by Dragan Batancev
The story about extravaganza in Socialist Yugoslavia would not be complete without a chapter on its most popular cinematic genre – the partisan films. It is this kind of films that marked the cinematography of this country and secured its place in film history. Amongst the 200 war films produced in Tito’s Yugoslavia, one holds a distinguished title of the most expensive spectacle: Bitka na Neretvi, aka The Battle of Neretva (1969). This film is unique not only because of the incredible endorsement it received from the political elite during its shooting, but also because of its huge failure to attract an audience. The most likely reason for this lies, most likely, in the clumsy attempts at aestheticizing the ideological representation of heroism in World War II. In other words, ordinary people did not rush to believe in the official construction of the historical narrative.
Whatever anecdotes circled around the shooting of The Battle of Neretva (henceforth Neretva), one thing remains unquestionable – this film would have never been made without the huge self-advertising of its director, Veljko Bulajić . A 17-year-old partisan lieutenant at the end of World War II, Bulajić attracted the public attention with his film Kozara (1962), a partisan epic of a smaller scale than Neretva. Kozara broke all Yugoslav box office records up to that time, attracting 3,393,632 viewers as well as garnering several international awards, including the one at the Moscow Film Festival. After winning multiple awards at the biggest Yugoslav film festival in Croatian city Pula, Bulajić could have chosen his next project, so he decided to film a story about the Battle of Neretva (1943), the culmination of a combined Axis strategic offensive against the outnumbered Yugoslav Partisans in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By 1967 Bulajić established his almost untouchable position as the regime’s favorite director and so he asked the Yugoslav political leader, Josip Broz Tito, to support the shooting of Neretva. The reasons why Tito took upon himself to become a film producer might be explained by his cinephilia and the sense of grandeur in a humanistic story about saving outnumbered wounded comrades. Tito contributed to Bulajić ’s film as a scriptwriting consultant and a wholehearted spokesman urging the Yugoslav economy and the Yugoslav People’s Army to extend every possible help and assistance to the film crew. Tito himself edited certain parts of the screenplay and agreed that his character should be left out of the film. It seems as if the Yugoslav lifelong president, advised by Bulajić , did not want to cast his long shadow on the glorious collective struggle in Neretva.
No other Yugoslav film had ever had such generous state support. Following Tito’s appeal 58 companies financed Neretva and 10,000 soldiers participated, while the film’s inventory also included 75 armed vehicles, 22 airplanes and 5,000 machine guns, with a total of 12,000 explosions. Companies sponsoring the film Bulajić called “the benefactors,” claiming they later participated in sharing the revenue. However, one-and-a-half-year long shooting was so poorly organized that production budget began to dwindle. One of the film stars, Velimir-Bata Zivojinović, recently stated that Bulajić used to take him and his Yugoslav colleagues to different factories where after entertaining the workers they would get additional financing from the factory managers. Much later Bulajić claimed he had not taken any money from the Yugoslav film funds, because he managed to attract producers from Italy, West Germany and USA; who paid expensive foreign actors and distributed the film on the international market. (Funny enough, big stars, such as Yul Brynner, Orson Welles and Sergei Bondarchuk did not get enough time and roles to show their mastery; Brynner, for instance, appears only for 5 minutes in the final cut.) The final budget of Neretva was never made public; according to a Hollywood magazine Variety, estimations went up to $12 million, while the official sum was around $4,5 million. In any case, Neretva is considered to be one of the world’s most expensive non-English language films ever, chiefly due to the inefficient financial management and the director’s desire to reconstruct the battle as accurately as possible.
Two aspects are important in Bulajić ’s history filming: collecting production resources of all Yugoslav republics, and authenticity. Since the middle of the 1960s, the film centres of each Yugoslav republic received their own funding, thus stimulating more discussion about the cinematography of separate republics, and less about the unified Yugoslav cinematography. On the other hand, Neretva united Yugoslav companies in a production of a Yugoslav film, about the Yugoslav myth, engaging filmmakers from all Yugoslav nations. The working class was, at least formally, both the producer and audience of the film about its own historical struggle. By pushing this agenda, Tito’s government (and Bulajić as its representative) tried to shape the workers’ perception of WWII as a historical birth era of the socialist Yugoslav society.
The second aspect, authenticity, was manifested in Bulajić ’s unusual attempt to make a film that will remain physically as close to history as possible. The director and his co-writers analyzed to the smallest detail written documents and testimonies pertaining to the battle and shot the film at almost the same locations where the battle itself took place, aiming to achieve the reconstruction of the events. For the purpose of the shooting Bulajić destroyed 4 villages, 1 castle, as well as tens of trucks and tanks; in addition, an unfortunate accident during the shooting of a bombing scene resulted in the death of a cameraman – in short, Bulajić did not just make the movie, but he also brought the war back to life. In this respect, Neretva is actually a hypertrophied version of the spectacles like Nikolai Evreinov’s theatrical evocation of the 1917 revolution, The Storming of the Winter Palace, in which the act of performance practically matches the historical “reconstruction.” In this de-fictionalization of a war-film genre, Tito himself acted as a symbolic guarantor of the historical “truthfulness.”
