Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reconsidered: Srpski Film

(What I'd like to do in my Reconsidered posts is take a more in-depth look at films that I think have something to offer beyond the text. A solidly composed horror film is a wonderful thing, but a solidly composed horror film that keeps me thinking about it for days afterward is an even more wonderful thing and a joy forever. I'll be writing with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the basic plot and characters, so needless to say, all kinds of spoilers ahoy.)

I am aware that I'm about to go to bat for one of the most divisive films in recent memory.

Very few who have seen Srpski Film (A Serbian Film) have come away from it without being convinced that it's either a powerful, uncompromising piece of allegory or a morally bankrupt exploitation film. There are also the people who claim they found it tedious, boring, or even funny, that it really wasn't that shocking. At best, I'd argue that they didn't attend to and invest in the narrative, or are presenting a front to keep people from knowing how upset they were. At worst, they're dead inside. Seriously, as dark as my sense of humor is capable of being, I don't want to meet the person who found this movie funny.

I am aware that I'm about to attempt to defend the indefensible.

This movie is never going to see a commercial release in the United States. It hasn't seen a wide DVD release yet - according to Amazon, the only copies available are Region 2 discs, and those have been censored. It's not available yet on Netflix, and I'll be surprised if it ever is. Horrible, horrible ideas and images are presented in this movie. This movie is the embodiment of "they're not actually going to show that, are they?" in film, and yes they do. Every time. This is the movie I cannot un-see. If enjoying horror movies is enough to have others think you a deviant, then just sitting through this (even absent enjoyment) would, by the same logic, be enough to get you arrested.

Nevertheless, I contend that Srpski Film is not exploitation. It is a powerful piece of art, made with a priori artistic intent.

An exploitation film, as near as I can tell, can be defined in terms of a few key characteristics. Exploitation films rely on shock, sensationalism, and an appeal to prurient interests. They do so because shocking, sensationalistic, prurient subject matter puts butts in seats and makes money. You make a movie for as little money as you can, dealing with controversial subject matter in as lurid a manner as you can, and you market it directly to people for whom being shocked and titillated will be enjoyable. Historically, they're the cinematic equivalent of junk food. Promise people violence and sex and other forms of wanton behavior, and make sure you give them a lot of it, and that's all you need. Nobody goes to exploitation films for artistic enrichment any more than we go to Burger King to challenge our palates.

(Oh, sure, exploitation films give us a peek at our culture's subconscious, there's a lowbrow, outsider art appeal if you want to be all slumming and pretentious about it, but a real exploitation film - as opposed to self-conscious homages like Black Dynamite or Machete - doesn't have a thematic brief beyond blood, tits, and the bad guys get theirs in the end. Anything else is subtext.)

By these standards, Srpski Film fails miserably. It wasn't made on the cheap, it stars a very popular Serbian actor, it doesn't get really shocking until about a third of the way through, and does so in a way that fails to titillate. The sex and the violence are more inextricably bound in this movie than any other I can recall, and it makes it very difficult to get anything resembling conventional jollies out of anything that happens. Anyone who comes into this film hoping for freaky, gross shit won't be disappointed, but they're going to be bored by story first, and by the time they get what they paid their money to see, they'll probably regret asking for it.

Even if that isn't the case, this is not a commercially viable film. Approximately four minutes of footage had to be cut before it could be released in England, and it's only been screened in the U.S. at a few festivals, and turned away from others elsewhere. Had the filmmakers wanted to make an exploitation film, the way to do it would have been to film it quickly and cheaply and make it direct to video, perhaps market it through an underground horror source like Unearthed Films. Why show it at festivals when you can go directly to a pre-sold audience for lower cost? If the filmmakers were hoping to make a buck off of a fanbase inured by things like August Underground or The Poughkeepsie Tapes, they did a crap job of it.

What, then, distinguishes Srpski Film from exploitation filmmaking - apart from being too expensively made and too difficult to distribute - is the degree of thematic care put into it. The characterization, imagery, and narrative elements of this movie communicate some very specific ideas about life in Serbia, and do so with little accommodation of Western sensibilities.

