An early book by Raymond Durgnat – a monograph published in 1963 by Motion Publications (London) – was called Nouvelle Vague: the first decade. Whatever Nouvelle Vague activity was going on at the start of that decade – a time when the father of the Nouvelle Vague, Alexandre Astruc, fired his producer and christened his camera a camera-stylo – was radically different to the general characteristics of filmmaking in France in the early 1950s. Durgnat was citing the encroaching of a documentary aesthetic, particularly via experimental shorts (Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut among others, but also Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz across the Channel with the British Free Cinema) against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with the conventions of the Cinéma de Papa and the resultant will to break film out into the open, to follow the spirit of the early Neo-Realists.
The great Irish poet and playwright W. B. Yeats said that young poets should be more concerned with experimenting with form rather than addressing questions of content. And such was the process for the Nouvelle Vague: an on-screen questioning of form, in tandem with written onslaughts against the graceless formlessness of the French and British “quality” films in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound respectively.
This process had roughly reached its conclusion by about 1962-3. Form had been re-invented, Brechtianised: it was Nouvelle, pithy and overexposed, jokey and energetic, at times boring, at times vital; it was punk, immediate, “fuck you” (as Michel says to the cinema audiences of Godard’s A Bout de Souffle). And so to content: 1962-1968 and beyond. In France, Britain, Italy, Brazil, Japan, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia there was a general radicalisation of content. The European Left (in both East and West Europe) had found an essential voice – between two Soviet invasions, 1956 and 1968 – with which to express political discontent. It was wild and anarchic in France, revelling in confrontation, it was exacting in the implementation of devastating critiques of Stalinism and political and spiritual malaise in Czechoslovakia, it was cunningly utilised to create a new type of British cinema without alienating the audience. and it was near indescribable in Yugoslavia.
This has traditionally been associated with Yugoslavia’s own unique “inbetweenness” in the post-war years. Novi Film came from a country in which filmmakers were exposed to Godard almost immediately, where they had grown up watching American Westerns (Tito’s way of showing Yugoslavia’s difference from the other satellite Soviet countries) and where there was great sexual freedom in film by the mid-1960s to early 1970s. The results of this, in the films of Dusan Makavejev, were challenging to say the least. Makavejev interpreted film’s potential as a kind of liberating force, a therapy, particularly useful in terms of sexual oppression (that is, the facet of political oppression that film was best suited to confront). Makavejev’s distinctive collage techniques juxtaposed fiction and documentary, education films and old Soviet Socialist Realism films, sex films and wartime propaganda films, Brechtian New Wave sequences with ironic recreations of Socialist Realism sequences. But unlike Godard who sought to create clashes, Makavejev achieved an inclusive effect, furthered by a form of associative and intellectual montage. All his elements created a heightened, interrupted realism – a complete resonation of the unique conditions of the times and places in celluloid. That is, the film was “now” able to capture the essence of the actual time and place it was “drawn” from, which is what accounts for its inbetween-ness quality, that is, the complete integration of a documentary aesthetic in the sensibility of fiction film. It was something that ensured that WR: Mysteries of the Organism – a “political circus” – was suppressed or banned all over the world and its director finally kicked out of the Yugoslav Communist Party in 1973 during Tito’s “black wave” purge of nationalists and the too excessively vocal exponents of self-criticism.
Ironically, the problematic moment in WR is pure Eisenstein: Makavejev cuts from a red dildo freshly constructed around Jim Buckley’s (the editor of US counter-culture political/pornographic journal Screw) erect penis (we’ve witnessed one of the Plaster Casters of New York preparing this, A-Z) with a sequence of Stalin from Mikhail Chiaureli’s The Vow (tinted red), proclaiming “The first stage of Communism has been successfully completed”. Thus Stalinism, via associative montage, becomes a kind of arrested sexual development, an incomplete orgasm, a dead gesture of machismo. And the adoration of it – the post-1953 institutionalisation of Stalinism (which was so awfully apparent in the October invasion of Hungary in 1956) – gives rise to a form of death cult. Makavejev’s next film, the “excremental vision” of Sweet Movie from 1974 (the lost second movie of the greatest double-bill of the 1970s – the first being Pasolini’s Salò), cast the currently on-the-run Otto Muehl and his experimental theatre troupe/free love commune in scenes of regression therapy of the most extreme kind: the Reichian “body armour” associated with Fascism (documentary footage of “baby athletics” – proto-Riefenstahliana) is broken as an actor pisses, shits, scream and pukes his way back to childhood. The commune is called The Milky Way – the name of Buñuel’s essayistic film on the bloody history of Catholicism (Makavejev’s stated aim in Sweet Movie was to combine Eisensteinian montage with Buñuelian imagery), itself named after a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a ritual purging of sins, and also the name of Charles Manson’s rock and roll band. Sweet Movie is a history of death – at times literally so: the inclusion of (tinted) footage of the excavation and examination of the bodies of Polish officers massacred in the Katyn woods. For Makavejev, to excavate history is to dig into a mass grave.
