Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Underground.

criterion logoEmir Kusturica’s epic masterpiece recounts the demise of his native Yugoslavia through the metaphorical relationship of Blacky and Marko over fifty years.  The pair booze and brawl their way through World War II, enhancing their reputations as communist guerrilla fighters and black marketeers until Marko tricks Blacky and others into hiding in his cellar where they manufacture weapons for twenty years under the false understanding that the war continues.  This raucous and tragicomic parable won Kusturica the Palme d’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and inspired a flurry of controversy that resulted in the filmmaker’s temporary retirement from the cinema.  Included here is Kusturica’s stunning, savage, and hilarious theatrical release and his five-hour television version, Once Upon a Time There Was a Country.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration of the theatrical version, approved by director Emir Kusturica, with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Once Upon a Time There Was a Country, the 5-hour mini-series cut of Underground for Serbian television
  • New interview with Kusturica on his influences, the film, its reception, and its legacy
  • Journalist Tommaso Di Francesco on Underground
  • Shooting Days: Emir Kusturica Directs Underground, Aleksandar Manic’s 73-minute documentary on the making of Underground
  • Underground at Cannes, footage from the post-screening party at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival
  • Guernica, Kusturica’s 1978 short film
  • Interviews with cast and crew
  • Behind the scenes footage
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Sean Homer and production photos

Few European directors have had the success of Emir Kusturica, yet remain as popularly unknown and inaccessible in North America.  Despite claiming ownership of a Golden Lion, a Silver Bear, an Oscar nomination, two Palme d’Or prizes and a director’s award from Cannes, Kusturica’s films remains largely undistributed and therefore largely unseen in North America.  The Serbian filmmaker is a natural choice for inclusion in the Criterion Collection as it would bring a significant figure in contemporary international cinema to home viewership, yet it is challenging to decide where in his celebrated filmography to start.  We’ve elected to begin with the elephant in the room – Kusturica’s second Palme d’Or winner, Underground.  One of the most controversial films ever made, Underground set off a firestorm of debate following its success at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival that resulted in Kusturica retiring from film altogether (although it lasted less than 4 years).  His epic and metaphorical tale of the unraveling and dissolution of his native Yugoslavia was seen by some as pro-Serbian propaganda, as an attack on Croats and Bosnians already under fire in their struggles for national independence, and as an Orientalized presentation of Balkan culture as savage and pubescent for Western audiences.  Kusturica’s greatest failure with Underground may have been his undertaking to examine the dissolution of his nation as it happened, while bombs were still falling and people were dying, but the passage of time has offered some distance from the Yugoslav wars and even some of Kusturica’s critics have come to soften their views on the film.  Underground is a prototypical Kusturica film, a magical realist work overflowing with cacophonous music, unbridled libidos, and larger than life personalities.  This carnivalesque parade through the history of Kusturica’s beloved Yugoslavia bears a strong resemblance to Fellini, if the Italian director had collaborated with the Marx Brothers and Stanley Kubrick to describe the tragedy of war and the death of a nation.

Underground starts in 1941 Belgrade with buddies Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) returning home from an evening of drinking, carousing, and signing Blacky into the Communist Party.  Blacky returns to his aggrieved and pregnant wife while Marko picks up a prostitute to wind up his night, but by morning bombs are falling around their heads.  Shortly thereafter, Nazi forces occupy Belgrade and Marko hides a number of citizens in his grandfather’s basement for their protection, including his stuttering, zookeeper brother Ivan (Slavko Štimac), his baby chimp Soni, and Blacky’s wife Vera (Mirjana Karanovic), who promptly gives birth to their son Jovan and then passes away.

Advancing to 1944, Blacky and Marko have ascended up the ranks of the Communist party, with Marko now party secretary and Blacky having made a name for himself as a black market arms dealer.  They attend the theatre to watch Blacky’s sometime mistress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) perform.  There, Blacky abducts Natalija, shoots her Nazi admirer Franz (Ernst Stötzner), and takes his love to a boat where he hides his latest cache of weapons.  The trio parties with a brass band and feast on a banquet of delectables (including a not so dead fish) while waiting for the priest to arrive and marry Blacky and Natalija.  Blacky’s plans are undone when Marko undermines him to Natalija in an effort to seduce her and Franz shows up alive (thanks to a bulletproof vest) with armed reinforcements.  Natalija takes to Franz’s waiting arms and Blacky is captured, leaving Marko to sail off with the boat to deliver Blacky’s weapons.  Blacky is tortured in a city hospital but refuses to divulge anything to his captors.  In disguise, Marko sneaks into the hospital, murders Franz, and saves Natalija, her disabled brother Bata (Davor Dujmovic), and Blacky, but a slip by Blacky causes a grenade to go off in the trunk where he hides and he is rushed by Marko to his grandfather’s cellar where its occupants care for the wounded man.  A montage of doctored documentary footage reveals Marko and Natalija as an item in the years that follow, with Marko becoming an important figure in the revolutionary movement that closed the war and a high-ranking figure in the regime of Marshal Tito, giving speeches to massive crowds from the balcony of the National Theatre during the 1945 Trieste crisis.

