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Black Humour in Serbian Films of the Early Eighties

This was my MA dissertation (Birkbeck, 2005), examining the dark heart of laughter and the symbiotic relationship film has with its audiences, how it wires us to think and talk in certain ways, its cultural impact, and its myriad semiotic and cinematic legacies – a bungy jump into the Serbian (and YU) 1980s cinema scene, specifically, four films, and two filmmakers – Slobodan Šijan and Dušan Kovačević. Grateful for the guidance of my tutor prof. Laura Mulvey, as well as tickled for making several ace film scholars giggle watching these diamonds – which, other than graduating, was a true pleasure. Lucky, too, that I had support from the University of Novi Sad in disseminating questionnaires on film references – a big thank you to them, and special kudos to all the people who participated. One day I might programme this whole bonanza into a fest, the way I writ it – from Yugoslav Black Wave to Balkans ‘Black Humour Brand’, secure some funding, and screen the selection in cinemas (Belgrade to London). For now, please enjoy the words, deliciously.

Gallows with lighting rod.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg1

[Image: Bora Todorović, Jelisaveta Seka Sabljić, and Bogdan Diklić in the The Marathon Family, Slobodan Šijan, 1982]

London, October 2005

Black Humour in Serbian Films of the Early Eighties and Its Cultural Consequences: The Cinema of Slobodan Šijan and Dušan Kovačević

MA Dissertation. School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media, Birkbeck College, University of London, October 2005. Tutor: Prof. Laura Mulvey. Received Distinction.

Keywords: black humour, Serbian cinema, spectatorship, semiotics, film references, Freudian psychoanalysis, cultural codes, tragicomedy, camp, satire, film culture.

Author: © Milana Vujkov

Proofed by author Mar 2021.


The above quote, as suggested by Lichtenberg, himself, is used by André Breton as preface to his seminal Anthology of Black Humour (first published, foretellingly, in 1939). But, as it encompasses the subject of this work so adequately, in matter of a few words, it will serve well as an introduction and a reminder throughout our analysis of black humour, its uses in Serbian films of the early 1980s and the consequences of its use in Serbian society and its culture.

We will start off with my reasons for embarking on this journey of examination of how an influential film (or films) can potentially subtly transform cultural codes of a society, are particular generic forms more suited for this than others, and in what environmental circumstances or, rather, historical framework is this influence more likely to occur.

The undeniable fact that two films in particular, Who’s That Singing Over There? (Slobodan Šijan, 1980) and The Marathon Family (Slobodan Šijan, 1982), inspired an unceasing stream of references in everyday communication in last two decades is something that almost any person living in Serbia today can attest for. This is not an unheard-of postmodern phenomenon, but it is a fascinating one to investigate, nonetheless. Firstly, the references do not seem to be confined only to one generation of filmgoers, and secondly, they have apparently heavily influenced the subsequent artistic output of Serbian cinema, on the whole. 

There are two intriguing insights that helped define this premise, one is given by Milan Vlajčić, the distinguished Serbian film critic, the other by, an acclaimed theatre and cinema director Gorčin Stojanović.2 The former states that the ‘hellish black humour’ in Serbian films helped save the nation from ‘sinking’, the latter that, Šijan, the director of both aforementioned films, had great influence on the ‘Serbian gag film’ and that this influence is decidedly negative. The first comment is psychological, and socio-political, in nature, the second, aesthetic, but they both talk about cultural consequences of these works, thereby setting up a framework for our investigation.

Jerry Palmer in his The Logic of the Absurd argued that what could count as comic is dependant, in part, upon socio-cultural rules, conventions, and conditions, while Anthony Ciccone notes that laughter is generated on the basis of ‘an interpretation of the representation shaped both by textual cues and by institutional cues or conditions’.3 If this is so, then what happens when comic moments within a narrative become so well known in society that they result in comically insular in-jokes, wisecracks or gags? When put in context of other narratives, in a postmodern way, can they as easily become clichés?

If comedy is inherently more national than other forms of drama, since it depends on shared reflexes,4 then is the comic artist a conservative, as Wylie Sypher states in Comedy, a ‘reactionary who protects our self-esteem’?

Freud’s view on ‘gallows humour’, ‘the crudest case of humour’,5 in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, is that it involves (like all humour) a disavowal of the provocations of reality, thus constructing ‘the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability’.6 In the case of black humour the reality is grim indeed, since it usually involves death, destruction, severe humiliation, and madness, all of which, incidentally, are the leitmotivs recurring, respectively, in the four films we will be examining more closely: the above-mentioned Who’s That Singing Over There? (1980) and The Marathon Family (1982), followed by the Balkan Spy (Dušan Kovačević, 1981) and Strangler vs. Strangler (Slobodan Šijan, 1984).

Using Freudian terminology, Breton describes black humour as thus:

“[…] the revenge of the pleasure principle (attached to the superego) over the reality principle (attached to the ego) […] The hostility of the hyper moral superego towards the ego is thus transferred to the utterly amoral id and gives its destructive tendencies free reign.”7

It is, therefore, one of the main purposes of this work to argue on the behalf of the artists, juxtaposing the perceived intentions of the filmmakers with the evidence of the cultural consequences of their work. If their comedy, in hindsight, might be seen as reactionary, due to use of cultural stereotypes, it was certainly subversive at the time the films were made in, the Yugoslavia of the early 1980s. For sure, the breaking of convention, as well as aesthetic and ideological stereotypes, is itself a conventional generic requirement,8 but the effect the films had was such that their covert revolutionary potential cannot be easily dismissed.

“Understatement seems to be the key to comic film success. In a form in which intelligence plays such an important role, it is a mistake to insult the audience’s intelligence.”9

The methods used in this work will be based on Freudian psychoanalysis, as it proves to be most useful in treating our subject, socio-political, semiotic, but restricted only to defining the semiotics of humour, based on several new as well as a few ‘dated’ theories on comedy and humour, with generic analysis. Although for the purposes of examination of cultural consequences, a survey was conducted using a questionnaire containing ten quotes from the above-mentioned films, their recognition and utilisation, we will not be entering the vast field of semantic and semiotic analysis of their symbolism, since the scope of this work will not permit it. Also, regrettably, we will only briefly examine the films’ cinematic antecedents, the influences on these works of other filmmakers and their styles, both domestic and international, since we have space only for a detailed analysis of their cinema decedents, in national terms, and their cultural heritage. 

However, a short presentation of the history of comedy, the development of theories on comedy and humour (with overall emphasis on black humour), and the definition of terms used in this study, is necessary in establishing the groundwork for further analysis, and will be dealt with in the following chapter.

Comedy History and Contemporary Theories on Humour

It seems a daunting task to try and summarize in a few paragraphs such a vast area as is the history of comedy, and the theories on various uses of humour in a sociological milieu, and especially in narrative form. Since our topic is black humour, in particular, and its use, foremostly, in the generic form of comedy, we will try to narrow our presentation in that context.

Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.

Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius, Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)

Modes and Meanings

It will prove useful to specify and define a number of terms that will feature prominently in this work. In order to understand the various forms the comic takes, and its extensive field of reference, it is necessary first to distinguish it from the term ‘comedy’. Comedy is an aesthetic term, the comic being only one of comedy’s major generic criteria. The use of it can refer to a genre as a whole and also to particular works, a particular narrative form.

Parody is a mode of comedy, as is satire, farce, or slapstick. They have their own techniques and methods, a lot of them inherited form burlesque (a mode that mocked by imitation, and did not require a fixed narrative), but no particular form or structure. Parody uses and mocks aesthetic conventions, the conventions of another genre, while satire underlines and attacks mores and norms of a society. The reason for the frequent confusion between the terms, as Linda Hutcheon notes,10 is that parody can often be used for satirical purposes, as we shall discuss in the case of Strangler vs. Strangler (1984). Slapstick, initially a term describing an actual prop originating from the battacio of commedia dell’arte, now describes physical or broad comedy. Echoes of commedia dell’arte,11 with its stock characters and prescribed situations, are to be found in many Serbian films that followed Who’s That  Singing? (1980) and the Marathons (1982). We will further argue whether Šijan and Kovačević possibly inspired ‘a commedia dell’arte cinema’, with comic personas of the performers in the two films as basis for stock characters in subsequent works of other authors.

Farce, a more lowbrow mode of comedy, generally uses exaggeration, stereotyped characters in highly improbable situations, with less emphasis on plot, while maintaining a fast pace. A number of the most popular comedies in the last two decades of Serbian cinema all have elements of farce, We Are Not Angels (Srđan Dragojević, 1992) being the most critically acclaimed. Since Dragojević was hailed by Serbian film historians as heir to Kovačević and Šijan, his work will be discussed in depth later – but it is interesting to note here that his most recent film, a sequel to Angels (1992), We Are Not Angels 2 (Dragojević, 2005), broke all box-office records, but was snubbed by the trade press. It is a peculiar mode of comedy, ‘a parody of a farce’ or a parody of a ‘screwball comedy’, which makes distinctions of modes within one genre all that more difficult to pin down. The definition of screwball comedy,  ‘a sex comedy without the sex’, as Andrew Sarris dubbed it, is connected primarily with a type of American Hollywood system comedy, revived successfully in a couple of latter day films.12

Freud has two main categorisations for jokes, ‘verbal’ and ‘conceptual’ jokes – according to the technique of dealing with their material, and ‘tendentious’ and ‘innocent’ jokes, according to their purpose.15 ‘Innocent jokes’ derive their pleasure from the mere exercise of mental activity. ‘Tendentious’ ones involve an additional source of pleasure – an articulation of aggressive (hostile jokes) and erotic wishes (obscene jokes), and therefore enable the circumvention of repression.

According to Freud, parody, caricature and travesty, serve to unmask people and objects that lay claim to authority, that are somehow sublime.13 Caricature does this by degradation, emphasising a previously overlooked comic trait of its subject. Parody and travesty achieve degradation by replacing ‘exalted’ figures, or their words or actions, by inferior ones. Gags, wisecracks, and jokes differ from comic moments in that they are self-contained and can exist outside of a narrative context. Comic moments exist as a consequence of the characters and plot and, as Coursodon notes, lack the structured complexity of a gag.14 Jerry Palmer observed two elements of gags, the syllogism and the peripeteia, the logic and the aesthetic or narrative moments. As parts of longer narrative forms they can either be digressive or serve to further drive the plot.          

Theories on the properties of humour are as diverse, as they are numerous. In his 1908 essay on Humorism,  Luigi Pirandello had ventured to define the difference between the comic and humorous. Humorism is ‘a fusion of laughter and grief, a trespassing of the comic into the region of feeling.’16

André Breton sees black humour as the opposite of joviality, wit, or sarcasm. ‘Rather it is a partly macabre, partly ironic, often absurd turn of spirit that constitutes the mortal enemy of sentimentality.’17 Both these definitions will prove to be of particular importance when we discuss the cultural consequences of films analysed.

Henri Bergson in Laughter remarks that a humorist is a moralist disguised as a scientist.

