Yugoslavia’s Black Wave: how a nation’s cinema went from Socialist Realism to sexual revolution

Yugoslavia’s Black Wave: how a nation’s cinema went from Socialist Realism to sexual revolution
Still from Early Works, dir. Želimir Žilnik (1969)

After Tito split from the post-war Soviet Union, Yugoslav culture experienced a radical shift: the rigid demands of Socialist Realism were replaced by young, often subversive avant-garde voices. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the remarkable films of the so-called “Black Wave” of the 60s and 70s

24 October 2017

One of the central moments of Dušan Makavejev’s controversial W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) has his ostensible hero, Milena, shouting down to her Yugoslav compatriots from a balcony. It’s an image that owes as much to the Sermon on the Mount as it does to Lenin’s 1917 car-top speech at Finland Station — but her doctrine is radically different:

“Comrades! Between socialism and free love there can be no conflict! Socialism must not exclude human sensual pleasure from its program! The October Revolution was ruined when it rejected free love!”

The sensibilities found in W.R. reflect those of a wider cinematic movement in the 60s and 70s, known today as the “Black Wave”. These were films characterised by disjointed narratives, dark humour, social criticism and explicit sexuality. These would have been impossible in an earlier cultural environment dominated by Soviet-imported Socialist Realism, but widespread changes sweeping post-war Yugoslav society opened it up, at least for a time, to new expressions in film.

This shift was first explored and then capitalized by the directors now known for their contributions to the movement, namely Makavejev and others like Želimir Žilnik, Aleksandar Petrović, Mika Antić, Žika Pavlović, Krso Papić and more, but parsing the tricky cultural balance between innovation and toeing the party line would eventually prove too much for some. After all, the country was already operating within a precarious balance itself.

Following Tito’s de facto split from Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia pursued a policy of non-alignment in the Cold War, and it was important that this independence was reflected culturally. This made navigating the complex influence of Socialist Realism a tricky affair as, even though it was a Soviet brainchild (and thus culturally suspect), its focus on unambiguous heroes overcoming all obstacles was a valuable asset for purposes of nation-building and consolidating the archetype of an ideal Communist citizen. The Black Wave responded to the optimism and triumph of Socialist Realist heroes with cynical and self-aware antiheroes. Milena, in her eventually doomed struggle for personal revolution, serves as a subversive parody of the Socialist Realist hero.

Her fixation on sexuality as a revolutionary force, and the emphasis on sexual expression found in the Black Wave generally, can be itself read as a reflection of the same Tito-Stalin split: there was perhaps no American cultural export at the time as notable as the sexual revolution, and its prominence in Black Wave film is a testament to mid-century Yugoslavia’s position as a hinge between the Eastern and Western Blocs. Mirrored in Milena’s own divided loyalties, the tension inherent to Yugoslavia’s position between two world orders contributes to the atmosphere of ambiguity and crisis that inflect so many notable films produced in this period.

Milena Dravić as Milena and Ivica Vidović as Vladimir Ilych in W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism

But Milena’s loyalty to her revolution is tested when she rejects a proletarian lover in favour of a visitor from Moscow, a figure skater named, propitiously, Vladimir Ilyich. Vladimir himself proves a conflicted figure, both attracted to Milena’s ideals but wary of her methods. When, in the end, she succeeds in evoking a powerfully erotic response from him, he becomes confused and his repressed desires grow violent. While the characters play their drama out on a personal level, their arc mirrors and engages with the political forces of the time.

This confusion, disorientation and critique of traditional power is evoked just as much by the Black Wave’s tendency towards nonlinear structure as by its open barrage of sexual excess. Milena’s encounter with Vladimir only forms half of W.R.’s running time, with the rest being a pastiche of interviews, erotic imagery and documentary footage exploring the ideas of sexologist and psychologist Wilhelm Reich (a student of Freud who gives his initials to the film’s title). This collage style perhaps found no higher expression in Black Wave film than in Želimir Žilnik’s 1969 Early Works.

The tension inherent to Yugoslavia’s position between two world orders contributes to the atmosphere of ambiguity and crisis that inflect so many films

Early Works has the distinction of having prompted the outcry that gave Black Wave its very name, when a journalist wrote an article in opposition titled “The Black Wave in Our Cinema”. The government began criticising the anti-party sentiment in the films (at one point Milena challenges Vladimir to fulfil either his duty to the party or his duty to the species) as well as their tendency to bypass images of national unity to focus on figures veering closer to anarchy. The four protagonists of Early Works fit that description quite accurately.

