Partisan ‘Realism’: Representations of Wartime Past and State-Building Future in the Cinema of Socialist Yugoslavia

By Greg de Cuir, Jr.

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The Second World War in Yugoslavia. More than one million dead from 1941 to 1945. Nazi German forces partnering with Croatian Ustaša (and sometimes Serbian Čhetniks) against the multi-ethnic Yugoslav Partisans. Serbian Čhetniks as arch enemies to the Yugoslav Partisans (and not necessarily friends to the Croatian Ustaša). The Yugoslav Partisans against everybody, facing opposition from all sides, and who ultimately prevailed in the domestic struggle. The sheer number of competing forces and shifting alliances on the Yugoslav front made it the most hotly contested and dangerous theatre of operations during the war.

In 1944 Belgrade was liberated. In 1945 the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was formed as a socialist state with Josip Broz Tito – the supreme commander of the Partisan forces – as prime minister and chairman of the League of Yugoslav Communists. This was the crowning achievement of the man considered by many military strategists and historians as the finest guerilla commander in the history of modern armed conflict. Aside from being a brilliant field general, Tito was also as an avid cinephile who employed a personal projectionist for his home theatre and watched at least one film a day. His favorites were Hollywood Westerns.

A Committee for Cinematography was established in Socialist Yugoslavia in 1946. The prewar surrealist writer Aleksandar Vučo was placed in charge of the committee and he quickly outlined a manifesto that Yugoslav films were to adhere to. The four points of this manifesto are key to understanding the development of the genre of the Partisan war film, and read as follows:

1. Films should be based on the principles of socialist realism, avoid abstract experimentation, and offer clear effective communication.
2. Films should serve heuristic and propagandistic purposes with a deeper understanding of the revolutionary struggle, a deep collective bond in meeting the challenges of creating a new socialist state.
3. The cinema of the Soviet Union offered the best prospect for illuminating the path which Yugoslav cinema should follow.
4. Film work itself should be fashioned on collectivist rather than individualistic principles. 1

From the outset Yugoslav films were designed to be conservative, as well as conduits for state propaganda.

The Committee for Cinematography initiated regional directions for all six republics in Socialist Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia). Each was to found a film studio, a cinema network, and all were to work cooperatively with the state on the import and export of films. As a result of these directions, Avala Film was founded on 15 July 1946 in Belgrade (Serbia) and Jadran Film was founded one day later in Zagreb (Croatia). These were the two main film studios in Yugoslavia and they were the most active in international co-productions as well. The various film studios that were created functioned autonomously. Film workers were given the status of freelance artists, and on 5 March 1950 the Yugoslav Film Workers League was founded. 2

Tito was in need of a national mythology as the glue holding his patchwork construction together. The structuring motif of this mythology was ‘unity and brotherhood’, and the narrative that underlined it was the national liberation struggle during the Second World War. In discussing Partisan war films and their use of the revolutionary struggle, Nemanja Zvijer has written that

[t]he struggle for liberation can be viewed mythically as an exalted event that marked the symbolic beginning of the political odyssey of an ideological system. Therefore victory in war, in a larger context, justified itself as the socialist order and because of that was necessary for its achievements, finally relating itself towards something sacred. 3

The notions of the sacred and mythical will be of further concern for this brief survey.

Just as the classical Hollywood Western mythologised the early formation of the United States of America (and in some senses became the archetypal American film genre), the Partisan war film did the same for Socialist Yugoslavia, while sharing conventions and iconography such as simplified good/evil dichotomies and conflicts, wide open rural spaces, horses, guns, and gunfights. The conservative and orthodox approach to Marxism that was practiced by the League of Yugoslav Communists was reflected in the schematic and inflexible genre tropes of the Partisan war film. 4 Formally speaking, the Partisan war film obeyed the rules of classical construction, displaying clear communication and a seamless style. Continuity was observed with regards to space (mise-en-scène) and time (editing), lighting was naturalistic as were décor and performances, and narrative followed a traditional dramatic structure.