“Sometimes we state what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what is actually being done; then we have irony […] we describe what is being done, and pretend to believe that this is just what ought to be done; such is often the method of humour.”18

Bergson also makes a distinction between the witty (spirituel) and the comic:

“A word is said to be comic when it makes us laugh at the person who utters it, and witty when it makes us laugh at a third party or at ourselves.”19

Freud similarly observes wit (jokes) and the comic. Jokes most commonly have a tripartite structure of address, the joker, his or her addressee, and the target or butt of the joke. The comic involves only the observer and the observed. He also finds humour distinct from both joking and the comic. In a point particularly emphasised by Breton, Freud sees humour as ‘a mode of thought that aims at saving itself the expenditure of feeling required by pain.’ 20

Elder Olsen differentiates between the ludicrous and the ridiculous: ‘where the agent is at fault, the action is ridiculous, where the agent is not to blame the action is ludicrous.’21 This will prove to be a useful tool for the categorisation of our films’ protagonists and hence help define the mode of comedy the films represent.

Finally, we conclude this brief introduction of terms related to the comic with another observation from Breton’s Anthology, that on the work of Lewis Carroll, and the area of the absurd (meaningless, nonsensical activity):

“[…] the mind placed before any kind of difficulty, can find an ideal outlet in the absurd. Accommodation to the absurd readmits adults to the mysterious realm inhabited by children. Children’s games [serve] as a lost means of reconciling action and reverie so as to achieve organic satisfaction, thus regain their dignity and validity.”22

History of ‘Tragicomedy’ and Black Humour

We will focus in this chapter on the origins of the particular fusion of Comedy and Tragedy that gave birth to the essentially twentieth century hybrid genre that is ‘tragicomedy’, ‘black comedy’ or ‘dark comedy’.23

Recognised by the Ancient Greeks as two of the seven arts, Comedy and Tragedy originate from a yet more ancient death and resurrection ceremonial, ‘the rite of killing the old year, the aged king, and bringing in the new season, the resurrection or initiation of the adolescent king’.24 Thus the connection between the two is established, according to Jungian terminology, in ‘collective images’ or archetypes. In Freud’s terms they are archaic remnants, ‘mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individuals own life […] inherited shapes of the human mind.’25

Wylie Sypher in The Meanings of Comedy, quotes Aristotle in Poetics:

“[..] at first both tragedy and comedy were improvisations, the one rising from Dithyramb, the other from phallic songs. […] comic writer presenting men as ‘worse than they are’, the tragic writer as ‘better’, and the comic being a version of the Ludicrous- which in turn is a variety of the Ugly.”26

Socrates (renowned lover of mockery) claimed that anyone who can write comedy could write tragedy, just as well. Aristotle touched upon a crucial matter that was to ‘banish’ comedy to the realm of frivolous fodder for the ‘rabble’ in the centuries to come, remarking that tragedy was finally transformed from its satyric phase into a respected ‘stately’ form when it started to depict ‘noble actions’ from ‘noble people’, while comedy continued to deal with ‘meaner sorts of actions among the ignoble.’27 It was an ‘imitation of baser men.’28 Naturally, this turn of events resulted in the denouncing of comedy by moralist minds, from Plato to Rousseau to Ben Jonson.

Most contemporary theatrical theories are based on Aristotle’s Poetics, and the neoclassical theory and practice of the post-Renaissance period.29 They continued to further make distinctions between high and low comedy, the former being of narrative, and the latter of a non-narrative form. The model of structural comedy, first formulated by the 4th century grammarian Evanthius, revived by the Renaissance and the Neo-classicist, still remains as template for many contemporary comedies today.30 It will prove a useful model in analysing the four films that are the subject of this work – the ways they conform to and support this structure, and the specific way in which they differ.

Renaissance marked the emergence of the phrase tragicomedy, depicting a potentially tragic action that ended happily. The term is not acquired, according to John Fletcher (1608), ‘in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no comedy.’31 Gerald Mast notes that Shakespeare often ‘injects pathos in […] comedy at crucial moments.’32 Just as he alternates sentiment and farce to maintain comic distance.

In the twentieth century, the formerly obvious class distinctions among men began to shift, which resulted in the inevitable mirroring of this fact in the artistic output of contemporary artists. It has further led to the blurring of distinctions between genres of drama. As Breton notes in Anthology:

“[…] the concept we have today of poetry and art, insofar as it is determined by the needs of a given era and as it over determines them, has granted humour an importance that it could not claim before. Our whole modern sensibility is attuned to it […].”33

While for Henri Bergson comedy, famously, requires ‘an anaesthesia of the heart,’34 for according to him its appeal is solely to the intelligence of the beholder (‘the great civilizer’), George Meredith in his An Essay on Comedy concedes that ‘comedy can refine a human dilemma to a degree of pain.’35 This poses as one of the central issues this work hopes to bring to light: if tragedy appeals to our emotions, and comedy to our intellect, then what of the mix of the two? How do we perceive a tragic story within a comic framework, or a comic story within a tragic framework? And is there a difference in our perception of the two modes of tragicomedy?

Critic J.L. Styan, most helpfully, has named this hybrid a ‘dark comedy’ borrowing the term from Shakespearian criticism:

“Dark comedy is a drama which impels the spectator forward by stimulus to mind and heart, then distracts him, muddles him, so that time and time again he must review his own activity in watching the play.”36

This new mode of comedy does resemble the older type of tragicomedy, in France it was named  comédie larmoyante, tearful comedy,37 but in many ways it is distinctly different. André Breton and the surrealist movement championed this new flavour of comic based on primitive rites of initiation into the death and resurrection cycle of nature, and so did the futurists in Italy. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the futurist movement, in his Variety Theatre Manifesto,38 amongst numerable ways new forms of art would develop, mentions ‘caricatures of suffering and nostalgia’, a very apt description of black humour. When Breton’s Anthology was first published, the term ‘black humour’ did not exist in any dictionary and, yet, it is a very common term today.39

Although Breton decidedly designates Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) as the true initiator of the use of black humour, ‘gallows humour’, in literature, mentioning, as well, the likes of Marquis De Sade (1740-1814),40 Nietzsche (1844-1900), Baudelaire (1821-1867), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), the popularity of black humour and, hence, its acceptance in mainstream society, still remains a mostly 20th century affair.

For George Brandt, in Twentieth-century Comedy, ‘the twentieth century began on 10 December 1896 with the first of two performances that season of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Rex‘, a comedy about quite a clown figure with ‘a certain shabby attractiveness, criminal charm’, a ridiculous, monstrous usurper of the crown of a non-existent country.41 The play uncannily predicted a century filled with such comic figures, seemingly preposterous personas, causing mayhem and devastating tragedy on their path to absolute power. In Serbia the role was played in Belgrade’s Atelje 212 (1964) for a couple of years and to packed theatres by Zoran Radmilović one of the two most legendary actors of Serbian stage and screen. The other one is Danilo Bata Stojković, and both of them feature prominently in almost all the plays, or plays adapted to screen of Dušan Kovačević. They are also amongst the protagonists of three, of the four analysed films – the three that are adaptations of Kovačević’ theatre texts.

Twentieth century authors that have used black humour in their works, both in the cinema and the theatre, are too numerous to mention due to the scope of this work, especially since the boundaries of genres have been blurred, and black humour features prominently in works that are certainly not comedies by structure and form. But we will point out a couple of authors here, representatives of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’,42 since they have described their work as both comic and tragic.

Samuel Beckett names the English version of Waiting for Godot (1954) a ‘tragicomedy,’43 Eugène Ionseco his The Chairs (1952) -a ‘tragic farce.’44 Harold Pinter’s plays fall into this category as well, termed ‘comedies of menace’ by the press.45  

Cinematic influences on Šijan and Kovačević’s work primarily can be found in Hollywood cinema, in the bitter-sweet comedies of Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitch, and even Alfred Hitchcock‘s thrillers, which contain black humour undertones and, in particular, Frank Capra‘s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Charlie Chaplin‘s depiction of the macabre but charming serial killer in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a new, dark, twist on the tramp’s cinematic persona, and to a lesser extent, his legendary performance in The Great Dictator (1940), influenced an array of equally ludicrous dark characters in the artistic output of Šijan and Kovačević. A seminal film in terms of popular use of black humour in comedy is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – the depicting of a cataclysmic end of the human race in an upbeat way influenced Šijan in Strangler (1984) to parody the monstrous in a camp, but affectionate way. In Europe, Federico Fellini views his protagonists nostalgically, albeit in a decidedly black humoured fashion, especially in The Nights of Cabria (1957), Satyricon (1969), and Amacord (1973). Similar nostalgia is evident in all the four films analysed. Another example of influence would be the very evident black humour undercurrent in the films of Luis Buñuel and Ettore Scola, as in the certain amount of cruelty they project towards their protagonists. It is important here to mention the complete works of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974), which influenced generations of comedy filmmakers in depicting the absurd, likewise  Šijan and Kovačević. Gerald Mast, in The Comic Mind, significantly remarks that when contemporary comedy depicts matters of life and death, it does so by it not being ‘handled as if it were’. This comic device he views as crucial to leading the audience towards reflecting on the reasons of its ‘taking the supremely serious as trivial.’46

There will be more mention of national cinematic influences on Šijan and Kovačević’s films in the next chapter, while we conclude this one with an observation on the properties of 20h century laughter by George Brandt:

“Now when the auditorium is rocking it may be an earthquake right under our feet. [..] [we are] members of a society that’s palpably sick. Laughter used to confirm social norms and in that sense was conservative. Now it often becomes a means of insight into social contradictions and in that sense disturbs them.”47

The Films

I always said that we should sell off our land and build one grand family tomb, so at least there will be something we leave behind!

Danilo Bata Stojković as the poet ‘Che’ in How I Was Systematically Destroyed by Idiots (Slobodan Šijan, 1983)

Before embarking on the analysis of films, we must, firstly, mention a few of the influences the preceding national cinema output might have had on Šijan’s and Kovačević’s work. Secondly, we shall summarise the political climate of the time they were produced, Yugoslavia of the late 1970s and the early 1980s.

