(1995) dir. Emir Kusturica
Epic, grand, funny, and rich, Underground is a fascinating and highly entertaining perspective on the experience and history of Yugoslavia going into and out of WWII, via Communist Party resistance, and into the Cold War and after. From the opening sequence, the character of this rollicking, almost Surrealist comic film plays a portrait of WWII quite unlike any other that I can think of.
The opening sequence, set in 1941, is a pair of drunken roustabouts, celebrating the character Blacky’s having joined the Communist Party, firing pistols randomly, and trailed by a nearly ever-present brass band, playing rousing Eastern European-themed marches, dances, and Polka-like tunes. I wish I had better words to describe it, but the nearly incessant brass band follows the characters throughout the movie, playing in all kinds of sequences from parties to funeral marches, also representing several running jokes. They add to the bouncy, comic atmosphere, one mixing only aspects of realism, or following a true history with a story that is highly metaphorical.
Blacky is a philaderer, a macho, womanizing electrician, a plebian, brought in by his best friend, Marko, into the resistance against the Nazis, building and operating a literally underground system of goods, a black market. But beyond that, Marko induces an entire community to operate in this underground cavern, building weapons for the resistance.
Marko is a resistance leader, also a wildman, but an intellectual, an organizer, the one who stays above ground, relaying between the two worlds.
Natalija is an actress, the desire of both Blacky and Marko, a flitting, amoral character, sleeping with the Germans, with the resistance leaders, pretty much whoever seems to be in power. These three characters seem to represent different ideologies and actions throughout the history of the War and the Cold War. Not so much Yugoslavia’s split personality, but the homogenity of the raging chaos and national spirit of the country besieged and under the control of the Communists.
Marko never tells the underground community that the War ended, keeping them “underground” while he climbed the ladder of the establishment, becoming Tito’s right hand man, evolving into the face of the Cold War life. Kusturica utilizes some Zelig (1983) or Forrest Gump (1994)-like techniques of editing Marko into historical footage as he rides the morally bankrupt establishment to his height in comfort and recognition.
The metaphor of the people living “underground” during the Cold War is obvious. Marko evolves from a philandering wild man into a passionate nationalist and militant. The ending, culminating near the Bosnian War, breaks up a bit, I would say, but the whole film has such an epic and fantastical wit and vision, it’s also quite poignant.
The comedy and the music and the characters, the social and historical critique…it’s rich, fun material. An excellent film. I am glad that it somehow stayed on my radar all these years and I am glad that I finally saw it.