Underground was condemned by critics like Stanko Cerovic, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and Alain Finkielkraut as Serbian propaganda and for demonizing the same ethnic groups being oppressed and massacred at the time of the film’s production.  Cerovic, who has softened on the film since his initial criticisms, pointed to documentary footage of Nazi forces being cheered entering Maribor, Zagreb, and Ljubljana, implying their complicity in the Nazi regime at the exclusion of Serbian communities.  Still other incidents, such as the identified ethnicities/nationalities of double-dealers punished by Marko and Blacky, are also cited to point to the one-sidedness of Kusturica’s approach.  These criticisms are not entirely unfounded, as the director acknowledges them as part of his effort to show that no Yugoslavian group is entirely guilty or innocent in that nation’s history and to speak against the Western media’s narrative of the Yugoslav wars, but it is a challenging message to convey while footage of detainees, rape camps, and ethnic cleansing spread through the news services.  Kusturica has been vilified in his native lands for these depictions, but to Western audiences there is little significance to the cities named.  Also, his use of documentary footage in this manner, particularly with Marko and Natalija inserted into it, foregrounds his position of history as a constructed and artificial idea that can all too easily be rewritten.

Kusturica leaps Underground forward from “War” in the 1940s to “Cold War” in 1961, where Marko now serves as one of Prime Minister Tito’s closest advisers, where he and Natalija lead a life of privilege, and where Marko has memorialized Blacky as a hero and martyr to the nation.  In fact, Blacky still survives in the cellar with its other occupants, still producing munitions (and even a tank) for Marko who deceives his deluded captives with air-raid sirens and tales of Gestapo beatings all to perpetuate the impression that World War II continues and to provide him with a steady stream of arms that keeps him politically significant.  A wedding in the cellar between Jovan (Srdan Todorovic) and another basement occupant, Jelena, brings Marko and Natalija down to celebrate, but their deteriorating relationship (and some alcohol) causes Marko and Natalija to air their sins openly and Blacky, already determined to join the fight above ground once again, overhears them and discovers the deception.  Blacky once again ties Natalija to his back and this time escapes the wedding thanks to a hole blown through the cellar wall by Soni in the tank.  After freeing Natalija, Jovan and Blacky emerge and stumble upon the set of Spring Comes on a White Horse, a Red Wave partisan film based on Marko’s memoirs.  The production, filming the confrontation between Blacky and Franz at the boat from 20 years earlier, convinces Blacky and Jovan the war is still on.  They kill 3 actors and escape, although Jovan drowns in the process.

Underground concludes with a third part, an epilogue again titled “War.”  Set in 1992 during the Yugoslav Wars, Marko is an arm’s dealer brokering deals in the middle of a war zone.  His brother Ivan emerges from the cellar and proceeds to beat Marko unconscious upon meeting him.  Ivan then commits suicide and Natalija rushes to Marko proclaiming her love.  Blacky, a commander of a militant army, has Marko and Natalija executed, then frees the remaining cellar occupants but falls into a well when confronted with a vision of Jovan.  Underground ends with an -esque reunion celebration where the film’s characters, living and dead, celebrate Jovan’s wedding on a section of land that breaks free of the shore and drifts away.

For Sean Homer, the second part of Underground, less attended to by critics of the film, is key to fully appreciating it and he particularly emphasizes its film-within-a-film portion, Spring Comes on a White Horse.  Homer contends that Spring is significant in that it retells, and in the process manipulates the events of Underground‘s first part, thereby making explicit Kusturica’s critique of the interpretations of historical narrative.  By making this Red Wave propaganda film a kind of hinge between the first and second parts, Kusturica changes Underground from a propaganda film to a film about propaganda.  Going further, this ingrained self-consciousness then allows the filmmaker’s exaggerated presentation of exoticized Balkan culture and its heroic, Serbian wild men to be read as over-determined and resistant to the stereotypes it lampoons rather than embraces.  Homer provides this reading partly to respond to Slavoj Zizek’s criticisms of Kusturica’s representation of the Balkans as populated by hedonistic, childish maniacs naturally involved in a constant state of war and barbarism.  Homer takes Zizek’s criticisms as maintaining Kusturica is too glib in his representations and not political enough (a significant difference from other critics who object to the director’s selective uses of historical footage for seemingly political ends).  Homer’s answer may be challenged in the sense that he denies much of the political criticism against Kusturica by accepting Dina Iordanova’s position that international audiences would find such political content too cryptic to be appreciated, yet offers similarly cryptic answers to Zizek’s concerns by justifying Kusturica’s approach with little circulated knowledge of Yugoslavian film movements.

