Titoist Cathedrals: The Rise and Fall of Partisan Film

(A Chapter from the book Titoism, Seld-Determination, Nationalism, Cultural Memory, edited by Gorana Ognjenović and Jasna Jozelić)


Yugoslavia: a land obsessed with cinema

In a famous and often quoted sentence, the leader of the Russian communist revolution, Vladimir Ilich Lenin allegedly said that “for a communist, film is the most important of all arts.“[1] In most Eastern European communist societies, Lenin's sentence from a conversation with Lunacharsky was not an empty slogan, but an important principle of cultural policy. Whether rich or poor, whether they had previous cinema tradition or not, Eastern European communist societies invested significant money, paid political attention, and directed intense interest towards the cinema industry and culture.

If Lenin's slogan about film as the “most important art form“ is relevant to almost every Eastern European communist state, there are very few where it is more relevant than in Yugoslavia. For Tito's communist Yugoslavia, the formation and development of a home-grown film industry was a crucial element not only of cultural policy. Tito's Yugoslavia was a country obsessed with cinema, and there are several reasons why.

No Yugoslav culture – not even those most culturally developed like Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia – had serious cinema production before World War II. In all Yugoslav cultures, the prewar film tradition was restricted to individual amateur filmmakers, and several production units specialized in educational and propaganda films.[2][1] By founding a cinema industry (not only one cinema industry, but eight of them - one studio in each federal unit) the communist government sent a message: illiterate, colonized, culturally backward South Slavic nations are now on a par with former colonizers. It is no wonder that the very first film shot in Slovenia after the War – Na svoji zemlji (On Our Own Land, 1948, France Štiglic) – proudly proclaimed that it was “the First Slovenian Film“ before its opening credits. In an effort to preserve the meticulous balance between unity and diversity, during the 40 years of its existence, Yugoslav cinema produced films in minority languages, in smaller and less developed federal units, including production of films using Albanian language in Kosovo from the 1960s onwards.[3]

The second reason why cinema was essentially important for Titoist society was probably the very same reason why it was important to communist ideology in general: because cinema was a social metaphor for successful modernization.[4] Even before World War II, Yugoslavia was an underdeveloped, rural land with one of the highest illiteracy rates in Europe and almost 90% of the population living in villages. After the War, the country was left in ruins and rubble. The process of modernization was one main goal of communist society within the first two postwar decades, and that modernization included the construction of industry, railroads and hospitals, as well as mass literacy courses, the promotion of healthcare, urban planning, the equality of women, the banishment of traditional Islamic clothing for women in Muslim areas, irrigation, and the elimination of endemic diseases. During the 1950s Yugoslav economy was one of the fastest growing in the world, reaching its peak between 1955 and 1961 at 13% BDP growth in some years.[5]  Rapid industrialization and urbanization was accompanied by the rise of consumption and popular culture, from pop-music to supermarkets, from leisure magazines to film festivals. Part of that development was the rise of the cinema industry and distribution network, which was included in the first five-year plan (Petoljetka).[6] In this context, film was part of the pattern of modernization, often expressed through the slogan “technology to the people!“ (tehnika narodu!). If cinema was understood primarily as part of achieving technological skills, it is little wonder that cinema production consciously imitated the professional routine, directing and acting practices, technological achievements, dramaturgy and genres of the Western – particularly Hollywood – studio system. Absorbing good Hollywood practice and professional standards was part of the general template of Yugoslav society, which was hungry for technological knowledge, and eager to import (or steal) it from the technologically most advanced societies (see more in Pavičić (2008)).

One other reason why cinema was so important for Titoist Yugoslavia, although trivial but nevertheless very important was that Tito, dictator of communist Yugoslavia, was himself a fan of film. According to many personal records and testimonies - collected recently in an excellent documentary Cinema Comunisto (2012) by Serbian director Mila Turajlić - Josip Broz Tito was an avid film fan. He had a projection room or a small cinema in each of his numerous residences, and watched several films every evening. He particularly liked Hollywood classics and Westerns, and among Westerns he was especially keen on films by John Ford. This may have been one reason why communist Yugoslavia gave the Medal of Yugoslav Flag with the Golden Wreath to Ford in 1971, although the director of The Searchers and My Darling Clementine was (ironically!) politically right-wing and anti-communist.

It is little wonder therefore, that the main festival in the Yugoslav cinema culture took place in the old Vespasian Roman arena in the city of Pula, not far from Tito’s summer residence on the Brioni Islands. Tito frequently attended festival openings and premieres. His opinion was sometimes crucial for the success or discrete banishment of certain films.[7] When important high-budget epics were in production, Tito often had preliminary conversations with the director, and films were often screened privately for him prior to the premiere and the granting of official approval. Although Tito never practically managed the cinema industry, the whole system and style of Yugoslav cinema coincided with his personal taste. This meant, therefore, that the main goal of Yugoslav cinema until the mid 1960s was to produce quality mainstream films that would appeal to a broader audience, that would disseminate directly (and later – indirectly) ideological messages, and at the same time that would resemble good examples of Western/American mainstream cinema.


“Partizanski film“: a question of genre

If the cinema industry was important for communist Yugoslavia, there is one particular genre which stood out as the most important genre of Yugoslav cinema. That was the genre of partizanski film (partisan film).

Throughout the 43 years of Yugoslav cinema, partisan film was commercially the most successful, ideologically the most representative and culturally the most typical of all film genres in Yugoslavia. It is the only autonomously created genre of Yugoslav cinema (Turković 1999). It was born within Yugoslav communist society, and it died with it. Of the six Yugoslav feature films nominated for Academy Awards for the best foreign film, three were partisan films. Partisan films were regularly first on the list of most successful local hits. Some partisan films - like Bitka na Neretvi (The Battle on Neretva, 1969, Veljko Bulajić) or Valter brani Sarajevo (Walter Defends Sarajevo, 1972, Hajrudin Krvavac) were huge international hits, ranging from being released and watched from Western-European cable TVs to a broad distribution in communist China. Some of them are still popular, and are often screened on public and commercial television channels in most of the former Yugoslav republics. Some of them became cult films. Their dialogue lines, soundtracks, acoustic and visual motives have been repeatedly quoted, sampled, pastiched, used for polemical, parodical or ironical purposes. But, the importance of partisan films within Yugoslav communist society can not only be measured through their commercial success, popularity and international prominence. For communist Yugoslavia, partisan films had a role equivalent to the role of gothic cathedrals in Medieval Christianity. Through partisan films, Tito's regime efficiently disseminated its ideological message. Through the professional skill and production values of these films, the regime clearly demonstrated its technological capacities and triumphant grandeur. Through partisan films, communist Yugoslavia elaborated and propagated its own founding myth – the myth of the partisan movement as a home-grown, people's revolution. However, partisan films were not just films about the past: while discussing World War II, partisan films implicitly commented on contemporary politics and society.

The first partisan film ever made was at the same time the first feature film ever produced in communist Yugoslavia. The film was Slavica (1947), a war melodrama directed by Croatian actor Vjekoslav Afrić, a prewar star of the Zagreb Croatian National Theatre who had escaped to the partisan guerrilla directly from the theatre stage, and immediately after the war directed his first - and Yugoslavia's first - feature film.[8] Slavica - a melodrama set among Dalmatian fishermen (Afrić was a native of the island of Hvar) – was the first Yugoslav feature film, and a film which is a cornerstone of the partizanski film. If the choice of Slavica as the first feature film is obvious and indisputable, it is slightly more difficult to pinpoint the last partisan film. However, we might say that the role of the involuntary undertaker of the genre could be ascribed to a Bosnian film Gluvi barut (Deaf Gunpowder, 1990), by Sarajevo director Bahrudin Bata Čengić. This film about the early days of the uprising among Orthodox Serb peasants in Eastern Herzegovina won the prize at the last Pula festival held before the collapse of Yugoslavia.

