Behind Scepticism Lies the Fire of a Revolutionary! (1)

(Part One: Želimir Žilnik and the "Existence of Possibility")

Branislav Dimitrijević

"My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. According to Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of 'the Idea,' he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of 'the Idea'. In my opinion, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought."
Karl Marx (2)

The routine cultural logic, in which the work of many artists who worked in socialist Yugoslavia was often presented, follows a simple formula: there was the official ideological mantra which created dogmatic, opportunistic culture; and, there was the rebellious opposition to this cultural numbness, displayed in form of the "dissident" political and artistic action. Both positions are mostly presented as seamless and without any internal contradictions: on the one hand we had political opportunism, hunger for power, ideological servitude, cultural uniformity, etc., whereas on the other there is a man (the dissident figure is almost always male) who suffers in such circumstances, a man who relentlessly achieves a creative distance from these circumstances, but a man who is a public figure and not some clandestine renegade.

Some of the most "official" cultural products of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) were insisting on "artistic autonomy" and on creating a certain political and aesthetic distance from the direct visibility of ideology, and the example of Yugoslav modernist art, especially the flourishing trend of abstract painting and sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, some artists who were identified as "dissident" were an integral part of the SFRY cultural policy. Their projects were, in one way or the other, financed through official channels (as there were no other channels through which ambitious cultural projects could be produced), so that it was these projects that represented SFRY internationally as an open and free-thinking country, etc.

Želimir Žilnik had a very unique position within this ideological dichotomy. This filmmaker represented a highly unappreciated position of the leftist dissenter in a socialist country. Originally a young Communist party activist and a student of law, Žilnik became familiar with the documentary films of Jean Rouch and Chris Marker which made a strong impact on him when he began, as an amateur filmmaker, the process of a political and aesthetical re-invention of the notions of the avant-garde and realism, as well as of the re-interpretation of classic Marxist teaching. This process was important for the Yugoslav and particularly Serbian cinematography of the 1960s and early 1970s (with directors like Dušan Makavejev, Živojin Pavlović, Aleksandar Petrović and screenwriters like Branko Vučićević and Bora Ćosić, to name but the most influential), but Žilnik took a unique and unheard-of position (3), which could have been interpreted as divergent from the dark-realist style of the "Black Wave" (with the exception of Dušan Makavejev who was one of the major influences on Žilnik). Žilnik’s position had a spirit of activism, of interventionism, of severing ties with formal conventions of "professional" cinematography, and of the unambiguously leftist political attitudes combining ironic criticism with enthusiastic activism. His position could not be defined by simple dichotomies and ideological simplifications and ultimately was to follow the Gramscian "state of mind": the pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the will.

It is with regard to the issues of self-criticism, anti-dissident dissidence, of personal vs. public domains, of the appearance of radical leftist political thought in Yugoslav socialism, etc., that I wish to contribute to a better appreciation of Želimir Žilnik's work. This may look like an attempt to play down many other aspects of his cinematography, aspects that have been discussed at great length in the existing critical accounts of his work. Most of these accounts focus on the two most salient perspectives of his work. The first one is the aspect of formal innovation and experimentation which puts this author amongst the ranks of the leading cinematographic authors-innovators of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Godard, Warhol, Makavejev or Fassbinder. The main features of Žilnik’s style are a fictional documentarism or documentarist fictionalism, work with non-professional actors, the direct relation of the protagonists to the camera-eye, a lack of distinction between the "acted" and "spontaneous", etc. The other perspective from which Žilnik’s films have been discussed is their inherent strained relations with the dominant ideologies. Most of the accounts are concerned with the issue of the censoring of his films in SFRY, the discourses with which he was attacked and the discourses he adopted in his defence. In this line of argumentation Žilnik occupies the same niche as the other directors of the Yugoslav "Black Wave". From this perspective, his films were viewed as a staggering gesture of ideological defiance; remarkable in form and content despite rigid political circumstances. It is noteworthy that the censorship imposed on these films (the so-called "bunkerisation") was a result of the initial readiness of producers to enter into risky ventures with state funding, as, needless to say, all the films made in this "heroic" phase of Yugoslav cinematography were funded by the state.

