Man Is Not a Bird

When in 1965 Yugoslavia, Dušan Makavejev filmed Čovek nije tica (Man Is Not a Bird), one of the questions that was troubling many Eastern European filmmakers was how to portray the working class after socialist realism. (1) The Yugoslav artistic context in which this question was posed was one of suspicion. Communist Party-sanctioned cinema had saturated the Yugoslav and Eastern European screens with images of workers. Newsreels, features and documentaries had exalted the Messianic role of the proletariat, developing characters, a visual style and an ethics that had not only lost connection to reality, but also seemed to have forever displaced the image of the worker in the realm of the spectacular. For filmmakers like Makavejev, telling the truth about the condition of the proletariat was not so much a question of overcoming censorship, which in the 1960s relaxed a lot of its former grip on artistic production, but rather one that concerned an ethics of representation. The filmmaker felt socially and politically alienated from the working class; moreover, he was in doubt about the proletariat’s leading role in building real-existing communism. As Man Is Not Bird, the film under scrutiny here, shows us, the filmmaker became more and more suspicious of the truth-telling function of the “most important art”, as Vladimir Lenin and then Josef Stalin had envisioned film. Very few “pure” socialist-realist films were still being made in Eastern Europe in 1965, but, in their wake, many filmmakers of this period saw the task of representing the worker in cinema as tantamount to a reflection on the relationship between truth and power, art and propaganda, representer and represented, and on questions of class and hegemony in a purportedly classless and egalitarian society. (2)

Man Is Not a Bird is Makavejev’s attempt to reflect on the representation of the worker and to address the moral dilemmas facing the still-Marxist filmmaker of 1960s Eastern Europe embarked on such a project. It was Makavejev’s first feature after he had made a name for himself as a director of documentaries and shorts, and a film critic. In many of his previous projects, he had dealt with workers and had experimented with form. He was not unfamiliar with shooting on location and the realist portrayal of the proletariat, as well as the use of self-reflexive techniques to question the “ontology” of the cinematic image. What was new was the adaptation of Makavejev’s previous experience to the format of the feature film. Makavejev found himself having to develop fictional characters instead of documenting “true” life-stories; he had to challenge himself to build according to the tenets of verisimility instead of setting up, via montage, constellations of ideas that, while intellectually stimulating, had a short narrative breath. Perhaps most important, Makavejev was now addressing a different audience. Man Is Not a Bird was no longer a low-budget short shown in the demi-conspiratorial milieu of the cine club. The film had the potential of bringing Makavejev closer to the mainstream. Although he would never become a mainstream director, Man Is Not a Bird offered Makavejev a taste of what it meant to enter an artistic realm that was much more ideologically loaded, and in which the cinematic image and its dramatis personae – the workers – would be exposed to divergent and potentially abusive readings. (3)

Makavejev’s distrust in the truth-telling power of cinema, his relative unfamiliarity with the feature format and his suspicion that the cinematic image was susceptible to manipulative readings inform Man Is Not a Bird’s diegesis. The filmmaker’s dilemmas translate into a self-reflexive narrative that becomes an exploration of the figure of the worker not so much as a member of a socio-economic class, but as an ideological trope forged by well-known state and Communist Party-endorsed genres. Man Is Not a Bird tells film historians that, when it comes to the representation of workers and other icons of the Yugoslav and Eastern European post-World War II political order, the artist of the 1960s created with a strong awareness of intertextuality. A long tradition of leftist cinema had struggled to define the proletariat’s identity, and Makavejev and many directors of his generation felt at odds with this tradition; that is, not only with socialist realism, but also with realisms of other colours (poetic realism, Italian neo-realism, British post-war realism), which had inspired the main oppositional cinematic formula of 1950s Eastern Europe. This 1950s Eastern European counter current – which I will refer to here as social realism – insisted that realism remain the only solution in the effort of repairing the damage done to the credibility of the cinematic image by Stalinist art. (4)

As a leading figure of his generation, of what is called the Yugoslav New Film (Novi Film), Makavejev challenged both the mobilizing language of socialist realism, with its grandiloquent acting style, didacticism and alleged popular appeal, and what seemed to him a return to the 19th-century positivist hope that art can bridge the gap between representation and represented, and depict the world “as it really is”. In contrast, Makavejev and New Film promoted a cinema that emphasized the idiosyncratic dimension of observation. He narrated elliptically, often self-reflexively, and devised intellectual constellations that made his audiences aware of the complex and disputed nature of the signifying process.

