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Belle Epoque, or the Last Waltz in Sarajevo Review
© Greg DeCuir Jr.
First Publication: KinoKultura 2009
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Belle Epoque, or the Last Waltz in Sarajevo by Nikola Stojanović is a historical film, which means it is film as history. But it is also film history (as in the study of film)—the work of a film historian. The historical context of the film is made explicit immediately, through the use of pre-credit intertitles questioning what happened in the turn-of-the-(20th )-century Balkans. A subsequent title of dedication “to the pioneers of film” marks the work as a love letter to cinema. In this case, the “belle époque” mentioned in the title refers most closely to the formative years of cinema. It is the subtitle “the last waltz in Sarajevo” that is aligned with the political history of the film. This extended opening intertitle sequence continues, posing the possibility that to understand the wars of secession in Yugoslavia at the end of the twentieth century, we can study the beginning of that same century, where its historical roots lie. So begins a unique film that is an attempt to resurrect history at the same time that, reflexively, the film’s very existence as a finished product is one of resurrected film history itself.

Prologue: 1910, June 15th, Sarajevo

The film proper opens with a classical iris shot, further affixing the early history of film as a central concern in the narrative. The camera then pans down to reveal an Italian cinematographer named Fabrizio Marinetti (Boro Stjepanović), who delivers a direct camera address in which he introduces himself to the film viewer, and also narrates a brief historical lesson regarding the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its capitulation to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Marinetti will function as the narrator for the rest of the film; the cinematographer as commentator, and cinematography as commentary. He is seen holding an original Lumière cinematographe in this opening shot, and Marinetti is the one who introduces Sarajevo to the device through his work as a theater operator. This introduction marks the decadence of the belle époque, or the last waltz in Sarajevo. The fall of a country’s independence is paired with the rise of cinematography.

The director as historian: Marinetti, like all early cinematographe operators, functions as director, cinematographer, and exhibitionist—in short, as an auteur. After his introduction, we witness an assassination attempt on the life of Duke Varešanin, the local governor, by the patriotic underground group “Young Bosnia.” (on 28 June 1914, they would go on to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne). Marinetti is there shooting with his camera. In a subsequent scene, he projects the Austro-Hungarian officially-authorized reconstruction of the event for an audience at his movie house. The viability of the director as historian is criticized, because the reconstruction that is projected is composed of exaggerated, comic techniques, hardly adhering to any existing journalistic ethics or having documentary value. This lays bare the fact that history reframed is an aesthetic endeavor, bringing us back closer to the notion that the film director and the historian are related. Aesthetics involve ethics; but this moral categorization does not describe the content that is represented, or even the disposition of the representer (director)—rather, it pertains to form. Good history is written or drawn deftly, if not accurately, and always by those in a position of power.

Anton Valić (Davor Janjić), the protagonist of the film, and his friend Jovanka Čabrinović (Snježana Martinović) are sitting in the audience watching the film. Though Anton is fascinated by the brilliance of this new mode of expression, Jovanka only sees its faults as a method of representing reality. She says that she does not care for the accuracy of the reconstruction, noting that the assassin did not smoke, and that there are other lies and mischaracterizations as well. At a later point in the film, when Anton invites her to go with him to see Max Linder comedies, she remarks that cinema should show truth, not lies; that it should teach and educate, not indulge and entertain. Jovanka stresses the moral and ethical responsibilities of cinema, and its participation in the goal of social effort. Frustrated, she gets up to leave, while Anton wanders into the projection booth. This is his first intimate contact with cinema, and Belle Epoque details a series of formative encounters in Anton’s life that propel him from a child to a man, losing his innocence in the process. Marinetti notices his fascination, and teaches him how to rewind film. But soon after, the strip in the projector begins to burn, quickly igniting the projector itself, and eventually engulfing the entire theater in flames. The combustible nature of film finds an equivalent in the combustible nature of the history that is being represented, and Anton’s trial by fire, his personal and professional maturation, begins.  

