The aesthetic and political imperatives for nonfiction film in Serbia, after Yugoslavia, can be understood through the conclusion of Theodor Adorno’s essay, “The Meaning of Working through the Past.” He writes that “the past will have been worked through only when the causes of what happened then have been eliminated. Only because the causes continue to exist does the captivating spell of the past remain to this day unbroken.”1 In other words, nonfiction films must demystify the communist past and analyze its authoritarian traces in the ethnic nationalism of the present. Demystification, though, is a difficult task since, as Adorno notes, it requires a psychoanalytically informed approach that confronts the inner mechanisms which support hatred of the other and belief in authoritarian propaganda. In my essay, I discuss Tito po drugi put među Srbima (Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time, Želimir Žilnik, 1994) and Cinema Komunisto (Mila Turajlić, 2010) as examples of nonfiction films which work through the past by focusing on Tito, dictator of Yugoslavia, and his cult of personality.   

Both films offer some answers as to why, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Serbia is unable to work through its communist past and remains enamored with the ethnic nationalism of the 1990s. As numerous articles report, in 2022 ethnic tensions are rising again in Bosnia and have intensified during the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even more disturbing, as Janine di Giovanni writes, “prominent voices in Bosnia and Serbia consistently downplay or even outright deny the genocide committed by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica.”2 Despite such denials and despite the fact a right-wing nationalist populist government has ruled Serbia since 2012, a 2016 Gallup Poll indicated that of all the former Yugoslav republics, Serbia had the highest percent of people who answered that the breakup of Yugoslavia harmed the country and that things were better in the past.3 While communist nostalgia and ethnic nationalism may seem irreconcilable ideologically, both Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time and Cinema Komunisto explore their deeper historical and psychological affinities.

Želimir Žilnik’s Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time functions as collective psychoanalysis which maps the shared authoritarianism between both ideologies. Released in 1994, it remains depressingly relevant thirty years later. In it, Serbian comedian Dragoljub Ljubičić dresses as Marshal Tito and wanders the streets of Belgrade interacting with people. The conceit is that he has returned temporarily to see what has happened to the country since he died. The range of responses that Ljubičić elicits from people is astonishing. Almost all speak to him as if he were actually Tito. They either express mournful nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia, blame him for the breakup of the country, denounce him as a communist, or promote conspiracy theories. In between these scenes of Ljubičić on the streets of Belgrade, Žilnik intercuts archival footage of Tito meeting world leaders, reminding viewers of Yugoslavia’s geopolitical significance as a communist country non-aligned with the Soviet Union.

For several people, interacting with Ljubičić functions as a form of drama therapy to confront their past belief in communist propaganda and Tito’s cult of personality. One woman tells him, “I had cried after you and now I regret it” because now she knows the truth is that while he lived a glamorous life and travelled abroad, she was home working and poor. And yet, contradictorily, she notes that she would still vote for him if he ran using a pseudonym. One man expresses a similar sentiment, indulging in wistful nostalgia for the past when he states that one Tito is preferable to the current situation were there are numerous authoritarians in the country. Yet others confront their disillusionment with Tito by engaging in psychic transference toward nationalist propaganda. One man, for example, chastises Tito for not promoting Slobodan Milošević earlier because he believes he would have kept Yugoslavia together. Another criticizes him for betraying Russians, their natural friends, and the Soviet Union in 1948 by splitting from Stalin. After this encounter, Žilnik cuts to a shot of people cheering for Russia and Serbia during an anti-NATO protest, which is an ominous image today, given that after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 thousands of Serbian nationalists took to the streets to protest in favor of Moscow. Late in the film, Žilnik reminds us of the implications of this psychic transference from communism to nationalism when Ljubičić speaks to a young man traumatized by his experiences fighting on the frontlines. This scene is followed by a conversation with a refugee from Bosnia picking nettle who states he doesn’t think the war will ever end. At the end of the film Ljubičić leaves Belgrade, telling his driver that the people are not united.

While Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time concludes on a dispiriting note emphasizing disunity, it works through the past by analyzing both the allure of Tito and the appeal of ethnic nationalism. In doing so, it rejects the then common “ancient hatreds” idea in the West that the ethnic nationalisms which engulfed the country were long simmering and repressed by communism whose collapse finds people reverting to their natural animosities. Rather, Žilnik’s film suggests the disappearance of the utopian promises of Tito’s regime – brotherhood and unity, universal employment, and a higher standard of living – created a sociological and psychological malaise that authoritarian ethnic nationalism promises to cure. This sentiment is evident in a crucial early scene where Ljubičić interacts with people selling Serbian nationalist paraphernalia, jokingly asking if he can buy a new red star. One of the men claims he is not interested in politics, only earning money. When Ljubičić tells him that the Serbian coat of arms offered for sale is a political symbol the man disagrees and states “it’s from the time when there was no politics.” The man is also evasive when Ljubičić asks how he earns his money, suggesting that he could be involved in black market activities. Of all of Ljubičić’s encounters, this scene crystalizes how ethnic nationalism operates ideologically after Yugoslavia: it invents an imaginary past where there were no political divisions while at the same time promoting a vulgar capitalism. Slobodan Milošević’s regime, after all, was characterized by its authoritarian crony capitalism in addition to its nationalism and war crimes.  