During the 43 years between these two films, eight Yugoslav film communities produced vast numbers of partisan genre films. Although the exact number of partisan films has not and cannot be counted because it depends on the definition of the genre, about 200-300 out of 890 feature films produced in Yugoslavia between 1947 and 1990 were partizanski film.[9]

Writing about partizanski film as a separate genre is contestable. Partisan films themselves come within a broad variety of different genres: partisan thrillers (like Ne okreći se sine/Don't Look Back, My Son My Son, Don’t Turn Round (1956, Branko Bauer)), partisan comedies (like Mačak pod šljemom/Cat under the Helmet (1978, Berislav Makarović)), partisan epics and partisan spy films (like Kota 905/Point 905 (1960, Mate Relja)). Partisan film has its own sub-genres, including one which is particularly important – film o ilegalcima (film about “illegal fighters”, a colloquial term for underground resistance members operating in occupied cities). Last but not least, many partisan films cannot be pigeon-holed into a particular genre, because they are not genre films. Partisan film includes highbrow art-films, films which use a World War II setting and partisan characters to discuss moral and existential doubts or political issues. It also includes opulent and bombastic war epics as chamber pieces based on psychological discomfort, terror and fear; unpretentious action films with relentless shooting and explosions; highbrow art films with slow pace and ambitious philosophical topics; socialist-realism films with heavy-handed, declamatory propaganda statements; and subversive, politically daring films like Zaseda/Ambush (1969) by “Black Wave“ classic Živojin Pavlović. There are few elements that hold together this broad variety of heterogeneous films. However, one of these elements is the historical setting: World War II and the immediate post-war period in Yugoslavia. A second element is iconography, which appears very early in partisan films and is kept unchanged until the end. This iconography (uniforms, German helmets, Chetnik beards, Ustasha black uniforms, machine-guns, hand grenades, Spanish-war three-pointed hats) is not restricted to partisan films. It can also be found in partisan comic books, like the most famous partisan comic book serial Nikad robom (Never Slaves, 1963-1979, Desimir Žižović Buina) or in many other Yugoslav comic books by respected authors like Jules Radilović or Andrija Maurović (see more in Novaković 2012).


The fact that the partisan genre was defined by a historical setting and strict iconography evokes parallelism between partisan film and the globally famous genre which is also based on specific geo-temporal settings and iconographies: the Western. The Western is, like partisan film, defined by clear socio-historical and geographical boundaries: North-American Midwest in the second half of 19th century. Like partisan film, the Western has a precise and elaborate iconography which did not change significantly over time. Both genres examine a period that, at the time of their formation, was recent history. Both genres deal with a part of history which was a constitutive, founding myth of the nation. Both genres disappeared when society no longer believed in that founding myth. In the case of America, this happened during the cultural turmoil of the 1970s. In the case of Yugoslavia, this happened in the 1980s, when Yugoslavia sunk into a deep economic and political crisis, which culminated in a series of wars from 1991- 2001. Both genres evolved in a way that we might talk about pre-classic, classic, post-classic and modernist partisan films, in a way we talk about the Western. Both genres started by affirming a founding myth, but from the mid 1960s on, they both started to undermine it. Both genres depended on the exploitation of the wild, virgin landscape as a reflection of the untamed character of the nation. Both sometimes included mass movements of the people: colonizers, soldiers, refugees, and the wounded. With all these similarities, it is little wonder that the Western tropes were occasionally used and recycled in partisan films and comics, especially in the late 1950s and early 60s. The fact that one of these two genres served liberal capitalists and the other as Titoist-communist propaganda was not of any concern, particularly not to Tito himself: two myth-making machines of two different ideologies merged successfully in a field of popular culture.


Formation of the genre: post-war collective epics

Immediately after the end of the War and after the constitution of a new regime, Yugoslav cinema started production with a series of partisan war films. In the first six years of Yugoslav cinema (1947-1953), 12 out of 24 feature films, were partisan films (Turković 1999). Almost all national studios in different federal units initiated their feature production with one, ground-breaking partisan film, which often reflected local aspects of partisan war.


The first Yugoslav film – Afrić's Slavica – was a story about Dalmatian fishermen and fish-cannery workers who joined the resistance and formed the partisan Navy.[10] The same year, the newly-founded Zagreb studio Jadran Film began with the partisan epic Živjeće ovaj narod/This People Is Going To Live (1947, Nikola Popović). In 1948, Belgrade studio Avala film produced the first partisan film with a Serbian topic – Besmrtna mladost/Immortal Youth (1948, Vojislav Nanović). The same year, Slovenian studio Viba film produced the “first Slovenian film“, partisan film Na svoji zemlji/On Our Own Land (1948, France Štiglic).


These films differ in quality and level of directing skill, from the pompous naivety of Slavica, the clumsy narrative chaos of Immortal Youth, to the expressive visuality and relative directing maturity of the Slovenian film (made by Štiglic who would later become one of the most respected Yugoslav directors).


Despite their differences, however, these films have much in common. All of them discuss not individual, but collective destiny – the destiny of a village, region, and/or generation. All of them are strictly local: Nanović's film is a film about urban youth in Belgrade, Štiglic's about peasants in the Italian-Slovenian border region of Primorska, Slavica about the Dalmatian fishing community. All of them are narrative frescoes with an abundance of characters of different class, gender, and age. All of them organize their narrative around the legitimization of the new regime through its war merits. The real hero of the film is the people as a group (of individuals), organized by and flocked around the patriarchal figure of a local communist leader (often: political commissary). The films consciously emphasize the patronizing role of the wise party/partisan leadership, legitimizing in that way the new postwar communist elite. The dramatic core of these films is often organized around the opposition between heroic partisan youth and those who are reluctant or simply traitors. In Slavica, the class enemy (parun – boss of the fishing boats) soon becomes a national traitor, in Immortal Youth, young rich men from the Serbian Cultural Club decline the offer to join the resistance, and to the end of the film openly collaborate with the Germans. In On Our Own Land – dramatically the most sophisticated of these films – the main hero is reluctant whether to join partisans, fully supported by his sweetheart, or obey his “counter revolutionary“, overprotective mother. In the end, the defeated character becomes the hero and dies. Those who persist in their treason are supposed to be punished: in the very last shot of Slavica, an angry revolutionary crowd surrounds the occupier's aids and class oppressors, and the last thing we see in the film are their terrified faces. This last shot is particularly disturbing if we are aware of the mass murders of traitors or class enemies committed by partisans in May and June 1945 throughout Yugoslavia.


In these early films we see something that remains typical of partisan films. While talking about the past (war), these films actually comment on present politics, legitimize communist rule, and serve to (in)directly defame potential opponents. While watching these films, a contemporary audience could easily recognize the “bad guys“ from the Serbian Cultural Club, or kulaks (rich peasants), or prewar bosses, and identify them with potential political opponents of the young regime. As part of the process of legitimizing the new communist authority, these films occasionally mention or show Tito himself. Tito does not appear in these films as a character, but he quite often appears as a portrait or poster on the wall (coupled with Stalin's portrait of the same size), and, in one of the most pompous scenes of Slavica, the main female character (Irena Kolesar) rejoices because she is sent on a mission to the island of Vis: there, Slavica says, she will be able to see Tito.


With the exception of Štiglic's Slovenian epic, these early films are rather naive. In terms of the narrative, they are clumsy and predictable, and the characters are uninteresting, typified and repetitive. Some of this could be explained by the inexperience of the young, more or less dilettante film-making community. But many of these weaknesses were not the result of  a lack of professional skill. Many of them have their roots in a model of the socialist realist epic, which was a prescribed, privileged aesthetic model for narrative and figurative arts in Yugoslavia until the Yugoslav-Soviet break-up in 1948. (Mataga 1987: 61-74). But when this break-up happened in June 1948,  partisan film was sucked into a whole aesthetic revolution that happened in Yugoslavia in the fifties.