More than anything, Man Is Not a Bird thematizes the quo vadis question troubling Eastern European cinema in the wake of both socialist and social realism. Political film finds itself at a crossroads and Man Is Not a Bird dramatizes its traffic signs: one, going backwards but lingering, reads “socialist realism”; the other, apparently going forward but often straying, reads “social realism.” The film’s two main male characters embody these two competing poetics. Makavejev “borrows” them from social and socialist realism in order to investigate these poetics’ respective language and political agendas. His film plays the two artistic projects against each other in order to open a space for questioning: quo vadis? Throughout this process of questioning, however, Makavejev remains a filmmaker of the left, still-committed to the plight of the working class. Even if in disbelief (and this is the disbelief of a film buff who has grown admiring the avant-garde’s demonstrations of the way in which the pro-filmic can be manipulated), he never truly gives up the hope that cinema can tell the truth.

But Makavejev also knows that the claim to tell the truth is a claim to power. The staging of the conflict between two competing cinematic “styles” dramatizes the struggle for power between ruling and oppositional élites within the Yugoslav political and intellectual arena. What the film ultimately asks is whether socialist and social realism still express an actual concern with the condition of the worker. Or is it that the realm of the æsthetic has become a means for each of these élites to legitimate themselves as the true mouthpieces of the working class – one playing the card of mobilizing optimism, the other of critical unravelling?

Official Yugoslav film critics of the 1960s and early 1970s, defenders of the cinema of optimism, talked pejoratively about the films of Man Is Not a Bird’s generation and called them the “black wave”. Their “darkness”, it was said, was a function of both their “obscure” (jumbled, open-ended) narrative and their inherently pessimistic approach to the realities of the Yugoslav version of state communism. These films were also accused of being morally and politically “obscure.” They muddled distinctions between good and evil, progressive and reactionary forces, and they spoiled the enduring hope for happy endings. The Yugoslav screen had in fact hosted “dark” films before the coming of the Yugoslav New Wave. It is from these social-realist films that Man Is Not a Bird borrows one of its heroes. The originality of Man Is Not a Bird, when compared to these earlier films, rests in the excess of blackness that it injects into the frame. This excess, the too-much-ness of dark hues, does not, as we might expect, signal a higher degree of pessimism. The artistic and intellectual merit of Makavejev’s film rests with its having made darkness eloquent as a complex intertextual trope. It indeed challenges socialist realism’s poetics of optimism. But, as we have said, the infusion and excess of darkness also questions social realism’s proclivity to associate “the telling of the truth” with “darker” and necessarily unhappy stories. Things become interesting when we realize that Makavejev turns his screen noir and populates it with villainous proletarians, alienated worker heroes, hypnotists, femmes fatales and snake-swallowing fakirs in order to reveal something that these competing realisms – the realism of optimism and light, and the critical realism committed to showing how dark things really are – have in common. What they both express is a deep and enduring anxiety regarding the proletariat. Man Is Not a Bird’s audiovisual blackness stages a thriller world that makes its audience aware of a strong compulsion behind filmmakers of all colours to dwell on “dark” elements in the world of the undereducated working class. In one case, this proclivity translates into an optimistic cosmetization of the image of the worker; in the other, into an urge to focus on suffering, violence and destituteness. If the politics informing the poetics of socialist realism have been unmasked by the 1960s, Makavejev wants to make sure the politics of social realism are also interrogated. His conclusion is that “truth-telling” filmmakers tend to like to portray the world of the proletariat in darker colours in order to legitimate themselves as their true ambassadors. This is class hegemony speaking the language of concern and empathy.


Man Is Not a Bird is set in the mining basin of Bor in Southern Yugoslavia. Soot, pollution and dirt play an important metaphorical role in the representation of this geographically and socially remote place, far from the centres of power in Belgrade. In order to emphasize this remoteness and to remind us of our mediated relationship to this world, Makavejev prefaces our encounter with the proletarian “out there” with two monologues. One is delivered by a hypnotist, the other by a newspaper reporter.

While opening credits are still rolling, the hypnotist, whose physical appearance is a constellation of dark markers (black silk shirt, dark hair and beard), tells his audience that things are not what they seem. He employs the positivistic vocabulary of science (hypnosis is the science of suggestion and artificial sleep). He fights against prejudice and superstition – versions of “the opium of the people”. He emancipates, unmasking the “people’s” false consciousness. The hypnotist is a whistleblower. He uses his demonstrations to unravel the practices of those who want to control. There is no magic in this world, only “suggestion”. If something strange happens, the explanation is not to be found in the realm of demons and spells, but in the controlling science of hypnosis, of induced artificial behaviour.

