France/Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Germany/Hungary
Director: Emir Kusturica
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Yugoslavia, 1941, 1961, 1992. Part One: The War, 1941. Blacky and Marko, two drunken and roguish Serbs join the Communist Party as Nazi bombs fall on Belgrade. They steal German weapons for personal gain, rather than donating them to partisans. The Nazis search the entire city for the pair who hide in the basement of Marko’s grandfather. Blacky’s pregnant wife gives birth to a son, Jovan, but she dies in childbirth. Three years later, Marko and Blacky rescue Blacky’s mistress, an actress named Natalija from her Nazi lover, shooting him. The three are later ambushed by Franz, who survived the attack. Blacky is captured, but Marko later returns to rescue his friend, killing Franz. A wounded Blacky recovers in the basement.
Part Two: The Cold War, 1961. Marko is a prominent official in Tito’s Yugoslavia. He has convinced Blacky and those who were also living in the basement that World War Two continues above them. They produce the weapons that has made Marko a wealthy man. Marko and Natalija, now a couple, are invited to the wedding of Jovan, during which Blacky and Jovan agree to fight the Nazis. They escape when a chimpanzee commands a tank and destroys the basement. Stumbling upon a set recreating Marko’s wartime heroism, Blacky shoots the actor playing Franz. Jovan accidentally drowns in the sea whilst Blacky is distracted.
Part Three: The War, 1992. Blacky is a patriotic warlord, mourning his son. Marko continues to deal arms. Marko’s simple brother Ivan, who lived in the basement for twenty years kills Marko in revenge, then hangs himself. Blacky’s men finish off Marko and also kill Natalija. When Blacky discovers their identity, he stumbles into the church Ivan hanged himself in, sees the ghost of his son in the well, and drowns himself. In a final dream sequence, the characters reconvene for Jovan’s wedding, whilst Ivan tells the camera “once there was a country….”
Emir Kusturica is one of the most important and most controversial film makers of the last three decades. Twice a winner of the Palme D’Or, for both ‘Underground’ and his 1985 film ‘When Father Was Away on Business’, he has attracted much criticism since the production of ‘Underground’ for the apparent rejection of his Bosnian roots and the adoption of an orthodox Serb identity, coupled with supposed pro-Milosevic comments. ‘Underground’ was also partly financed by state-owned Serbian television and used the services of the Serbian armed forces. Adding to the controversy is the fact that critics suggest Kusturica has taken a distinctively pro-Serbian account of Yugoslavian history. His two “heroes” are Serbs and the cowards are usually Croat, Slovene or from other minorities. Also, there is footage from the 1941 segment that shows the Nazis being warmly welcomed into Maribor and Zagreb; quite the opposite from the fierce resistance they met in Belgrade. Kusturica would no doubt argue that the film takes a more complex attitude towards Yugoslavian history than this, and that one would need to know the history of the Balkans to fully understand his film.
The fifty year time span of the film demonstrates the history and dissolution of the country of Yugoslavia, always a country that had been an uneasy coalition of different ethnic, racial and religious groups; the tensions between which exploded by the final third of the film. Kusturica makes no suggestion whatsoever that this was a harmonious relationship between peoples. As mentioned, the Nazis were welcomed into Croatia. Kusturica uses documentary footage to demonstrate this, and though he does not elaborate beyond this, it is widely known that the ultra-nationalist Ustase were prominent during the occupation, including purges of the Serbian population. Kusturica reflects the genuine tensions that existed beneath the superficial unity of the Yugoslav nation as suggested by politicians (including a radio broadcast by the vice-President in the opening scene of the film). Regarding the accusation of pro-Serbian bias, one should remember that Kusturica’s two Serbian heroes are motivated purely by self-interest; selling weapons rather than helping the resistance and even willing to betray each other. Natalija, the film’s heroine, is deceitful herself, her affections shifting depending on who seems to be in the most advantageous position at the time.
One of the most striking philosophical issues about ‘Underground’ is the role of the cellar; a metaphor for ignorance and a tool for manipulation, which literally keeps people in the dark. One wonders whether it is a deliberate reference to Plato’s metaphor of ‘The Cave’ in ‘The Republic’, which essentially is the same premise. This metaphor might reflect how politicians have betrayed its people. In Tito’s Yugoslavia, Marko has become a prominent political figure whose wartime heroism is the stuff of legend. His success is founded solely on the ignorance and exploitation of others. Ultimately it is not the people who lead themselves to the light but the antics of a badly behaved chimpanzee, which reflects the grand level of farce at the centre of ‘Underground’. Other instances include Marko planting a rose between a prostitute’s buttocks and then smelling it, Marko strangling Franz with a stethoscope and the checking his heartbeat to see whether he is still alive and Blacky and Jovan stumbling onto the film set of Marko’s wartime exploits, believing it to be the war in full flow.
Although the humour demonstrates the absurdity within Yugoslavia, the final third shows the history of the country in a relentlessly tragic dimension. The death of Tito spelt the death of the Yugoslav experiment. Marko might be a wanted criminal but his greatest crime of all might just be the betrayal of Ivan, his brother. Easily the most sympathetic character, Ivan is stranded in Berlin, unable to legally return to Yugoslavia (he is devastated when told his country no longer exists – he still believes war rages, which indeed it does but not that war), but searches day and night for his beloved chimpanzee. The simple Ivan knows nothing of politics and the human frailties that accompany politics; betrayal, duplicity, manipulation etc. When Marko and Ivan meet once more, Marko utters the final words “no war is a war until a brother kills a brother”. Although this has a personal context, no doubt this phrase summarises the entire conflict. The people of Yugoslavia were brothers. ‘Underground’ is as exceptional and significant film, combining surreal comedy with the tragedy of history. Kusturica ends with a flight of fancy; the characters who had been at each others throats for decades now reunited, with Ivan, no longer stuttering remarking upon Yugoslavia; “once there was a country” as his friends and family dance and live merry. It is as far opposed to the preceding scenes as possible. Perhaps a distinction between the myth and reality of Yugoslavia?