Homer’s analysis does succeed, however, by his willingness to recognize that films have different, often conflicting, meanings within themselves, and that particular meanings arise often from the audiences that receive the film.  Such an analysis would also accept that audiences change with the passage of time and with the changing political climate.  In this sense, Underground‘s one-time denouncer Stanko Cerovic acknowledged the same in 2012, saying, “It’s quite possible that Underground will age well (I haven’t seen it since then) meaning that as the war becomes a more and more distant memory, the movie will get that much better, finally ending up with a purely artistic and universal value.”  In the years that followed, after Kusturica returned to filmmaking from his self-imposed retirement from cinema, the director’s work has been decidedly non-political, but his rambunctious, uncensored characters, their unbridled and sometimes misguided vitality, and his fascination with outsiders and iconoclasts did not abate.  Underground is increasingly likely to be seen as a part of this continuity in tone and character (which also includes Kusturica’s own cult of personality fostered by his acting for other directors and his music with The No-Smoking Orchestra), leaving the hidden or explicit political content of Underground more muted and less bristling.  Further, with the distance of time from the Yugoslav Wars and of space for a North American audience (Criterion’s primary market) generally untouched by the fighting and with likely a cursory understanding of the dispute, Kusturica’s willingness to impose his themes and style into history to tell a more personal assessment of his country’s breakup can be read more easily as artistic reflection and not political propaganda, more of a Balkan jazz funeral for his lost country than the sombre elegy that some might demand.  Brassy and unashamed, Kusturica likely wears too much of his heart on his sleeve in Underground, but the film remains a bold achievement that is unapologetic for its emotion and its success.

Underground DVD CoverNatalija swinging from the tank’s gun is probably the film’s most iconic image and certainly the one used most for promotional materials (and a lot more appealing than the manhole cover treatment also used with some frequency).  Looking around at the posters and keep-case covers used for Underground, we’re most fascinated by this DVD packaging, an obscure treatment with an origin unknown to us.  The white fabric decoration and Natalija’s red dress seem politically meaningful, while the bold, blocky title text has a blunt, edifice-like quality that feels similarly Eastern Bloc in sensibility.  Still, Natalija appears carefree and sexy and with the deconstructed titled, this cover preserves the film’s wild and experimental nature as well.  Altogether, it feels very much in keeping with the Collection’s present aesthetic and would comfortably rest next to other titles in the Criterion revered DVD closet.

Credits:  A 3-disc DVD edition of Underground exists in a Region 2 format.  The Di Francesco interview, the party footage, the interviews, the cast and crew interviews, the behind-the-scenes footage, and the production photos all derive from that edition.  We don’t believe the 5-hour television version has been released on home media and so that would be an astounding addition and a real treat to fans of the film and the director.  Aleksandar Manic’s documentary strangely seems to be left off a lot of disc editions of Underground (in fact, we haven’t found one yet that includes this film as a bonus feature), so we’ve rectified it here.  Criterion loves including short films by the same director and so Guernica was an easy addition.  Finally, Sean Homer’s essays “Retrieving Emir Kusturica’s Underground as a critique of ethnic nationalism” and “Nationalism, Ideology and Balkan Cinema: Re-Reading Kusturica’s Underground were invaluable texts in preparing this post, convincing us that Homer would be an excellent choice for an essay contributor.

3 thoughts on “Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)

  1. aaronwest September 30, 2014 / 12:48 am

    This would rule as a Criterion release. I remember reading a critic who conceded that it was well done, and that like most Art, it would be appreciated after the political controversy passes. That’s happened with Underground in my opinion.

    • spinenumbered October 1, 2014 / 2:16 pm

      Agreed. It would be great to see the 5-hour TV edit of Underground. Given that a number of critics take issue with the film as propaganda and such, it’s surprising that nobody talks about the longer cut for Serbian television, as it would seem to be a great opportunity to better understand Kusturica’s politics.

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