Emir Kusturica’s Underground won the Palme D’or in May 1995, making the filmmaker one of a small cachet of directors to have won the award twice, 10 years after his second feature When Father Was Away on Business landed the coveted honor. Underground remains a controversial and wildly ambitious film, one that refuses to be pinned down. It’s a never-ending hall of mirrors that reveals more about the audience than the narrative itself.
Underground tells the story of two best friends, with the action starting in World War II. Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlović) are two small-time criminals who become communist partisans as the Nazis invade Yugoslavia. A series of events leads to Blacky and a group of fellow comrades being locked into a cellar whilst Marko carries on the fight overground. But when the war finishes, Marko does not tell the group, keeping them in the dark, literally, by faking bombing noises above ground, and having this underground society manufacture weapons for him. Meanwhile, Marko enjoys the life of a Communist Party Secretary, fashioning heroic stories of his presumed-dead friend Blacky. When the group in the cellar eventually break free, the breakup of Yugoslavia has already begun above ground — the country that they’ve lived their whole lives under has disappeared before they ever experienced it.
The three-hour running time barely slows down in a film that attempts to summarise the complex history of communist Yugoslavia, delving into national myth-making, the power of propaganda and the enduring strength of collective memory. It’s nothing if not epic — there are few films out there that come anywhere near to attempting to tell the story of an entire country from start to end. Underground comes mightily close.
At the time of its release in 1995, the country whose story it told had ceased to exist. Communist Yugoslavia emerged after World War II under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, whose power base and standing was so absolute that he was able to withstand a split with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1948 (a topic which Kusturica’s earlier Palme D’or-winner tackles to great effect). In the process, the country took a different path, often branded in the West as “socialism with a human face.” Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, Yugoslavs enjoyed material wealth beyond that seen in other Communist countries, with a relaxed visa regime making it easy to travel abroad, albeit with the presence of an authoritarian secret police and censorship apparent.
The 60s, 70s and 80s were also the glory days of the Yugoslav film industry. International co-productions with American and Italian studios were frequent, thanks to the country’s cheap labour and varied landscape. Films such as Kelly’s Heroes, Fiddler on the Roof and Cross of Iron were all shot there. As a result, Yugoslav film technicians learned from the best, and the late 60s and early 70s saw a string of mega-productions detailing the Yugoslav struggle against the Nazis — Sutjeska, starring Richard Burton as Tito himself; Battle Of Neretva with Yul Brynner, Franco Nero and a cameo from Orson Welles; the genre’s peak, Walter Defends Sarajevo, a classic of propagandistic rabble-rousing.
Beneath this was a radical and experimental subsection of filmmakers dubbed the Black Wave — Dušan Makavejev, Želimir Žilnik and Aleksandar Petrović — who took the ball from the French New Wave and gave it ideological thrust and purpose. Whilst the Yugoslav authorities eventually stamped down on and censored the Black Wave, some of its ethos lived on in what’s known as the Prague Film Group, a community of Yugoslav filmmakers who all studied at Prague: Srdjan Karanović, Lordan Zafranović, Goran Marković, Rajko Grlić, Goran Paskaljević and, later, Kusturica. Although each of these filmmakers have wildly different styles, they all share a sense of irony and distance that was apparent in the Black Wave, working predominantly across dramas and comedy. This group of filmmakers were also more cautious about frustrating the censorial apparatchiks of the Communist Party.
Just as importantly, this was a period where Yugoslav cinema travelled widely, competing and winning prizes across Europe’s major film festivals and getting the occasional Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film to exist in the eyes of audiences beyond Yugoslavia. Underground seems to function as the before-and-after point.
After Tito’s death in 1980, the country gradually deteriorated. Nationalist resentments began to bubble up. A country which contained a multitude of ethnicities, with an intensely complex history, found itself under attack from nationalism, with chauvinistic rhetoric and nationalist myth-making now building its own power base. Eventually, this broke out in a series of wars, the most vicious of which was in Bosnia and led to genocide. Sarajevo, its capital and Kusturica’s birthplace, was under siege for three years. It was into this world that Underground was born, yet the film makes no mention of the country, unlike Kusturica’s first two films, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? and When Father Was Away on Business, both of which are unequivocally, unmistakeably Sarajevo films.
Much of Underground’s power lies not in what is on screen, but who watches it. The world in which the film’s underground society is dictated entirely by the fictions that Marko creates for them: stories about the Russians arriving soon to liberate everyone, bombing noises played on a record player — Marko even beats himself up at one point, pretending to have narrowly escaped capture from the Nazis. Just as the cellar into which the film’s characters are trapped begins to function as a literal Plato’s Cave onto which Marko portrays illusions, so too is the viewer’s response to the film conditioned by an understanding (or lack thereof) about the wider historical context in which the film was made.