Black Wave to Black Humour Wave

The emergence of a new wave of films in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with a couple of politically significant events that greatly contributed to the content of the films made at the time, as well as with their cinematic destinies. In 1966, individual Yugoslav film enterprises received the statutory right to participate directly in cultural cooperation with other countries, which was, up to that point, unheard of in a state run cinema and, secondly, a few years earlier, independent groups of filmmakers were aloud by the state to compete with established enterprises for subsidies from the government film councils.48

Since the late 1960s were a time of vast left-wing student protests in, mostly, the Western world, and of substantial unrest in the Eastern Block, the political influence of these events had an inevitable effect on Yugoslav youth and intelligentsia. Almost all the authors of the critically acclaimed ‘Black Wave’ of Yugoslav cinema were one way or another involved in the student protests of 1968 in Belgrade, and other major cities in the country. These films were generally made as pieces of political provocation and were thoroughly satirical in tone. None were comedies per se, nevertheless elements of the Theatre of the Absurd, as well as the French New Wave were evident in their cinematic language, in setting up a direct communication with the viewer, along with the use of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt,49 in that they wanted to involve their audience both intellectually and emotionally. However, the most important facet of these films, in regards to our subject, is their ironical black humour, used as device for mocking the established norms of socialist society. The humour is black, because all the films of the ‘Black Wave’ tend to take one or several intellectual positions and then continue to ‘reduce [them] to horrifying nonsense.’50

Since the filmmakers were almost all decidedly left wing, their critical point of view focused on the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the ruling ‘Red Bourgeoisie’, as well as the proletariat and peasant’s often reactionary attitude towards social transformation. But, they would not have been as well accepted in the West, or as popular in the country, had they not depicted, simultaneously, a certain naiveté, callousness and pretentiousness of the ‘New Left’. The hip, uncompromising, protagonist of Plastic Jesus (Lazar Stojanović, 1971), a film banned, and released only in 1990 (the director imprisoned for three years), is actually quite spoiled in his anti-establishment fervour, and wails to his girlfriend (who supports him financially): ‘I can’t sleep like this, without a pillow! […] How long do we have to eat food from cans?’ In Dušan Makavejev‘s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1970),51 Milena (Milena Dravić), the sexual revolutionary, spouts simplistic presentations of Wilhelm Reich’s sexual politics, juxtaposed with Tuli Kupferberg caressing his rifle, the soundtrack of his song ‘Kill, kill, kill for peace!’ in the background.52

The most interesting film, in terms of influence on the Yugoslav filmmakers emerging into prominence in the early 1980s, and relating to the subject of black humour’s handling matters of life and death as mere trifles, is Aleksandar Petrović‘s Doomsday Is Near (1968), a French co-poroduction. In an ingenious twist in using distanciation devices, Petrović spins a tale of woe, set in a remote village in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, inspired by Dostoyevsky’s The Devils (1872), accompanied by jolly musical intermezzos’ rendition of the character’s misfortunes by a local Roma band. The use of Roma actors as ‘comic relief’, has subsequently become such a staple in Yugoslav, particularly Serbian cinema, that, in regards to Emir Kusturica’s worldwide acclaim, it might have well become an important part of the ‘Serbian black humour brand’. More of this line of reasoning is to come in the subsequent chapters, but it is important to note here that the use of a Dionysian ‘chorus’ interpreting the actions of ‘noblemen’, in their human drama, is certainly not a novelty. Wyle Sypher refers us to Nietzsche’s thoughts on this in Birth of Tragedy (1871):

“Greek drama was played at a point of conflict between our Apollonian and our Dionysian selves. The Apollonian self is reason (logos), while the unruly Dionysian self finds its voice in song (melos)- the song of the chorus. […] Who are the chorus? […] They are the satyr selves, the natural beings madly giving out the cries of joy and sorrow that arise from the vast cosmic night of primordial existence.”53

So, now we have a cinematic distanciation device that appeals to our emotions with songs of ‘joy and sorrow’, and not to our intellect’s cold logical observations. Nietzsche believed that we could only discover the truth of our existence in ‘the excesses of a Dionysian orgy, which is ecstasy as well as pain’.54 Most research on the development of the sense of humour in children stresses the importance of the child’s ‘ability to manipulate symbols and to the sudden defusing of anxiety and fear.’55 Freud’s description of the fundamental intention of humour, in general, supports this:

“Look! Here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children – just worth making a jest about!”56

One more important point we should touch upon in regards to the influence ‘Black Wave’ films might have had on Šijan and Kovačević’s work, is that they uniformly end in tragedy. Almost all their protagonists are either killed, or are killers. Milena in Mysteries (1970) is beheaded, the village idiot in the Doomsday (1968) gets lynched, Bora in Petrović’s I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967) kills his rival, ‘Jimmy’ Barka in When I Am Dead And Gone (Živojin Pavlović, 1967) is shot on a toilet seat in an absurd turn of events, and so on. Barka’s character is directly referenced in Who’s That Singing? (1980) by the same actor, Dragan Nikolić, whose provincial crooner is tone-deaf, like failed pop singer Barka and, like him, determined to find artistic success in the ‘big city’.

Following the ‘Black Wave’ came the ‘Prague School’ of Yugoslav filmmakers in the late 1970s and early 1980s,57 the most prominent name being Emir Kusturica, but neither Šijan nor Kovačević were part of that group. They both were trained in Belgrade, at the Academy of Fine and Dramatic Arts, respectively. Nevertheless, the dominance of ‘Prague School’ in Yugoslav cinema at the time was such, that their ‘attitude of critical accommodation rather than dialectical confrontation’58 affected all filmmakers of the period. In Šijan and Kovačević’s case, it probably made them think of more subversive ways of making comedies, using allegory, rather direct attack. Also, the spirit of the times, after Josip Broz Tito’s death in May 1980, was ripe for dramatic transformation that can only be achieved by seismic activity ‘within the system’. Ironically, the cult of Tito’s personality grew even stronger in the early eighties, supported by a confused oligarchy, to the point of macabre absurdity. Traditional annual ceremonies celebrating Tito’s birthday, ‘Youth Day Ceremonies’, still continued to be held after his demise – indeed for the next half a decade.           

Meanwhile, Yugoslavian society was entering its ‘golden era’, and although the specifically Yugoslav concept of self-management socialism proved to be somewhat utopian, and was often ‘mis-management’, still, it opened up possibilities of private initiative, palpably magnified freedom of expression – and most importantly, introduced a new freedom of movement. In the late 1970s, and throughout the whole decade of the 1980s, Yugoslavs became a globetrotting nation, and these fresh perspectives made the nation’s cinema audience a world-wise, cosmopolitan lot. And when a certain jadedness and ennui appears, camp becomes an appropriate way to ‘rock the boat’.

The New ‘Wacky’ Order

Before we embark on depicting the ways black humour works within the narrative structure of the four films to be analysed, we must go back a step and remind ourselves of the neoclassical model of comedy, which survived to this day and has its origins in the works of Evanthius:

“[…] a narrative comedy consists, or should consist, of the following components or functions in the following order: a protasis, or exposition, an epitasis, or complication, and a catastrophe, or resolution.”59

Catastasis, a further element of complication, was proposed during the Renaissance as an additional component in the structure following the epitasis. Catastrophe should consist of a peripaetia, a reversal of fortune, and anagnorsis, a transition from ignorance to knowledge.60 An important point to make in regards to these films, the one crucial to their black humour world-view, is that in the neoclassical theory the resolution is always a happy ending. Thus this structure is often applied to other generic forms that inevitably lead to a ‘Hollywood’ ending i.e. a happy ending. The twist in the tale here is in that none of these very classically constructed comedies – Strangler (1984) being a parody, Balkan Spy (1981) satire, Marathons (1982) between satire and slapstick) – has a happy ending. Indeed the endings are devastatingly tragic. It is no surprise then that Dušan Kovačević insists that in writing his work he always aims to write tragedy. It just ‘comes out’ as comedy.61 Since suspense and surprise are two types of narrative strategy inherent to comedy, does the final surprise carried out by tragic catastrophe (a pleonasm in modern terms) bring about only an anagnorsis, a revealing of knowledge, or an actual apotheosis, an epiphany? An epiphany can only result from a symbolic ‘slaying’ of the old ego, and rebirth of the new – from tragedy to comedy, ‘rolled’ into one.62 This, in effect, establishes a certain feeling of invulnerability, a moment of immortality in a mortal world. Breton in his Anthology again refers to Freud in this instance:

“Like wit and the comic, humour has in it a liberating element. But it has also something fine and elevating, which is lacking in the other two ways of deriving pleasure from intellectual activity […] what is fine about it is the triumph of narcissism, the ego’s victorious assertion of its own invulnerability. It refuses to be hurt by the arrows of reality or to be compelled to suffer. It insists that it is impervious to wounds dealt by the outside world, in fact, that these are merely occasions for affording it pleasure.”63

If this is so, how could it help explain the peculiar phenomena these films present in Serbian society, in that they are unceasingly interesting to ever more new generations of filmgoers, and in that phrases from the films, other than only being used as cinematic reference to similar situations in peoples everyday lives, became generalised? In a way, they became folk wisdom. What is the significance of the tragic moment being the final ‘punch-line’ of these comedies? Does the epiphany come after the viewing experience? Or does the fact that so many members of the audience repeatedly watch these films bring about a cathartic effect? We will be dealing with these issues when we talk about the cultural consequences of black humour in these cult films.

Who’s That Singing Over There? (1980)

(dir. Slobodan Šijan, scr. Dušan Kovačević)

Who’s That Singing Over There? (1980) depicts a bus journey to Belgrade of a group of provincial characters on the eve of the beginning of the Second World War, the day after which the Easter Sunday Nazi bombing of Yugoslavia ensued. In the course of their picaresque journey, they encounter several obstacles, all of which prolong the journey and are decidedly comical interludes, but at the same time serve as sinister warnings of the terror that is to come.64 The connotation of these images is that death awaits these picaresque heroes, thus ambivalent feelings are stirred in the audience. Dušan Kovačević notes that after the first screening of the film in autumn 1980, the audience came out of the cinema apparently confused. They did not instantly understand what they saw.65 The equivocal situation of these events generates the comedy, permitting two meanings at the same time, ‘one merely plausible, which is put forward by actors, the other real one, which is given by the public […].’65

Our protagonists encounter a military barricade on the road, an obvious alarm signal, but nevertheless agree to continue their journey. They decide to drive over a field, but encounter an old man that throws himself in front of their bus, demanding they pay him for the passage over his field. The driver disregards this, physically removing the diminutive obstacle from their way, only to be surprised by the arrival of his enormous children, who proceed with puncturing the tires of the bus. Along comes a funeral, which, in effect, is a true historical account of an assassination of a socialist schoolteacher, and the driver decides they should stay and pay their respects to the deceased. The funeral scene is further made ludicrous when the funeral procession is forced to run after the carriage, since the driver’s son, with a developmental disability, hits the horse with a large rock (to make it go faster). The solemn intermezzo of the funeral speech is then used by the group to spy on their fellow passengers, newlyweds, clumsily making love in the nearby forest.

The next obstacle in the epitasis is a run-down bridge, from where one of the passengers (a probable German spy) falls. He sinks, because his pockets were full of rocks, as one other passenger observes. The group, nevertheless, continues, having only retrieved the man’s hat. After a short break on the road, with singing and dancing, with the ‘sunken’ passenger suddenly reappearing, in further catastasis, their bus is confiscated by an army battalion, only to be returned the next day, but with the driver’s son drafted. The bus finally arrives in Belgrade just in time to be bombed. But before this happens, in peripaetia, the two Roma passengers are lynched by the travelling group, for they are wrongly accused of stealing another passenger’s purse. This eruption of violence is cut short by the sounds of German planes, and, finally, in anagnorsis, just before they are about to be killed, the passengers are given a sinister moment of logical reasoning. The only survivors are the Roma duo, who, in a couple of the musical ‘intermezzos’ of the film, serving as Brechtian device, the Dionysian chorus that sings of ‘joy and sorrow’, describe the true historical background of the story throughout, and through their awareness, are awarded a moment of epiphany.

The Marathon Family (1982)

(dir. Slobodan Šijan, scr. Dušan Kovačević)

When we talk of The Marathon Family (1982) the word camp serves as adequate description of certain artificiality, a theatrical quality of the narrative (after all, it was first written to be played in the theatre), but also to emphasise the dramatic, exaggerated, qualities of the storyline – as well as the characters. In this instance we connect the word camp more to a certain Expressionist aesthetic than, of course, to its immediate association to gay culture today. The 1980s, and New Romanticism in music and fashion, spurred in by the Glam Rock era, did mark the return to these qualities. Who’s That Singing? (1980) does not seem to have camp qualities, but all other three films analysed do. This will further help explain undeniable camp characteristics of the Serbian ‘black humour brand’, and its origins in the national psyche.

