works (Želimir Žilnik – 1969)

Based on the events which took place after the Yugoslavian student protests that happened in 1968, Early Works is a prime example of the revolutionary power that the cinematic medium can exude. It analyses the aspirations and somewhat hypocritical goals of young leftists who are blinded by idealism to see the actual condition of workers.

Influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Early Works is restless in its meandering focus but it magically maintains its political momentum. The film received the coveted Golden Bear in Berlin, now remembered as the perfect demonstration of the chasm between theory and praxis.

The Ambush (Živojin Pavlović – 1969)

The Ambush is a post-war reflection on the rebuilding of a society that still hadn’t recovered from the devastating impact of the Second World War. Instead of the glorified leaders who have inflicted nothing but misery on the common people, it tells the story of the men and women engaged in the reconstruction of a ravaged world.

Pavlović chooses to structure this ambitious narrative through the life of an idealistic supporter of the communist party who starts out by believing in the party’s noble mission but ends up entangled in political corruption. The Ambush added to Pavlović’s already illustrious and award-winning filmography.

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev – 1971)

Dušan Makavejev’s satirical 1971 documentary intercuts footage from Soviet propaganda with a brilliant narrative about a highly political Yugoslav woman who seduces a visiting Soviet celebrity ice skater. It explores the relationship between communist politics and sexuality, as well as presenting the controversial life and work of Austrian-American psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.

The unconventional work is very similar in style to works from Godard’s second period, including Weekend (1967) and Tout va bien (1972). Makavejev goes further than Godard’s experimentations with the cinematic medium in this iconic film, successfully blurring the lines between a film essay and a work of fiction.

Young and Healthy as a Rose (Jovan Jovanović – 1971)

Jovan Jovanović’s debut feature, Young and Healthy as a Rose, follows the meteoric rise of a petty criminal from Belgrade who sails to the top of the underworld after pulling off a string of successful heists. Contrary to the premise, Jovanović indulges in a pretty intense exploration of some deep philosophical issues.

Young and Healthy as a Rose isn’t just any crime drama, it is an unsettling reflection on the incompatibility between the absurdity of youth and the rigidity of the Repressive State Apparatus. Jovanović shows us that it is almost always impossible to contain the spirit of young, disillusioned rebels who would prefer death over conformity.

Plastic Jesus (Lazar Stojanović – 1971)

To round it all off, here is another defining Black Wave masterpiece which remains the only feature ever made by Lazar Stojanović. Like many other films from this movement, Plastic Jesus is in constant discourse with French New Wave films (especially the works of Godard).

Set in Belgrade, Plastic Jesus asks grand questions about the interconnectivity between the rise of fascism and the resistance posed by the arts. It follows a completely broke aspiring anarchist filmmaker who sets out to survive in a world that is too hostile for such ruminations.

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