Director: Emir Kusturica
Production: CiBY 2000 (France), Pandora Film (Germany), Novo Film (Hungary), with the participation of Radio-TV-Serbia, Komuna-Belgrade and Chaplain Films (Bulgaria); color; 35 mm; running time: 167 minutes (some prints are 192 minutes). Released 19 June 1995 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and 20 June 1997 in the United States;
Producers: Pierre Spengler (executive), Maksa Catovic, Karl Baumgartner; screenplay: Dusan Kovacevic with Emir Kusturica; photography: Vilko Filac; editor: Branka Ceperac; production design: Miljen Kreka Kljakovic; art directors: Branimir Babic, Vladislav Lasic; set design: Aleksandar Denic; costumes: Nebojsa Lipanovic; original music: Goran Bregovic.
Cast: Miki (Predrag) Manojlovic ( Marko ); Lazar Ristovski ( Petar Popara Crni — Blacky ); Mirjana Jokovic ( Natalija ); Slavko Stimac ( Ivan ); Ernst Stötzner ( Franz ); Srdjan Todorovic ( Jovan ); Mirjana Karanovic ( Vera ); Milena Pavlovic ( Jelena ); Danilo "Bata" Stojkovic ( Deda ); Davor Dujmovic-Perhan ( Bata ); Dr. Nele Karajlic ( Falling Gypsy ); Dragan Nikolic ( Film Director ); Emir Kusturica ( Arms Dealer ); and others.
Awards: Palme d'Or, Cannes International Film Festival, 1995; Best Foreign Language Film, Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, 1997.
Handke, Peter, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia , New York, 1997.
Norris, David, In the Wake of the Balkan Myth , London, 1999.
BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema , London, 2000.
Levy, Emmanuel, "Underground," in Variety (New York), 29 May-4 June 1995.
Finkielkraut, Alain, "L'imposture Kusturica," in Le Monde (Paris), 2 June 1995.
Malcolm, Derek, "The Surreal Sarajevan Dreamer," in Guardian (London), 29 June 1995.
"Propos de Emir Kusturica," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 492, June 1995.
Zizek, Slavoj, "Multiculturalism, or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism," in New Left Review , no. 225, September-October 1995.
Kusturica, Emir, "Mon imposture," in Le Monde (Paris), 26 October 1995.
Gopnik, Adam, "Cinéma Disputé," in The New Yorker , 5 February 1996.
Hedges, Chris, "Belgrade Journal: Scathing 'Conscience' of Balkans Spares no One. An interview with Dusan Kovacevic," in The New York Times , 8 February 1996.
Robinson, David, "A Tunnel Vision of War: An Interview with Emir Kusturica," in The Times (London), 5 March 1996.
Yates, Robert, "Gone Underground," in The Guardian (London), 7 March 1996.
Maslin, Janet, "From Former Yugoslavia, Revelry with Allegory," in New York Times , 12 October 1996.
Dieckmann, Katherine, "When Kusturica Was Away on Business," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 33, no. 5, 19 September 1997.
Turan, Kenneth, "Sarajevan's Journey from Cinema Hero to 'Traitor,"' in Los Angeles Times , 6 October 1997.
Iordanova, Dina, "Kusturica's Underground (1995): Historical Allegory or Propaganda," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and TV (Hants), vol. 19, no. 1, 1999.
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Underground is a historical film exploring the violent state of affairs in Yugoslavia. The film's narrative spans over five decades, highlighting episodes taking place in 1941, 1961, and 1993. Real events are combined with fictional historical encounters and occurrences. Documentary footage of selected moments of Yugoslav history is used as a background against which the fictional protagonists mingle with real historical personalities à la Forrest Gump. The film is characterized by elaborate scenes, ornate props, and a haunting musical score. Visually, the film is very dark, shot mostly in various shades of brown. There is even a shot taken from an unborn baby's point of view, watching out of the darkness of the womb. The film leaves a lasting and unsettling impression.
Underground is screenwriter Dusan Kovacevic's and director Emir Kusturica's personal take on Yugoslav history. In the film they follow closely the lives of three protagonists—Marko, a cunning cynic; Blacky, an artless dunce; and Natalia, an opportunistic blonde— who are shown at various stages of their lives that largely coincide with the highlighted moments of Yugoslav history. Marko and Blacky both have a crush on Natalia, and many of their actions are determined by this romantic rivalry. The somber backdrop to these sensual affairs, however, is a war with no end.
