341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

“If you saw what I see for the future in Yugoslavia, it would scare you.”–Marshall Tito, 1971

“I think that this current conflict is the result of tectonic moves that last for a whole century. If there is anything good in this hell and horror, it is that the tectonic disturbance will result in absolute absurdity. And then a new quality will emerge from it.”–Emir Kusturica, circa 1995

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Predrag Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Ernst Stötzner, Slavko Stimac, Srdjan Todorovic

PLOT:Two Yugoslavian gangsters join the Communist Party to resist the invading Nazis. One tricks the other into hiding out in a large cellar, where he and a small tribe of partisans manufacture munitions he believes are going to the resistance but which are actually being sold on the black market for years after the war has ended. Decades later, the ruse falls apart, and the former friends meet on the battlefields of Kosovo.

BACKGROUND:

  • Kusturica adapted Underground from a play by Dušan Kovačević, although he only took the premise of people tricked into residing in a cellar under the pretense of a fake war from that source.
  • The movie was filmed in 1992 and 1993, while the Bosnian War was raging—and ethnic cleansing was going on.
  • Emir Kusturica’s original cut ran for 320 minutes, about the same length as the six part serialized television version released later.
  • Underground won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was not nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
  • Despite its international success, Underground was controversial nearer to home. Kusturica was accused of taking money from the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, which would have been a violation of sanctions against the Serbian government. (The director countered that he had only accepted non-financial assistance, and won a lawsuit for libel against a playwright who accused him of taking money from the Serbs.) The film was also criticized for being too conciliatory by not blaming Serbia and Slobodan Milošević’s regime directly for the Bosnian conflict. (Kusturica himself is ethnically Bosnian).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A burning wheelchair circling an inverted crucifix under its own power.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying bride; chimp in a tank; underwater brass band

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the third act, Underground plays as an absurd, Balkanized satire—a far wilder ride than the average moviegoer is accustomed to, but not a film that went all the way to “weird.” That final half-hour, however, pulls out all of reality’s stops, sending the film off into a nightmarishly surreal conclusion, then soldiering on to a more conciliatory mystical ending. It’s the perfect, weird way to cap off a world cinema masterpiece.


Original trailer for Underground

COMMENTS: Emir Kusturica considers himself Yugoslavian. “In my family, every generation they were changing countries,” he explains in an interview. “And I’m fed up with it. I was born Yugoslav and I’m going to die Yugoslav.” That puts him in the absurd, but strangely high-minded, position of being a nationalist for a country that no longer exists, a nation built on a spectacularly failed idea of tolerance for its multiple ethnicities and competing religions. Underground is a therefore a strange combination of nostalgia for the vanished Yugoslavia (it begins with the line “once upon a time there was a country,” which is also the title of the television version), which is conveyed through a satire largely centered around the corruption of the same vanished Yugoslavia. This strange condition of Yugoslavianness explains why this director, who had already shown a predisposition for absurdism and magical realism in previous comedies like Time of the Gypsies, would make such a strange movie about the strange case of Yugoslavia.

Underground is split into three chapters set in three different historical periods: there’s “War” (which begins with the Nazi bombing and subsequent occupation of Belgrade); “Cold War” (the Communist era); and “War” (again), the short, horrific finale set in the then-present day. The first section introduces our main players. Marko and Blacky are a pair of local thugs, boozers and whoremongers for whom life is a constant party. They are followed by their own personal brass band, first seen jogging down the street in the gangsters’ drunken wake (this omnipresent ensemble forms the movie’s best running joke). Bushy-mustached Blacky is the brawn of the operation—his signature move is the head-butt, which he uses to greet friends as well as to subdue enemies. Marko is the one with the pencil mustache; he seems subservient to Blacky’s bluster, but his cunning proves the deadlier tool. (Marko’s signature move is the shoulder-shake whenever he hears the band start up—he’s an irrepressible dancer). We first meet them on the night the Nazis commence bombing Belgrade, setting free all the zoo animals, including a chimp who will get more screen time than many of the humans. Marko’s tryst with a zaftig hooker is interrupted by falling bombs; she prioritizes her own skin, leaving him to finish himself off (his climax coincides with a particularly large explosion outside the window). When the Nazis arrive in force, Marko plays on Blacky’s patriotism to recruit him into the Communist resistance, a sideline which lends some credibility to their day jobs as thieves and extortionists. Although married to a pregnant wife, Blacky is obsessed with the actress Natalija, who prefers Franz, the local Nazi commandant who can help her theatrical career. After his wife dies in childbirth, Blacky takes the opportunity to abduct Natalija from an onstage performance, hilariously entering the scene while the actors try to improvise around him. With his unwilling bride strapped to his back, Blacky heads to his boat for a shotgun wedding; but, this being a Kusturica film, “catastrophe” intervenes. (Don’t worry about me giving away too much of the plot in this synopsis; I’m merely scratching the surface in order to convey the film’s raucous energy. There’s plenty more story to discover for yourself).