The 1950s: socialist noir and socialist western

The split between Stalin and Tito in the summer of 1948 was sudden, and particularly for western observers, totally unexpected (Jakovina 2003: 232). Although in the following years Yugoslavia tried to present this split as an ideological one, the fact is that there was no ideological dispute or difference between Tito and Stalin in the mid-1940s, and that western politics considered Tito as one of the most dedicated Stalinists (Ridley 2000: 299). After the split, western diplomacies for some time did not believe it was serious (Ridley 2000: 323).

Although the split had other non-ideological reasons, Yugoslavia started to legitimize the conflict with Moscow with a posteriori ideological arguments. Suddenly, the previously undisputed and idealized practice of Soviet socialism became an object of fierce criticism, and Yugoslavia criticized Zhdanov's concept of Socialist Realism. In its early stages, that debate took place within the ranks of communist intellectuals - writers, theorists, and critics (Mataga 1987: 119-136). Fast aesthetic-theoretic transition was helped by two historical facts. Firstly, Socialist Realism had already been aesthetically criticized within communist intellectual circles before the War, particularly in the 1930s when the important writer and party member Miroslav Krleža attacked Zhdanov’s doctrines and opened an intellectual ideological war known as “the conflict on the literary left“ (sukob na književnoj ljevici). Secondly, Yugoslavia had a home-grown revolution originating from the guerrilla war. Many artists, painters, writers, poets and philosophers participated in the partisan war and produced a culturally relevant canon of modernist works reflecting it. It is little wonder, therefore, that the artists who were early critics of socialist-realism or who practically dismantled it, were communists and partisan veterans, like the writer of modernist novels Petar Šegedin (Mataga 1987: 119) or abstract-expressionist painter Edo Murtić. Their “impeccable“ past gave them maneuvering room for aesthetic change.


In the traditional arts, the slow abandonment of the Socialist Realism in the early 1950s did not cause a creative blockade because these arts had a previous, prewar modernist tradition to revive and continue: modernist psychological novels, expressionist painting and modernist poetry. The situation with cinema was different. There was no such prewar high-culture template. Cinema had to resolve a kind of identity crisis, which is evident in the cinema production of the mid-1950s. Of all the film genres, the one which had to cope with the deepest identity crisis was partisan film, because it was significantly rooted in a model of (now detested) Soviet socialist /realism. In some Yugoslav cinema communities this caused a real paralysis: in Croatia, for instance, there were no partisan films between 1949 and 1956, and the film which in 1956 broke the drought Ne okreći se, sine (Don't Turn Round, My Son by Branko Bauer) was an atypical partisan film, a chamber thriller set in occupied Zagreb. In Serbia, partisan film faced the same problem, and searched for the answer in literature, by exploiting fiction through a new generation of leftist writers such as Oskar Davičo and Dobrica Ćosić. Partisan film became less didactical and changed its focus to personal dilemmas, individual destinies and psychology.


An example of this change is the film Daleko je sunce (Far Away is the Sun, 1953, Radoš Novaković), based upon the novel of the same name by a young communist writer and future prominent, notorious ideologist of Serbian nationalism Dobrica Ćosić. In the film, partisan commander Pavle (Branko Pleša) decides his squad must leave the Serbian mountain area of Jastrebac, where he and his fighters have their origins. When he commands an evacuation to the safer Bosnian mountains, the old peasant Gvozden (Radomir Felba) does not comply with the order because he believes the squad must stay close to the villages and protect the neighboring people from the Germans. Gvozden's disobedience is considered to be a mutiny, and Pavle orders Gvozden's execution. The squad is divided into two groups: one under the command of commander Pavle, and the other under the command of political commissary Učo (Teacher, Rade Marković), who was initially against the evacuation. Ignoring Pavle's order, Teacher decides that his group will remain in Jastrebac Mountain. During the following winter, Pavle's squad grows and becomes stronger: Teacher's group on the other hand, suffers from hunger and cold and loses the support of the peasants. Učo dies in action, bitterly realizing his mistake. The film again serves to legitimize communist political choices. It explains and legitimizes Tito's concept of a more-than-local, broader partisan war in comparison with the parochial, narrow guerrilla concept favored by Gvozden and Učo. But, while defending the official line, the film describes grey areas of revolutionary practice, from the execution of an honest peasant to a not-always idyllic relationship between partisans and peasant masses. As Dragan Bratančev writes, “some topics…were fully treated or at least hinted at in several Yugoslav films, while official national historiography remained silent“.[11] Even such early examples as Far Away is the Sun prove this to be true.


Further psychologizing of the genre is obvious in two urban, chamber thrillers shot the same year (1956) in Serbia and Croatia. These films were Ne okreći se sine/Don't Turn Round, My Son by Branko Bauer, and Veliki i mali / The Big and the Small by Vladimir Pogačić. Both films were immediately successful and became classics: Pogačić's film won the best director award in Karlovy Vary in 1957, and Bauer's film won the best film award in Pula. Both of them abandon the village, mountain and landscape and search for a revolutionary morality play in the city. Both of them have important child characters. Both are firmly middle-class in their setting, and both show how the war and resistance affected urban bourgeoisie.


The hero of Bauer's film is a resistance member, Novak (Bert Sotlar), a middle-class engineer who is arrested, but escapes from the train on its way to a concentration camp. He is looking for the connection to reach free partisan territory, but before that he has to find his son who is supposedly in the custody of cousins in Zagreb. He is stunned when he realizes that the young boy is actually in Ustasha-Nazi boarding school, completely brain-washed and loyal to the regime. He has to lie to the boy to convince him to leave school and go with him. Novak hides on the streets of Zagreb, sleeps in lofts and abandoned apartments, escapes controls, fears from double agents and false connections. At the same time, he has to maintain the protective lie towards his child as he cannot be sure as to whether the boy will betray him. Bauer and his screenwriter Arsen Diklić first realized that, if they want the audience to emotionally connect to a revolutionary hero, they need to give him a motive more personal than abstract ideological dedication. In this case, Novak's motive is parental love – the strongest of all motives. Another innovative aspect of Bauer's film is his refined approach to characters. In previous partisan films, characters are generally class-determined and often one-dimensional. For the first time, Bauer shows the complexity and moral ambivalence of life under occupation. Novak's ex friend (Lili Andreis) is a glamorous blonde who dates a German officer, but at the same time gives Novak crucial help. His old friends, the Dobrić family, help Novak, although their son fights in Bosnia on the opposite side as a colonel, and when their son criticizes them because they helped a rebel, his parents do not justify their deed with political, revolutionary or patriotic arguments, but with basic loyalty to a friend. Father Dobrić explains to his enraged son that he could not let his friend down, because “he has an old-fashioned upbringing“. Like many other Bauer films (Pavičić 2004: 70), from the outside, this film works well as a revolutionary action movie, but from the inside it is a love letter to old-fashioned middle-class morality and citizenry, and is very unusual for Eastern European cinema of the 1950s (Pavičić 2004: 71).


Veliki i mali (The Big and The Small) is also set in urban (Belgrade) middle class. The heroes of the film are an educated, middle-class father and his young son. One morning, the father's old schoolmate knocks at their door in panic. He is a member of the underground resistance discovered by the Nazi.  The police and soldiers are looking for him in the neighborhood, and he seeks refuge. Frightened that the Nazi would punish him, the father asks him to leave, but the young boy gives shelter to his father’s friend in his room. The police start a meticulous search of the block, and decide to leave one of the agents in the hero's apartment, believing that the member of the resistance will come by sooner or later. From that point, the psychological chess game starts within the apartment, a game in which every detail – a stain on the floor, a gust of wind, a cry of the younger daughter – could be fatal for all. If in Bauer's film ethics of resistance is rooted in old-fashioned bourgeois morality, here the response to fascism divides the “Big“ and the “Small“. The “Small“ (the boy) helps the revolutionary without hesitation, and the “Old/Big“ (the father) is reluctant to assist. At the end of film, he refuses advice to escape to join partisans and pays for his hesitation with his own life.