Despite the dramaturgical obscurity, bad plot and underdeveloped characters, accompanied by overwhelming pyrotechnical effects, Bulajić offered a rather interesting profile of the Partisan heroic collective, marred by a stereotypical shape of their rivals. While the Germans are portrayed as cold-blooded murderers who bomb innocent civilians, arrogant Italians offered a repenting Capt. Riva, who defects to partisans in order to fight for “Italy without fascism” – probably as a trade-off meant to please the aforementioned Italian co-producers of Neretva. Quite expectedly, Axis soldiers are overshadowed by partisans who look like a fearless army drawing strength from their unity with the proud ordinary people. The director insists on the humanity and sacrifice of the partisans pursuing protection of the wounded, although they significantly impede maneuvering. Throughout the film, Tito’s soldiers make important decisions in the spirit of democracy and justice; the ultimate decision is always made after a group discussion. Partisans are also depicted as “strict” judges: one of them is stripped of his rank and threatened to be court-martialed after shooting imprisoned enemies who killed his best friend. These scenes served a double purpose: they ensured the viewer that wartime leaders have not made decisions arbitrarily and dictatorially, as was common in the USSR; and suggest that partisans punished their own for any crime, whether petty or serious. The partisan unity is based on Tito’s concept of organic Yugoslavism, a would-be harmonious symbiosis of national specificity and affective attachment to the Yugoslav federal community. When reading a proclamation at the beginning of Neretva, a partisan greets his “brothers, Yugoslav nations, Serbs, Macedonians, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins and Muslims.” Note how Neretva does not reflect an existence of the unified Yugoslav nation, but the right to diversity between nations, leaving a lot of space for the surge of nationalisms.
The main guest at the premiere in Sarajevo in 1969 was Tito himself, who spoke favorably of the film. After the film entered the cinemas, Bulajić tried to increase viewership by intensifying its promotion. Slightly unexpectedly, the first sharp attack at Neretva came from the film critic of leading Belgrade daily newspaper Politika, Milutin Čolić, who was soon followed by other colleagues from Belgrade and Zagreb. Soon after it became clear that wishes for Neretva being the most popular film in Yugoslav history would not come true. As an illustration, according to the box office reports from Serbia – one of the Yugoslav republics at the time – in 1969 only 276,290 viewers saw the film, 100,000 less than the most popular Yugoslav film that year. The expectations of a great success on the international market did not pan out, causing a lot of unpleasant questions for ć about the film budget and igniting a scandalous TV panel Big (expensive) projects in the Yugoslav cinematography shot and subsequently banned in Zagreb in 1975. The speakers indirectly called out Bulajić in a group of directors who were making expensive films based on undeveloped scripts, mostly because they thought the number of the Yugoslav films made after 1969 sharply decreased due to the financial failure of Neretva. It seems that even Tito himself was reluctant to save Bulajić after his fiasco, because the next Yugoslav war spectacle, Sutjeska (1972), was directed by Bulajić ’s first assistant.
Yet after all it cannot be said that Neretva did not help the international affirmation of Yugoslavia. The film was exported to 80 countries and popularized partisan freedom fight. It almost won the Academy Award for the best foreign picture, losing it only to the Greek film Z, which led the star Ljubiša Samardžić to say that Neretva had not won an Oscar only because the film came from a relatively small, Communist country. It is interesting, though, that state officials did not the prevent the demythization of Neretva, allowing debate about the limits and purpose of a state project. In the end, despite the obvious flaws Neretva became an important cultural artifact of Tito’s Yugoslavia, certainly the one that shaped the perception of the partisan movement in the following decades.
In conclusion, I would argue that by re-playing the historical battle and the glorification of equally represented individual nations Bulajić aimed at reminding the Yugoslav youth born after the war of how important World War II really was for the creation of their homeland. He once said that 70 per cent of the moviegoers who watched Neretva in the Yugoslav cinemas were younger than 40. Many pupils, students and soldiers went to watch the film in organized groups, thus transforming cinemas into a kind of temples where young people without war memories watched Bulajić ’s motion pictures as frescos of the socialist political religion. The reasons for which neither Neretva, nor other Yugoslav war spectacles shaped the faith in historical importance of WWII in the way American and Soviet war films did are ideological and political. Yugoslav spectacles simply lacked the sensitivity for the negative aspect of the partisan movement, which consequently simplified their outlook. As time went by and other issues (nationalist and economic) caught the attention of Yugoslav politicians and their interest in the ideological instrumentalization of the war films dwindled more and more. It is also possible that the inherent tragism and pathos Bulajić emphasized so much were simply not entertaining enough for his audience. What is even more probable is that a year before the film’s premiere, in the turbulent 1968 marked by the Belgrade student protests and the rise of nationalism in different parts of Yugoslavia, many people clearly saw how fragile octogenarian Tito and his regime were. Paradoxically, at the time of its theatrical release Neretva was an already outdated tribute to a concept of “brotherhood and unity” that would be so fiercely destroyed in the 1990s.