Serbia, Film, and Serbian Film

First, there's the title of the movie. It's simple, and puts the film's thesis right up front. Calling it simply "A Serbian Film" communicates that this is a film made in Serbia, that it is a film with Serbian qualities, that this is the sort of film Serbia produces. We're being told that what we're about to see is a product of Serbia, and this can be taken both in the manufacturing sense and in the cultural sense.

So, what kind of place is Serbia? It's part of what was formerly known under Communist rule as Yugoslavia, and an area where internecine strife has been a constant for centuries. This is a country whose recent history has been most strongly informed by totalitarianism and the idea of an ever-watching state, and it is one in which wartime atrocities included genocide in the service of a strong Serbian ethnic identity and systematic rape as an instrument of terror.  The days of Tito and Milosevic may be over, but the specter of the state remains. The Kosovo War may be over, but the specter of the violence remains. This country is haunted by its history. The national economy isn't as bad as it is in other parts of Eastern Europe, but unemployment is high. Like other parts of Eastern Europe, sex work is an easy way to make money, voluntarily or not. People are poor and desperate.

This is a fairly abbreviated (and entirely too Wikipedia-dependent) look at the history of Serbia, but it provides us with what I think we need to understand the context in which Srpski Film was created. This movie is about the state, what history and culture do to men and women, the conflation of sex and violence, and how all of these things are perpetuated from generation to generation.

The Serbian Family

We are introduced first to Milos, the protagonist, as he stumbles out of a seedy club and starts to have rough, impersonal sex with a woman against an alleyway wall. Once established, the focus shifts, and we see that this is a pornographic movie playing on a television, being watched by his five-year-old son Stefan. Apart from establishing that Milos is now a family man, this opening introduces the main idea of the film right away: We have a son bearing witness to the actions of his father. Milos and his wife Marjia discover the son and take the tape away without the hysteria you'd expect from such a discovery in the U.S. - they calmly explain that it's Daddy "having fun with an old girlfriend" and distract him with the possibility of toast. Marjia tells Milos that he's going to need to hide the videos better. Milos was a pornstar, but now he's a husband and a father.

Contrast Milos with his brother Marko. Marko is a police officer - an agent of the state - and an admittedly corrupt one at that. Marko is visibly jealous of Milos - his beautiful wife, his happy family, and his legendary sexual prowess. Marko, it turns out, has none of these things. His lust for Marjia is palpable, and we eventually discover that Marko gets sexual satisfaction out of having a prostitute fellate him while he watches home movies he's stolen from Milos. He's not just aroused by Milos' wife, he's aroused by Milos' life. Incapable of finding release in intimacy, Marko is established as an avatar of the state - deriving pleasure from observation and surveillance.

Milos' savings from his porn days are running out and work is hard to find. Their financial situation is illustrated at least in part by Marjia telling Milos she needs money for Stefan's singing lessons. Not only does Milos have a young son, but this son enjoys making music, something beautiful. Besides being an innocent, Stefan is a new generation of Serbian, with the capability of bringing beauty into the world.

The Beast Within

It is for the encouragement of this new generation that Milos agrees to meet an old colleague to discuss a new, well-paying job. Milos meets with porn star/prostitute Lejla to talk about this job, and Marko happens to come by. The state is always there, and Marko's lust for Lejla is plain. In the conversation with Lejla, another theme is introduced - that of men as beasts. Milos tells Lejla with some disapproval that he heard she had been making movies in which she had sex with animals, and she offhandedly comments that it's not that different from having sex with men. Milos serves throughout the movie as the focal point for this idea of men as beasts. When we see clips of him performing, he is rough and distant - it is the cold, impersonal sex of pornography. Marjia asks him why he never has sex with her like that - treat her like an actress in one of his movies. When he does, it's violent - he tears her clothes off and throws her onto the bed, holding her head down while he has sex with her. Marjia gasps as much from pain as pleasure. When it's over, the rough Milos disappears as soon as he appeared with a gentle kiss. Milos contains a primal, animal self with whom he connects when he is making pornography, and otherwise anesthetizes with whiskey.