The film depicts six generations of men in a family of undertakers, the Topalović family (all are alive!), and their bickering throughout the epitasis of the story over the testament of the patriarch, and founder of the firm, who dies ‘in the flower of old age,’ as one relative coins it, after a century of vigorous entrepreneurship. The story is an allegory (as admitted by Kovačević) on the death of Josip Broz Tito, and the subsequent rivalry and power struggles that ensued between the heirs to his ‘throne’. In protasis, film begins with archival footage (a favourite device of Šijan’s, seen in the Strangler (1984), as well) establishing both comic climate and historical framework, but also the metaphorical point of the story.  It is set in the 1930s, and the footage shows a dying King of Yugoslavia, assassinated in Marseilles, who’s alleged last words were: ‘Take care of Yugoslavia for me!’ The last testament words of Pantelija (the dead patriarch), on the other hand, were: ‘Everything I have I leave to myself.’ He then continues to describe his family as worthless and idiotic. This pun is very politically specific, since, after Tito’s death, all his vast property was still labelled ‘Tito’s property’, as if he were still alive.

The mode of comedy this work presents verges between satire and slapstick, since it relies on both attacking societal structures, and physical and verbal puns, relying heavily on gags. It uses all the three Bergsonian methods of light comedy, repetition, inversion, and reciprocal interference of series (the equivocal situation).66 An example would be the family first bullying one another in sequence of seniority – towards the end of the film, in catastasis, it is reverse. The narrative revolves around the feud between two warring families, as well, the ‘undertakers’ and the ‘grave-diggers’, who used to do business together, but end up as sworn enemies (a prophetic allegory that predicted the 1990s war amongst the Yugoslav nations!).

They are repeatedly represented by mise-en-scène that exaggerates the mechanical qualities of the ‘machinery’ they became part of. Bergson also notes that underlining something ‘mechanical in something living’ is the very essence of the comic. In fact, Maksimilijan, the second generation, is almost completely mechanical – he drives his wheelchair like a madman and communicates only with his son – and through the sounds of a petite foghorn.

“Any arrangement of acts and events is comic that gives us, in a single combination, the illusion of life and the distinct impression of a mechanical arrangement.”67

The characters deal with matters such as death, murder and villainy in a casual, jaded and cavalier manner. ‘What’s with Mr. Rajković?’ Laki (the fifth generation), feigning naivety and concern, asks his father, after he has run down the said gentleman. ‘Nothing, anymore. You killed him like a rabbit.’ After a family friend, Đenka, a local cinema enthusiast and pornographer, gets accidentally incinerated fixing the family’s malfunctioning new crematorium (‘I’ve seen these in Germany recently’ he notes, ‘Very modern.‘), Aksentije, the third generation, comments: ‘Only his buttons remain! He really fixed it well!’ When the family tries to dispose of an inconvenient corpse in a local well, they find an old man (the same non-professional actor playing the old man on the field in Who’s That Singing? (1980)) coming out of the well, begging them to go elsewhere, because everybody has got the same idea, and his well is already full of dead people. When Aksentije accidentally falls into the open grave at Pantelija’s funeral, the youngest Topalović comments: ‘It’s not even worth his while to get out’.

The reason the audience is led to perceive the same acts in a similar way, as Jerry Palmer notes, is due to the filmmaker’s ‘marking of events, actions, and characters with a degree of implausibility sufficient to ensure that they are not taken seriously’.68

The more the surprise that in the catastrophe, the timid, nerdy, dissatisfied youngest son Mirko, generation six, ‘looses the plot’ literally, and in peripaetia moves this classical comedy into the realms of tragedy. He strangles his fiancée Kristina, the daughter of Bili Python, the rival grave-digging gang leader, when, in the moment of anagnorsis, he catches her in flagrante with amateur cineaste Đenka, after being coxed by the latter into filming a soft porno bathing sequence à la Heddy Lamar’s famous cinematic moment. He then rallies his family, suddenly reversing roles of superiority, and true mayhem ensues. Both houses are burnt to the ground, he kills Bili, but we are not shown Topalovićs’ family destiny, since the film stock, metaphorically, starts to burn. This serves as a fine and quite sinister distanciation device, and since the audience knows the rest of the story well, having lived it, can serve as basis for a possible epiphany for the audience.

The next two films we will discuss more briefly, since they were not a collaboration of Kovačević and Šijan, but were done separately. They present well the difference in sensibility of the two filmmakers, Kovačević focusing on contemporary social satire, and Šijan on aesthetics, genre distinctions, and parody. Thus, the visual style of Balkan Spy (1981) is more sedate, static and theatrical, while Šijan’s campness and visual virtuosity is given full swing by Nebojša Pajkić‘s Strangler (1984) text, co-scripted by Šijan himself.

 Balkan Spy (1981)

(dir. Dušan Kovačević, Božidar Nikolić, scr. Dušan Kovačević)

The Balkan Spy (1981) deals with a very important, potentially explosive social theme, at the time of its making, still a current issue in Serbia’s post-civil war society. It is about social paranoia in a time ‘when everybody is suspicious’ as Kovačević notes. The central protagonist Ilija is very keen to prove his loyalty to the authorities, since he has a dark secret: he was jailed in his youth in Tito’s version of the Gulag – Goli Otok, for supporting the Commintern and Stalin at the time of great divide between Soviet and Yugoslavian Communist Parties. He, thus, strives to become a ‘model citizen’, in a way that he perceives the said term – vigilant to all potentially hostile activities towards the regime.

Due to constant financial difficulties, he sublets his garden house to a returning émigré from France. In the film’s protasis, after he gets called in for a casual police check-up, not uncommon at the time, and is asked a couple of questions about the tenant, he starts constructing outlandish conspiracy theories of the activities of the émigré. He then borrows money, buys surveillance equipment, takes unpaid leave from his job, and joined by his twin brother Đuro, dedicates his time entirely to following his suspect. The émigré is not, of course, a spy, but unfortunately his activities are open to be interpreted as such by a paranoid mind.69 This, in turn, fits well, narrative-wise, with one of the main postulates of comedy, the reciprocal interference of series.

“A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time […].”71

Also, as Bergson notes, the characters, in every stage of the series of misunderstandings, have their setting in an ‘appropriate series of events which [they] correctly interpret as far as [they] are concerned, and which give a key note to [their] words and actions’.70 What Ilija sees is a group of highly suspicious people looking at a blueprint, possibly of a nuclear plant – since one of them is a nuclear scientist. What Ilija’s tenant, eventually, sees is his landlord perched upon a tree, spying on him through binoculars, while he is discussing buying a new house. The same sort of situation is presented, in an accelerated manner of comic repetitio, throughout the film.

The reason Balkan Spy is foremost a ‘black comedy’ is that throughout the epitasis and the catastasis of the story the main protagonist is humiliated in his surveillance attempts to ever more intense degrees, and from a basically decent, but fearful man, becomes a ridiculous creature verging on the monstrous. Kidnapping his prey in the peripaetia, in the ‘reversal of fortune’ from the comical to the tragic, Ilija becomes the very likeness of his former torturers, humiliating others in his turn. ‘Stalin has killed your sort…’ he says to this supposedly Western spy, ‘but he didn’t kill you enough!’ Bergson comments that comic, in general, ‘is a species of degradation‘, since, according to him, laughter is incompatible with emotion.72 The anagnorsis for Ilija is the fact that his whole life has been spent in a lie.

Strangler vs. Strangler (1984)

(dir. Slobodan Šijan, scr. Nebojša Pajkić, Slobodan Šijan)

Strangler vs. Strangler (1984) is a camp parody on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and Šijan is a known Hitchcock aficionado. This film possibly deals with the darkest of subjects, of the four presented, serial killers and psychosis, but it does so in an affectionate, and, hence, disturbing way. ‘Transpose the solemn into the familiar and the result is parody’ Bergson says. The darkly humorous climate is instantly established at the beginning of the film with archive footage of the history of Belgrade’s maniacs, while the female narrator asks the audience, rhetorically, ‘What is it that really makes a metropolis?’ She concludes that only when Belgrade finally acquired a strangler ‘the king of all criminals’ the city was able to compete with such well-known crime centres, as are New York, London and Paris, for the coveted status of a metropolis. Of course, this being the ‘cosmopolitan’ 1980s in Yugoslavia, the story also serves as allegory for the nation’s need to be perceived as ‘worldly’ by the West, and is, therefore, a parody used for satirical purposes.

Pera Mitić is a lonely street florist, his specialty being carnations, a forty-eight year old bachelor, over 220 lb of weight, and over six feet tall. He lives with his mother, with whom he has an outrageously Oedipal relationship: she regularly bathes him, reads the Bible to him, and beats him up with a stick if he fails to sell enough carnations for the day. Fearful of his mother’s wrath, Pera is always keen to sell as much flowers as he can, but carnations are out of style in the 1980s, and young ladies look dismissively at them as a ‘lowly flower’.

His first blackout occurs when an especially arrogant ‘flower child’ declares that she hates carnations, throwing the whole bunch on the floor. Pera, humiliated, and in fear of his mother, strangles the unfortunate girl, and articulates his maxim: ‘So, you don’t like carnations? People who don’t like carnations, do not deserve to live.’ Strangling of various kinds is repeated throughout the epitasis, when in catastasis Pera finds his unlikely ‘double’, Spiridon Kopicl (Srđan Šaper), a nerdy, passive-aggressive, misogynist rock singer, who becomes fascinated by Pera’s ‘work’ and composes a pop song in his honour. Thereby a psychic connection between the two is established, which will eventually lead Pera to accidentally strangle his mother (because she did not let him listen to the song on television), and then impersonating her, Psycho-style, to embark on a duel with his ‘usurper’ in the catastrophe.

The Cultural Consequences

STAN: Dude, it isn’t cool, you shouldn’t joke about Kenny being dead. Enough time hasn’t passed. CARTMAN: So how long until we can joke about it? KYLE: 22.3 years. That’s how long it takes for something tragic to become funny. CARTMAN: Oh! That’s a long time to wait…

AIDS Is Finally Funny’, South Park (2004)

The time that needs to pass in the Balkans, for something tragic to become funny, is significantly shorter than a couple of decades. But the time needed for something tragically funny to become a cliché, takes a decidedly longer period. The cultural consequences of black humour in Šijan and Kovačević’s films discussed in this chapter are two-fold, as announced in the Introduction. The first are of a psychological and socio-political nature, and will be analysed through the results of a short survey conducted in June/July 2005. The second are of an aesthetic nature, i.e. they are observations on if, how, and why, did the analysed four films effect the Serbian cinematic output in the last two decades.

Vox Populi

The intention behind the survey conducted was to first see whether our initial general impression of the Serbian population using quotes from the aforementioned films had any substance in it. Since the sample of 216 responses to the survey is not significant enough to generate any advanced analysis of the results – a national survey would have been adequate in this instance, the results are of a descriptive nature and are treated as such. Also, since the matter at hand can not be quantified, or at least our attempts were not in that vein, a certain categorisation of answers was made, and through that, a descriptive analysis of percentages that each category (variable) generated.

The survey was dispatched through the Office of International Cooperation of the University of Novi Sad, Serbia and Montenegro, and thus the majority of the surveyed group are either students, or University educated professionals, an over-whelming 90%. The demographic, by gender, is spread fairly even, while the two dominant age groups are people in their 20s and 30s. Most of them either students or employed within social or technical fields.