The content of the Partisan war film was historical – specifically, the Second World War. These films told tales of brave Yugoslav Partisans fighting against various enemies. In addition to evoking the Western, war film genre conventions and iconography were depicted in these productions: military operations, guns, uniforms, armies, victorious battlefield conclusions. Perhaps we can conceive of the Yugoslav Partisan war film as a unique hybridization of the two genres. As a result of the dogmatic conventions in these films, a romantic picture was painted of the wartime Partisan hero: he was courageous, valiant, resourceful, and selfless. In those instances where the Partisan fighter was a woman, the characteristics remained with an added level of virtuosity. Senad Musabegović (2009) offers the following critique of the gender-based ideological manipulation present in these films:

[t]he struggle was united with a symbol of female emancipation, because women could become fighters. And when they become fighters they acquire their own autonomy because of participating in the struggle, along with men, in creating a collective will. 5

It is interesting to note that in Partisan war films, which tended to be conservative and a bit old-fashioned, women were treated with care and often celebrated – sometimes worshipped (as is the case in the film Slavica (Vjekoslav Afric, 1947), which will be explored shortly). In the era of Yugoslav ‘New Film’ in the 1960s, which generally opposed the rigid ideology of the classical Partisan war film, women were often mistreated, abused, and even murdered. This is one of the great ironies of the New Film era, which is often seen as a liberated moment in Yugoslav cinema that afforded the opportunity to explore personal subjectivities rather than official mythologies. Perhaps these personal visions were dark and fatalistic to be directly in conflict to the forced optimism of the Partisan war films. Still, if so, it is unfortunate that women were regularly made to be victims in these efforts. It is even more unfortunate that there was only one woman in the country that was able to direct feature films – Sofija Jovanović, who began her career in the 1950s and mostly made classical theatrical adaptations.

Like the Western, the Partisan war film seems to be particularly linked with open, rural spaces, as if somehow in defining their inseparability with the landscape of the nation itself (and the pending development of the nation). The titles of these films often refer to a naturalist aesthetic, such as V gorakh Yugoslavii/In the Mountains of Yugoslavia (Abram Room, 1946) or Na svoji zemlji/On Native Soil (France Štiglic, 1948). Sometimes the titles refer directly to a natural landmark or resource, such as rivers in the films Bitka na Neretvi/The Battle of Neretva (Veljko Bulajić, 1969) and Sutjeska (Stipe Delić, 1973). Another interesting example of this naturalism is the film Jedini izlaz/No Way Out (Vicko Raspor and Aleksandar Petrović, 1958), which takes place underground in a system of caverns full of wondrous stalagmites and stalactites as the setting for thrilling battles. Rarely do these films take place in urban locales, though Valter brani Sarajevo/Walter Defends Sarajevo (Hajrudin Krvavac, 1972) is an exception, with its exposition of city-based warfare in the Bosnia & Herzegovina capital. Indeed, many of these films feature Bosnia & Herzegovina as a setting. As Musabegović notes, Bosnia & Herzegovina serves as a dominant symbol of the Partisan war film. He writes that

World War II operations in Yugoslavia were conducted most often on the territory of Bosnia & Herzegovina. One reason is because of the geographical map and topographical structure of the republic…with its mountains and canyons it presented optimal conditions for military maneuvers. Besides its geographical configuration, Bosnia & Herzegovina had one more advantage – its unique multi-ethnicity, which favored a nationwide resistance movement. 6

These rural spaces and this lush naturalism often featured the use of horses, just as in a Western. The royalist Četniks are usually seen riding horses into battle, as part of their rustic and perhaps provincial nature as simplistically depicted in the films. Germans usually ride into battle on tanks in these films, while the virtuous Partisans most regularly travel on foot, emphasising their modest roots. As a result, the depiction of various modes of transportation had ideological implications in these films.

Though the numerous military operations situate these productions primarily within the war film genre, the polyvalent collection of codes at play in the films helped birth the appearance of the ‘Red Westerns’ that characterized certain productions in other socialist states. Perhaps the Partisan war films can also colloquially be called ‘Red Westerns’ for these reasons, even if they were not literal reconstructions of the tropes of Hollywood Westerns like their counterparts. 7

***

The early history of the Partisan war film begins in the immediate postwar era. In 1946, in a show of solidarity with the new Socialist Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union through Mosfilm produced In the Mountains of Yugoslavia. This was the first feature film produced in Socialist Yugoslavia. The film was shot in Russian and directed by Abram Room, with cinematography by the great Eduard Tisse. Room had already directed the first dialogue film in the Soviet Union, so he was a pioneering choice to handle the first Yugoslav feature production. Tisse was of course famous for being Eisenstein’s preferred cinematographer. In the Mountains of Yugoslavia served as an early example of transnational production by Mosfilm, which was often in the business of producing features in the various satellite states of the Soviet Union. Also, this proved to be a forerunner of the numerous international co-productions that Yugoslavia engaged in during the 1960s and 1970s.