(Paradoxically, as part of his preparation for the movie he agrees to do, he begins exercise and meditation regimes, and stops drinking. Milos has a beast inside, but appears to have mastered it. He can bring it out and call it back at will, which suggests a sort of internal control or self-determination echoed in his reported ability to achieve and maintain an erection without stimulation and regardless of distractions. This internal control could be seen as put into conflict with the state's external control. After all, he and Marko don't always get along, and Marko can barely keep himself in check around the women in Milos' life.)

Watching and Being Watched

When Milos meets with Vukmir, the man making the film in which Milos agrees to perform, the idea of the state as an omnipresent, inescapable entity is more fully realized. Milos briefly encounters some men in sunglasses and suits, who say nothing to him as he passes. There are what appear to be guards stationed everywhere, equally silent men in body armor, sidearms, and wireless earpieces, plugged in. Vukmir tells Milos that he is not making a mere pornographic film, but rather art that reflects the nature of life itself. This makes Vukmir seem a little crazy, which is certainly the case, but it also introduces the idea that the film he is making is itself allegory, and the film-within-the-film turns out to contain some important thematic elements of its own. Milos discovers through some digging that Vukmir was once a psychiatrist at a state orphanage, which will also be important.

Milos' first day of filming is discomfiting - he is told that he cannot know what the film is about, because it might affect his performance - he is filmed walking down the hallway of a populated state orphanage, receiving direction from Vukmir through an earpiece. Vukmir - as both the director and a representative of the state - is giving him orders through the same surveillance/communication technology utilized by other agents of the state. The guards are now cameramen, body armor, guns and earpieces supplemented by video cameras, making the surveillance theme even more explicit. He is directed, he is watched. A woman chases her daughter out into the hall in front of Milos, crying that she wants to take her daughter home and just wants one more chance. At first we think it's just an unrelated incident and indication that the orphanage is still in use, but it turns out to be the first scene in the movie. The lines between life and fiction blur.

What Parents Hand Down to Their Children

Milos' next scene involves the woman from the day before, now naked and crawling toward him on the floor of a large, shadowy room. He is filmed standing in front of her, while she removes his pants to fellate him, bruised and completely submissive. Once the woman starts, lights at the other end of the room come up, and there is a young girl sitting there in pigtails and a school dress, watching. It is the woman's daughter from the day before. On one level, this creeps Milos out, making him reluctant to continue, and it indicates to us that Something Really Sketchy is going on. However, it also mirrors Stefan's watching the movie of his father from the beginning of the movie - as Stefan watched his father having rough sex, the young girl (Jeca) is bearing witness to the actions of her ostensible mother. (In a nightmare sequence, Milos imagines Stefan sitting where Jeca sat, as much a witness as Jeca. Each generation learns from the last.)

Milos eventually climaxes after tearful begging from the (obviously battered) woman, and decides he no longer wants to be part of the production. It is during this sequence that Vukmir shows Milos the infamous "newborn porn" film. It is hard to watch, but is the strongest, clearest statement about a legacy of violence in the entire film. A newborn child is delivered into the world, and an unidentified man takes the child, undoes his pants, and the screams tell you the rest. The mother, however, is ecstatic, and this is how the metaphor is made complete: Each generation of Serbian children brought into the world, already condemned to violation, to the intrusion and degradation of the state, all to the rejoicing of the mothers for whom this has been made normal through years of systematic victimization.

Vukmir tries to talk Milos out of leaving, and in doing so reinforces the idea of men as beasts, referring to Milos as his "prize bull" and his "he-goat." This is taken to its logical extension when Vukmir's "nurse" drugs Milos into a stupor with a powerful combination of amphetamines and animal aphrodisiac. The transformation from man to beast is complete as Milos snorts and fumes, held back from Jeca's mother - now chained to a bed - by four people. Milos is not so much released as unleashed upon her, reduced to "a headless dick" in Lejla's words. Lejla pays the price for her outspokenness - we see her next battered and chained, her teeth pulled out and lying on the concrete beneath her. A masked man comes in, forces his penis into her mouth and chokes her to death with it. A more specific expression of subjugation by the state (the masked man, for reasons which become apparent) is hard to imagine, on a par with the "newborn porn" sequence, and filmed in the same murky, grainy style as well, giving it visual and thematic unity with that sequence. These are the purest expressions of the film's themes.