The success of Pogačić's, and particularly Bauer's, film made an impact. In the mid-1950s chamber, urban thrillers about ilegalci become the most important sub-genre of partisan film, particularly in Croatia. Films like Naši se putovi razilaze/Our Paths Are Diverging (1957, Šime Šimatović), Osma vrata/The Eighth Door (1959, Nikola Tanhofer), Akcija/Action (1960, Jane Kavčič) or Abeceda straha/Alphabet of Fear (1961, Fadil Hadžić) clearly follow in the success of Bauer and Pogačić. In The Eighth Door, the main character is an elderly gentleman from Belgrade who has to come to terms with his fear and delivers an important piece of paper to a resistance hide-out (apartment No. 8) before it is intercepted by the Germans. In Alphabet of Fear, an educated, sophisticated girl active in the resistance becomes a cleaning lady in the home of a high-ranking Ustasha civil executive. She spies on her new bosses, reads secret documents, while at the same time has to preserve the appearance of an illiterate country girl, and lets the teenage daughter of the patrons “enlighten“ her with reading lessons. All these films have much in common: thrill, fear, moral doubts and grey zones – and all that within the claustrophobic urban spaces - apartments, cellars, corridors, stairs, lofts, and narrow night streets. From the iconographical point of view, we might even define these films as “Socialist noir“.

Contrary to that trend, another line of partisan films appeared in the mid 1950s which avoided narrow cityscapes, and insisted on magnificent landscapes, open spaces and exteriors. These films were strongly influenced by classic American Westerns. Particularly important among these films were two made by Serbian director Žika Mitrović, both set in Kosovo: Ešalon doktora M (Echelon of Doctor M, 1955) and Kapetan Leši (Captain Leshi, 1960). Both were huge local hits, and Captain Leshi became the most successful and most popular war film made in Yugoslavia at that time. The main actor, Aleksandar Gavrić, became a major film star, and the character of Captain Leshi became a role model for a “positive“, “acceptable“ Albanian within Yugoslav society.


The plot of Echelon of Doctor M takes place in immediate postwar Kosovo, where the remaining members of the Albanian nationalist militia Balli Kombëtar (in Serbian: balisti) continue fighting against the newly-established partisan-communist government. Doctor M (Marijan Lovrić) is an idealistic partisan physician who runs an improvised village hospital in an area isolated from the territory under communist control. With limited sources of drugs and equipment, Doctor M saves the lives of patients, but cannot cope with a typhoid epidemic. At the point of utter despair, he calls the army for help and organizes a caravan of wagons to deliver the wounded and sick to a town hospital. A local squad of Albanian nationalists intends to intercept the convoy, and sends three of its members to join the convoy using false identities. One of them is a rich landlord's nephew Ramadan (Severin Bijelić) who is hesitant about balli's cause. His confidence is additionally shaken when he finds his wife Hatidža (Nadja Regin) in the convoy as a nurse, Doctor M's aid, and as it seems - too close a friend. Hatidža saves Ramadan's life by pretending that she doesn't know him. Torn apart by ideological doubt and jealousy, Ramadan in the decisive moments redeems himself, changes sides, joins partisans and kills his own uncle.


In Captain Leshi, the plot again takes place in Kosovo in the immediate postwar period (1945). The main character is again a member of the Albanian aristocratic elite, and an ideological gap again divides him from his own blood. His brother is a balli squad leader in the mountains, and the main reason he has chosen to join the balisti is the fear that the Germans would take revenge by maltreating the rest of the family because of Leshi’s communist rebellion. Like in Echelon of Doctor M, in Captain Leshi the main character is torn between his ideological choice and his sense of guilt because he confronts his own family. As in Echelon of Doctor M, an action plot is again peppered with a love triangle, in this case with one man (Captain Leshi) and two women (a gypsy tavern singer Lola and a teacher from the north Vera (Marija Točinovski, Semka Karlovac)).

Both films by Mitrović intentionally imitate Westerns on the level of iconography and plot. In both films, we have horse races, duels, coaches resembling western wagons, magnificent mountain canyons and rocky reefs as scenery. Both films use Kosovo as an exotic setting in a similar way to Westerns using tex-mex and Mexican iconography. With the skilful eye of a superb professional, Mitrović finds perfect Orientalist spaces for his action scenes. One of the most prominent is in Captain Leshi, which uses a dervish monastery (tekke) as the scenery for an elaborate duel scene.


In the 1960s, all these iconographical similarities with Westerns gave rise to criticism in Yugoslavia. Some commentators criticized Mitrović's approach to Westerns as too slavish and mechanically imitative, like Zagreb critic Hrvoje Lisinski who in 1960 wrote that Mitrović's use of the Western was like “planting lemons in Siberia“.[12] But, Mitrović's film does not only borrow iconography of the Western. On a deeper level, Mitrović borrows something much more important: the political meaning of wilderness, and the concept of taming wilderness as a foundation of state ideology.


In Captain Leshi, that political subtext is organized through a sentimental triangle, in a way which is a direct copy of one of the greatest Westerns ever, My Darling Clementine (1945, John Ford). In Ford's film, rough Westerner Wyatt Earp chooses refined Easterner Clementine instead of a Mexican Chihuahua, and the new pairing brings peace and civilization in Tombstone, making way for the foundation of the nation. In Captain Leshi, an Albanian aristocrat-action hero fights his own brother, chooses the blonde educated Northern girl Vera and leaves Gypsy singer Lola, constructing the “marriage“ between East and West, modernization and the Balkans. If Titoist Yugoslavia considered itself as a land between East and West, and if the central goal of communism in Yugoslavia was modernizing the Balkans, Captain Leshi's emotional ménage a trois in fact illustrates the main ideologies of Titoism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Captain Leshi's emotional choice, as much as Wyatt Earp's one, makes Yugoslavia possible. His choice, like Earp's, is a sort of national cosmogenisis.[13] Many times, by discussing the past, partisan films in fact discussed the present.


Captain Leshi was a huge commercial success. Although reviews were either negative or mixed, 200,000 watched the movie in Belgrade alone in only 20 days.[14] Internationally, the film was sold to MGM, and it received a respectable income for the Belgrade studio (Bratančev 2012: 36). Before that film, partisan films were not significantly more commercial than films with contemporary topics, and – with exception of early postwar films – the biggest Yugoslav hits were not war films. Fifteen years after the War, audiences were able to fully embrace a war film which was fast, action-driven, free of ideological speech and pathos, unpretentious and escapist. The triumphant success of Captain Leshi clearly marked the line between two decades and two periods of partisan film: the 1950s and 1960s. Captain Leshi brought forth a new genre which would prevail in a new decade: the partisan action spectacle.


Sixties: Black Wave and Red Wave

During the 1950s, partisan films ceased to serve as a vehicle for cardboard slogans of ideology. Leaving behind the template of the Socialist Realism, partizanski film in the 1950s fully embraced the style, practice and genre conventions of western commercial cinema. During that period, partisan film for the first time re-connected with an established literary culture by introducing psychological topics, moral dilemmas and individual fears. During the 1950s, partisan film became more and more local, abandoned “big stories“ and revolutionary frescoes, and focused instead on specific geographic and social universes. As a consequence, Tito disappeared from partisan films in the 1950s. Now undisputed leader of the Yugoslav regime, the partisan leader no longer appeared in any significant partisan film during this period, and he was rarely mentioned in any of them. During the 1950s, partisan film formed its own specific sub-genres (like the film about illegal fighters from 1956 on). Finally, during the 1950s, partisan genre slowly split into two directions - on the one hand, culturally unpretentious and action-driven “lowbrow“ partisan films, and, on the other, “highbrow“ partisan films, which pay more attention to psychology and drama, and try to emulate cultural values of higher literary culture.

Such a division was already visible in the 1950s. But, during the 1960s, the division would create a real gap, a gap between the modernist, subversive revisiting of World War II, and mainstream war films.

However, even within the field of mainstream/commercial/action partisan film there was another dichotomy. On the one hand, there were pretentious war epics, mainly based on true events, usually Tito's great battles. On the other, there were unpretentious, ideologically mainly empty action movies, films full of blasts, shooting and pyrotechnics, films which were a guilty pleasure for Yugoslav film audiences.