The story of In the Mountains of Yugoslavia follows the fortunes of one Slavko Babić, a peasant from the mountains of Bosnia & Herzegovina who joins the liberation struggle and fights his way to Belgrade, helping to liberate it while becoming a war hero in the process. With this film the schematic was set for the Partisan war film genre, and it also functioned as an example of the socialist realist aesthetic that the Yugoslav film industry would model itself after. In addition, the production of this film served as a veritable training ground for the first generation of Yugoslav film artists, as many worked on the production crew. This is not to say that there was a lack of professional filmmakers operating in prewar Yugoslavia, both foreign and domestic. However, a national film industry only existed in an embryonic phase in the prewar years, as most worked independently.

In his book-length survey of the history of Yugoslav cinema, Petar Volk (1983-86) wrote of Room’s film that it “showed that it is not easy to align national illusions and desires with the real possibilities of cinematic expression”. 8 Still, In the Mountains of Yugoslavia gave an example of how to consolidate power and perpetuate a national mythology (or illusion) through aesthetics. Of course, this film also displayed the exaggeration that went along with a mythologising of heroic narratives. For this reason, it is necessary to place quotation marks around ‘realism’ when discussing films of this tradition. Perhaps a better description would be ‘romantic’ socialist realism, as these films always lionised their heroes and placed them in as flattering a light as possible.

One of those Yugoslav film artists that got their start on the Mosfilm production crew was Vjekoslav Afrić. He was a successful prewar theater artist in Zagreb, who played the role of Četnik commander General Draža Mihailović in In the Mountains of Yugoslavia. Afrić would be chosen as the director of the newly-established film academy in Belgrade in 1947, which meant that he had a hand in educating the subsequent generations of Yugoslav film artists. 9 1947 was the initial year of domestic feature film production in Socialist Yugoslavia, and the first film produced was Slavica, which Afrić directed as his debut. In an effort to practice and promote ‘unity and brotherhood’, Slavica was produced by Avala Film from Belgrade (though shot on location in Croatia) with Afrić, a director from Zagreb. This pattern was repeated in the second film produced that year: Zivjece ovaj narod/This Nation Will Live (Nikola Popović, 1947), produced by Jadran Film from Zagreb with Nikola Popović, a director from Belgrade. This sort of trans-republic cooperation was encouraged from the start, though it was nothing new, as film artists from across national and republican lines had collaborated since the prewar days of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Slavica is a very naturalistic film, which takes place in the seaside town of Split in Croatia, amongst a community of fishermen. It presents an idyllic vision of an unspoiled countryside, and the film also details a heroic narrative set during wartime conflict, though with an interesting deviation for this inaugural domestic production. The heroine of the film is the title character Slavica, a peasant woman who follows her fiancé into service with the Partisans. Slavica serves proudly and even has a boat named after her, which functions as an attack vessel during the climax of the film. As is the case with the film In the Mountains of Yugoslavia, the hero (or heroine) dies in combat at the conclusion. It was previously mentioned that the Partisan war film was mandated to preserve optimistic conclusions, and as a result it is interesting to see the tragic turn of events in these two early films. It was not common for the hero to die in later Partisan films. However, in these two films an optimistic sensibility is retained as the memories of the heroes are honored, and both films conclude with a celebratory parade marking the liberation of the country and an end to the war. The heroic deaths in these films serve the function of honorable sacrifices to the altar of nation-building.

The 1940s were a time for the seeding and development of the Partisan war film within the general history of Yugoslav cinema, coinciding with the seeding and development of the country itself. At this time Yugoslavia was trying to justify its existence both to itself and to an outside world, while also steering a precarious political balancing act in the process – and this is why these early films were fairly rigid in relation to the socialist realist line. Though initially enjoying warm relations with the Soviet Union, Stalin would break with Tito in 1948 when Yugoslavia was excommunicated from the Comintern. This sent the country on its first step towards the self-management and non-alignment that would characterize Yugoslavia in its golden age (the 1950s and the 1960s). With the onset of the 1950s, the Partisan war film began reflecting some of these progressive changes. For the most part the genre remained orthodox in orientation. However, the national film production was slowly diversifying with new styles and new directors, ultimately leading to the 1960s, when Yugoslav cinema fully blossomed with the fruits of a European film modernism.