After that set-up, “Cold War” bifurcates its focus. Marko tricks Blacky into hiding in the improbably massive cellar—it’s the size of a small village—underneath his home, pretending that the war is continuing by piping in air raid sirens and fake news bulletins and occasionally showing up with a bloodied face, claiming he’s been beaten by the Gestapo. In fact, Marko has stolen Natalija for himself, and risen through his wiles to become an high-ranking official in the Communist party, all the while running a lucrative side business selling the basement rifles that Blacky and his fellow dupes are manufacturing for the nonexistent Resistance. Their dingy underground world, a metaphor for the exploitation of the proletariat under Communism, is piled high with junk and lit by bicycle-powered lamps. Blacky reigns as supreme leader among dozens of fellow refugees, raising a beloved son who has never seen the sun. Meanwhile, another subplot has Marko financing a propaganda film about Blacky, whom the abovegrounders believe to be a deceased martyr in the anti-Fascist struggle; they’re recreating the onboard wedding scene from the first section of the film. It stars actors who are uncanny dead ringers for Blacky, Marko and Franz. When Marko attempts to fake a reunion between Blacky and Natalija in order to keep his increasingly depressed partner happy (he’s threatening to go topside and kill some Nazis with his own hands), another impromptu wedding is again interrupted by another “catastrophe” when the chimp climbs into a tank and sends a shell through one of the cellar walls, revealing a network of tunnels through which motorized caravans are heading to various European capitals. The underground inhabitants all split, with Blacky and his grown son heading to the surface, still believing they are fighting Nazis.

And so on to the third part—“War” (redux). The focus now changes to Ivan, Blacky’s dim, stuttering zookeeper brother, who had wandered off down the tunnels in search of his missing chimp. Now, in the mid 1990s, he is an old man in a Berlin mental institution where the doctors (correctly) believe he is suffering from delusions due to his long captivity. (This switch in perspective suggests the possible interpretation that the entire story is the insane Ivan’s faulty recollection of the past; this reading would account for the dreamlike and magical realist elements of the story, although it would not do anything to further illuminate the themes, and it is undercut by the fact that the movie survives him.) Ivan refuses to believe the war has ended and thinks he is a prisoner of the Nazis. Wandering out of captivity one day, he backtracks through the same mysterious tunnels he used to escape his underground prison and wanders into a surreal version of the then-raging Balkan wars. There, we learn the (imaginary) fates of Blacky, Marko and Natalija, as old scores are settled once and for all. The hectic comic tone downshifts to appropriately solemn, even nightmarish, in keeping with the bitter, bloody reality outside the theaters. And yet, you need not fear a downer ending, because Underground finishes with an oddly satisfying epilogue to its own epilogue: a vision of Yungoslavian heaven, which naturally takes the shape of a drunken feast, with everyone young and virile again and dancing to a brass band.

I’ve given Underground a “recommended” score, but it comes about as close as possible to rating a “” as it can. The only thing holding it back from an unqualified highest recommendation is that the film presumes a knowledge of Yugoslavian history, and most viewers will not have the necessary background to appreciate the intricacies of the story. But it is, most likely, Kusturica’s masterpiece. Even putting aside the surreal elements that are our particular obsession, Underground is fast-paced (blisteringly-paced, by European art film standards). It’s funny yet epic, antic yet melancholy, and full of irrepressible life, packed with characters and set pieces that linger in the memory. Overflowing with ideas, incidents, and hyperbole, it unspools as an instant classic, combining carnivalesque spectacle with historical substance. You get your dollar’s worth. As once observed, “there’s a world/going on/Underground.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If Fellini had shot a war movie, it might resemble ‘Underground.'”–Deborah Young, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…marvelously excessive… a triumph of mise en scene mated to a comic vision that keeps topping its own hyperbole.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader (1998 U.S. release)

“…a bizarre, often repellent anti-war parable that takes forever to state the obvious but hits some scattered high notes on the way… at times, the surreal atmosphere (escaped zoo animals wandering the streets, a man furiously masturbating as the city explodes and falls around him) approaches a Fellini-esque cavalcade of chaotic nonsense…”–Joshua Klein, The A.V. Club (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Underground (1995)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

1995, Underground – Stills, and an altered film clip, posted at the design-centered website Red List

Kusturica’s Lies Awarded the Golden Palm in Cannes – A contemporaneous Bosnia Report article harshly criticizes the film, and Kusturica himself, for “duplicity and cowardice”

Dispute Leads Bosnian to Quit FilmsNew York Times report on Kusturica’s announcement of his (short-lived) retirement from film in frustration over Underground‘s controversies

Sarajevan’s Journey From Cinema Hero to ‘Traitor’L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan looks back at the controversy two years later

HOME VIDEO INFO: In 2018 Kino Classics released the ultimate version of Underground, including the six episode, three-plus hour television version (“Once There Was a Country”) alongside the theatrical cut. The DVD set (buy) is three discs; the Blu-ray release (buy) hosts the film itself in the high-def format, but provides the TV version and supplements on two DVDs. As might be expected, the extended story has both its pluses and minuses. On the negative side, there are a lot of subplots that add little to the overall story, but only make the already overstuffed tale feel more bloated. The satire is slightly diluted as the story at times becomes more of a -style gangster tale with a comic spin. Marko and Natalija’s sex scene is greatly lengthened, and is far more disturbingly sadomasochistic than the version that made the film; like many of the extended scenes, I find this to be a kind of unfortunate sabotage of the lighter tone of the theatrical version. On the positive side, some of the new inclusions do add meaningful context: more details about the arms trading subplot, and the moving death of Natalija’s brother (a minor character who simply disappears from the film version). Also, the television cut makes Ivan more of a central character, fleshing out the period between his escape through the tunnels and his incarceration in Berlin. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the longer version is that the more time we spend with Marko and Blacky, the less sympathetic they become. The extra features are behind-the-scenes footage; interviews with the director, the three stars, and the production designer; and the meaty 75-minute 1996 making-of documentary Shooting Days. Naturally, the trailer and an informative booklet essay from Kusturica expert Giorgio Bertellini cap off an impressively comprehensive release. It is a must-buy for Underground fans.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it Kusturica’s “most hilarious and his most tragic” film. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “341. UNDERGROUND (1995)”

  1. Though it does sound like an interesting watch, I have to be honest and say I’m going to check this out solely on the basis of the title matching that of a great Tom Waits song.

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