Part One: Maturing

The first act in the film opens with Anton’s profit-minded mother Paulina Metz-Valić (Radmila Živković) and her aristocratic brother discussing the business possibilities of opening their own cinema. However, her brother and his Austrian dinner guests are more interested in discussing how to break a weak Serbia in order to open a path to the East. Again, cinema is associated with political history; political history is commented on in the film through performance; performance is a key element of the film. The most ready-made symbol of the performative aspect is the character Erži Jevropa (Vita Mavrić). She’s the new Viennese star of the burlesque show run by Anton’s mother Paulina at her brothel the “Blue Star.”
Erži functions as a classical chorus in the dramatic construction. Her song and dance performance numbers have strong narrative associations, functioning as a restatement and commentary on dramatic action. In this sense, Erži is the second narrator of the film—both she and Marinetti represent entertaining attractions. Erži’s musical numbers recur throughout the body of the film, which marks her performances as structuring motifs.

The use of burlesque-style musical performances, which break the seamless representation of reality through a reflexive manner, can also be considered as a structuring motif of contemporary Serbian cinema itself. These performances serve narrative demands, but also function as socio-political commentary, as they are often embedded in films that probe the nuances of modern Serbian society. In the film Powder Keg by Goran Paskaljević, a musical performance recurs at the joints of an episodic narrative about life in contemporary Belgrade as it affects a wide variety of people. It must be noted that the title of the American release of this film was Cabaret Balkan (the name of the club which hosts the performances in the film), which speaks to the primacy of this structuring motif—life in the Balkans is like a cabaret, an exaggerated performance of absurd social codes and realities, and full of black humor as a method of relief for this explosive political and social powder keg. On The Beautiful Blue Danube (Na lepom plavom Dunavu, 2008) by Darko Bajić is also structured around a series of cabaret performances that take place on a boat which in effect is a floating brothel, making its way down the Danube from Vienna to Belgrade. The link to Belle Epoque, with its Viennese roots and the brothel as a site of business and political intrigue, paints a portrait of decadence that stretches from the early twentieth- to the early twenty-first centuries in the Balkans, also transforming the Balkans into a performing space.

Similar to the filmic reconstructions of historical events that Marinetti presents to his audiences, Erži’s performances reconstruct and reframe the events in the film itself, often to exaggerated and comedic effect (again, paralleled by the films Marinetti shows). In the beginning of the second act in the film, we witness a public demonstration championing unity and harmony between South Slavs, particularly Serbs and Croats. Immediately after that scene, Erži creates a grotesque performance about the uniqueness of Serbs and Croats, particularly in their separate views of politics, perhaps suggesting that the two are not meant to merge in unity and brotherhood. This reading is supported by the narrative of Erži’s performance, which features her and two dancers playing the roles of a Serb and a Croat simulating sex; the result of their union is a deformed baby with one eye, whom no one wants, holding a sign that reads “Yugoslav idea,” symbolizing a flawed nation just waiting to be produced.
These various levels of performance and representation co-exist with the larger aim of the film, which is a representation of the history of Anton Valić, the first cinematographer in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, and the history of pre-World War I Sarajevo. The resurrection of history is a song and dance; an aesthetic, as stated before, and Stojanović exposes this idea through his film and the signifying “waltz” of the subtitle.

Part Two: Coming of Age

The burlesque star Erži, symbolic of performance, is also symbolic of a different kind of action—revolutionary action; she works as a double agent for Young Bosnia and also the Austro-Hungarian Empire, playing both ends against the middle. As is often the case with someone who plays both ends against the middle, they get crushed. Erži is no exception. But the “Jevropa” in her name signifies Europe, which alludes to the idea that as a result of this impending war Europe is being destroyed, as is the “beautiful epoch” coming to a close at the dawn of the 20th century. Erži’s suicide at the conclusion of the second act is the bridge to the era of war that engulfed the world throughout the rest of the twentieth century. She commits suicide because she is given an order to assassinate an associate, which she cannot carry out, but also because she knows that the curtain is closing on the belle époque. Her final performance number in the film is a requiem on this theme, and its dramatic power and emotion brings a tear to Pauline’s eye as she watches.