The film Dalekoje sunce/Far from the Sun (Radoš Novaković, 1953), is exemplary as a transitional work of sorts that points to the shifting values inherent in a modernising Yugoslav national cinema. Novaković was the managing director of the wartime film section that was a predecessor to the Committee for Cinematography. 10 He directed a number of short documentaries in the immediate postwar years and his feature film debut, Sofka (Radoš Novaković, 1948), was from a script by Aleksandar Vučo. In Far from the Sun we begin to see some cracks in the mythological armor of the Partisan war film. Far from the Sun is very stylised, often relying on expressionistic effects that distort camera angles, lighting, and emotions, while also making extensive use of process shots that problematise a seamless reality. This is a film full of darkness as well (symbolised by its title), both literal with regards to the cinematography and thematic with regards to the ambivalence of the soldiers towards their actions and its moral consequences.

To be sure, Far from the Sun is not wholly-subversive of classical Yugoslav cinematographic values: the basic conflict of the film is still one of good versus evil, represented by Partisans versus Nazis; there is an intermittent voice-over narration that extols the mythological abilities of the resilient Partisans; there is an upbeat and optimistic conclusion featuring music – and for the first time in the film, sunshine – with majestic and scenic mountain views. Yet and still, the motif of a hellish fire runs throughout the film: the cloudy smoke in the opening credit sequence, representing the flames of war; the various smoldering fires used by the soldiers to keep warm; the burning village they discover, as well as the burning bodies within it. The tradition of the Partisan war film is being tested in a trial by fire here, which, even though it threatens to consume, is ultimately controlled.

***

As stated earlier, Tito was an avid cinephile known to enjoy at least one private film screening each day. His preferred genre was Hollywood Westerns, and it should be seen as no coincidence that the Partisan war film appropriated many of the tropes of that genre. Westerns are often about power relations, and a running theme in these films is a preservation and propagation of the law in the face of a lawless environment. Musabegović draws a connection between the Partisan war film and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), with regards to their mythologising nation-building. However, it seems that Griffith’s film was more about mythologising the past without necessarily hypothesising a potential progressive future – though it can be said that The Birth of a Nation helped to lay the groundwork for the Western and its particular generic construction. Ultimately, Griffith’s film is an attempt to critique the present (while fearing for an uncontrollable future bereft of white hegemonic power) and roll back the clock to an idealized past. One cannot say the same for the Partisan war film, and its championing of a multi-ethnic society structured on mutual respect and support is at odds with the divisive intolerance of Griffith’s worldview.

It should be noted that many contemporary critics and historians – often those emanating from the region of the former Yugoslavia itself – have written the socialist history of the country as a totalitarian affair which was intolerant of dissent. Therefore, in this view, the classical cinema of the era probably can be likened to Griffith’s infamous work, which represents a conservative and rigid ideology. However, as others have noted in contrast, it is possible that such critics overestimate the oppressive nature of socialism and the convenient narrative of brave artist versus dogmatic and dangerous regime. 11 Still, the Partisan war films seemed to be more formulaic and self-effacing when it came to an individual artistic identity. Of course, this does not make them any less interesting as objects of study.

The struggle against lawlessness and its implications for nation-building can be paralleled with the capacity for socialism in the Partisan war film, though these films were never overtly about the principles of socialism. Socialist ideals were implicit in the films and sometimes commented upon in a didactic manner, but the films were rarely preachy (not to say they were not romanticized or melodramatic). Again, quoting Musabegović,

[i]n Partisan films the fighters do not discuss Marxism, and Marxism is not mentioned or introduced as an independent theme. The presentation of the struggle and situations of conflict enable the embodiment and demonstration of Marx’s ideas about building a communist society.1 12

Perhaps it would not be practical for soldiers to discuss the tenets of Marxism on the battlefield. Still, it is interesting that given the heuristic aims of the schematic for this cinema, the opportunity was not taken to celebrate the virtues of the socialist path in a more literal manner. Many Partisans performed most of their left-wing activities in the prewar years when communists were outlawed, struggling against a royalist regime and agitating for social change. However, rarely were films made about this particular era until after the death of Tito.

After the war Tito was able to deftly transform the liberation struggle into the establishment of what could be called a dictatorship (and not one of the proletariat). Tito had the title of ‘President for life’ bestowed upon him, and therefore it would be hard not to criticise the totalitarian strategies underlying such a move – though perhaps it is true that Yugoslavia needed a strong hand to guide it through an increasingly complex world marked by the Cold War, through a non-aligned course between the two global superpowers. Yugoslavia had found its champion in the legendary freedom fighter Tito, whose presence was evoked in mythical terms on-screen when the international star Richard Burton portrayed him in the film Sutjeska.