The creation of Tito’s utopian image which haunts Žilnik’s film is analyzed in Mila Turajlić’s Cinema Komunisto. It tells the overlapping stories of Tito’s cinephilia, post-war Yugoslav film history, and how the state-run Avala Film became a major European studio for international co-productions. Turajlić prefaces the film with a quotation from Jacques Rancière that “the history of cinema is the history of the power to create history,” which encapsulates how Yugoslav communists, under Tito’s guidance, embraced Lenin’s belief that cinema is the most important art for propaganda and creating history. Throughout, Turajlić interviews people associated with Avala Film, including Gile Đurić, the studio boss, Veljko Despotović, a set designer, Bata Živojinović, an actor, and Veljko Bulajić, a director. She also interviews Leka Konstantinović, who was Tito’s personal projectionist for 32 years and who screened over eight-thousand films for him. These interviews are brilliantly intercut with footage from numerous Yugoslav films. 

The Tito depicted in Cinema Komunisto is a mixture of charismatic movie star and director for whom Yugoslavia operated as his film studio to produce history. As such, there is a double meaning to the opening text that reads: “this is the story of a country that no longer exists except for in the movies.” It is both an expression of nostalgia for the idea of Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic socialist paradise and acknowledgement that this idea was a carefully crafted cinematic illusion. These blurred boundaries between country/film set and movie star/leader are emphasized in the production histories of Bitka na Neretvi (The Battle of Neretva, Veljko Bulajić, 1969) and Sutjeska (The Battle of Sutjeska, also known as The Fifth Offensive, Stipe Delić, 1973). The Battle of Neretva is the epic story of a battle between Tito’s Partisans and Axis Powers in Bosnia in 1943. It is the most expensive film made in the former Yugoslavia and starred international actors such as Orson Welles and Yul Brynner. As actor Bata Živojinović explains to Turajlić, filming took sixteen months and involved an enormous number of military extras and weaponry. The large budget was personally approved by Tito who we see in archival footage socializing with the international cast during production. Indeed, Cinema Komunisto suggests Tito relished his role as a celebrity in the West. He personally cast Richard Burton to portray him in The Battle of Sutjeska, the story of how the Partisans defeated Axis powers in a battle, despite being vastly outnumbered. Tito even provided script notes, was on set, and watched the rushes.

In working through the communist past, Cinema Komunisto is not explicitly critical of how cinema was employed to create an image of Tito, though such criticisms are nonetheless evident when, for example, Bata Živojinović tells the story of how during a film festival he was asked by Tito himself to tell him anti-Tito jokes which he refused when he noticed the hidden microphones, stating he did not want to be arrested. Rather, Cinema Komunisto warns against the forgetting of history by contrasting the utopian dreams of socialist Yugoslavia depicted with the ruins of the present. In a depressing image toward the end of the film, Veljko Despotović wanders the offices of Avala Film with a lantern because its electricity has been turned off.4 He decries the current state of the studio compared to its past glories. This image reflects back on the Jacques Rancière quotation with which Turajlić began her film. In other words, if the communist cinematic past meant the power to create history, then the nationalism and capitalism of the present represent the end of history. The concluding narration from director Veljko Bulajić further articulates this idea when he states: “I think the picture of Yugoslavia, of life in it, and what kind of country it was will become more and more unclear as time passes from its collapse. I think it will end in a fog in total ignorance of what the country was, whether it is vilified or glorified as a land of endless happiness.” Thus, the conclusion of Cinema Komunisto implies that a country unable to work through its past will reside in a historical fog unable to generate any new history for itself. As the 2016 Gallup Poll indicates about Serbia, it will remain trapped between idealizing a half-forgotten communism in the face of a decaying present, while at the same time embracing a nationalism that invents the mythological past it promises to restore.     

  Cinema Komunisto and Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time fulfill the imperative to work through the past as described by Adorno. However, the process remains incomplete since the nationalist causes which destroyed Yugoslavia have not been eliminated. Turajlić and Žilnik address how the dreams of socialist revolution were generated and sustained through the image of Tito, as well as the melancholy of its failure. But much more work in nonfiction film must be done to clear the fog of the present that Veljko Bulajić warns against, a fog which sustains the nationalism that creates a false narrative of the past and allows its destructive impulses to persist. Thankfully, recent trends in documentary from the former Yugoslavia suggest cause for optimism.


  1. Theodor Adorno, “The Meaning of Working through the Past” in Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 18.
  2. Janine di Giovanni, “The Virulent Nationalism That Led to Srebrenica Is Back in Bosnia,” Foreign Policy, 11 July 2022.
  3. Elizabeth Keating and Zacc Ritter, “Many in Balkans Still See More Harm from Yugoslavia Breakup,” Gallup, 18 May 2017.
  4. In 2011 the studio was declared bankrupt and in 2015 its assets were privatized and sold. As of 2022, a Czech company which owns the assets is attempting to revitalize the studio.

About The Author

Zoran Samardžija is Associate Professor of Cinema and Television Arts at Columbia College Chicago, USA. His research interests include Classical Hollywood, David Lynch, and Eastern European and Balkan cinemas. His book Post-Communist Malaise: Cinematic Responses to European Unification was published in 2020.

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