The questionnaire in the survey was designed in the following manner: ten famous quotes from the four films were presented in mixed sequence, without revealing the titles of the films, while the people surveyed were asked to identify the films the quotes were from, to describe the scene whence they were uttered, and to describe ways, if any, of their own utilisation of the quote in everyday situations.

We will first discuss each quote, its denotative meaning within the narrative context of the film, along with its connotative meaning, the way this was transposed onto (comically) insular use in society, as well as describe the process with a few examples. We will then analyse which film and/or scene seems to be the most quoted, and connotations of which have been most generalised in everyday use. Through this we aim to understand which particular mode of black humour utilisation seems to be the most prevalent in our sample and, hopefully, explain why this is so.

‘Laki’s a bit nervous’ is a line uttered by Laki’s father in The Marathons (1982) to Bili Python, the gravediggers’ boss, in order to defuse a potentially violent situation between the two. Bili wants to collect a debt owed to him by the Topalović’s, threatening to ‘burn down their house‘, while the continuously ‘short-fused’ Laki is disturbed by the fact that his young son plans to marry Bili’s aged daughter with a bad reputation in town. Laki’s father further explains to Bili: ‘Pantelija just died, so [Laki] is quite devastated.’ To which Bili, with surprising compassion, and even more surprising shock (Pantelija is over a hundred years old) replies: ‘Really!’ And the conflict is thereby averted.

 An overwhelming 91% of the sample recognised the line, and half of those could identify the scene correctly, while 48% utilised the line in every day communication, mostly in an associative and, overwhelmingly, in generalised context. Associative ways of dealing with the material would be utilisation of the line in diffusing situations of potential conflict, or defining people that are comical when aggravated, as Laki is. Generalised way of using the line would be adapting it to any situation where there is inappropriate strain or nervousness displayed.72 The surveyed group uses it to depict the behaviour of their bosses, family, friends, or even certain politicians. Apparently, the line is often used with political connotations, or sampled in popular music, and was famously uttered by the Governor of the National Bank, a couple of years ago, of the then Prime Minister of Serbia, who was later assassinated.73     

Drive on Miško!’ is uttered by the father of bus driver Miško, a young man with a developmental disability, in Who’s That Singing? (1980), several times, always as encouragement to his son to show off his driving prowess, and to drive on, regardless of obstacles. At one point, the father claims to the passengers that Miško’s once drove 3km blindfolded, and annoyed by one passenger’s disbelief, he orders Miško to repeat the feat. The connotations of the (repeated) line are that although the father is fully aware of his son’s disability, he nonetheless still takes pride, and formidable risk, in urging his son to perform tasks of an uncertain ending, relying mostly on his belief in his son, and, most of all, luck.

The majority of the surveyed, 91%, as with the previous quote, recognised it along with the film; 65% of them described the scene correctly (10% approximately) and a further 70% actually utilises the line! It is mostly done in an associative way (46%), pertaining to a ride in some kind of vehicle and/or the incapability of a driver, encouraging movement nevertheless.74 A generalised way of using it would have not much to do specifically with vehicles, or movement, but is used to encourage reckless activity, foolish belief in the success of activities that are probably doomed to fail, or just to state that its ‘time to move on’.75  In a different sort of context, they are even used as snubs, as in ‘move away’ or ‘get lost’.76

 ‘The CIA, luv, the CIA…’ is a reply that Đuro, one of the twins in Balkan Spy (1981) utters to his brother’s wife, while they are all viewing the surveillance material, when she asks, dumbfounded, ‘Who is paying for all this?’ In the narrative context it is used to denote the brothers’ paranoia, but, connotatively, it serves as a depiction of a paranoid society, on the whole. Of the surveyed group 45% recognised the quote and the film source, 23% the correct scene, and around 17% uses it in everyday speech, mostly associatively, in order to point out certain inconsistencies in national or world affairs, to reveal a previously secret knowledge or source, or to mock such ‘conspirational qualities’ in people.77

‘My little swimmer’ is a line that Đenka in the Marathons (1982) delivers to Kristina, while he is filming her in a scene that is supposed to evoke a similar one to Heddy Lamar’s famous bathing sequence in Ecstasy (1933). 85 % of the surveyed recognise it and its source, while a further 80% can correctly describe the scene, and around 40% actually utilise it, half in an associative way, with the same sexual connotations, in situations with an erotic subtext,78 and the other half, with the sexual subtext lost, in a generalised way – to draw attention, in a humorous way, to somebody’s (or something’s) swimming.79

 ‘You don’t like carnations?’ is a line that Pera from the Strangler (1984) delivers before strangling one of his victims. Since he is continuously humiliated by women for his love of carnations (and, probably, his odd looks), Pera revenges himself upon the female gender, and establishes his absurd and ludicrous maxim: ‘People who don’t like carnations, do not deserve to live’. 67% of the surveyed, recognised the quote and source, 28% the actual scene, but only around 8% uses it in everyday speech, mostly generally, to emphasise their upset, in a camp way, of other people not appreciating their taste.80  A few percent use it associatively, as a light, comical threat to others who do not share their beliefs, and one person had actually had a pop song with that title.81

 ‘Let me go! I’ll call the children!’ is much more widely recognised, correctly in source by 85% of the surveyed group, and by scene, 81%, it is utilised by 24%, equally associatively and in a generalised way. The line is uttered by the diminutive old man protecting passage over his field in Who’s That Singing?(1980) and its connotations are that the apparently weak might not be so unprotected as is perceived by an uninformed observer, that they might just have ‘enormous children’ ready to defend them ‘just around the corner’. Associatively it is used in precisely that way,82 but also in a more generalised manner – its utilisation is used in comic (or not so comic) ‘defence’ or indications of important, and powerful, ‘connections’.83      

‘Eagle has crashed! Eagle has crashed!’ is a line, an ‘SOS’ Đuro utters into a Motorola in the Balkan Spy (1981), alerting his twin brother Ilija, when he falls off a tree in one of their espionage attempts. It denotes a failed action, a cry for help, and its connotations are more or less the same, but, used with comic distance, much more ridiculous in tone. 70% recognise the quote and its source, a further 55% the scene, and 22% use it in everyday communication, mostly in a generalised way, signalling some sort of failure,84 or associatively, urgent telephone contact, an actual physical fall, or an aborted mission, a failure at an exam, for example.85 It is also interesting to note that the line is, apparently, often used as a popular mobile ringtone.86 

‘Daddy would too.’ is uttered by Miško’s father in Who’s That Singing? (1980), as well, while the whole group of (male) voyeuristic passengers is watching their fellow newlywed passengers make love in the forest. Miško says: ‘Daddy, daddy, I want to do this!’ And his father concedes that he would, as well. This line is recognised by 78% of the surveyed group in source, and 75% in scene, and utilised by a surprising 46%. In an associative sense its undoubtedly erotic subtext is underlined, and is often used, mostly by men, as a sexual innuendo.87 But, interestingly, in a generalised way, the line loses its sexual connotations, and becomes a way of expressing a wish for the unobtainable, for the majority of the surveyed.88

 ‘Bili will dig you up, I swear!’ is uttered by Laki in the Marathons (1982), after the opening of Pantelija’s will, when he learns that the family has been disinherited, as a whole. It denotes resentment and revenge in that even Pantelija will be dug-up by the gravediggers, but connotatively, destruction and oblivion that will eventually befall even the mightiest of men. A majority of the surveyed recognise it and its film source, 80%, but only 28% the actual scene when it was uttered, and an even slighter 11% utilise it, evenly distributed between an associative and generalised way. Associatively it underlines the dark undercurrent of revenge in the text, albeit comically,89 and in a more generalised context it marks the determination of ‘finding something’, ‘digging it out’.

Give Perica his ear back!’ is a sentence that is repeated both by Pera and his dead mother (in Pera’s thoughts) throughout the strangler’s revenge spree, in which his main aim is to catch either Spiridon Kopicl, his ‘usurper’, or his new wife – who bit off Pera’s ear in defence, when Pera tried to strangle her. Other that the obvious denotative meaning, its connotation is that some things are so precious to one, that one will do anything to retrieve them. 54% of the surveyed recognises the line and the film, 21% the actual scene, but only 7% ever uses it, both associatively, and in a generalised way. Associatively it is used in a humorous, but passive-aggressive way, in that person that utters it wants something of his returned, but in a slightly threatening way. In a more generalised manner it is similar to the previous quote in that its aggressive subtext is lost, and it is used as a line uttered when people are either looking for something, or are asking for something of theirs to be returned. 90

Analysis of the ‘Popular Choice’

On the whole, however small our sample is, the survey did in effect establish the premise that a good part of the Serbian population, particularly the young, do use in their everyday communication some of the phrases and lines from the four analysed films and that this is a specifically Serbian (and maybe, ex-Yugoslavian) jargon since ‘funniness is not a property of the utterances themselves, but a property of circumstance (social and individual), […] thus subject to negotiation and dispute’.91 The fact that the majority of our surveyed group are in their 20s and 30s, establishes further the longevity of the films’ motifs in the national psyche, as well as their popularity. Another interesting observation of the survey indicates that the audience must have viewed the films at least several times, since they are, in majority, well acquainted with scenes of the films in question (especially ones from the Marathons (1982) and Who’s That Singing? (1980)) i.e. when the utterances occurred, for which, in logical conclusion, at least several viewings are necessary. Hence the use of gags and comic moments modelled after these scenes (or characters) in the subsequent cinematic output of Serbian cinema can be explained by Bergson’s observation on repetition:

“When a comic scene has been reproduced a number of times, it reaches the stage of being a classical type or model. It becomes amusing in itself, quite apart from the causes that render it amusing. Henceforth, new scenes, which are not amusing de jure, become amusing de facto, on account of their partial resemblance to this model. They call up in our mind a more or less confused image that we know to be comical. They range themselves in a category representing an officially recognised type of the comic.”92

With some of these lines, the comic event depicted by them is only funny because of its narrative context, such as is ‘Bili will dig you up…’, ‘Drive on Miško’, or ‘Laki is a bit nervous’, but several of them are less integral to the structure of the plot, and are self-contained as gags, since their ‘principal function is to be funny, and to occasion laughter’.93 These are ‘My little swimmer’, ‘Eagle has crashed!’ and ‘Daddy would too’, since they evoke comic, slapstick scenes of either physical gag (‘Eagle‘) or sexual ‘screwball’ pun (‘Swimmer’– eroticism, ‘Daddy’– voyeurism) that can be ‘inserted into virtually any film and still be funny, provided a referent [narrative, character] with similar traits has been introduced’.94

Meredith argues that the comic poet ‘dares to show us men and women coming into […] mutual likeness, [for] when they draw together in social life their minds grow liker,95 and indeed all the human inconsistencies and vices that feature in the abovementioned quotes draw a perfect caricature of the nation’s ‘dark’ traits: ‘Laki‘, the ‘short fuse’; ‘Drive on’, recklessness; ‘CIA’, a penchant for conspiracy theories, ‘Swimmer’, mocking of eroticism, ‘Carnations?’, opinionated outlook, ‘Children!’, nepotism, ‘Eagle!’, sense of failure, ‘Daddy’, sarcasm, ‘Bili’, vengefulness, and ‘Perica’, pig-headedness.

