For me, one of the primal, most haunting moments in cinema is a brief, introductory, almost throw-away few lines of voice-over narration in Max Ophuls' classic Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). It comes at the start of the flashback that constitutes most of the film, when Lisa (Joan Fontaine), as a very young teenager, first spies the object of her life-long romantic obsession, Stefan (Louis Jourdan). She matter-of-factly muses: "I think everyone has two birthdays, the day of his physical birth and the beginning of his conscious life. Nothing is vivid or real in my memory before that day in Spring ... "
There is something fairly chilling, and certainly something purely cinematic in this formulation: characters on screen only begin existing at the moment we begin looking at them; they have no past, no backstory, no origin really worth knowing. They are creatures of pure presence – and even when they are simply absent from screen, they fall into kind of oblivion, a big sleep (as in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America ).
There is another moment like this, at the start of Goran Rebic's Austrian production Jugofilm. Young Milan (Michi Jovanovic) retrieves a large vat from the backroom for his father. The boy is unnaturally alert; he and his family await the return of his brother, Sascha (Merab Nindze), who has been detained as a participant in the terrible Bosnian crisis "down there", back home in the disputed territories of the former Yugoslavia. As Milan brings the vat indoors, the camera stalks him, shadows him, sometimes peeks ahead and withdraws in order to map in a single shot the cramped, curly space of this rather unhomely house. Eventually he moves to the window, a lone, thinking sentinel, and his own version of Lisa's voice-over admission rings in our ears: "My whole life before that, I've forgotten it."
The story of Milan is not the central story in Jugofilm, although I wish, in a way, that it could have been. The film is mainly about Sascha, after his return with a bride, Suza (Tamara Simunovic), in tow – and, more deeply, about how the tensions and divisions within this family, and within the microcosmic community of "Balkan Vienna", inexorably "bring back home" all the violence and hatred going on "down there" (a phrase that is obsessively reiterated by all characters). This central part of the film reminds me of the New Zealand production Broken English (Gregor Nicholas, 1996), or much more highly charged melodramas of racial conflict set in urban, multi-cultural hothouses, like Kassovitz's La Haine (1995) or the Australian Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992).
The screenwriter and critic Pascal Bonitzer once reflected on the familiar ways that movies try to talk about the two levels of the political and the personal, often by mapping the larger onto the smaller: the sex war or class war is symbolised in the difficult, amorous clash of two characters; or a national, historical war is inscribed into the various positions taken up by the members of a family. Bonitzer warns that this can lead to "a kind of facility", a "voluntarily schematic and abstract dramatic construction", which he calls "a perverse neo-Brechtianism". (1)
Bonitzer finds this a shortcoming in some of Fassbinder's work, and Rebic's style – with its degree of heavy moroseness and inertia – reminded me a little of early Fassbinder. The Angelopoulos of Voyage to Cythera (1983) came to my mind, too – like Rebic's, a story of sleepwalkers scarred by history, unable to really absolve its traumas, caught in the aimless patterns of their wanderings, their pain and gnawing melancholy only momentarily assuaged by a sweet song or a stiff drink, a child's smile or a lover's kiss.
There is certainly a moody air of sadness and inevitable tragedy in Jugofilm – a sense of unresolved problems, blocks and terrors welling up from "down there" and overwhelming everyone above, inexorably, like a bad and unavoidable dream, a "return of the repressed". But, on the level of its personal-political schema, Rebic's film for me lacked a real dramatic embodiment, a drive or a properly developed core. It loses its way in prolonged, repetitive scenes of Sascha mooning around with the trapped, forlorn sea creatures in a "House of the Ocean"; in a rather half-hearted mystery plot centred around allegations of Sascha's war atrocities; and in a strategically polite avoidance of physical sensation, action and brutality – on the premise, perhaps, that such explicit drama is the terrain of the mass media and its exploitative coverage of the Bosnian disaster, footage that Rebic avoids using entirely.
Still, throughout the movie, there is the haunting figure of young Milan. Through him, the film occasionally reaches a more truly poetic and affecting level. Milan's inner world is one that mixes hallucination with reality, subjective reverie with objective perception. He ponders, dreams, draws odd maps of an imaginary Yugoslav village. He is like the children analysed so affectionately by Deleuze and Guattari in their re-readings of famous psychoanalytic case studies – Freud's Little Hans, Melanie Klein's Richard – children whose scribblings and outpourings provided a real and urgent sketch of every political spectre pressing down on the intimate chambers of personal life, if only their parents, teachers and therapists could see it.
Milan's fantasies mingle, in the oneiric space peculiar to cinema, with the ghostly voices emanating from a far-off radio broadcast – like in the films of Terence Davies, or John Boorman's Hope and Glory (1987). And, like the little heroes of many films about the experience of childhood, from Clayton's The Innocents (1961) to Soderbergh's King of the Hill (1993) via Erice's Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Milan is (fairly classically) a central figure with a limited, even stunted view and grasp of the dark drama unfolding around him: we are asked to measure, with irony and sadness and knowingness, the distance between his childish perceptions and the twisted adult games that are shaping his environment and his legacy.
Yet this strange, gifted, thoughtful boy – this mirror to the world, purely present – is much more than such a narrative placement sometimes condescends to allow. Milan seems even to float, at key moments, in a realm between the living and the dead: after Sascha has plunged to his death (as a motif of heights and potential self-abandonment has led us to expect), Rebic composes a lyrical shot of the boy lying on his brother's back, as if Milan has swooped down to the ground in that serene, passenger-seat position. And the voices on the soundtrack, too, are disembodied in this scene – somewhere undecidable in their status between normal dialogue and conventional voice-over – as Milan whispers in his brother's ear and exhorts him to impart the last piece of bruised wisdom that this tiny messenger can carry back, like a prayer, to the land of the walking wounded.
© Adrian Martin September 2000
1. Pascal Bonitzer, "L'Assassin musicien", The Thousand Eyes, no. 2, 1977, p. 59. back