But the liberations of WR proved too much for too many. Maybe the film never found its intended audience. I remember seeing it in the Hampstead Everyman in 1996 and the eclectic mixture of people present: film students hungry for experimentation, middle-aged radicals maybe looking for some nostalgia, the lovers of art cinema chasing after one elusive manifestation of “art”. Ironically, it was just such an elusive manifestation of “art” that led to the film’s rapid suppression in Yugoslavia after just a couple of festival screenings. When it was screened on the UK’s Channel 4 as part of their “Banned” season in 1991, the hardcore imagery was obscured by trippy psychedelic effects and nonchalant goldfish – a version Makavejev himself supervised and termed “improved.”
WR‘s audiencelessness defines the film’s stature with a “cult” tag rather than the “Citizen Kane of the 1960s” as the film is sometimes described. It also denotes a certain free-floating aspect to the film: just who is it addressing? Nor can its meanings be readily fixed – perhaps since its strategies of sexual liberation are now more relevant than ever before. This, then, is the result of an experimentation with content through form – the highest achievement of any European New Wave film and the zenith of the New Wave.
And this is also the approach Durgnat takes towards the film in 1999 for his BFI Modern Classics study. The discontent of the New Wave auteurs was often toward the construction of fixed meanings through the approved systems of film language: Socialist Realism, Left-approved “orthodox” Neo-Realism after 1948, wartime propaganda. Film should remain open to reality, be an aspect of that reality, and so incorporate the paradoxical, the contradictory, the ambiguous. In the East Bloc, this was a return of the repressed: the bourgeois “mystification” and dissembling that A. A. Zhdanov had railed against in 1935 at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress and the establishment of Socialist Realism. New Wave films should be, in Umberto Eco’s term, “Open Works”.
Durgnat cannot therefore “close down” WR. How can anyone seek to close down a film so closely tied to a precise period of Yugoslav history – on the cusp of the stagnation of the Tito years, the invisible economic meltdown of the 1970s, the resultant power vacuum after Tito’s death, the rise of a political-criminal class along the geographic inter-ideological fault line that was Yugoslavia in the 1980s: Milosevic and Karadzic; Srebrenica and Vukovar.
Rather, Durgnat enters the labyrinth, lists meanings, grasps associations, contextualises thoroughly. Conventional critical language begins to fail him and he utilises handier dialects (“funky”, “spunk drenched”, “Yuck”) as he pushes on into the heart of the film: the fate of Wilheim Reich, the fate of European Cinema, the exile of Makavejev, the history and fate of Yugoslavia. This represents a liberation of the film, a timely opening of it up to people anew, taking it out of the ghetto of cinephiles and film historians and their writing, as important in the small canon of writing on Yugoslav Cinema as Daniel J. Goulding’s Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience. Durgnat ends in dates and names: the unchecked middle-Europe genocide of the mid-1990s. It is not so much that the film’s relevance remains undiminished, rather that relevance itself must not be diminished by the fixing of meaning. To do so creates a parallel fault line, from tyranny to amnesia: the non-interventionist explanation – the wars of succession “meant” civil war, age-old national unrest, an event of no relevance to Western Europeans. So we are now the audience for WR – all others, from Reich to the Bosnians (via any number of Serbs and Croats), and their illustrious predecessors, the victims of Stalin and Stalinism, have been buried.
Durgnat’s book is a challenge in a particularly Nouvelle fashion. It puts the majority of the “studies” in the questionable BFI Modern Classics series to shame. Only Iain Sinclair’s circumnavigational consideration of Crash comes close.
Click here to order this book directly from