As a consequence, we are able to outline three separate streams of partisan film during the 1960s and 1970s. The first is the modernist film, which revisits the founding myths of partisan past and questions them. The second is unpretentious action film that neither questions nor emphasizes the myth, but uses it as an empty iconographical and topical vessel, and exploits that myth in a genre game which aims at pure entertainment. Using parallelism with the American notion of “exploitation film“, we might even talk about “parti-exploitation“ production in the late 60s and early 70s.  The third is the larger-than-life epics, usually based on real historic events, opulent, state-sponsored blockbusters which affirm the political myth of Titoism, and serve as a moving-image monument of Tito as a person. These films brought partisan genre into a central position within the cultural field of Yugoslav culture, a position that genre had not occupied so clearly before. Since the films were economically privileged, and sometimes perceived as an ideological counter response to the “Black Wave“, during the 70s they were ironically called the “Red Wave“. 

The first group of films includes some of the greatest and most prominent Yugoslav films of the 1960s. Films like Akcija/Action (1960, Jane Kavčič), Čovek iz hrastove šume/Man  from the Oak Forrest (1963, Mića Popović), Tri /Three (1965, Aleksandar Petrović), Prometej s otoka Viševice/Prometheus from the Island of Viševica (1965, Vatroslav Mimica), Jutro/Morning (1967, Puriša Đorđević) Kajo, ubiću te /Kajo, I'll Kill You (1967, Vatroslav Mimica), Crne ptice/Black Birds (1967, Eduard Galić), Praznik/Holiday (1967, Đorđe Kadijević) Zaseda/Ambush (1969, Živojin Pavlović) Kad čuješ zvona/When You Hear the Bells (1969, Antun Vrdoljak) or U gori raste zelen bor/Pine Tree in the Mountain (1971, Antun Vrdoljak) the use of partisan film against its initial function. While partisan films used World War II topics to discuss the present, these films did the same thing, but in reverse: by questioning myths, discussing dark areas, moral doubts and complex political issues of the 1940s, they actually questioned the legitimacy of the political system existing in the era in which their authors lived. These films soon gained a broad reputation and became a core of the cultural canon of Yugoslav cinema. This chapter does not discuss them in detail, because many of these films are already internationally famous, and are an established topic of mainstream filmology. Many of them have been anthologized[15], and some film historians, such as William Golding, set out the history of Yugoslav cinema around these maverick films that confront a revolutionary past.[16]

The second group, “partisan exploitation film“, appeared when partisan film was already established as a central film genre in Yugoslav culture. Building on this status, these films completely disregard ideological demands and highbrow cultural canons, and use already petrified, canonized iconography of the genre for an almost abstract genre game. The best example of this genre are the works of Bosnian Sarajevo-born director Hajrudin Krvavac, whose war films like Diverzanti/ Demolition Squad (1967), Most/Bridge (1969), Valter brani Sarajevo/Walter Defends Sarajevo (1972) and Partizanska eskadrila/Partisan Air Force Squad (1979) were enormously popular. During the Yugoslav era, Krvavac and his films had the status of a sub-culture cult. Music and dialogue lines from Walter Defends Sarajevo were often quoted and sampled as a symbol of Sarajevo resistance and spirit. Igor Stoimenov, the Belgrade director and author of the documentary Partisan Film in a public interview with the author of this chapter in Motovun in 2009 said that Krvavac was something similar to a “Yugoslav Howard Hawks“. There is some truth in this: like Hawks’ films, films of Hajrudin Krvavac were based on characters that were larger than life, tacit, very masculine heroes, sober professionals which solve military obstacles with detached professionalism. But, Hajrudin Krvavac was not alone in this vein of “parti-exploitation“ cinema. Particularly during the 1970s, Yugoslav cinema produced a large number of similar, action-driven, mannerist partisan spectacles, like Crveni udar/Red Blast (1974, Predrag Golubović) or Partizani/Partisans (1974, Stole Janković).

Tito is not to be found in either the first or second group of partisan films from the 1960s or 1970s. Modernist and/or Black Wave partisan films usually dealt with personal destinies, local stories outside the main stream of revolutionary history. The fact that these films subvert and question the constitutive Yugoslav political myths meant that Tito as a person or politician was way beyond the reach of these films. Even in the relatively liberal political atmosphere of the late 1960s, Tito himself was one of the few topics beyond the limits of criticism or relativization. Therefore, for modernist, politically provocative war cinema in Yugoslavia, Tito was, and had to be, invisible, absent.


Tito is equally absent from “parti-exploitation“, action-driven genre films like those of Krvavac. Although in his films Krvavac occasionally used real events or people (like the real, short-lived partisan air force,[17] or person of Valter Perić, an important Bosnian communist, who gave his name to the film Walter Defends Sarajevo), directors of action-driven and genre partisan films avoided big topics and central events of the partisan war, partly because that kind of film would require a different level of “seriousness“. Although popular, at that time these films were considered slightly trivial. Some of them were even criticized for commercialization and trivialization of the revolution, like the film Red Blast by Predrag Golubović, which was attacked by Kosovo’s Minister of Culture Fazli Sulja as an “aesthetic and ideological mistake“, because it trivialized and caricaturized the revolution in Kosovo.[18] Obviously, the presence of Tito as a character was unimaginable in any of these lowbrow, culturally undignified action movies.


Great War Epics

If the first and second group of partisan films from the 1960s and 1970s deliberately excluded Tito, there was another group which could not avoid the representation of the Yugoslav leader. These films were great “Red Wave“ epics, based on historic battles, particularly on the so-called “seven offensives“ (sedam ofenziva) organized against Tito by the Italians and Germans.


This group of big partisan war epics includes films like Kozara (1962, Veljko Bulajić), Desant na Drvar/Raid on Drvar (1963, Fadil Hadžić), Bitka na Neretvi/The Battle on Neretva (1969, Veljko Bulajić), Užička republika/The Republic of Užice/Guns of War (1974, Žika Mitrović), Vrhovi Zelengore/Peaks of Zelengora (1976, Zdravko Velimirović) and Veliki transport/Great Transport (1983, Veljko Bulajić). These grand epics had a central role in the cinema culture of Yugoslavia during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these films were huge hits and their audience was measured in millions, partly because of organized projections for schools. Some of these films have been seen so often on TV, or sold frequently on bootleg DVD desks even today, that they sometimes overshadow the rest of the partisan production, and stand as the only reference to the whole genre. They had such a big social impact that people sometimes forget that the epic partisan spectacles were just one stage in the development of the genre, restricted to a relatively brief period of Yugoslav cinematic history, between 1962 and the mid-1970s.

These grand partisan epics are clearly distinguishable from other partisan film productions because they have a lot of production, thematic and poetic elements in common, which do not appear in other partisan films.


From the production point of view, these epics were not produced through the regular channels of Yugoslav film studios or film funding grants. They were usually financed by outside sources, often through so-called Funds for the preservation of revolutionary traditions or similar extra-cinematographic sources. They had proportionally larger budgets than regular films in Yugoslavia, and they often included international stars. For instance, the casting list of the most ambitious partisan epic ever – The Battle of Neretva – included Yul Brynner, Franco Nero, Orson Welles, Hardy Krüger, Sergei Bondarchuk, Oleg Vidov, Sylva Koscina, and virtually all of the biggest stars of Yugoslav cinema. In Sutjeska (1973) Tito was impersonated by Richard Burton, and Irena Papas played an episode role of the hero's mother. In Peaks of Zelengora, three important roles were given to Sergei Bondarchuk, Josephine Chaplin and Alain Noury.