Man Is Not a Bird: The hypnotist

Though in the business of making people fall asleep, the hypnotist urges us to awake and stay awake. The “people” his declamation addresses are two. One is diegetic, the working-class spectators within the film, whom the hypnotist wants to illuminate politically. The other is extradiegetic, Man Is Not a Bird’s audience, whom he wants to emancipate æsthetically. For both the message is, “You are to stay in a state of vigil.” The assumption is that only an insomniac political subject and spectator can understand his or her condition. Discourse, especially of the visual kind, be it political or cinematic, is not to be trusted. The hypnotist – and Man Is Not a Bird – promise to explore the “dark” territory that both the sleeping political subject and the film spectator cannot see.

In the other prefacing monologue, a newspaper journalist, necessarily from Belgrade, reports on a concert organized in the local factory, a scene the viewer sees later in the film. If the hypnotist is the voice that points to the political and æsthetic devices that put audiences to sleep, the reporter embodies the structures that cause Yugoslav society’s ideological slumber. Sets, framing and camera angles build a contrast between the two speakers. The hypnotist appears in a dramatic low-angle shot, on a conspicuously artificial setting – a stage – lit by conspicuously artificial light, spotlights. Illusion points here to its own fabrication. In contrast, the reporter is seen in a naturally lit, “authentic” space. The angle of framing is normal. We have moved to “real-life” locations. This agent of optimist truth speaks from an office flooded with light, somewhere on an upper floor of a building that houses the factory’s management. The office has large windows, and towers over the industrial town. Good light, sharp sight and a good observation point, it seems, are prerequisites for producing “realist” accounts of life.

Makavejev further complicates the contrast between the hypnotist and the reporter. On the one hand, we have a dark-light contrast, a critical versus an optimistic discourse. On the other, we have an opposition between two ways of seeing and narrating. The hypnotist is a defamiliarizer; the reporter, a naturalizer. The reporter claims to represent things as they are. His dispatch refers to those aspects of reality that can be revealed by light – that is, the surface of things – and he claims to reproduce them with the neutrality, the machine-like accuracy we expect from the modern technological device the camera is. In contrast, the hypnotist’s intervention questions not one representation in the name of another, but the accuracy of the machine, the epistemological status of cinematic representation itself. His mission is to reveal what things seem to be but are not. Watch and enjoy, he encourages us, but beware: representation – even and perhaps especially that engendered through the seemingly automatic reproduction of images – is nothing more than a trick of the eye.

In the tradition of the avant-garde, Man Is Not a Bird stages a cinematic demonstration that shows how easy it is to trick the eye. A medium-shot of the reporter presents him in countre-jour against a window through which one can see the factory and the town. As he walks through the office dictating the news, the journalist moves away from the window and pauses in front of a large photograph placed at the same height and having the same dimensions as the window. The photograph is a slightly stylized copy of the image we have just seen, creating the illusion that the journalist has just moved from one window to another. We see the same landscape, the smokestacks, the industrial halls, the barracks. This is, however, no longer “reality”, as seen through the apparent transparency of the window, but realist representation parading as reality.

A slip the journalist makes further reinforces this idea. Here are his words describing the Beethoven concert in the factory: “The passionate words of Schiller were reflected on the dark [mrka] faces of the workers […] No, no, no, I’m sorry, on the gleaming [obasjana] faces of the workers.” (5) The slip reveals that the reporter is aware of the fact that he is fabricating truth, that he is adjusting what he has seen to the æsthetic demands of a certain spectacular reality: what one needs to see. His acte manqué not only betrays the cynicism of optimist truth-tellers, but also teaches an avant-garde inspired lesson in aesthetics: art is always political; truth is a function of the medium.

Socialist realism is the culmination of this line of thought. The reporter is aware that his dispatches are not about truth, but rather about a certain spectacle of truth. What, of course, is problematic is that the dispatcher’s interest in “illuminating” or “whitening” the workers’ faces, in making them “gleam”, is no longer the expression of a socialist emancipatory project. The “whitened” face of the worker matters only as a necessary compositional element in a fresco of progress, an image the Yugoslav communist state wants to create of and for itself. It is important, however, to remember that the reporter’s slip does not happen on the threshold separating truthfulness and deceit. The suppressed reference to the dark faces of the workers is not a descriptor of how things “really” are. It more probably suggests the way in which the journalist and, by extrapolation, the power structure he serves “truly” envisions the working class. (6) The opposition dark vs gleaming refers to an æsthetical double bind in which the representation of the worker is captive. This double bind is encoded by the film’s use of light and shadow, cleanness and soot, and other such contrasts, and takes us back to the dialectical relationship between socialist realism and social realism. We are reminded that the worker’s face – whether gleaming or dark – is both a mask, a fabrication, and the battleground of competing æsthetics.