It bears mentioning that Sutjeska was the first instance of Tito being portrayed by an actor on film – and this was in 1973, roughly 25 years after the development of the Yugoslav film industry (and a mere seven years before Tito’s death). Perhaps it is ironic that such a passionate film lover would not allow an actor to portray him on the silver screen – or perhaps the right actor just had not yet come along until Burton (though plenty of Hollywood and European film stars visited Yugoslavia during the golden years). Tito was then like a holy spirit in Yugoslav cinema, framed in pictures on walls everywhere, but whose likeness could not be rendered iconic in moving images, lest blasphemy be the charge. Indeed, there was only one other instance of Tito’s likeness being depicted in a film: Plastic Jesus (Lazar Stojanović, 1971). This film  of the Yugoslav Black Wave, directed by Lazar Stojanović, showed Tito in an ambivalent light through documentary footage of him in front of a microphone in a studio, preparing to address the nation, yet somehow looking confused and unsure of himself. The film was promptly confiscated and banned, Stojanović received a prison sentence, professors at the academy where the film was produced as a student thesis were removed or reassigned, and the entire Black Wave was disassembled and put down. Perhaps there was too much ‘realism’ present in these documentary images of Tito, and not enough Partisan.

It can also be no coincidence that here, as in other contexts, works of imagination are linked with transformative power. Before a new world can be built it must first be imagined. As Benedict Anderson (1991) noted in his pioneering book, nations are imagined communities – if so, Yugoslavia was perhaps the imagined community par excellence. Anderson wrote “[c]ommunities are to be distinguished…by the style in which they are imagined” 13. Therefore, the Partisan war film takes a central position within the transformation and construction of Socialist Yugoslavia, with Tito as the mythical force holding it all together. However, the Partisan war film seems more than a simple work of imagination when one assesses its ethical constructs. In this sense it becomes something like a hypnotic spell or a national dream, utilised by the powers at large so that the citizens of Yugoslavia would sleep peacefully knowing that the heritage of heroes past was protecting them.


Frames # 4 1-12-2013. This article © Greg de Cuir, Jr. This article has been peer-reviewed.

Notes:

  1. Daniel J. Goulding. Liberated cinema: the yugoslav experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 9.
  2. Veljko Radosavljević. Crni talas u srpskoj kinematografiji/The Black Wave in Serbian Cinema (Belgrade: Fakultet dramskih umetnosti, 2008 [unpublished Master’s thesis]), p. 41.
  3. Nemanja Zvijer. “Ideologija i vrednosti u jugoslovenskom ratnom spektaklu/Ideology and Values in the Yugoslav War Film Spectacle.” Hrvatski filmski ljetopis 57-58 (2009). All translations mine. 14Nemanja Zvijer. “Ideologija i vrednosti u jugoslovenskom ratnom spektaklu/Ideology and Values in the Yugoslav War Film Spectacle.” Hrvatski filmski ljetopis 57-58 (2009). All translations mine.

  4. At least, this was a conservative and orthodox approach in the early years of Socialist Yugoslavia. After Yugoslavia was excommunicated from the Comintern, the country followed a path of self-management in the workplace, which was seen by many critics as heretical Marxism, a market-oriented socialism.
  5. Senad Musabegović. “Totalitarizam i jugoslavensko socijalističko iskustvo/Totalitarianism and the Yugoslav Socialist Experience.” Hrvatski filmski ljetopis 57-58 (2009).
  6. Ibid.
  7. For a good resource on the transnational connections of the Yugoslav Partisan war film, see the special issue of the Slovenian journal Kino! #10 on Partisan films.
  8. Petar Volk. Istorija jugoslovenskog filma/The history of yugoslav film (Belgrade: Institut za film/Partizanska knjiga, 1983-86), pp. 137-38.
  9. De Cuir 2011, p. 49
  10. Volk 1996, p. 510.
  11. See the online journal KinoKultura and its various special issues focused on the ex-Yugoslav republics for examples of these recent critical debates.
  12. Senad Musabegović. “Totalitarizam i jugoslavensko socijalističko iskustvo/Totalitarianism and the Yugoslav Socialist Experience.” Hrvatski filmski ljetopis 57-58 (2009).
  13. Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Ppread of Nationalism, revised edition (New York: Verso, 1991), p. 6.