An ambivalent attitude towards these traits in the surveyed group can also be observed by a mixture of an identification with, and disavowal of the same. And since ego is, in a Lacanian sense, founded in alienation, constituted simultaneously in ‘a recognition of the likeness of an other, and in a recognition that the other is distinct’96 the total gestalt equation of the phenomena of the popularity of these lines in the nation would be one of both affection and shame, or even – hate. Wyle Sypher notes that by ‘disfiguring the hated person in caricature, comedy is able to elevate hatred into art’,97 further mentioning Swift’s grotesques yahoos as evidence of this. Taking into account that the historical period in Serbia that followed the one the films were made in, the 1990s, when Civil War raged in former Yugoslavia, when all the abovementioned ‘national’ traits were magnified, and the state of paranoia widespread, the utilisation of the lines from the analysed films was a probable ‘sublimation [of desires] which operates in such cases, [and is] the simultaneous product, brought on by trauma, of the need for (anal-sadistic) narcissistic fixation and of the social instincts […]’ 98 that still needed to be observed, even in a period of grave national crisis.  Furthermore, all of the comic moments in the abovementioned quotes have in them elements of Freud’s ‘tendentious’ jokes – articulation of aggressive ideas and erotic wishes, and are therefore adequate vehicles for the circumvention of repression, a ‘free discharge of repressed psychic energy or resentment through laughter’.99

According to Jerry Palmer, the two basic elements of the comic (as used in gags, the basic self-contained units of the comic),100 are the moment of disruptive surprise, and the moment of semantic and logical resolution, the peripeteia and the syllogism, which articulate ‘respectively the loss and the restoration of the position of power and control’.101 Neale, referring to Palmer’s formula, thus concludes:

“[…] the interplay between expectation and surprise, and sense and nonsense, [is] fundamental to the comic in its broadest sense, in which if the spectator’s position is finally one of power, it is [actually] a power entirely dependent upon the narration that constructs it.”102

Since the reality of the Serbian nation, throughout the last decade and a half, was decidedly black, it would be logical to assume that only black humour had enough potency to construct a restoration of the spectator’s superior position, in relation to his human inferiority within devastating circumstances he could not control. Since all the four films, in addition to being extremely fine pieces of filmmaking, depict (and predict) such reality, but in humorous terms, it could be that the nation’s obsession with these narratives comes from a place of vulnerability, of dependence upon them. Only within a context of these (and similar narratives) could the Serbian ‘national destiny’, or a particular individual destiny, have been viewed, through the use of comic distance, and the accommodation of the absurd, as Breton noted103 – with dignity and validity.

The Final Outcome- The Usual Suspects

If Šijan’s (and Kovačević’s) cinematic output negatively influenced Serbian cinema, giving birth to the ‘the Serbian gag film’, to paraphrase Gorčin Stojanović’s quote with which we started off this work, we must then view this (alleged) influence from a perspective stated above. A nation in need of validating its choices, and in need of reinstating its dignity, will inevitably consume that which will help uphold a sense of superiority towards its reality. This ingredient being black humour, it is the purpose of this analysis to also understand the way this has been conducted in Serbian film of the last decade and a half. Whether this was done in the Pirandellian104 sense of ‘a fusion of laughter and grief, trespassing of the comic into the region of feeling’,105 or in a Bretonian sense – that of black humour being ‘the opposite of joviality […] the mortal enemy of sentimentality’?106 Cathartic or nihilistic? Or both? Was it done through cliché or postmodern tribute? And if this influence, in turn, brought about the emergence of ‘commedia dell’arte cinema’ argued, as well, at the beginning of this work – was this the result of a natural ‘superimposition’ of the characters in the narratives of the four analysed films, so ingrained in the national psyche? Does the appearance in other narratives of these signifiers of secondary cinematic identification, in Christian Metz’s terms,107 bring about the feeling of familiarity the known, and beloved narratives evoke, and thus, the sought after comic relief?

In the late 1980s, and early 1990s, a couple of films could be described as influenced by, in particular, the Marathons (1982) and the Strangler (1984) – in that they were, in essence, social satires, but were visually executed with a certain sense of the Šijan camp, the theatrical, artificial and exaggerated style that the director introduced into Serbian cinema. This style being so well accepted by the public because it corresponded with some camp national traits, that could be detected through the analysis of the survey – the use of hyperbole and the dramatic in everyday communication. Three of the films are the works of one of the most acclaimed directors of the ‘Prague school’, Goran MarkovićThe Meeting Point (1989), based on a 1982 theatre text by Dušan Kovačević, which Kovačević also scripted, Tito and Me (1992) by the filmmaker’s own script, and the third, Tragedie Burlesque (1995), also scripted by Kovačević . These films came as consequence of the change of style for the director that was first encountered in the film All That Jack’s (1980) released the same year as Who’s That Singing? (1980), paralleling similar use of caricature as the latter, although in a contemporary setting, and use non-professional actors, to emphasise the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders’ of the story.

This device would soon emerge into a full-blown Dionysian chorus in the films of Emir Kusturica. Although, Kusturica’s use of non-professionals is in essence different than Šijan and Marković’s, in that his protagonists are often non-professionals – thus he cinematically establishes an ‘outsider’s’ view of reality, while in the films of the former two, the dramatic antics of an insular group of characters is observed, and punctuated by non-professionals.

The Meeting Point is a story paralleling the world of the deceased at the imaginary ‘meeting point’, somewhere on the ‘dark side’ of the Moon, and their living relatives. These two worlds are connected by a passage underneath the ruins of an ancient city, discovered by an elderly archaeologist who, in a fit of excitement over the find, dies briefly, but ‘returns from the dead’ revealing a number of secrets the living would rather hide. ‘Only when you die do you realise whom you had lived with’, remarks one of the ‘deceased’ on his way through the dark tunnels of the Underworld, this being one of the numerous black humour wisecracks the film is peppered with. Encountering his living wife, under the moonlight, another ‘deceased character’ utters: ‘Please come to me. It’s a hard death without you.’ ‘How?‘ his shocked widow asks. ‘Well, fall ill and die’.

Tito and me (1992), a much lighter affair, still has dark undertones. Depicting a young boy’s ‘bonding’ with the cult of Marshall Tito, and his ill-fated school trip ‘on the paths of the partisans’ to Josip Broz’s birthplace, it still ends with the suggested suicide of the boy’s sadistic schoolmaster, who took the ‘moral imperative’ of the journey a tad too seriously. Tragedie Burlesque (1995) follows the fortunes of a runaway group of psychiatric patients, but the tragedy that ensues through confrontations, deaths, and madness is performed in burlesque mode. In all the three films, almost complete casts of the Who’s That Singing?, and the Marathons are present, led by Danilo Bata Stojković, Kovačević’s favourite actor.

This is also the case with Kusturica’s Underground (1995), scripted by Kovačević, as well, which marks Kusturica’ stylistic turning point from ‘Prague School’ simplicity to utilisation of certain of Šijans’s dramatic devices, theatricality and, as well, a cast of ‘basic’ stock characters. Kusturica refers to Šijan’s work in a couple of instances, most directly in Black Cat, White Cat (1997) when his Roma crime lord antagonist points out a photograph of his dead father on the wall. The in-joke is that the actor involved, Srđan Todorović, is the son of Bora Todorović, who played the photographer and porno-enthusiast, Đenka, in The Marathons (1982), and the photograph on the wall is the exact same replica of the one Kristina swoons over, while playing her piano in the film. Another, similar reference, is made in the Black Bomber (1992), by Darko Bajić, where Srđan Todorović (again!), evokes his father’s comic persona in the Marathons, while in a bathtub, in passionate embrace, with a girlfriend: ‘My little swimmer’, he exclaims, enthusiastically.

There is such a multitude of visual and verbal references to the four analysed films in the works of other authors, during the decade of the 1990s, that it would be impossible here to note them all. But, one more requires mention. In Miša Radivojević‘s Between Heaven and Earth (1994), which is not a comedy, Aleksadar Berček, the actor who played ‘Miško’, the bus driver, in Who’s That Singing?, shouts out to another character, driving a speed-boat: ‘Drive on, Miško!’

An interesting film to mention, as well, in terms of influence of Šijan and Kovačević’s dark tales, depicted in absurd and camp way, is Dragan Kresoja‘s critically over-looked Full Moon Over Belgrade (1993). The story, revealing the secrets of the unknown vampire inhabitants of Belgrade, depicted quite affectionately and by the well-known cast of the ‘commedia dell’arte’ cinematic characters, serves as poignant allegory of the time when the ghosts of the past dominated the wartime present of Serbia.

 In 1992 a seminal film appeared that was probably as much the cause of the alleged birth of the ‘Serbian gag film’ as anything done by Šijan and Kovačević. Its title is We Are Not Angels (1992), and it was directed by Srđan Dragojević. It is different from the aforementioned films in that they represent the Pirandellian definition of the humorous; joy and sorrow being represented in equal measure in their narratives, and a certain postmodern sentiment a key note of them all.108    

In Dragojević’s subsequent work, a postmodern nihilism prevails, inaugurated by the opening scene of the Angels (1992), a light-weight camp comedy, a series of gags (with an actual happy ending), in which an angel and a devil make deals on human destinies. Heavily influenced in style by the highly critically acclaimed The Fall of Rock’n’Roll (1989) omnibus, which, in turn, was the direct descendant of the camp aesthetic of the Strangler (1984), the Angels start off with an attempted suicide. The angel insists on the suicide to be unsuccessful, and the man to survive, to which the devil exclaims: ‘Alive, yes, but paralysed. Come on, we made a deal!’

 In Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996), a war film, Dragojević exerts his nihilism even further, interrupting the tragic tale, with ‘comic relief’ moments, gags, in a sense. For example, when two junkies visit their comatose junkie ‘colleague’ in hospital, who volunteered into the army in order to get off drugs, they watch him longingly on the ‘drip’, while one of them exclaims: ‘It’s beautiful when a man’s dreams come true. All he ever wanted was a needle stuck in his veins for eternity, and look at him now.’ Images of sweet, absurd artificiality and horror intermingle throughout both Pretty Village, and The Wounds (1998), a striking depiction of underage criminals in Milošević’s Serbia. In the latter, one of the protagonist’s repeatedly coaxes his grandmother into taking drugs, first marihuana, then cocaine. The ‘high’ octogenarian then spills out dark disturbing secrets of her WW2 childhood, a time she was hounded by Ustashas (fascists in Croatia) brandishing knives – all the while smiling merrily.

After the fall of Slobodan Milošević’s regime, in October 2000, Serbia’s cinematic output, ironically, turned to the production of a preponderance of clichés. Having spawned several masterpieces in the decade of war and trauma, in the last couple of years, from 2000-2005, films that have appeared in Serbia’s cinemas have a tendency to be extremely similar to one another, referencing the notable films of the past two decades heavily (and most notably, the four films analysed in this work). Comedies, in particular, and most of them are generically comedies, tend to be a running series of gags, farcical in nature. A new generation of ‘commedia dell’arte’ cinema characters has entered the stage, built upon the legendary character traits of the dramatic personas inhabiting The Marathons and Who’s That Singing?, but without the spirit and the craft of their antecedents. Comedies like Boomerang (Dragan Marinković, 2001), with its ensemble cast of Balkan misfits, Jagoda in the Supermarket (Dušan Milić, 2003) produced by Kusturica, with a crazed war veteran taking the staff of an American supermarket in Belgrade hostage, and Falling into Paradise (Miloš Radović, 2002) set in spring 1999, and comically evaluating the trials and tribulations of Belgrade’s defiant inhabitants, deserve special mention, in that they at least try to build upon the legacy of Šijan and Kovačević work, rather than simply processing it.