For the uninitiated with a basic understanding of the region’s history, Underground reads like a cry for understanding, to reject the dictatorial stories of the past in favour of a more open and honest future. The final scene — taking place after all the film’s characters have gradually descended into the hell of betrayal, hate and eventually murder — finds them all together again, seemingly in the afterlife on a mythical island, partying as it breaks off into smaller chunks; a clear metaphor for the country’s breakup. The scene is set up as a wedding celebration, with all the attendant features of a Balkan wedding — plentiful roast food and copious alcohol, the incessant parping of a Roma brass band. It isn’t the only party in the film, with the characters keen to celebrate something every few scenes, even in their darkest hours. There’s barely a moment where there isn’t some version of fighting, fornicating or drinking. Stylistically, Kusturica never stops throwing in new tricks; movement adorns every shot, Forrest Gump-like paste-ins ensure the characters get a front-row seat to history; water, reflections, circles are ever-present. That incessant energy plays into Underground’s call to drop the tragedies of the past and look to the present moment.
But the story of the breakup of Yugoslavia is too complex for that. Books have been written on the failure of the international response to the bloody genocides that occurred, most grievously in Srebrenica, where UN peacekeepers were unable to do anything to stop the massacre of 5,000 Bosnians by Serbs. In part, this was due to an unwillingness to properly deal with the matter at hand on the part of international authorities, where the easy temptation is to simplify the conflict into “everyone is guilty and we should all just get along.” It wasn’t uncommon for Western authors and media to write about the region as if it was doomed to bloodlust and genocide, seen most obviously in Robert Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts, whose racist and factually inaccurate blurb describes the region as “the place where terrorism and genocide first became tools of policy.
Herein lies the problem with revisiting Underground — it ultimately reflects this non-committal, simplified attitude of inherent violence and chaos back through the film, presenting viewers with a version of Yugoslavia’s breakup that is coherent and logical to an outside viewer — war, peace, war again, with the mistakes of peacetime leading back into war. That those mistakes involve propaganda and the deliberate retelling of stories in such ways to build national consciousness on a pack of lies also suits a neoliberal world, which — at the time — was basking in a post-Communist glow, having defeated the big bad of the Soviet Union. This version of Yugoslavia’s recent history is (for all of Underground’s inner complexity) simple and palatable.
Does a film need to be an ultra-precise retelling of history? Of course not. But when Underground depicts the fallacies of national myths and the dangerous allure of propaganda, it is somewhat surreal that it was in part funded by the state-owned television station RTV, which worked closely with Slobodan Milošević to enable the very worst of nationalist beliefs to run riot in Serbia. It’s surreal that Underground uses archival footage to depict the Nazis arriving into Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, and Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, to adoring crowds, and to Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, with tumbleweeds. It undermines the film’s points about propaganda, but sometimes I wonder if it somehow deepens it by complicating it further, as if there is no escape from the corrupting power of narrative and its need to bring order from human chaos. When Blacky finally emerges back into reality, he finds himself on a film set that is fictionalising his own exploits, and mistakes the uniformed extras for actual Nazis, shooting them as fiction and reality murderously crash together in a shattering hall of mirrors.
The wider problem about Underground’s framing of history is its reasonably unique positioning in “the canon” of cinema. Underground’s feted position in Cannes and in the West places it as the pinnacle of filmmaking from the former Yugoslavia. The amount of films from the region that get distribution in Western territories today is basically non-existent, and many of those formerly acclaimed films from the Black Wave and the Prague Group are now extremely difficult to get a hold of. Kusturica’s films are, by and large, still easy to access.
Successes have happened for post-Yugoslav cinema since the 90s. In 2001, Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, beating out hot favourite Amelie. Jasmila Žbanić’s Grbavica won Berlin’s Golden Bear in 2006. Croatian filmmaker Dalibor Matanić had his film The High Sun premiere in competition at Cannes in 2015. And yet, all these films are about the war or post-war trauma. They are often excellent, but their acclaimed position is also rooted in an unwillingness on the part of funders and audiences to envision the Balkans as anything other than a war-torn wasteland. Even the infamy of A Serbian Film, banned or censored almost everywhere it went, might well be rooted in the wider world’s willingness to see Serbia as A Place Where Bad Things Happen, something the film even plays on by its very title, as if goading audiences looking for shock tourism. A Serbian Film is also a revealing study of how power, politics and greed eats away at the centre of neoliberal society — all it’s remembered for today, however, is its ever-present place on “Most Shocking Films” lists.
Underground forms part of that overarching, simplified narrative. Whether the film is truly a masterpiece or not is not necessarily what matters; it’s the film’s position and the way it is seen — who watches it and from what angle — where we find its real afterlife. After all, canons and reputations rise and fall with time, but without being challenged, they can calcify into easily accepted half-truths that, much like the myth-making the film criticises, are built of sand. Twenty-five years after its release, Underground remains a uniquely powerful, maddening film about the breakup of Yugoslavia. The frustration is that it sometimes feels like it might as well be the only one — certainly, it’s one of the few that’s accessible — and that’s a bad thing.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.