The Serbian Film

As Vukmir's film begins to take shape with the unwilling Milos, the story Vukmir is attempting to tell begins to take shape: Milos plays Raiko, a loyal soldier in the Serbian army who comes home from the war, obliged to take care of his fallen comrade's wife and child. The child is Jeca, and her mother has prostituted herself to support herself and Jeca in her husband's evidence. (The parallels to Milos' own situation do not go unnoticed.) Raiko is her righteous executioner, beheading her and spraying her blood across a painting from medieval Serbia. It is a nation covered in blood from its earliest days.

 It is now Raiko's duty to usher Jeca into womanhood, to give her the "virgin's communion," urged on by Jeca's grandmother, who explains that it is as was done for her. Vukmir is an agent of the state, but he is also its casualty - as a psychiatrist in the orphanage, he must have been bombarded with similar stories of generation on generation of dead fathers, children of rape, victim mothers, the endless cycle of violation. The "newborn porn" film was just the metaphor raw, the film he's making now is the same idea set in a Serbian historical and cultural context.

 In the final act, Milos is brought, still bestial and insensate from the drugs, into a room with two covered bodies laid before him. He mounts the first body and begins his mindless rutting, barely human, under the watchful cameras of Vukmir and the silent men with guns. Milos is joined by the masked man we last saw brutalizing Lejla, who replaces Milos on the first person. Milos moves over to the next person and continues his rough, mindless penetration - a headless dick. They are side-by-side, brothers in rape, when Vukmir reveals the final act of his film: The masked man reveals himself to be Marko, the person he is raping is Marjia, and the person Milos is raping is Stefan. Vukmir calls them "the Serbian family reunited." Marko - an agent of the state - has gotten what he wanted, Marjia and Lejla completely subjugated. Milos has carried the cycle of abuse, the "virgin's communion", to another generation of Serbians. The state reduces men to beasts, the states violates its people, tears families apart. The scene is disrupted by Milos' realization of what is happening, culminating in an orgy of violence. Marjia batters Marko to death with a bronze bust, Milos kills a guard by forcing his still-erect penis into the guard's eye socket in a clear expression of rape-as-weapon, Vukmir is shot.

Milos and his family escape back to their home, where everything began, in front of the television.  Marjia tries to get Stefan to sing, but they are all broken inside, dead-eyed, and Stefan has no more music to give. The state has taken all of that away. They are all victims now. Milos tucks his family in to bed, climbs in with them, and a shot rings out. The only way out is death.

Or so we think.

The final scene of the movie is the man in the suit from the beginning, standing at the foot of the bed with two cameramen and a camera on a tripod. The man speaks: "You know what to do. Start with the boy." The cameramen begin to unbuckle their pants.

The destruction of Milos' family and their violation in death is recorded by the man in the suit and his bodyguards, and as I see it, there are three possibilities -

1) Vukmir's narrative was intended to break the fourth wall all along (he certainly reacts to his death with a sense of inevitability - "that's the cinema"), and the last part of his thesis extends a "traditional" Serbian story into modern-day Serbia and out of the confines of film, underscoring that this legacy - Serbia's "story", (he calls it more than pornography - it is "life itself") is ultimately destructive to all involved - the Serbian family, the Serbian people, and people like Vukmir - witnesses to what their institutions have wrought. Just as Vukmir was a casualty of the state in what he witnessed, he is a casualty of the state in the production of his film. In this sense, the title "A Serbian Film" can also refer to the film being made, which is essentially a mirror of the film we are watching.

2) The death and violation of the family was intended, but not by Vukmir - that Vukmir was just a patsy serving somebody higher up the food chain with desires even more twisted and deformed than Marko's. (This would mirror Vukmir's role as a state psychologist). This unseen, unnamed client (analogous to the highest levels of power) demanded a certain outcome, regardless of how many people had to die to deliver it.