Cut to images of the working class, seen, however, not in its expected diurnal, socialism-building context, as the dispatch of an official newsreel would have it. The workers are not presented listening with gleaming faces to Beethovenian harmonies, but partying in the local dive, a nocturnal and anarchic site. We have abruptly bounced into the poetics of social realism: truthful, “realist”, representation comes to oppose socialist-realist glamorizing practices. If faces gleam in this scene, they do so because they are intoxicated with alcohol and sexual desire. In the context of this counter-poetics, the worker’s element is the dive. Or isn’t it?

It seems like the new painter of modern life has deserted his studio and moved on location, the main paradigm shift of 19th-century painting that cinema replicates in the 20th. Man Is Not a Bird’s camera abandons its aloof, panoptical position and, in its quest for truth, descends to the underworld of the workers. If in the dispatch scene the mediating agency is rendered visible in the person of the reporter, the descent of the camera into the dive where workers dwell erases the middle man and creates the illusion of bridging (or at least asymptotically narrowing) the subject-object divide, the artist-worker “chasm”. The camera becomes a participant observer and claims to be able to grasp the life of the workers “as it really is”.

The question, once again, is: Why do the truth-finding techniques of film necessitate a descent into a “heart of darkness”? Where does this connection between anarchy and real come from? Man Is Not a Bird shows that we often tend to associate truthful representation with some form of excess. This, however, is not the mark of the real; rather, what it encodes is the anxiety that informs the artist’s perception of the worker. As for the worker, he or she is not any freer in the anarchic context of the pub than socialist-realism’s worker hero joyfully working overtime. After all, both sets of characters are “intoxicated”, one with alcohol, the other with the narrative of building communism.

What the camera in this scene does is convert the imagined anarchy in the heart of darkness into a visual spectacle that claims to make it somewhat comprehensible. Its descent bestows cultural capital unto the filmmaker, making him or her a social investigator, an explorer of the underworld for the intellectuals and apparatchiks in the theatre. The camera plunges into a realm we would never investigate ourselves. The mise en scène is excessively crowded – at the same time, frightening and grotesquely comic. The workers’ faces “gleam” as they listen to racy Balkan party-music. On stage is Fatima, a Muslim singer. Already ethnically “dark”, she unleashes the passions of her audience. There is no dialogue in this scene, only signing, shouting and noise. Language dwells in brightly lit offices or otherwise on the hypnotist’s stage. Only from such “elevated” locations can one hope to become aware of one’s condition. The working class, on the other hand, is instinctual, Dionysian. They only have life – desire, energy. But, much like animals, they do not have the means to reflect on this life, despite the educational process they have supposedly gone through in the new political order.

Man Is Not a Bird: Barbulović

Once immersed in the dark world of the working class, the camera focuses on Barbulović (Stole Aranđelović): rowdy, in rags, unshaved, unfocused gaze, a stereotypical image of the barbarous worker. Aroused by Fatima’s performance, he shouts and smashes bottles. His tattered hat casts shadows, yet another layer of darkness, on his already dark face. Fatima responds to his passionate spectatorship and briefly plays with his hat, revealing a mass of long and unkempt hair. While she is still singing, a brawl erupts, and Barbulović, who unwittingly finds himself in the middle of things, is arrested.

Barbulović’s portrait is completed through a domestic tableau. Visual and musical cues ironically foreshadow his actions. As he enters his house, angry because he has just been accused of murdering Fatima – the “authorities” have their own expectations – the camera lingers on two men on the left side of the frame. They are slaughtering a sheep. An ominous, horror-film soundtrack enhances the drama. Once inside, however, we are not offered the violence we are prepared to witness. We watch an anticlimactic dispute. We indeed find out that Barbulović is authoritarian and promiscuous, and that he mistreats his wife (she is the ultimate victim, oppressed not only by the system but also by the patriarchal relations this system condones). (7) But our stereotypes about the working class are not confirmed. The filmmaker himself, the sequence tells us, is tempted to portray the worker in all-too-familiar terms, violent and with his moral and political compass amiss. The “noir” elements of the scene aim at revealing this tendency. As for the viewer, she is somewhat disappointed and the film challenges her to reflect on her disappointment.


