PATRIOT MONTH #4: Underground, by Emir Kusturica (1995)

Type of Media: Film

“Once upon a time, there was a country…”

In 1992, Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica was in his late 30s and had already won a slew of European film awards. He was living in Paris when he got the news about his homeland. The constituent republics that made up Yugoslavia were seceding, one by one. Bosnia, the latest republic to begin secession, was attacked by Serbian militants. Artillery and snipers killed soldiers and civilians indiscriminately, and by the end of the four-year siege the death toll reached well over 10,000. Yugoslavia was no more. Kusturica’s response was the film Underground, an epic black comedy of frenzied partying and betrayal that captured the madness Kusturica saw in the Yugoslav Wars.

Underground starts in 1941, centering on best friends Marko and Blackey. They’re a pair of Yugoslav partisan fighters and hedonists, who spend their nights robbing Nazi shipments and carousing around Belgrade with a 10-piece brass band. Blackey is cheating on his wife with actress and on-again-off-again Nazi collaborator Natalija, with whom Marko is secretly in love. During the German bombing of Belgrade Marko hides Blackey and his other friends in his grandfather’s basement, but seeing an opportunity to steal Natalija away, Marko doesn’t tell them when the war ends. For twenty years he keeps up the illusion that the Nazis are still attacking Belgrade with fake news reports, air raid sirens, and melodramatic stories of the resistance, having the basement-dwellers manufacture weapons for the “partisan army” that he then sells on the black market. When Blackey and his underground-born son break free to the surface in 1961, they try to continue the fight that ended over a decade ago.

It’s a silly premise, and for the most part it’s treated as such. In the beginning of the movie Marko mugs the camera like an old silent film comedian, and Blackey demonstrates a cartoonish level of invulnerability (at one point he pulls the pin on a grenade while he’s locked inside a trunk and gets mildly injured). The brass band follows them around providing a soundtrack to their shenanigans, playing the same raucous song on repeat. But Underground eventually goes to incredibly dark places. Marko and Natalija, leading double lives as beloved Communist heroes and lying arms dealers, eventually grow sick of themselves. Blackey is strong but easily mislead, and can’t seem to fathom just how much Marko has taken from him by the time he gets out of the basement. 

Kusturica’s vision of Yugoslavia, more specifically Belgrade, is one of a festive multicultural society. People drink, go to the theatre, and speak several languages, accepting the ethnic differences between one another. In real life Yugoslavia’s identity as a whole wasn’t kept together with genuine brotherly love, but with aggressive campaigning from Yugoslavia’s authoritarian leader Josip Broz Tito. After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavs began identifying more with their individual republics like Croatia and Slovenia. Those nationalistic tendencies, along with feelings of Yugoslavia favoring Serbs over other ethnic groups, led to Yugoslavia’s violent breakup.

Underground clearly demonstrates a nostalgia for Yugoslavia and the values Kusturica ascribes to it, but the film seems to concede that it couldn’t last forever. It was too rife with opportunists, like Marko and Natalija, who were willing to lie to their countrymen for personal gain. Their exploitation causes Blackey to go mad, and he takes his rage out on anyone who slightly resembles the fascists he so hates. The ending shows a magical, happy reunion that represents an ideal Yugoslavia, but by the time the credits roll even that seems to show some cracks. No matter how good the circumstances, what is united will eventually divide, until it is united once again.

If you like dark comedies, especially ones that get a little crazy, Underground will be right up your alley. Fans of political allegories, as well, will find a lot to like here, especially if you lived through or studied the Yugoslav Wars.