3) The death and violation of the family was in the confines of the movie's narrative literal, but the appearance of the man and the two bodyguards was metaphorical - even when the demands of life in Serbia and Serbian culture have destroyed you and your family, even if you take down part of the institutional apparatus to get there, there's always somebody else to take their place, watching you and hurting you. It never ends.


  1. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record here, but excellent piece.

    This is one of the films I watched due to A Lifetime in Dark Rooms, and although I regret every second of it, I'd rather remember it, if you know what I mean. It does cross (almost) every boundary towards the grotesque but the motivation behind all this is an examination of systemic sources of violence and oppression. This doesn't excuse everything but at least it's novel. Many horror films center on Freudian 'the beast within' exclusively, and it has become an easy way out for lazy cinema that wants an excuse to show shallowly reasonable men degenerate into murder-crazed cannibals the moment their car breaks down in the wilderness. Srpski Film instead examines aspects of the class struggle and the failure of socialism / the triumph of globalization and capitalism in a society the least ready to adopt this movement. As I said, more could be done and this doesn't excuse everything, but it's not a lowbrow film about fucking someone's eyesocket.

    If there's anything to fault it for as a piece of ideological cinema is that I do not think in the end 'everyone is fucked' and I cannot rest my mind with this conclusion (even if its true). There must be a final obligation towards the light, in the darkest of art. The final word must allow for a sliver of hope, otherwise even the sharpest critique of systems of oppression becomes a tool for them: "be resigned all you innocent guilty, to your raped fate".

  2. It's such a tough case - I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone watch it, but I feel that it should be watched. So yeah, it's difficult in that sense.

    I don't want to make too much of the "everyone is fucked" metaphor, because even though it works well in colloquial American English, I think given Serbia's history it goes much further - there really is this sort of intertwining of rape (so violence through sexual acts) and the state - systematic rape as a weapon of war, the violation of the individual by the state through economy and surveillance, and the way all of the unresolved trauma from all of this is carried forward through generations. You could tell the same story basically in the United States, or Greece, or England, or Canada, or Japan, but the metaphors would be different. Maybe it wouldn't be rape. But for Serbia, given their history, this is the language that tells the story. It just happens to be one that a lot of people freak out and get really uncomfortable around.

    For all of that, I don't think it's hopeless. On reflection, I feel less like it's saying "we're all fucked and helpless" and more "this is what we have now, this has what has come before. Face it." Less resignation and more a cry of rage, of "no more."

  3. Cliff, you HAVE to see Gruz-200 (Cargo-200), a Russian film from a couple years ago that deals with many of the same issues. I'd love to hear what you had to say about it. Anyway, still loving this blog a lot!

  4. Brilliant analysis... I watched this last night after seeing it on a list of movies that are "fucked up". I had absolutely NO idea what I was getting myself into... I thought the story was excellent, but yeah, the lengths they went are incredibly disturbing. I felt very confused in the end, and went searching for things I could find out about this movie, which is how I found this site. I certainly won't be recommending this to many people, but I think anyone who does watch it should read this after to bring closure to the experience.

  5. Not to be too critical , but you guys are all pretty much way off the mark . You are all trying to see this movie through what you have heard on CNN and you should understand that the director and people in Serbia didn't watch CNN and their view of their country is way different than yours .

    The closest you got to what the movie is about is
    your statement "...that this is the sort of film Serbia produces" .

    It is a film within a film critiquing the Serbian film industry , its tight connection to the Serbian government and the modern propaganda that it serves . The painting on the wall is the last supper before the battle of kosovo ( 14th century ) . The scene is intended to show how cinema is used for propaganda purposes to stain Serbia's reputation and loosen its grip on Kosovo .

    The guys that made the film are tired of what they call "Red Cross" movies and that is the meaning behind the speech Vukmir makes about the victim being the priciest sell .

  6. So I see that you censor posts that are not agreeable to your ( misinformed ) viewpoint . Doesn't matter because the true interpretation of this movie is out more and more on the net and your little piece here looks laughable next to it .