“I didn’t sign on to be your slave.” It’s the cry of every woman who has ever been born, and every country who has ever been created, annexed, oppressed. Hungarian woman Izabela Garodi (Eva Ras) speaks these words as Love Affair or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator reaches its finale in a rare moment of fictional direct address, staring directly into the camera so that her plea has a striking gravity. If there was ever doubt that this film made in the former Yugoslavia1 was an indictment of an authoritarian empire as well as a portrait of a couple’s unravelling, one tainted by an historical disrespect of woman’s independence, then Izabela’s comment should remove it. Devastatingly, it’s a call to arms that goes unheard.
This is not the only moment of direct address; Serbian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev assembles the film in semi-documentary style, the fictional narrative presented out of sequence (sometimes focusing on the Love Affair, other times depicting The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator) and accompanied by commentaries from a sexologist and criminologist. “I’m sure you must be interested in sex,” an elderly sexologist assumes in the film’s opening line, and we absolutely must agree. It was scandalous at the time of its release for its candid approach to sexuality, desire, and individuality, and perhaps for its inclusion of erotic drawings and art that admit a long historical fascination with carnality. Makavejev had been flagged by Yugoslav authorities a decade earlier for his short film Don’t Believe in Monuments (1958), which was considered too erotic for the regime’s controlling fist. But he should be framed as a part of the new frontier of filmmaking and artistic creativity that swept through Yugoslavia (not to mention much of the rest of the world) in the sixties. His attention to such detail comes across only as honest, his irreverence playfully blended with moments of sober gravity.
In an early scene, Izabela and her friend from the switchboard, Ruza (Ruzica Sokic), gossip about men while getting pedicures and eating cart food in the street, a distracting din surrounding them. The camera remains mostly at a distance, so that their independence as young women is emphasised against the developing landscape of Belgrade. They wander past photographs of famous performers in a shop window, then focus on propaganda that depicts Mao Zedong being adored by a group of Chinese children. This agitprop of a prosperous Cultural Revolution cuts to a billowing poster of Lenin on a brutalist building, with a crowd below singing “Yugoslavia, born of struggle, your people sing of your glory.” Makavejev includes this propaganda to create a stark opposition with his own work, as if to say: don’t be fooled, the oppression is real. Instead, upsetting realities like those of disease and rat infestations are sometimes masked as nursery rhymes, sinister rather than reassuring.
While marred almost from the beginning by the knowledge that Izabela will be murdered, the scenes depicting her love affair with Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic) have a naturalistic beauty and sustained tenderness. At their first meeting in her apartment, Izabela serves him apricot brandy, and then heats coffee on an upturned iron because her stove burners aren’t working. She takes a picture off the wall to use as a tray. But any warmth is quickly stripped away; their post-coital happiness is cut short as we see clinicians preparing her lifeless body for autopsy. Close observations like these about life in war-torn Yugoslavia in a divided Europe paint this intimate portrait against a backdrop of dissent and chaos.
These elements are all important here; we must consider films like this through a cultural and geopolitical lens. But Love Affair or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, despite its horrors, is also such stunning fun. In its most energetic scene, Makavejev links bare buttocks to the oval curves of two eggs, which are then cracked into mounds of flour. As Izabela’s hands massage the ingredients together, Makavejev draws an association to the erotic act of massaging buttocks, infusing the film with rich sensory evocations. This is sustained with the way she continues making blueberry strudel, to the triumphant strains of Verdi’s ‘Aida: Grand March’. It’s definitely the best film scene made about strudel, and maybe even the most glorious depiction of baking on screen, relatable for the feelings of pleasure it evokes. The scenes of the couple’s domestic intimacy are so natural that it’s easy to forget we already know their tragic end.
But we do, and we’ve already seen her dead body. It’s the body that is key to Love Affair or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator; the human body, the animal body, the bodies of objects, the body of Europe, and the entire idea of the body of a film. Izabela is unashamed of her sensuality and her needs, and is instantly drawn to Ahmed, whom she meets in a casual encounter on the street. Cutting forward, Izabela’s lifeless body is adorned with tools for dissection. Her naked body, still alive, is outstretched on her bed, a black cat gently pawing across her back. She stands naked at the window as he lies naked in bed. The outline of her body is mottled behind a shower curtain. These moments are not to sexualise her body but to appreciate it as form, as part of nature, to present something on screen that had been absent – perhaps available only in those lurid drawings scattered through the film. The assaults on Izabela’s body – affectionate, physical, sexual – are a part of the narrative since its beginning, with an unashamedly amorous postal worker constantly harassing her for attention and the unwelcome calls of strangers on the street, and continue through to the end. Through to the fatal assault.
Although Makavejev twists the love affair and the story of the missing woman into each other so that the outcome is known all along, that assault is still astonishingly brutal. Following an episodic account of Izabela and Ahmed’s relationship and an investigation into its breakdown, the ending reveals the “case” to be an upsettingly familiar instance of male jealousy. With its prismatic structure, Love Affair or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator is at once mundane and impressively mythic in its presentation of an imperfect coupling of imperfect people, against an agitated national state. Makavejev ends with a song by Ernst Busch and Hanns Eisler as a call for uprising; a valiant crowd sings a song for their country, and the isolated tragedy of the love affair is forgotten. “Dayshift and nightshift turn without ceasing,” they sing, “Onward, oh time!” The film is, finally, a hymn of a people, of their grand march forward. The people will not be slaves.
- Following a civil war in 1991, Yugoslavia became a collection of independent successor states in Eastern Europe. ↩