Halfway through the film, the small town’s population is herding to watch the hypnotist demonstrate his skills. He brings men and women on stage, hypnotizes them and has them do seemingly absurd things. In particular, the hypnotist asks his subjects to fly. They dutifully swing their arms and tiptoe grotesquely. There is laughter in the audience. If only for a moment, the hypnotist offers workers a glimpse of what they cannot otherwise see: their “induced sleep”. Hypnotised, they might believe that they are flying but they are not. The hypnotist shows them the “truth” in which they dwell for what it is: a grotesque illusion. The audience is laughing apparently unreceptive to the scene’s implications, but the film tells us that at least one person in the audience – Barbulović’s wife (Eva Ras) – understands the power of “suggestion” and its pervasive effect.

“Did you see that ‘pnosis’ stuff?”, she asks a fellow workmate the next day.

“Rubbish”, the workmate replies.

“No it isn’t”, she goes on. […] “Like my husband, and the authorities! One, two, three …” She tilts her head. “I saw it. That’s how we live … believing everything. One does what the husband or the authorities say, ‘That’s “pnosis”.’ One simply follows his [their] thoughts.”

“So what now?”, the workmate asks.

“I know what”, she replies with a bold smile. “No more ‘pnosis’!”

Man Is Not a Bird: Man as bird

The hypnotist reappears toward the end of the film to wrap up his critique of truth-manufacturing practices. If his prefacing monologue has focused on revealing the condition of the spectator, and his diegetic mid-film intervention has been aimed at showing workers their condition as ideological “birds”, his post-face is straightforward ideology critique. He tells us that hypnosis is an “artificial sleep under which man carries out any order, even [the order] to kill”. Alluding to the mobilizing goals of Soviet-style politics, he calls on us to rebel. Barbulović’s wife seems to be the only character in the film who hears the message. If the film offers us a glimpse of hope, this hope is associated with her. What she will do, we do not know, but she is at least willing to interrupt her sleep, and that is no little thing.

As for Barbulović, there seems to be no hope for him. He will not be allowed to transgress. He is not only the villain from the pub; he also embodies promiscuous sexual desire. The “unclean” sexuality of the working classes, has, of course, been a constant concern of those who, now as in the past, have taken it to be their mission to “illuminate” the worker. Class hierarchies are built on “levels of civilization” that include hygiene, demeanour, education and abstinence. Makavejev’s film suggests that Eastern Europe’s intellectual élites’ understanding of the working class is – still is – informed by such “bourgeois” (ancien régime) values. In his very first appearance in the film, Barbulović is sexually aroused. He is then accused of having killed Fatima. At home, he is a tyrant. We then find out he has a lover, a “dark” lover, a gypsy woman. Barbulović’s fight with his wife is triggered by his having offered his mistress a dress he had initially bought for her. The gift suggests women’s interchangeability and the underworld’s polygamous disrespect for family values. The film suggests that, no matter how hard a filmmaker might try, Barbulović cannot escape this predicament. Layer after layer of clichés about the working class have encrusted themselves on the body of the worker, to the extent that it seems he has become them. And yet …

To recapitulate: Barbulović is shown in three contexts. In the bar scene, he is intoxicated and rowdy. In the domestic scene, he comes through as abusive and promiscuous, and he is conspicuously absent from the hypnotist’s show where his wife learns to question social control. The third context in which we see Barbulović is the foundry. Exaggeration is at work here, too. Now we are watching a titan breaking fuming ore residue with a sledgehammer. Barbulović is now explicitly filmed as an object of contemplation. The audience of Makavejev’s film watches a worker being watched by a group of children visiting the foundry. The visiting children (education is most efficient if “on location”, too) are being offered a lesson about the working class; they are watching a Stakhanovite spectacle. In the showcase is the shock worker of Soviet-style industrialization: the most powerful engine of the Revolution. The apparatchik-teacher accompanying the children gives us the “official” reading of the scene: “That is a worker, a physical worker, as different from the intellectual clerks – That is Barbulović – One of our best workers.”

The apparatchik’s emphasis on the difference between intellectual and physical labour should not escape us. It suggests not only the obvious – there are different forms of labour – but this rather superfluous reference also makes us suspect another slip. The scene begs the question: Who is the Stakhanovite shock worker of real-existing communism, after all? Is he an emancipated proletarian with record-breaking performances rooted in his rise from alienation? Is Barbulović the new worker of a new era, who understands that he owns the means of production as well as the products of his labour? Does he find productive enthusiasm in this ownership? Or are we descending into yet another version of the darkness of the real, where human motivation is controlled by other forces? Is Barbulović perhaps the worker that the élites of real-existing communism truly want, a form of “bare life”, a splinter of an easily controllable multitude?