The birth of the 21st century in Serbian cinema has, unfortunately, witnessed masters of the cinema craft, such as Kusturica and Dragojević, intentionally or unintentionally, parodying their own style in works such as Life is a Miracle (2004), and We Are No Angels 2 (2005), respectively. This leads to the conclusion that what sells is a certain ‘brand’ of humour, Kusturica’s Dionysian, and Dragojević’s Brechtian in nature. Both varieties established the new and increasingly grotesque hybrid that is the ‘Serbian black humour brand’, sellable to the West, up to a certain point.

While most of the comedies in the 1990s, along with the black humour references to Šijan and Kovačević’s work in films that were not generically comedies, were forms of a postmodern tribute, the new array of films in the early 2000s decidedly relies on clichés. But, we conclude, this is certainly through no fault of the two filmmakers. Rather, facing current reality of Serbia, that might be bleak, but certainly not black, anymore, both audience and artists are in a grave need of a new set of humour criteria. Still trapped in the passé narratives of yesterday, rather than evoking in their work black humour’s capacity for ‘absolute revolt of adolescence and the internal revolt of adulthood’, as Breton coined it – ‘the superior revolt of the mind’, 109 filmmakers and audiences equally seem stuck in indulging in juvenile pleasures of gross-out comedy and slapstick superficiality, sentimentally self-referencing the outstanding achievements of the past.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, the initial premise that instigated this research, that black humour in films of the early 1980s had significant cultural consequences in Serbian society as a whole, acting as a psychological ‘safety valve’ in troubled times and, in effect, altering codes of communication between its members, has been proven by concrete evidence within a theoretical framework presented throughout this work. If the conclusions are not as definite on the influence of analysed films on Serbian contemporary comedy, and general cinematic output, it is only because many cultural, historical and political factors in the past two decades affected Serbian cinema, Šijan and Kovčević’s work being an important influence – but not a decisive one. And if there exists a state of preponderance of clichés in Serbian cinema today, which is quite obvious even to an average cinemagoer in Serbia, the cinema of Šijan and Kovčević certainly did not influence this state of affairs. What their influence might be, in this instance, is that they provided a valuable commodity, a certain style so beloved by the public. Contemporary filmmakers’ imitation of that particular flavour of filmmaking is not only a form of flattery, but, also, of financial shrewdness, which, unfortunately, does not enhance artistry. And art is the building block of a culture.


Breton, André, Anthology of Black Humour (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997)

Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and their Relation to th Unconcious (London: Penguin Books, 1991)

Goulding, Daniel J., Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985)

Howarth, W. D. (ed), Comic Drama: The European Heritage (London: Methuen, 1978)

Jung, Carl G., Man and his Symbols, (London: Penguin Arkana, 1990)

Mast, Gerald, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979)

Metz, Christian, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier (London:Macmillan Press, 1982)

Monaco, James, How to Read a Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)

Neale, Stephan, Popular Film and Television Comedy (London, New York: Routledge, 1990)

Palmer, Jerry, The Logic of the Absurd: On Film and Television Comedy (London: BFI, 1987)

Stoil, Michael J., Balkan Cinema: Evolution After the Revolution (Ann Arbor, mI: UMI Research Press, 1982)

Sypher, Wylie (ed), Comedy: An Essay on Comedy, George Merdith; Laughter, Henri Bergson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, [1980] c 1956

Television Source: TV Series, On Serbian Film; The Colour of Darkness, 1988-2003 (Serbia and Montenegro, RTS, 2004); Episodes 1-18; Internet Sources: wikipedia.org, imdb.com


A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971, UK)

Amacord (Federico Fellini, 1973, Italy)

Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944, USA)

Balkan Spy (Dušan Kovačević, 1981, Yugoslavia)

Black Bomber (Darko Bajić,1992, Yugoslavia)

Boomerang (Dragan Marinković, 2001, Sebia and Montenegro)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964, USA)

Doomsday Is Near (Aleksandar Petrović,1968, Yugoslavia)

Falling into Paradise (Miloš Radović, 2002, Serbia and Montenegro)

Full Moon Over Belgrade (Dragan Kresoja, 1993, Yugoslavia)

How I Was Systematically Destroyed by Idiots (Slobodan Šijan, 1983, Yugoslavia)

I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrović, 1967, Yugoslavia)

Jagoda in the Supermarket (Dušan Milić, 2003, Serbia and Montenegro)

Life is a Miracle (Emir Kusturica, 2004, Serbia and Montenegro)

Love Affair, or the Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Dušan Makavejev, 1967, Yugoslavia)

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Terry Gilliam,1969, UK)

Monsieur Verdoux (Charlie Chaplin, 1947, USA)

Plastic Jesus (Lazar Stojanović, 1971, Yugoslavia)

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Dragojevic, 1996, Yugoslavia)

The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940, USA)

The Fall of Rock’n’Roll (Omnibus, 1989, Yugoslavia)

The Nights of Cabria (Federico Fellini 1957 Italy)

The Wounds (Dragojevic, 1998, Yugoslavia)

Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969, Italy)

Strangler vs. Strangler (Slobodan Šijan, 1984, Yugoslavia).

Tito and Me (Goran Marković,1992, Yugoslavia)

The Marathon Family (Slobodan Šijan, 1982, Serbia and Montenegro)

The Meeting Point (Goran Marković,1989, Yugoslavia)

Tragedie Burlesque (Goran Marković,1995, Yugoslavia)

Underground (Emir Kusturica,1995, Yugoslavia)

We Are Not Angels (Srdjan Dragojević, 1992, Yugoslavia)

We Are Not Angels 2 (Srdjan Dragojević, 2005, Yugoslavia)

When I Am Pale and Dead (Živojin Pavlović, 1967, Yugoslavia)

Who’s That Singing Over There? (Slobodan Šijan, 1980, Yugoslavia)

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev, 1970, Yugoslavia)


Dušan Kovačević (born 12 July, 1948 in Mrđenovac, Vojvodina, Serbia) is a writer, playwright, director, and academician. As of 2005 he was appointed as ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro in Lisbon, Portugal. He graduated from a gymnasium in Novi Sad and received a Bachelor’s Degree in dramaturgy from the University of Belgrade in 1973. From 1973 he worked as a dramatist at TV Beograd for five years. Since 1998, he has been the Artistic Director of Zvezdara teatar. In 2003 he directed his second film Profesionalac (The Professional), adapted from his play. Kovačević’s prolific work is well known and highly popular in Serbia and the region. He is a recognised master of black comedy, simultaneously hilarious, insightful and tragic. His work explores the Balkan ethos, with great love and unflinching honesty. His comedies have been translated into 17 languages, but his work did not become available in English until the mid-1990s. Dušan Kovačević is a member of the Crown Council, and member of the Serbian Academy of Arts. Some of Kovačević’s work includes:


Radovan III (Radovan Treći, 1973)

Marathon Family (Maratonci trče počasni krug, 1973)

The Meeting Point (Sabirni centar, 1982)

Balkan Spy (Balkanski špijun, 1982)

St. George Kills the Dragon (Sveti Georgije ubiva aždahu, 1984)

The Professional (Profesionalac, 1990)

Roaring Tragedy (Urnebesna Tragedija, also translated as Tragedy Burlesque, 1990)

Larry Thompson, Tragedy of a Youth (Lari Tompson, tragedija jedne mladosti, 1996)

Five-Star Dumpster (Kontejner sa Pet Zvedica, 1999)

Doctor Shoemaker (Doktor Šuster, 2001)

Film Scripts

Special Treatment (Specijalno vaspitanje, 1978)

Who’s Singing Over There? (Ko to tamo peva, 1980)

Balkan Spy (Balkanski špijun, 1981)

Underground (Once Upon a Time was a Land, Bila jednom jedna zemlja, 1995)

The Professional (Profesionalac, 2003)

Slobodan Šijan (born 16 November, 1946, Belgrade, Serbia) is a painter, film director, scriptwriter, and film critic. He graduated painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, and film directing At the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade. Between 1965-80, he was actively involved in his artistic work as painter, during which time he also directed several experimental films. In 1980 he makes his feature length film debut, with Who’s That Singing Over There? In 1996 this film was proclaimed the best Yugoslavian film in the last 50 years by the Academy of Film Art and Science in Belgrade, which conducted a national survey. He is a published author of several books on film criticism and is a regular contributor on many texts on film art in domestic and international trade publications. In the short period from 1990-1991 he was the director of the Yugoslavian Film Centre and Archive. He is currently a professor of film directing at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade. His filmography includes the following films:


Poor Little Hamsters (Siroti mali hrčki, 2003)

Secret Ingredient (Tajna manastirske rakije, 1988)

Strangler vs. Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja, 1984)

How I Was Systematically Destroyed by Idiots (Kako sam sistematski uništen od idiota, 1983)

The Marathon Family (Maratonci trče počasni krug, 1982)

Who’s That Singing Over There? (Ko to tamo peva?, 1980)

Film Scripts

Strangler vs. Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja, 1984)

How I Was Systematically Destroyed by Idiots (Kako sam sistematski uništen od idiota, 1983)


1 André Breton, Anthology of Black Humour (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997), p.37.

2 TV Series, Serbian Film; The Colour of Darkness, 1988-2003 (Serbia and Montenegro, RTS, 2004) 1 episode; Gorčin Stojanović ‘Who Is Singing Over There? is a masterpiece, but unfortunately it is not the influence of that film- but of The Marathon Family, which is not [a masterpiece]’.

3 Stephan Neale, Popular Film and Television Comedy (London, New York: Routledge, 1990), p.64.

4 W. D. Howarth (ed), George Brant, Comic Drama: The European Heritage (London: Methuen, 1978), p.166.

5 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to th Unconcious (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p.294.

6 Neale, 1990, p.75.

7 Breton, 1997, p.VI.

8 Neale, 1990, p.82.

9 Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), p.27.

10 Neale, 1990, p.20.

11 Commedia dell’arte, (Italian, meaning ‘comedy of professional artists’) was a form of improvisational theatre which had roots in the 16th century and was popular until the 18th century, although it is still performed today. Travelling teams of players would set up an outdoor stage and provide amusement in the form of juggling, acrobatics and, more typically, humorous plays based on a repertoire of established characters with a rough storyline, called Canovaccio. Troupes would occasionally perform directly from the back of their travelling wagon, but this is more typical of Carro di Tespi, a type of travelling theatre that dates back to antiquity. The performances were improvised around a repertory of stock conventional situations, adultery, jealousy, old age, love, some of which can be traced in Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence. The dialogue and action could easily be made topical and adjusted to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, mixed with ancient jokes and punch lines. Characters were identified by costume, masks, and even props, such as the slapstick. wikipedia.org

12 Comedies produced by the American Hollywood Studio system between 1933 and 1939 that contain certain story or stylistic elements […] Most acknowledge that the screwball comedy had stragglers through the 1940s and 1950s, but the onset of World War II and the end of the Depression undermined some of the thematic codes that acted as a spine to the genre. wikipedia.org

13 Freud, 1991, p.261.

14 Neale, 1990, p.52.

15 Freud, 1991, 133-4.

16 Brandt, 1978, p.169.

17 Breton, 1997, p.VI.

18 Bergson, 1980, p.143.

19 Bergson, 1980, p.128.

20 Breton, 1997, p.XVIII.

21 Neale, 1990, p.66.

22 Breton, 1997, p.104.

23 Polonius: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical- comical-historical-pastoral, scene undividable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2]. wikipedia.org

24 Sypher, 1980, p.216.

25  […] I must clarify the relation between instincts and archetypes: What we properly call instincts are psychological urges, and are perceived by the senses. But at the same time they manifest themselves in fantasies and often reveal their presence only by symbolic images. These images are what I call archetypes.] Carl G. Jung, Man and his Symbols, (London: Penguin Arkana, 1990), p.67-9.