From the thematic point of view, these films differed from the rest of the partisan genre because they were based on real events, and events that were central in the history of partisan war, and that (with the exception of Bulajić's  Kozara) involved Tito and his main headquarters. The main topic of these partisan epics were the so-called “seven offensives“ organized by the Germans and Italians to destroy Tito and the core of the partisan guerrilla. Almost each of these seven offensives got its own “film monument” during the brief era of partisan epics. The First offensive, September-November 1941, in Western Serbia was described in Užička republika/The Republic of Užice/Guns of War  (1974, Žika Mitrović). The Second, January 1942, Eastern Bosnia, was described in a film Igmanski marš/Igman March (1983, Zdravko Šotra). Kozara (1962, Veljko Bulajić) describes a battle on the mountain of Kozara (June 1942, Western Bosnia) often mistaken for the Third offensive. The Fourth offensive, March 1943, Central Bosnia and Northern Herzegovina, was described in The Battle on Neretva. The Fifth, May and June 1943, Montenegro and Eastern Herzegovina in Sutjeska (1974) and Peaks of Zelengora (1976). The Seventh offensive, the parachute attack on the town of Drvar in May 1944, Western Bosnia, was described in Raid on Drvar (1963, Fadil Hadžić). The only one not portrayed in its own great film was the Sixth offensive, October 1944, which was not single, focused military action, but broader action in which the Germans regained territories in Dalmatia which were under partisan control after the capitulation of Italy.

The fact that these films were based on real events had its thematic and dramaturgical consequences. During most of the period from 1942 to 1944, Tito's guerrilla war was in fact a perpetual game of hide-and-seek, in which outnumbered and poorly equipped partisans used the karst, mountain backwoods of Bosnia, Herzegovina and Montenegro to escape the much stronger Axis troops. In a way, all battles from this central, most mythical period of partisan war could have only two outcomes: defeat or successful retreat. That fact was of course a problem for screenwriters of great epics. They solved that problem by emphasizing the bravery and self-sacrifice of partisans who sacrificed themselves for their commander or wounded and ill comrades. In terms of dramaturgy, partisan epics solved problems by using deus-ex-machina ending: when partisans are most desperate and on the edge of destruction, a miraculous counterattack occurs, and the good guys are saved. Sometimes – like in Kozara – the ending is just verbally declared: an old peasant climbs out from their hiding place and screams “završila ofenziva!“ (The offensive is over!). These films always finish with similar conclusive shots: a long column of partisan soldiers, now safe, retreating somewhere farther into the mountainous Yugoslav heartland. The problem of “adjusting“ a historic war reality to the principles of storytelling remained problematic in most of the partisan epics. Some directors were fully aware of this problem, like Veljko Bulajić, who declined the offer to direct Sutjeska after the triumphant success of his previous – and Yugoslavia's biggest – war epic, The Battle on Neretva. In a recent public interview at the Motovun Film Festival in 2012, he explained that he had not known what to do with the battle on Sutjeska which was carnage - a bloody and painful defeat of Tito's partisans.


The second consequence of the fact that great epics were based on real events was the fact that these films had to deal with real historic people. In some of them, characters of enemy commanders are real persons, like Generaloberst Lothar Rendulic, the real-life commander of the raid on Drvar, who has an important role in the film Raid on Drvar. Some of the real persons represented in these films were part of the English and other military missions, like British officers Deakin and Stewart, who are characters in the film Sutjeska. Treatment of real-life partisans and revolutionaries in these epics depended heavily on whether they were dead or not at the time of production of the film. Partisan epics generally avoided mentioning or glorifying any real-life resistance commander besides Tito himself. However, an exception could be made for war heroes who died in war (Lika Sava Kovačević, the hero of the Sutjeska Battle, played in homonymous film by Ljuba Tadić), or for relevant cultural persons, like the classic old Croatian poet Vladimir Nazor who – although 66 years old – joined partisans in 1942, and appears as a character in the The Battle on Neretva. But Tito's closest political co-workers, prominent communists and post-war politicians are meticulously removed from Titoist epics: Tito's central role in the revolutionary pantheon could not have a competitor.

The fact that grand epics deal with real events related to the Headquarters and Tito, caused a problem in regard to the representation of Tito himself. With few exceptions, partisan epics generally avoided Tito being played by an actor. Tito's iconic, omni-present photos were hanging in every classroom, conference room and office in Yugoslavia, but also in many homes. This oversaturation of public space with Tito's real appearance produced a kind of iconoclastic restraint regarding playing Tito by an actor. However, there were two significant exceptions: one of them was Sutjeska where Tito was played by the larger-than-life Hollywood star Richard Burton. The other significant exception was Užička republika (1974), where he was played by the great Serbian actor, Rade Marković. In both cases, it seemed that the audience had difficulty accepting any face other than Tito’s as Tito. It is also worth noting that Tito was not very satisfied with Burton playing him. In a documentary Partizanski film by Stoimenov, the famous actor Bata Živojinović recalls an anecdote that Tito complained to Delić, the director of the film saying “damn it, when I was commanding in the Sutjeska Battle, I certainly was not drunk!“


In most cases, directors understood the difficulty in portraying Tito, and invested significant screenwriting and directing manouvring to avoid the physical appearance of the partisan leader from the films in which he was technically the main hero. Veljko Bulajić remembers in recent interviews that he had a conversation with Tito regarding his presence/absence from The Battle on Neretva, and that Tito reluctantly agreed that his character should be off-screen, because Bulajić convinced him that unless this was so, the film would be interpreted as propaganda, and would lose its international appeal. In Raid on Drvar, Hadžić uses a mixture of strategies to avoid Tito’s physical presence.[19] Tito is absent from the film, but his newly sewn uniform is present the whole time (at a certain point, Germans capture the uniform as a humiliating substitute for Tito in person, who fled). In one scene, partisan soldiers observe the Headquarters through binoculars, but in subjective shots through binoculars we see Tito and his aids in authentic documentary shots from the War. In The Battle on Neretva, Tito is mystically substituted with pieces of paper on which his orders are written, orders that commanders deliver to soldiers on duty.

Big partisan epics were produced in a period when the Titoist regime was confident and internationally established through the non-aligned movement. That self-assured feeling of its own global importance is clearly visible in partisan epics, which in a way served the purpose of giving a diachronic rooting to this sense of importance. Many epics start with fake or real newsreels which explain the situation by describing a certain period, and the importance of the Yugoslav resistance, which causes trouble for the Germans and Italians in the heart of the Axis of Europe. In Kozara, at the beginning, we hear a German telegram with orders to attack. In Raid on Drvar, at the beginning of the film, we see a scene from Hitler's Cabinet where off-screen Hitler yells at Rendulic and insists on capturing the “bandit Tito“. Part of the narcissistic, self-glorifying role of partisan films were characters of foreign officers on a military mission at Tito's Headquarters. They appear in many partisan epics in a role of “arbiters“ (in Ann Übersfeld's meaning), witnesses who weigh the events and give moral evaluations. The role of foreign missionaries/correspondents is the role of a witness who observes the Yugoslav partisan heroism through foreign eyes and gives deserved appraisal to it. In Raid on Drvar, such witness is an American war reporter. In Sutjeska, this role is played by an actual historical figure, British Major Deakin who at the peak of battle compliments partisan bravery with the sentence “What an amazing people!“. This role of “arbiter“ is occasionally played by the Germans. In The Battle on Neretva, German officer (Hardy Krüger), moved by the singing of partisans in the trenches, disobeys orders of his superiors and orders a retreat. In Walter Defends Sarajevo, two German officers walk on the Sarajevo promenade above the city center, desperate because they failed to catch Valter - the infamous chief of the resistance. In the end, one of them says to the other that he finally realizes who Walter is, then indicates the view of the old town and Municipal house, and says “Das ist Walter!“ (This is Walter!).