The scene in fact presents its viewers with two versions of Barbulović. One is the “official” version, the one offered to children (within the diegesis but also the naïve, infantilized spectators in the movie theatre), mythologizing Barbulović’s work. The alternative version necessitates the movement of the camera to the other side of the titan, such that it ends up framing both Barbulović and his diegetic spectators. The camera’s initial location (on the children’s side, the official side, dominated by the logos of the apparatchik) shows Barbulović as an icon of progress. Its second location, on the critical side, where the camera reflects on the production of the previous shot, does not show Barbulović at all, but rather his visual construction as “one of our best workers”.

Makavejev is still not satisfied. Rather than celebrating the camera’s dissidence, its courage and heroism, the film ironizes it. The affective outcome of the second shot of Barbulović is an uneasy discomfort. This allegedly rebellious camera seems afraid. It literally shivers; it hides in shady spots behind scaffolds and machinery, offering only sneaky low-angle peeks. Man Is Not a Bird shows us, however, that art can easily sublimate anxiety into visual pleasure. Dissidence is offered æsthetic rewards. The sneaking camera blurs the object of fear and takes a compensatory delight in experimenting with the innovative angles and the layers of depth its hiding ensues: the blocking scaffolding in the foreground, the labouring titan, the watching children, the lecturing apparatchik, etc. The camera travels behind camouflaging surfaces and constructs a complex visual universe, where the eye frustrated with the simplifications of manipulative art finds solace. Fear translates into sophistication, and a dissident consciousness contemplates not only the staging of a Stakhanovist spectacle, but also itself, its depth, its desire for complexity.

This æsthetic solace closes a circle. The “other perspective” has unravelled the fabrication of the worker’s heroic aura, and has allegedly redirected us to “reality,” that is, to a reality that is an effect of the regime of noir. Now we know that the “true Barbulović” is not a titan but a truculent brute. It turns out this working monster inspires as much anxiety to a dissident consciousness as to the repressive régime. The camera thus hides not only from the all-seeing official eye, but also from an encounter with itself. Caution is needed when dealing with Barbulović’s vitality.

The second, critical perspective on Barbulović turns out to be complicitous with the reigning political and social apparatus. It, too, finds itself worrying about how best to go about taming the proletariat’s excessive vital energy. Is it possible that the Party’s disciplining practices are the only viable solution when faced with the anarchic drives of the proletariat? Could it be that the cause of the worker cannot be defended, after all?

Man Is Not a Bird: Barbulović seen from the “other side”

Makavejev’s film contrasts Barbulović with a second worker: Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec). If Barbulović is “noir”, sharing all the attributes of a character emerging from cinematic underworlds, Rudinski seems to have just stepped out of a socialist-realist epic. He is the much-awaited emancipated worker, who has overcome his status of wage labourer and works out of political conviction. In contrast to Barbulović, he is a skilled foreman. (8) His sexuality is tamed, and subordinated to his productive activities. This “clean” and honourable face of the worker is not, however, a happy face. A melodramatic subplot questions the positive hero’s self-containment. While Barbulović’s predicament is that of an undisciplined/uncivilized subject colliding with the restrictions imposed on him by external forces of order, Rudinski’s drama is that of sacrificed desire on behalf of an ethic of work. He is facing an existential angst. Although Rudinski conscientiously plays by all the rules of the “new world”, he is not able to make himself and the people around him happy. It turns out he too is only an executant of the industrial age. But, unlike Barbulović, he is an outsider. He is from Slovenia, the richer and more “civilized” part of Yugoslavia. He is friendly and wears clean clothes. One of the first things we find out about him is that his skin is whiter than that of the local workers. This is how the local barber and his sexually-emancipated lover-to-be, Rajka (Milena Dravić), can tell he is from out of town. His skin is not damaged by the industrial dust that has darkened the locals. He is pure image.

The sequence showing Barbulović’s energetic labour is preceded by the depiction of Rudinski’s meticulous work, assembling a sophisticated machinery. While Barbulović stands for excessive vitality, Rudinski is all self-control, which comes from his sense of duty. While Barbulović is mainly depicted in long shots, his energy emanating from his whole body, capturing Rudinski’s skills implies a montage of close-ups on the very specific and fine-tuned tasks he is executing. Like the machine Rudinski is putting together, his body is a sum of individual parts, a meticulous assemblage of organs. We see close-ups of fingers following directions on a diagram; alert gazes; heads bent over a design; palms clasping shiny steel; and rulers measuring lengths and widths. This representation – not unusual for the newsreel documentary glorifying the precision of socialist industry and its heroes – suggests the high degree of order that governs Rudinski’s body. He and Barbulović are efficient machines, but of different brands. If Barbulović is a body with minimal organs attached to it, Rudinski’s skills reveal a corporeality strongly penetrated by culture and ideology. His is the ordered and thus malleable body; this is also a body that no longer frightens; a body that can (and has been) “understood”.

