Sweet Movie (1974) was the first Dušan Makavejev film that I ever watched. I remember the mixture of thrill, excitement and disgust that I felt as I watched the film, rooted to the edge of my seat in suspense. I remember looking at my Australian friend, similarly rooted to the edge of her chair, seeing shock in her eyes after viewing scenes with explicit references to pedophilia. I remember her wanting to turn the movie off.
Fortunately, she did not; we watched the rest of the film in a state of entranced delirium. As more disturbing layers were added, I became immune to the obscene – not even a scatological performance from Otto Muehl and his Friedrichshof Commune could disgust me by the end. When the movie ended, my friend and I paused for a moment in complete darkness, silently digesting. Eventually, my friend turned to me and hesitantly remarked, “…I think I liked it…”
In that moment, I was also trying to determine if I liked the film. But even more so, I was trying to make sense of my own ignorance – how had I never watched any of Makavejev’s movies before?
The answer, I came to realize, lay in the fact that most of his greatest works were made in the 1960s and ‘70s. During this period, the Yugoslav Black Wave movement in film flourished, taking advantage of relaxed censorship laws in Yugoslavia to experiment with depictions of society. This avant-garde movement was known for its critical examinations of the anxieties of everyday living in socialist Yugoslavia and was marked by radical and experimental approaches in cinematography. By the early 1970s, however, Black Wave films were increasingly criticized for their pessimistic depictions of the socialist state, resulting in increasing censorship and even outright banning of certain films.
Dušan Makavejev was a leader of the Black Wave; his story is emblematic of the arc of Yugoslav censorship. Take his 1971 film WR: Mysteries of the Organism, for example. Subversive, sticky and avant-garde, this movie is considered to be a classic example of Makavejev’s hybrid and electric approach to cinema. In it, he combined scenes from a documentary about the controversial Austrian-American psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich with fictional scenes set in 1970s Yugoslavia that focused on ideas of female sexual emancipation and revolution. As a result of this unique approach, the film gained notoriety at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival as well as several other international film festivals, catapulting Makavejev into the pantheon of great modernist European directors of that period, including Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard.
Despite all of this international acclaim, the film was banned by Yugoslav authorities until 1988, when it finally premiered in Ljubljana. This censorship impacted the screening of other Makavejev films, forcing him to leave Yugoslavia in the early 1970s and produce films in exile. He continued to direct and produce films, gaining ever more international notoriety even as audiences in his native country barely were aware of his work. Paradoxically, Makavejev is now celebrated in contemporary circles in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, with some critics even labeling WR as “one of the greatest Yugoslav movies of all time.” (Exile did not temper Makavejev’s criticism of his native country – Sweet Movie, his first film produced abroad, is widely perceived as both a logical continuation of WR as well as an expression of rage in the aftermath of that film’s reception in Yugoslavia.)
Makavejev’s films are oftentimes described today as being revolutionary. Contemporary critics point to the scene in his 1967 film Love Affair or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, in which a black cat lies on the back of a naked actress, as the exemple par excellence of this revolutionary approach to filmmaking – this was, after all, the first scene in all of Yugoslav cinema to depict a naked female body in an explicitly sexual context.
And in some respects, Dušan Makavejev certainly embodied the role of the subversive and eccentric artist. He was a former psychology student with certain anarchic tendencies and was arrogant enough to make a scene with a naked woman posing in front of Stalin’s picture hung on the wall. (This woman also just so happened to be Milena Dravić, one of Serbia’s most iconic and best known actresses.)
But Makavejev’s goal was never really about being anti-Communist, as some critics at the time and today would suggest. Rather, his goal was to criticize political systems of any and all stripes and to search for a state of liberation, for freedom of the spirit. He did so in his own, unique way, using the languages of satire and allegory alongside dark humor inspired by local experiences and contexts to create a peculiar mixture of fantasy, politics, life, sexuality and death all mingled and contrasted in one pioneering cinematic form.
Ultimately, only Makavejev can perfectly describe his unique approach to cinematography: “Movie is a state of permanent catastrophe, in which you are constantly trying to find your way out.”
At the end of January, Dušan Makavejev passed away at the age of 86 in his hometown of Belgrade. He leaves behind a unique constellation of works that will ensure that he remains remembered as one of the greatest, and most internationally respected, Serbian directors of all times.
After the announcement of his death, the Yugoslav Film Archive in Belgrade organized a retrospective of his works set for the first half of February, including a screening of some of his classics like Man is not a Bird (1965), Innocence Unprotected (1968), Montenegro (1981) and other notable works already mentioned here. The Yugoslav Film Archive further honored his memory by naming one of its ceremony halls “Makavejev.”
Some members of the generation born after the dissolution of Yugoslavia may not have much to say about the groundbreaking scene in Love Affair when the black cat sat on Eva Ras’ back or about the history of the sexual revolution in Yugoslavia that this scene has come to represent, recognizing Ras instead from her polemic appearances on reality TV shows or by her banal lines in contemporary Serbian movies.
For me, as a member of this newer generation, it is important to question how to approach the rich and complex legacy of Makavejev’s works. For his films are not just important for Serbian cultural heritage; they stand also as artifacts of the political and social dynamics and narratives of places that no longer exist, of a time when believing in liberation was still an idea that made sense.
Cover photo: Dušan Makavejev and actress Anna Prucnal during the making of Sweet Movie. Credit: The Criterion Collection