Yugoslavia has its Roma Città Aperta and its auteur is somewhere between Houdini and Popeye, the virtuosic resurrection-collage is "ornamented and conducted" by Dusan Makavejev. The objet trouvé is the first Serbian talkie, a 1942 melodrama of creaky naiveté and mysterious experimentation shot clandestinely under Nazi rule by a muscle-bound ham. In the occupied nation's fantasy, the stout acrobat (Dragoljub Aleksić) is "mother's little babe of steel," suspended over Belgrade by his teeth and defending his orphaned sweetheart's honor: "Whoever perceived his nerve, admired him without reserve." Twenty-five years later it is exhumed, shuffled, colored and interspersed with newsreel ruination and elegiac-ironic reflection, a thoroughgoing analysis and appreciation from one disjunctive daredevil to another. Snidely Whiplash skulks toward the virginal ingénue, and a cut gives the German offensive in vintage maps. Nedić's "peasant state," the escape-artist serenade (suspended cages, explosives, The Internationale), li'l Peter II at the train platform like Lubitsch's student prince. Film strips out of cardboard belts and wooden sandals, the showman upside-down on a pair of unicycles makes it work. Aleksić's own art is on full display: Love songs and thick skulls, abrupt asides to the camera, the paratactic insert that animates a photograph with popping biceps. In wintry '67, he dons a metallic corset and strolls on rooftops with comrades: "See how quickly time passes? Everything changes except us." Makavejev the reflexive archivist knows the pitfalls of nostalgia—one codger kisses a gravestone and gets bird crap on his lips. Still, his "new production of a good old film" is moved by the elderly tumbler still bending iron bars with his mouth, by the histrionic villainess with her top-hatted dance and the crabby cameraman who declares that "our modern cinema came out of my belly button." Tinting the flag's tricolor star directly on the black-and-white celluloid, he contemplates a land's political innocence not just unprotected but, for better or worse, irretrievably lost.
--- Fernando F. Croce