Žilnik’s antiheroes, a woman named Jugoslava and three male companions, wander through an abstract, economically depressed landscape quoting excerpts from Marx and questioning the state of the union. Like Milena, their use of socialist orthodoxies is both an attempt to reach back to the original vision of socialism and a criticism of how the revolution stalled too early. They sing “these walls are the work of our hands” before defecating along those same walls. Relationships between them veer uncomfortably between playfulness and sexual assault. Scenes play out as darkly comic and deeply disturbing, and the repeated passages from Marx offer reproach to everyone involved. Early on they declare, tellingly, that “the state is too serious an affair to allow any mockery of itself.”

Films like W.R. and Early Works draw the audience in like voyeurs, and that feeling of helpless spectatorship runs through the Black Wave as a whole. Aleksandar Petrović, one of the movements’ most celebrated directors internationally, builds his Oscar-nominated classic Three (1965) on this very premise. Miloš Bojanić, his hero, hurtles through three different time periods: witnessing the pointless death of a citizen at the hands of Partisan soldiers at the beginning of the war; as a soldier pursued by Germans; and as an officer at the war’s end deciding the fate of a woman charged with collaborating with the SS.

Petrović reacts against the wave of patriotic film celebrating the Partisans by offering an existential thriller reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s best work: Miloš, for all that he embodies the ideal Yugoslav citizen, struggles with a thirst for killing shared by Nazi and Partisan alike. The director himself said, in defiance of Yugoslav myth-making, that “death is the indisputable protagonist… the expression of the senselessness of war. You must be against war, but really, fully, against all the actors of the war. And against those who create reasons for war.”

Three, in classic Black Wave style, has no formal demarcations between the different time periods and the audience is left to itself to figure out precisely when the shifts take place. I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1966), Petrović’s next film (also Oscar-nominated), opts for a more traditional narrative that embeds the Black Wave tradition of social criticism within a deceptively simple framework.

Gypsies offers a glimpse into the life of a Roma community situated in Vojvodina in northern Serbia. While Makavejev and Žilnik build their films around young, stylish, anarchic antiheroes, Petrović’s characters feel like they could have been plucked from the next village over. The protagonist of Gypsies, the feather salesman Bora, mostly occupies himself lusting after a young woman named Tisa and trying to make ends meet. The figures on the receiving end of his ire run from from the Mother Superior of the nearby nunnery, to the police and the images of Belgrade dwellers on TV, images eerily reminiscent of characters from W.R. and Early Works.

The Black Wave was increasingly concerned with the lives of those resigned to the periphery, spanning both the surreal and the painfully banal

If the Roma, among themselves, pretend to a kind of moral supremacy, Bora finds his place in the world by being completely honest about his dissolution. He wears a white suit in a muddy village because, for him, true corruption is hypocrisy, and even at his worst moments he can never be accused of pretending to be something other than he is. For all his fast talking, he’s perhaps the only honest man onscreen.

Compared with the director’s earlier efforts, Gypsies embraces a kind of realism: not so much state-building Socialist Realism as a searing look at Yugoslavia’s marginalised spaces. The Black Wave was increasingly concerned with the lives of those resigned to the periphery, spanning both the surreal and the painfully banal, from Belgrade’s cultural elite to overlooked villages. At its best, it addresses a wide spectrum of philosophical, social, sexual and emotional contexts, where excess is mocked as impotent and systems are portrayed as absurdities.

There is never a sense that these films are anti-Communist in the strictest sense of the word — beneath the movement’s angst, there’s a longing for the revolution as it should have been, perhaps as it could have been. They burst with vitality and energy, along with a hope that things might still be able to be put back on track, but the systems they struggle against consistently bring these attempts to disappointment and disaster. The directors themselves would eventually suffer the same fate, as many of their films were banned and a some of them, including Makavejev, would come to settle into a kind of exile.

Even in the bewilderment, though, there’s a sense of humanity. The nationalistic films these directors were fighting against simplified individuals into militaristic patriots. Even the act of depicting a person in a state of ambiguity and existential crisis represented a minor revolution. The final scene of W.R. finds Vladimir singing a prayer to himself as he wanders through a deserted urban landscape. Even in the wake of tragedy, Vladimir comes to realise he’s more than a cog in a wheel spinning remorselessly into the future. The heroes of Black Wave, even in their defeat, make themselves impossible to forget.

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