26 Sypher, 1980, p.215.

27 Sypher, 1980, p.215.

28 Neale, 1990, p.66.

29 Neale, 1990, p.14.

30 Neale, 1990, p.26.

31 Brandt, 1978, p.170.

32 Mast, 1979, p.15.

33 Breton, 1997, p.164.

34 Bergson, 1980, p.64.

35 Sypher, 1980, p.XIV.

36 Brandt, 1978, p.171.

37 Neale, 1990, p.14.

38 Brandt, 1978, p.176.

39 Breton, 1997, p.XII.

40Sade’, wrote Paul Eluard, ‘wanted to restore to civilized man the power of his primitive instincts’ […] ‘He believed that out of this, and this alone, true equality would come.’ Breton, 1997, p.21.

41 Jarry: ‘Ubu is a base creature, which is why he is like all of us (seen from below) […] He is rather naughty, and nobody speaks up against him as long as he does not touch the Tsar who is what we all respect‘ Brandt, 1970, p.175.

42 ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ is a phrase used in reference to particular plays written by a number of primarily European playwrights in the late1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as well as to the style of theatre which has evolved from their work. The term was coined by the critic Martin Esslin, who made it the title of a 1962 book on the subject. Esslin saw the work of these playwrights as giving artistic articulation to Albert Camus’ philosophy that life is inherently without meaning, as illustrated in his work The Myth of Sisyphus; wikipedia.org

43 Brandt, 1978, p.170.

44 Brandt, 1978, p.182.

45 Brandt, 1978, p.172.

46 Mast,1979, p.9.

47 Brandt, 1978, p.173.

48 [from 1945 onwards] The republic committees controlled subsidies to the studios, exercised censorship, and selected scenarios for production. […] A second reorganisation of the Yugoslav film industry occurred in 1951-52, as a result of the creation of worker’s councils in the individual film enterprises. […] Authority to select subjects for films, the choice of directors, and enterprise-government relations were vested in the Artistic Council created within each enterprise and elected, in part, by the worker’s councils. […]  Legal and institutional changes in the 1960s continued the trend toward greater autonomy for the filmmaking enterprises. Independent groups of filmmakers, organised for the production of a single work, were given the right to compete with established enterprises for subsidies in 1960. […] In 1966, individual enterprises received the statutory right to participate directly in cultural cooperation with foreign countries, opening the way for direct sale of films to foreign distributors and greatly improved co-production opportunities. Michael J. Stoil, Balkan Cinema: Evolution After the Revolution (Ann Arbor, mI: UMI Research Press, 1982), p.48-49.

49 [in] Love Affair, or the Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Dušan Makavejev, 1967) Makavejev wittily juxtaposes tender and erotic scenes between Isabella and Ahmed with pedantic lectures by an elderly and distinguished sexologist […] concerning phallic adoration in early cultures, analysis of the nature of coitus, and a learned disquisition on the hen’s egg as the perfect unit for the study of human reproduction; Daniel J. Goulding, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p.124.

50 Mast, 1979, p.6.

51 [..] refusal of all republic Film Boards to distribute Dušan Makavejev’s […] WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1970),despite the approval earlier accorded to the production by Croatian Film Board. [..] This action, combined with an equally well-coordinated press campaign against Makavejev, led directly to the director’s self-imposed exile from Yugoslavia; Stoil, 1982, p.51.

52 Goulding, 1985, p.139.

53 Sypher, 1980, p.224.

54 Sypher, 1980, p.224.

55 Neale, 1990, p.77.

56 Neale, 1990, p.77.

57 Srđan Karanović (b.1945), Goran Paskaljević (b.1947), Goran Marković (1946.), Rajko Grlić (b. 1947), Lordan Zafranović (b. 1944) […] received their film training at FAMU, the professional film school in Prague […] They share a common interest in making films which reflect critically upon contemporary themes, but without the radical confrontational impetus of earlier new film directors. Goulding, 1985, p.145.

58 Goulding, 1985, p.145.

59 Neale, 1990, p.27.

60 Renaissance and neoclassical theory sometimes specified: ‘The catastrophe is the reversal (conversio) of affairs preparatory to the cheerful outcome, and revealed to all by means of a discovery (cognitio). A catastrophe could therefore appropriately occasion either suspense or surprise [which are] products of different ways of disturbing relative narrative knowledge among and between the characters and the audience […] Neale, 1990, p.33.

61 Who’s Singing Over There? (1980) DVD, Interview, BLIC Release, Serbia and Montenegro.

62 […] From this rudimentary sacrifice-and-feast evolved comic and tragic poetry, using a ‘canonical’ plot formula older than either art, an elemental folk drama […] In its typical form the archaic fertility ceremony- involving the death and sacrifice of a hero-god (the old year), the rebirth of a hero god (the new year), and purging of evil by driving out a scapegoat (who may be either god or devil, hero or villain) – requires a contest or agon between the old and the new kings, a slaying of god or king, a feast and a marriage to commemorate the initiation, reincarnation, or resurrection of the slain god, and a final triumphant procession or kosmos, with songs of joy. Behind the marriage ceremonial probably lies the myth of the primal union between the earth-mother and the heaven-father. Following this revelation of the mysteries of life, the new hero-king is proclaimed and elevated: there is an ‘apotheosis’, epiphany, or manifestation of the young hero-god (a theophany). The rites may take guise of an initiation […] a ‘questioning’ or catechism, after which there comes to him a ‘discovery’ or ‘recognition’- an anagnorsis or new knowledge. […] Logic and passion appear together in the primal comic formula; Sypher, 1980, p.217-18.

63 Breton, 1997, XVIII..

64 There are eight basic comic film plots, eight basic structures by which comedies have organised their human material [1] the young lovers finally wed despite obstacles [2] an intentional parody or burlesque of some other film or genre of films [3] reductio ad absurdum, a simple human mistake or social question is magnified [4] an investigation of the workings of a particular society [5] the familiar journey of the picaresque hero [6] riffing, goofing [7] the central character chooses to perform or is forced to accept a difficult task [8] the central figure eventually discovers an error he has been committing in the course of his life. Mast, 1979, p. 4-8.

65 Who’s Singing Over There? (1980 )DVD, Interview.

65 Bergson, 1980, p.123.

66 Bergson, 1980, p.118.

67 Bergson, 1980, p.105.

68 Neale, 1990, p.69.

69 […] paranoia supposes an emotional investment in the ‘morbid cycle of ideas’ characterised by the consistency of its reactions and a deviation of the logical function from its usual paths; Breton, 1997, p.321.

70 Bergson, 1980, p.123.

71 Bergson, 1980, p.123.

72 Bergson, 1980, p.141.

72 ‘A comical way to react to a person’s inadequate nervous outbreak.’ (Q 36)

73  ‘Mlađjan Dinkić, the Governor of the National Bank of Serbia commented publicly that ‘Laki is a bit nervous’ when the Prime Minister of Serbia Zoran Đindjić insisted that the Dinar [Serbia’s currency] devolve against the Euro 2003.’ (Q111)

 ‘The sample of the line was also used by popular band ‘Noise Destruction’ in one of its mid-nineties hits.’ (Q112)

74  ‘Every day in city transport.’ (Q 115)

75When I don’t care what anybody says, I’ll stick to my intentions. As substitute for ‘life goes on.’ (Q 137)

76 When I want to make somebody aware that they are boring and are tiring me with stupid stories. Instead of ‘get lost’ or ‘leave me alone.’ (Q 110)

77  ‘When somebody is in useless paranoia.’ (Q 126)

78 ‘When a woman really enjoys her swimming, her man usually says this to her.’ (Q 188)

79  ‘When I change water in the terrarium for my pet turtle.’ (Q 170)

80 ‘When somebody declines something I’m offering them, and I would like to point out that it will be better for them to accept it.’ (Q 119)

81  ‘Some of my friends and I had a band, and one of the songs was about Pera Mitić, with a lot of his quotes sampled…’ (Q 100)

82 ‘When I cannot sort something out by myself.’ (Q 144)

83 ‘In situations when you are calling out for help, but it’s no big deal.’ (Q 204)

84 ‘My favourite quote, every time a fail at something.’ (Q 73)

85 ‘Yes, in communication by MSN messenger with friends.’ (Q 173)

86 ‘That’s my mobile ring tone!!!’ (Q 80)

87  ‘In some good action flick, with Angelina Jolie.’ (Q 198)

88 ‘When somebody expresses a wish most of the others have, as well.’ (Q 113)

89  ‘Yes, in situations of dissatisfaction with decisions that I cannot influence. Connected with correcting the injustice of the decisions.’ (Q 203)

90 ‘As a joke, when somebody unconsciously takes a thing not belonging to them, usually a cigarette lighter, which smokers usually do without being conscious of it.’ (Q 205)

91 Neale, 1990, p.65.

92 Bergson, 1980, p.122.

93 Neale, 1990, p.43

94 Neale, 1990, p.47.

95 Meredith, 1980, p.15.

96 Neale, 1990, p.78.

97 Sypher, 1980, p.240.

98 Breton, 1997, p 322.

99 Sypher, 1980, p.241.

100 [..] the gag can be analysed into two moments thus: 1) a peripeteia, a shock or surprise that the narrative constructs for us; 2) a pair of syllogisms, leading to contradictory conclusions: a) that the process is implausible; b) that the process nonetheless has a certain measure of plausibility, but that this is less than the implausibility. Jerry Palmer, The Logic of the Absurd (London: BFI, 1987), p.43.

101 Neale, 1990, p.81  .     

102 Neale, 1990, p.81.

103 Breton, 1997, p.104.

104  Pirandellian, an adjective derived from the name of the twentieth-century playwright Luigi Pirandello, whose plays investigated the subtle differences between fiction and reality and described a world system in which illusion and actuality combined in intricate ways to produce a continuum of verisimilitude. James Monaco, How to Read a Film (New York: Oxford University Press) p.422.

105 Brant, 1978, p.169.

106 Breton, 1997, p.VI..

107 Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier (London:Macmillan Press, 1982), p.47

108 fn, this sentiment is characteristic of many films that are not comedies in genre, but that nevertheless contain the black humour element prevalent in the complete cinematic output of Serbian cinema of the nineties, Cabaret Balkan (Goran Paskaljević, 1998) being one of the most critically acclaimed.

109 Breton, 1997, p.XVI.

2 responses to “Black Humour in Serbian Films of the Early Eighties”

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