In the first part, called "War," which opens with the Nazi bombing of Belgrade in 1941, Marko, an energetic black marketeer, takes a group of friends and relatives to a cellar which he has equipped as an air-raid shelter. It soon turns out that he has planned the whole rescue operation with the intention of enslaving the people in the cellar. Above ground, Marko and Blacky complete a series of reckless burglaries that they present as motivated by anti-Fascist zeal. After performing a daring anti-Nazi stunt which is nothing else but another manifestation of a philanderer's showmanship, Marko gets rid of Blacky by sending him to "hide" in the cellar. He can finally claim Natalia exclusively for himself.
The events of the second part, "The Cold War," take place in 1961. In postwar communist Yugoslavia, Marko has become a celebrated poet, close to president Tito. He has married Natalia, and together they have created a mythology of themselves as brave anti-Fascists. A film is to be shot about their heroic experiences in the struggle. Simultaneously, Marko and Natalia still keep a large number of people, Blacky included, in the cellar. They trick them into thinking that the war goes on by playing soundtracks of Nazi bombings and Hitler's speeches. They use them as slave labor to manufacture arms that Marko trades internationally. One day Marko and Natalia descend to the cellar to attend the wedding of Blacky's son. Sweaty drunkenness reigns over this claustrophobic celebration and the wedding guests, all intoxicated, end up fighting over unsettled accounts. In the turmoil, the walls of the cellar crumble. The members of the wedding disperse in disarray and most of the enslaved inhabitants of the underground run away. Blacky and his son climb above ground and end up at the shooting site of a film which is supposed to glorify the heroic past. Mistaking the set for reality and believing that World War II is still going on, they kill all the extras wearing German uniforms. The son drowns in the Danube, and Blacky is captured by the police. Marko and Natalia escape the coming trouble, blowing up the house and the cellar.
The third part, again called "War," is set in the 1990s at an unidentified battlefield, presumably Bosnia, where the protagonists cross paths one last time. Marko and Natalia have continued in international arms sales, and are wanted by Interpol. Blacky, still mourning the loss of his son thirty-five years earlier, is now in command of the paramilitary forces shelling a nearby city. In a final showdown Marko is killed by his own brother, Ivan, one of the people formerly confined in the underground. The paratroopers shoot Natalia. Blacky passes by without recognizing his former friends.
The film's epilogue offers a sharp contrast to this apocalyptic ending. In a utopian wedding scene all the protagonists come back to life and gather together for a wedding feast on the Danube's sunny shores. As they cheerfully celebrate, the piece of land on which they stand breaks apart from the mainland and quietly floats away. The wedding guests are too busy dancing and singing to notice that they are being carried away into an unknown destination.
This final scene is the defining image that screenwriter Kovacevic and director Kusturica had in mind for this project. They were determined to use it as a metaphor for the Yugoslav people, who, as Kusturica explained in a 1996 interview with David Robinson: "go away never really knowing what has happened to them. That is the way of the Balkan people. They never rationalize their past. Somehow the passion that leads them forward is not changed. I hope some day people may find better ways to use the passion they have so far persistently used to kill one another."
Underground was awarded the Golden Palm at the 1995 Cannes International Film Festival, adding to the previous Golden Palm for Kusturica's When Father Was Away on Business (1985) and his Best Director award for Time of the Gypsies (1989), and enhancing the director's reputation as a "Balkan Fellini." The award carried weight with international critics, most of whom saw the film as an esoteric piece of elitist cinema preoccupied with the messy state of Balkan affairs but nonetheless endorsed it. Underground , however, came under critical fire for the historical and political propositions upon which the story was built. The main accusation was that the film was a well-masked version of Serbian propaganda, presented at a time when Serbia was largely believed to be the aggressive force in the Yugoslav break-up war. Others charged that by making a film in Belgrade at the time when Serbia was at war with his own native land, a Sarajevan director like Kusturica was committing an act of betrayal. Many in his native Bosnia denounced him as an intellectual traitor who had taken the side of the aggressor. The media noise was significant, but the debate remained quite cryptic for larger audiences. The director was so upset by the controversy that he declared a withdrawal from filmmaking—a promise which he did not keep. He returned to cinema soon thereafter and continued shooting in Serbia and internationally.