A montage sequence shows Rudinski being honoured as a worker-hero. He has been brought to Bor to assemble state-of-the-art industrial equipment that will increase the foundry’s profitability and give it the opportunity to sign a lucrative export contract. Rudinski manages to assemble the machine ahead of time – a standard socialist-realist dénouement – and the foundry is organizing a ceremony within which he is awarded a medal (there is talk of a pecuniary reward but the idea is ruled out: the worker-hero is after medals, not money). The ceremony takes place on the frontline of industrialization: the middle of the foundry. A choir and a symphonic orchestra performs Beethoven’s Ninth.

The noir component of this montage shows Rudinski’s lover, Rajka, having an affair with a local and handsome truck driver. Makavejev intercuts between the concert and the lovemaking scene, not only creating a contrast between two types of joy, but also offering an ironic comment on the pompous nature of the ceremony. The musical performance adds to the contrast between Barbulović and Rudinski. Barbulović hails from the anarchic pub, where alcohol and Fatima’s lascivious rhythms unleash uncontrolled passions. The solitary Rudinski is associated with the music of high culture, structure and sophistication, which confer honourability upon the working class. Bewildered but docile workers watch the performance. They do not really hear the music; it is not their music. They are there only to see and be seen; that is, to dutifully participate in yet another ritual of power.

Man Is Not a Bird: Workers’ dirty hands

Throughout the film, a two-piece, huge and mysterious poster is showed being transported on trailers trough the industrial town. The poster represents an important visual trope of communist revolutionary discourse: hands, the workers’ battered palms, the means to that much-awaited better world. We find out the poster is to be used as background for the Beethoven concert, offering yet another clue as to the event’s meaning: its celebration of work. As a few workers are struggling to hang the 30 x 60 foot placard on the wall, a party apparatchik asks in a frustrated voice:

“What the hell is that?”

“Workers’ hands”, a voice replies.

“Take the damn thing down”, he orders, suggesting that the “dirty” hands of workers, however æstheticized, no longer fit the weltanschauung of real-existing communism.

Makavejev makes sure his viewers understand the irony. We are reminded of the gleaming/dark opposition. The project of building an equitable social organization is a spectacular project. The bewildered gazes of the workers listening to Beethoven confirm this conclusion, as does the intercutting of images of the orchestra with the lovemaking scene. Neglected by her hard-working partner, Rajka has her share of joy, the anarchic, vital, non-disciplined, dark joy, to which no Party-sanctioned symphonic performance will sing an Ode.

The last episodes of the film focus on Rudinski. The ceremony in the foundry is supposed to be followed by a small festivity in a local events hall. Rudinski’s co-workers are expected to attend. The tables are set, but nobody shows up, except a band of gypsy musicians. Rudinski, the model worker, is alone, alienated from his fellow workers. The factory management has used him but does not need him any more. His lover has broken his heart and his co-workers prefer to watch a circus performance. Drinking alone, Rudinski is in distress. The band plays to his sorrow that other music, the music of the murky dive, as if closing an ideological circle.

Man Is Not a Bird: Rudinski - prisoner of his image

Rudinski stands up and walks to a mirror. He looks at himself and, we assume, realizes the illusion of his “emancipation”. His life has been taken over by his image, his love affair suffocated by his commitment. Rudinski tries to break the mirror, free himself from the image. He smashes it with a bottle and, indeed, some parts break. But a big piece still hangs on the wall and the image persists. On the musical accompaniment of Beethoven’s Ninth, the last cut of the film depicts Rudinski in an extreme long-shot that dwarfs him within the desertified landscape of the industrial town.

Rudinski walks slowly toward the setting sun, staggering, defeated, old. The irony of his walking into the sunset is not lost on the viewer. Rudinski is not the hero of a Western. He lingers inside the frame because there is no closure to mark a “new beginning”. Like Barbulovic, he remains the prisoner of his representation. If one discourse glorifies the worker, the other shows him in his misery. There is nowhere to go, politically for the “worker” or æsthetically for the sympathetic filmmaker. Representation has reached an impasse and the film must end. Barbulović and Rudinski are both alone. They are not part of a “we”, either as a collective or a couple. They haunt the desertified landscape of the modern world as two ideological ghosts. Having emerged from two poetics that claim to be “realist”, they have little to do with “reality”. They embody two models of representation and two fantasies of containment. Makavejev’s film brings to the fore the paralyzing task facing the filmmaker engaged in representing the working class caught in this historical and æsthetic predicament. The negation in the title, the fact that man is not a bird, no matter how much we might want him to become one, points to the film’s own impasse, its own insecurity as to which way one can still hope to be able to fly.