In an effort to give trans-historic roots to Titoism, to represent it as an essence of all-Yugoslav spirit and history, Titoist epics often use landscape and cultural heritage in a role that could be described almost as an “ally“ of partisans. Partisan epics place enormous importance on mountain landscape, which is often (Kozara, Sutjeska) presented as an establishing shot in the very first scene. Many of these films construct an almost mystical link between untamed nature and an untamed spirit of rebellion. As Miranda Jakiša writes, there is a “telluric idea presented in partisan films – such as originating locally from the country, defending one’s own home from the underground and staying in touch with the earth“.[20]


Sometimes, even cultural heritage is used and recycled to fit the political message of film. For instance, in the central fighting scene of The Battle on Neretva – the scene of the battle between partisans and Chetniks, whose leader is played by Orson Welles – Chetniks use mortars to attack partisans, who hide behind huge Bosnian medieval gravestones – stećak. In the cultural memory of Bosnia, stećak gravestones are (from the historic point of view- inaccurately) related mainly to the medieval religion of the Church of Bosnia, or so-called bogumils, or patrons, who professed poverty and were opposed to both Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. By using this cultural symbol in a crucial battle scene, Bulajić sends a clear ideological message to the Yugoslav audience of that time: he equates medieval heretics with partisan war, and partisan war with non-aligned Yugoslav communism, another ideology that had chosen a “third path“ between East and West.


Bulajić: master of war epic

Contrary to popular belief, larger-than-life partisan epics appeared rather late in the history of Yugoslav cinema. The first was Kozara (1962) by Montenegrin-Croatian director Veljko Bulajić, who would later personify this sub-genre.

Ironically, Kozara was never meant to be a cornerstone of Tito's ‘epic cinema’. When he made that film, Bulajić was a young neo-realist director who studied at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, and made two very good neorealist dramas (Vlak bez voznog reda/Train without A Timetable (1959) and Uzavreli grad/Boom Town (1961)). In Kozara, he made a neo-realist film about Serbian peasants from Western Bosnia who suffered persecution and genocide committed by the Germans and Ustashas during the Battle of Kozara/the Kozara Offensive in June/July 1942. Neither Tito, nor the partisan Headquarters participated in that battle, which was later in Yugoslav popular tradition mistaken for the Third Great Enemy Offensive, although the Third offensive was an entirely different battle. That confusion was partly caused by the success of the film. Bulajić's film became the biggest hit in the history of Yugoslavia: it attracted 3.3 million viewers in Yugoslavia, won the Best Film Award in Pula as well as several international awards, including an award at the Moscow International Film Festival. It became so famous that it gave further prominence to the battle it depicted, and inspired the production of a string of big partisan epics.


If Bulajić's name goes hand in hand with the first partisan epic, his name is also connected to the most famous one: Bitka na Neretvi/ The Battle on Neretva. This film, produced in 1969, was, and still is, the most expensive Yugoslav film, the most ambitious and the most successful partisan film. The official budget was USD 4.5 million, excluding the cost of soldiers who acted as extras, military ammunition, vehicles, planes and gasoline. According to Variety, a film weekly magazine, the real cost of The Battle on Neretva was USD 12 million.[21] Production of the film took more than four years, shooting almost 18 months, and the film crew blew up the real bridge across the river Neretva, giving rise to the protests by the locals of the town of Jablanica who for a brief time did not have a bridge. The cast of the film included a jaw-dropping list of Hollywood and European stars. The extent of Bulajić's ambition is also visible from the fact that one of the posters for the film was made by Picasso!


Even the premiere of the film was one of a kind. According to geographic requirements and the subtle Yugoslav sense of federalism, the premiere was held in Sarajevo (the battle on the Neretva river took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina), on the main Yugoslav holiday, Republic Day (November 29). Among the celebrities who attended premiere were Sophia Loren, Carlo Ponti, Anna Magnani, Maria Schell and Omar Sharif.[22] After the premiere, the film became a huge hit, partly thanks to organized school visits. The film was sold internationally to 84 territories (a record for a Yugoslav film), and as a final triumphant touch, it was nominated for an Oscar for the best foreign film. However, the complete success of The Battle on Neretva was diminished by the fact that the local critical reception of the film was modest: even on the eve of Neretva-frenzy, many Yugoslav critics criticized the film as a shallow spectacle.[23] Despite that, Neretva was a success, but that success in a way changed the course of the whole genre of partisan film. It inspired a series of “Neretva-lookalikes“, expensive and far less successful “Red Wave“ films made by directors whose talent was inferior to the talent of Bulajić. It was not until the early 1970s that these “Red Wave“ productions became unpopular among cinema professionals and journalists, who criticized such an irrational, opulent waste of money. In 1975, TV Zagreb even organized a TV debate about expensive projects in Yugoslav cinema. The debate, which was mainly focused on Bulajić, was filmed and banned.[24] In that period, Bulajić was perceived as a personification or the “Red Wave“, and his name has remained associated with this until today.[25]


In a way, this is unfair. Firstly, prior to Kozara (1962) Bulajić had a rather interesting list of works, including Uzavreli grad/Boom Town, a brilliant neo-realist study of the young industrial working class in the fast-growing cities of early socialism.


Secondly, the film, which started a series of great epics, is a good film. In Kozara, Bulajić reached the peak of his professional skills and successfully merged elements of the war spectacle with a neo-realist film about collective masses. That collective mass – the people – in Bulajić's film is never homogenous, and never propagandistically dull. It is vibrating, pulsating, hesitating, subjected to the opposing impulses, doubts, rage and malice. Although relentless in pace and action, Kozara is at the same time a film full of memorable emotional scenes, and a film with at least ten or twelve well-rounded, convincing characters. At the same time, Bulajić was a true master of spectacle, capable of orchestrating scenes with thousands of extras, of controlling multiple narratives and merging action with the melodramatic or even comical elements. The only comparison with other partisan epics, by far inferior films like Sutjeska (1973) or Peaks of Zelengora (1976), demonstrates the real measure of Bulajić's talent, his directing skill, his ability to control a complex narrative, shift different moods, and create unforgettable scenes.


End of partisan film


Veljko Bulajić was the director who made Kozara, a film that started the era of great epics. He was the director of the biggest war film Tito's Yugoslavia ever made - The Battle on Neretva. In a strange twist of fate, he was also the director of a film which ended the era of great epics, a film whose failure was a sign that the time of the grand partisan films was over.

The name of that film is Veliki transport (Great Transport). Released in 1983, Great Transport was the last of the epic war films produced in Yugoslavia. Produced in the Serbian Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, the film was based on a historically true story about the transport of food and other supplies which peasants from Vojvodina delivered to partisans in Eastern Bosnia in spring 1943. At the beginning of the 1980s, the film was encouraged by the local Vojvodina communist leadership, who wanted “their own“ partisan film which would emphasize the role of Vojvodina in the partisan war, the role of the region where, due to the flat landscape and dense population, guerrilla war was impossible, and the partisan movement hardly existed. Pursuant to a production model already established in late 1960s, Bulajić cast Hollywood actors (James Franciscus, Steve Railback, Robert Vaughn), European stars (Helmut Berger) and local stars. He raised money from the government, national companies and foreign investors. However, at the time of production, Tito died, the Kosovo crisis re-opened, the country suddenly fell into deep debt, and the first post-Tito government announced a humiliating “stabilization program“. A whole generation of Yugoslavs was faced again with a situation that was familiar to the rest of Eastern Europeans, but for them it was a distant, forgotten past: queues, shortages, bans on shopping abroad, and electricity reductions. In such a context, a film like Great Transport was seen as an utter anachronism. The context was radically different compared with Neretva or Sutjeska: no more school projections, no sense of global importance and success, no unifying father figure, and no enthusiasm for big, costly film projects. Great Transport was a failure. Audiences ignored it. It received chilling reviews. Worst of all, a series of financial scandals plagued production of the film, scandals which accelerated the fall of Vojvodina communist leadership, and helped the rise of Slobodan Milošević through the ranks of the Serbian communist establishment.

In the 1980s partisan film was in a deep crisis. From the 1970s onwards, partisan film was already in its “baroque“ stage of opulent, decadent spectacles with overblown budgets which used petrified iconography and old, sometimes over-weight stars to reproduce a formula that was fresh 15 years earlier, but not anymore. Great Transport was the final straw. In the history of partisan film, it had a role similar to the role of Cleopatra (1963, Joseph. L. Mankiewicz) in the history of Hollywood biblical epics. A commercial flop, a critical fiasco and financial scandals surrounding it clearly indicated that the era of big partisan films was over.


