A dark comedy that stretches across the 20th century in Yugoslavia, Underground is a film of excess that laughs derisively at the colossal waste that is war.
Among filmmakers of recent times who have had something important to say about the world predicament, a special place is held by Emir Kusturica, a Serbian writer and director who acts as witness to the tragic events and suffering in the Balkans. His ultimate statement was a 1995 film called Underground, an epic farce covering the history of Yugoslavia from its invasion by the Nazis, through the years of Tito, and ending with its fragmentation in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. I must emphasize that this is indeed a farce—Underground does not attempt to tell a realistic, believable story, but instead uses outrageous exaggeration and black humor to portray the idiocy and absurdity of wars, while retaining a certain back-handed affection for the fools who fight them.
The plot centers around a triangle—two best friends in the Communist anti-Nazi resistance both love the same woman. Blackie (Lazar Ristovski) is a brawling, charismatic fighter, while Marko (Miki Manojlovic) is an intellectual and mover in Party politics. Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) seems more interested in a German officer than in either of them. Blackie abducts her and plans a quick wedding, while Marko’s attraction to her leads him to contemplate betraying his friend. It would be giving away too much to go further—let’s just say that Marko’s schemes become increasingly bizarre, with consequences that satirize the entire social and political structure of the post-war Yugoslavian state.
This may sound heavy, but in fact Underground is extremely funny, and the humor is often broad and accessible. Manojlovic is especially good at contorting his face and body in ways that match the endless maneuvering of his mind. Ristovski’s unthinking and hard drinking vitality is also a hoot. Yet the laughter has a dark edge. Beneath Kusturica’s ridicule is a bitterness and sadness about the way people torment and destroy each other, never seeming to learn anything from it. This is what saves the film from being merely silly. Even when the weirdest things are happening, such as a chimpanzee climbing into a tank and firing on a wedding party (believe me, it would take too long to explain)—the movie has a solidity about it, a sense of people’s ties to one another and the incredible difficulty of their struggles.
The courage of Underground is that even though it has an epic scope, it doesn’t shrink before the horrors of the 20th century. Instead, Kusturica brushes them away as contemptible, laughable nonsense—terrible and costly and tragic, but still nonsense. As if to take it seriously was to give it power. He has no regard for factions, nations, or wars—even righteous ones. The only thing that matters is the connection people have with each other, their families and friends. This is a political movie that ultimately rejects politics as a fool’s game.
The dark satire Underground is available on DVD.