By far the biggest brat to sneak his way through Eastern Bloc culture during the New Wave era, Yugoslav bomb-thrower Dušan Makavejev wasn’t someone who took on his vocation with a somber air; I don’t know for sure how much fun he had making movies, but he seems to have been locked into a constant euphoria of half-soused, giggling movie love. He comprised a kind of one-man Yugoslav film movement at a time when the tense Communist nation barely had a global cultural identity of its own, and his filmography reads like a litany of post-Godardian social felonies, scattered with torched taboos and sly indictments of Soviet influence.
He’s most famous for “W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism” (1971), which sent him into exile, and “Sweet Movie” (1974), which was nothing if not a petulant apostate’s hocked loogie of revenge. But his earlier features, though just as disrespectful and fragmented with documentary asides, are gentler affairs and, I think, better movies. There’s no vomiting or papier-mâché penises, at least. Packaged together by Criterion in a set titled “Dušan Makavejev: Free Radical” for their Eclipse series and all blissfully brief, Makavejev’s first three features are dizzy with free love and romantic gravity, reflected in his spontaneous potpourri style of shooting and editing. Still, the absurd specter of totalitarianism, the love-me face of Lenin or Stalin, is always nearby, waiting for a cutaway joke. No filmmaker ever had so much high sport with the prevarications of Iron Curtain communism while the dictators were still striding the ramparts.
The first, “Man Is Not a Bird” (1965), established the template: working-class romance (a young hairdresser and a middle-aged engineer in town on assignment) begins, is tickled out for its suggestive relationship to modern life as Makavejev sees it (a hypnotist’s presentation is a detour, as are digressions into mock workers-unite agitprop), and then it ends. New Wave movies like this retain an awful lot of amperage from their newfound giddiness over sexual freedom, and it helps that Makavejev has a zesty eye for actresses — here, the saucy Milena Dravić holds the whole movie in her hands, on her way to being the closest thing Yugoslavia ever had to an Anna Karina. “Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator” (1967), arguably Makavejev’s most satisfying film, follows suit, this time pairing a Hungarian operator (the lusciously grinning Eva Ras) with a Muslim Turk rat-extermination manager, and ramping up the metafiction (thus, the history of rat infestations gets a detour, and clinical sex experts are given lecture time). It’s more of an active fugue than Godard managed in the ’60s, mixing educational films, news footage, bits of Vertov’s “Enthusiasm,” etc., and blithely collages up an irreverent portrait of what is, finally, a mundane and modern tragedy.
“Innocence Unprotected” (1968) is at once Makavejev’s most self-apparent movie, and his most complicated — it’s essentially a nonfiction visitation with a landmark Yugoslavic film of the same name, released in 1942 while the nation was occupied by the Germans, and the country’s first talkie. Still, you’d be hard pressed to call Makavejev’s “remake” a documentary — there are too many layers of mystery and duplicity being folded in on each other. Scrambled with the bones of this creaking and heretofore unseen landmark is ironically placed news footage from WWII, implicitly noting the stiff melodrama’s relationship with the problems of occupation and collaborationism, and new footage of the film’s surviving cast and crew performing vaudeville for us, having picnics on a co-star’s tombstone, and so on.
The history of both films’ star, the diminutive-yet-notorious acrobat/stuntman Dragoljub Aleksic, is caught up in the film’s reverb: the director and writer of the old film as well, Aleksic was considered pro-Nazi after the war, and lived under a cloud for decades. (Old stunt footage of the performer hanging from high wires is employed in both films, as is Aleksic’s human cannonball routine, which got at least one person killed and may be another reason for his infamy at home.) Makavejev has the guy here happily declaring his own innocence and insisting that this ludicrous, howlingly acted film was made secretly under Nazi noses, and considering how the shadow of collaboration poisoned the nation and incited the tribal slaughter of the early ’90s, the second “Innocence Unprotected” echoes with peculiar and chilling questions.