Partisan film went through the same change of fortune that Westerns had gone through 10 years earlier, in the Watergate and Vietnam era, when American audiences ceased to believe in the ideological pylons of the genre, and the genre itself slowly disappeared from its privileged position in Hollywood. Partisan film had a similar fate: in the 1980s, a crisis of ideology killed the genre which depended on an enthusiastic belief in the ideology on which these films were based. In the 1980s, a young, urban Yugoslav generation reacted to cultural manifestations of Titoism either with irritation, or with superior, ironic mockery. As a part of that process, partisan film was perceived as something outdated, ridiculous, provincial and old-fashioned.


The rise of nationalism, the Yugoslav break-up and revisionist ideologies in the 1990s finally killed partisan film. In the revisionist 1990s, no one identified with either Yugoslavia or partisans any more. Under the blanket of official relativist ideology, unofficial glorification of the Ustashas and Chetniks became the dominant perception of World War II. Partisan films disappeared from television, some directors “refurbished“ their filmographies by omitting partisan films, and some – like Tuđman's vice-president Antun Vrdoljak – forbad the screening of their partisan films abroad.[26]


But ironically, even in this unfavorable context, partisan film had proved its myth-making capacity and the power of its image-making. Recent interviews conducted by Natalija Bašić demonstrated that among interviewees of three generations, partisan films were and still are the main source of knowledge about World War II, and are more dominant than school programs or textbooks.[27] Many radical nationalist paramilitary formations organized in Serbia and in Croatia during the wars in the 1990s completely constructed their image and clothing around the image of villains from partisan films. For a whole generation of Yugoslavs, partisan films constructed a representation of bad nationalists, and when these generations embraced nationalism as their ideology, they simply used ready-made images that were familiar to them. In a dark and ironic way, “Chetniks“ and “Ustashas“ from the 1990s proved Oscar Wilde's statement about life which imitates art.


Today, partisan film is dead in the production sense. But, as a living memory, and as a group of classic films, it lives on. Many partisan films are shown on television. Many are regular items on the bootleg selling desks from Skopje to Neum. Many are common cultural reference points for Yugoslavs, and the object of artistic recycling, sampling, and quoting. As a part of the cultural heritage, partisan films are still alive, living long after the death of the country which created them and the ideology whose monument they were supposed to be. There are several reasons why partisan films are so vividly present in the new cultural and political context. Chief among these is the fact that many of them are simply good films.





[1] Liehm, M., Liehm A. J., Najvažnija umetnost- istočnoevropski film u dvadesetom veku, Beograd: Clio, (2006), p. 44

[2] Such as Army Geographical Institute in Serbia, and Škola narodnog zdravlja (School of Public Health) in Croatia, which produced educational documentaries and cartoons promoting preventive healthcare and hygienic standards. See more in Kosanović, D. 'Da li je bilo filmske umetnosti u Kraljevini SHS/ Kraljevini Jugoslaviji?, Hrvatski filmski ljetopis, 33, 2003, p. 203.

[3] Sopi, A., Pregled povijesti albanske i kosovske kinematografije, Zagreb: ADU, 2009, p. 19.

  Imami, P., 'Film na Kosovu posle drugog svetskog rata', Novi filmograf, 5/6, ¾, Beograd, 2009, p.66.

[4] Turković, H., 'Film kao znak i sudionik modernizacije', Hrvatski filmski ljetopis, 68, 2011, p. 109.

[5] Duda, D. (2005), U potrazi za blagostanjem, O povijesti dokolice i potrošačkog društva u Hrvatskoj 1950-ih i 1960-ih, Zagreb: Srednja Europa.2005, p. 54.

[6] Turković, H., 'Film kao znak i sudionik modernizacije', Hrvatski filmski ljetopis, 68, 2011, p. 109.

[7]Tirnanić, B., Crni talas, Filmski centar Srbije, Beograd 2008, p. 136 for instance speaks about the Croatian film Lisice (Cuffs, 1969) by Krsto Papić, which touched on the then sensitive topic of the arrests of pro-Soviet communists in the summer 1948.  The film was politically criticized, but the criticism ceased after the festival in Pula, where Tito commented Papić's film positively in an unofficial conversation. Cuffs won Golden Arena, the main festival award, and was screened in Cannes.

[8] Afrić escaped and joined partisans after the show in which he played Faust: that became a central motive of the acclaimed theatre play Hrvatski Faust/Croatian Faust (1981) by Slobodan Šnajder.

[9] In the only monography on partisan film written during the Yugoslav era, Belgrade critic Milutin Čolić counted and commented on 193 partisan films produced until 1984. This number includes foreign co-productions directed by non-Yugoslavs, but thematically focused on Yugoslavia in war, Čolić, M., Jugoslavenski ratni film I-II, Beograd, Užice: Institut za film, Vesti 1984.

[10] The film was based on historical facts: the partisan Navy, which numbered ten wooden fishing boats and tugboats equipped with machine guns, was founded on 10 September 1942 in the village of Podgora, 60km south of Split.

[11] Batančev, D. (2012), A Cinematic Battle: Three Yugoslav War Films from the 1960s, Budapest: Central European University, 2012, p. 11.

[12] Pavičić, J., ''Lemons in Siberia': a new approach to the study of the Yugoslav cinema of the 50s', New Review of Film and Television Studies, London: Routledge, 2008, p. 33.

[13] Batančev, D. (2012), A Cinematic Battle: Three Yugoslav War Films from the 1960s, Budapest: Central European University, 2012, p. 27.

[14] Batančev, D. (2012), A Cinematic Battle: Three Yugoslav War Films from the 1960s, Budapest: Central European University, 2012, p. 31.

[15] Iordanova, D. (ed.), Cinema of the Balkans, 24 Frames, London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

[16] Goulding, D. J. (2004), Jugoslavensko filmsko iskustvo, 1945.- 2001., V.B.Z. Zagreb, 204, p. 88 – 115.

[17] Formation of partisan Air Force is connected with two pilots – Franjo Kluz and Rudi Čajavec – who in May 1942 took their planes, escaped from the Ustaša Croatian Air Force, and landed on an improvised airfield Urije near Prijedor, in Western Bosnia, to join partisans. That first attempt to form partisan air force was short-living, because both planes were destroyed by Germans after 45 days. Franjo Kluz was later involved in a second formation of partisan air force, in southern Italy in 1944.

[18] Tirnanić, B., Crni talas, Filmski centar Srbije, Beograd 2008, p. 183.

[19] Pavičić, J., 'Igrani filmovi Fadila Hadžića', Hrvatski filmski ljetopis, 34/2003, p. 13.

[20] Jakiša, M., 'Down to Earth Partisans: Fashioning of YU Space in Partisan Film', KINO! 10, 2010, p. 55.

[21] Škrabalo, I., 101 godina hrvatskog filma 1896-1997, Zagreb: Nakladni zavod Globus, 1998, p. 361.

[22] Škrabalo, I., 101 godina hrvatskog filma 1896-1997, Zagreb: Nakladni zavod Globus, 1998, p. 362.

[23] Batančev, D., A Cinematic Battle: Three Yugoslav War Films from the 1960s, Budapest: Central European University, 2012, p. 66.

[24] Batančev, D. (2012), A Cinematic Battle: Three Yugoslav War Films from the 1960s, Budapest: Central European University, 2012, p. 70.

[25] Šakić, T., Filmski svijet Veljka Bulajića: poprište susreta kolektivnog i privatnog', Hrvatski filmski ljetopis 57-58, 2009, p. 14.

[26] In 1999, Vrdoljak – at that time deputy for cinema in the Croatian Ministry of Culture – forbad the screening of his partisan films from the 1960s in the retrospective of Croatian cinema in Rotterdam.

[27] Batančev, D. (2012), A Cinematic Battle: Three Yugoslav War Films from the 1960s, Budapest: Central European University, 2012, p. 2.