Revolutionary action and revolutionaries are constantly evoked and associated with art and artists in Belle Epoque. Erži is the first such linkage. Luis de Berry (Alain Noury), the French cinematographer who brings Balkan War footage for the premiere of the Valićs’ new Apollo Theater, functions as a counter-revolutionary agent. Anton himself plays the role of a revolutionary agent by running messages and small favors for Jovanka, whose brother is associated with Young Bosnia. Anton is a budding film artist, who is seen early in the film drawing images for his zoetrope; and he also comes from an artistic background: his deceased father was a poet. Jovanka gives messages from Young Bosnia for Anton to transport in the form of poems—revolutionary thought equated with revolutionary art. Gavrilo Princip (Davor Dujmović), the patriotic assassin who kills Franz Ferdinand in an effort to liberate Bosnia and Herzegovina, is depicted as a nascent poet, fond of writing verses for his sweetheart.

Belle Epoque is portrayed as a beautiful age because of its art, and the indulgence in it, particularly the art of cinema. This is the central art form in the film, and also the key site of the battle for ideology. As mentioned, Jovanka prioritizes the pedagogical aspects of cinema. For her, cinema should take its place within the revolutionary struggle. De Berry feels that poetry mixed with cinema will create an art, which he tells Paulina. But she doesn’t see art or poetry, only entertainment and profit, as do her capitalist brother and his business cohorts. This struggle for film along the lines of politics, art, and commerce continues. As Belle Epoque shows the beginning of cinema already mired in this historical struggle, one recalls the famous first film presentation by the Lumière Brothers in 1895: The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (L’arriveé d’un train en Gare de la Ciotat). It is only fitting that the final shot of Stojanović’s film features a train leaving the station, carrying Anton and other soldiers off to war, while Marinetti films the departure with his cinematographe; and then, an iris out, echoing the opening shot. Before he leaves, Anton learns from Jovanka that the French film production company Éclair wants to buy his films. Commerce reigns supreme, in the face of war (though war is big business itself).  There is no more revolutionary poetry for Jovanka to deliver, and Anton asks her to be responsible for caring for his film tins instead. The struggle for the future of cinema is decided – a train that can never come back to the station again. 

Epilogue: 1990, July, Travnik, near Sarajevo

Belle Epoque itself is a lost film, recovered and assembled as history. In 1989, Stojanović began writing the scenario at the same time he began working on his doctoral studies in film history at the University of Sarajevo. Production began in Travnik, the city where Anton Valić was born, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 1990. Then, mirroring the film script, war broke out in Yugoslavia.
As there were no film laboratories in Sarajevo, the exposed stock had to be sent to Jadran Film in Zagreb, Croatia for developing. But phone lines couldn’t reach the city because of the war, and travel was impossible, so the film sat there in a refrigerator for the next 17 years, while the sound tracks were left in Sarajevo. Stojanović relocated to Belgrade at the time, also leaving his doctoral research and materials behind in Sarajevo. In 1995 he began his studies all over again at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, where he graduated in 2000 after completing a dissertation on the films of Akira Kurosawa (which was eventually published as a book). Stojanović worked as a film history professor at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts as time passed by.
Then, in 2007, he was able to retrieve his long lost film artifacts through the help of some benevolent producers who had an interest in seeing the film completed.  Thus, the long journey of the film was finally coming to an end. It was edited in time for a screening on 8 July at the First Annual Serbian Film Festival, held in Novi Sad in 2008. There, Belle Epoque won the Grand Prix for Best Film

  The Powder Keg (aka Cabaret Balkan)
  Belle Epoque, or the Last Waltz in Sarajevo
  Boro Stjepanovic
  Davor Dujmovic
  Darko Bajic
  Goran Paskaljevic
  Nikola Stojanovic
  Davor Janjic
  Radmila Zivkovic
  Vita Mavric
  Jadran Film d.d.
  Circles (Without the Squares)
  Read it on KinoKultura
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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