This article has been peer reviewed.


  1. Socialist realism had its peak during what is now called the Stalinist period (1947-1956). Even in Yugoslavia, a country at odds with Josef Stalin, socialist-realist reconstruction cinema was in vogue during the 1950s, alongside patriotic anti-fascist (partisan) films. Starting with 1956, film undergoes a slow process of liberalization but it is only with the liberalization of the 1960s that more socially critical films enter the public sphere. See Dina Iordanova, “Yugoslavia”, The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 2000, 267-275). In his Liberated Cinema, Daniel Goulding emphasizes the Yugoslav state’s tight ideological grip on cinematic production: “From its inception the newly founded [Yugoslav] national cinema was guided by party-line orthodoxy, which conceived of film as the most important mass medium for reaching all levels of society and possessed as its greatest goals: 1) the idealistic confirmation and reification of the revolutionary past, i.e., the National War of Liberation and its heroes, and 2) the confirmation and reinforcement of revolutionary élan required to construct a new Marxist socialist state.” Daniel Goulding, Liberated Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), p. 7. Socialist realism was the official poetics of this period, and revolutionary education its main purpose.
  2. In spite of his quarrel with Stalin, Tito’s regime used “Stalinist” propaganda tactics, ideological orthodoxy and coercive apparatuses. Emir Kusturica’s Palme d’Or-winning film, Otac na službenom putu (When Father Was Away for Business, 1985), documents this affinity in terms of political purges, labour-camp re-education practices, fear and suspicion, and the all-too-present personality cult. Other films that address similar issues are Rajko Grlić’s Samo jednom se ljubi (You Love only Once, 1981), Stole Popov’s Srećna nova ‘49 (Happy New ‘49, 1986), and Goran Marković’s Tito i ja (Tito and I, 1992).
  3. Makavejev never truly embraced the æsthetic demands of the feature-film genre as he continued to produce cinematic hybrids that combined a variety of fictional and documentary idioms with the main purpose of staging an intellectual conversation around a certain topic. His next feature, Ljubavni slučaj ili tagedija službenice PTT (Love-Affair: The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, 1967), another working-class film, switches from questions regarding the representation of the proletariat to a meditation on the political interpellation of the worker in Soviet-style communism. And while W. R.- Misterije organizma (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971) and Makavejev’s first exile film, Sweet Movie (1974), have significant fictional sections, Nevinost bez zaštite (Innocence Unprotected, 1968) returns to figures of documentary and experimental filmmaking.
  4. In the Yugoslav context, the journal Film was among the first promoters of Italian neo-realism. The journal with the greatest influence on New Film was Film danas (Film Today), where Makavejev also published. The first Yugoslav feature to deal realistically with contemporary themes was, according to Daniel Goulding, Subotom uveče, Matjiaž Pogačić (On Saturday Evening, 1957). Realism was promoted in the films of Veljko Bulajić – Vlak bez voznog reda (Train without Schedule, 1959, and Uzavreli grad (City in Ferment, 1961) – who had studied with Cesare Zavattini at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome. See Goulding, pp. 41-2, 56.
  5. The reporter describes the effect of the lyrics of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, written by Friedrich Schiller.
  6. Tony Judt: “The country was now run by and for the ‘New Class,’ as the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas had called it in an influential 1957 book: an educated technocracy of bureaucrats and professionals, pragmatically concerned above all with feathering its nest and ensuring its own survival.” See Tony Judt, Postwar (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 429.
  7. The scope of this article does not allow me to dwell as much as I would like to on the women characters in the film, especially Barbulović’s wife. A separate study could be dedicated to the subtle play with gender Makavejev’s film dramatizes.
  8. Mira and Antonin Liehm call Rudinski an engineer. Characters in the film, however, refer to him as “majstore”. A majstor is usually a skilled labourer, a foreman. See Mira and Antonin Liehm, The Most Important Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 423.

About The Author

Constantin Parvulescu teaches film and European studies at West University of Timisoara and Washington University. His articles have appeared in journals such as Camera Obscura, Italian Culture, Senses of Cinema, and Jump Cut, and he is the co-editor of the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Historical Film. His current book project focuses on the figure of the orphan and re-education in Eastern European cinema.

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