The story of Žilnik is a story of an attempt to re-invent the complexity of Marxist discourse which was promoted as a blueprint for the building of the socialist reign. There is one emblematic scene in Žilnik’s best known film, Early Works, awarded the Golden Bear the Berlin Festival in 1969. In the manner characteristic of this film, quotations from Marx and Engels (especially early Marx) were juxtaposed with some conflicting imagery giving new resonance to the thoughts by the "classics" of Marxism. The famous adoption of Hegelian dialectics and the dismissal of Hegel’s idealism were epitomised by Marx in the well-known quotation: "The mystification which dialectics suffers in Hegel's hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you want to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell." (4) In Žilnik’s film a group of young revolutionaries, facing an unsuccessful attempt to spread their ideas among the peasants in Vojvodina, are engaged in a fragmented discussion in which one character quotes the metaphor of turning Hegel’s head upside down whilst the camera is actually rotating upside down and Žilnik’s protagonists are trying to stand on their heads. This creates a wonderful visual and ideological paradox. Whilst our perspective is turned upside down, the protagonists trying to stand on their heads seem upright until they fall down and assume a position which the camera observes as upside down. Ideological or theoretical positions depend, therefore, on the perspective of the "reader". The role of the camera is not only to reflect a certain "reality" but to make us aware of the "reality" of our own perspective. This juggling, which is at the core of Žilnik's articulation, both as a cinema director and as an ideologist (as he was the only director in that period of uncertainty who would accept the role of "ideologist"), is a manifestation of the need to create a paradox in order to approach "reality" from a new position.

Among its various meanings, a paradox can be defined as an apparently true statement, or group of statements, that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition; or it can be an apparent contradiction that actually expresses a non-dual truth. In the notion of the paradox there is an effective means to deconstruct not only any static argument, but also an exercise in which there is no simple refutation of one of the relevant points of view, but a synthesis or combination of the opposing assertions. Here we have a clear need to exercise a certain paradox in order to discuss the quintessential Marxist notion of dialectical materialism.

If the afore-mentioned scene from Early Works is some kind of a graph of Žilnik’s political and aesthetical Weltanschauung, his defence in court in 1969, when his film was accused of being a fierce attack on "social and political ethics", a few weeks before its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, was illustrative of his rebuttal of all the arguments made against him. His defence was formulated in six points which dismissed the allegations made by the prosecutor by reminding him that what had been featured in the film was clearly in line with the official policy which by that time had already reacted against many occurrences which were criticised in the film. These included the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, the unequal treatment of the Albanian minority in SFRY, the policy of collectivisation, widespread unemployment, etc. By quoting Marx, through the mouths of the protagonists in their artificial (paradoxical) conversations, Žilnik reflected the demands of the student movements of the time, which in a socialist country had a strong paradoxical nature. In his defence in court Žilnik concluded: "All resistance movements in the world, regardless of their success, are inspired by the ideas of the 'classics of Marxism'. This fact speaks in favour of the vitality of these ideas. It is impossible to reserve the ideas of the classics only for some official forces. This film shows that these ideas may inspire tendencies which in their concrete touch with reality show dilettantism and inadequacy, pointing to the perennial incongruity of thoughts and actions." (5)

What was actually difficult to accept by many in Žilnik’s film were the sliding shifts in perspective. Both the official party apparatchiks and many local film critics tried to singularize a certain "objective" perspective which gives meaning to the actions and the thoughts of protagonists in this film. This "objective" perspective may actually be another word for the idea, the governing principle of the idealist theory that Marx urged to put back on its feet. The cause of the tragicomical failure of Žilnik’s protagonists in this film is to be found in their idealism when they started their impossible mission of "educating" the peasants. When they face the "material world" manifested in the concrete situations that they found themselves in, certain basic principles of Marxist thinking are not contradicted but challenged in accordance to the very same principles. Žilnik’s experimental attitude was an attempt to go beyond simple contradiction usually manifested in the dichotomy between what was "official" and what was "dissident". It was also manifested in accordance with the "materialist dialectics" (to use this inverted term as it was originally used by Engels and which seems more appropriate than the term "dialectic materialism" perverted into Stalinism) to locate certain opposites in material practices through which they may be put in motion instead of being stuck in their idealist contradiction.

Žilnik’s film is therefore not a critique of socialist reality (as was often interpreted by both his enemies and his supporters), but a critical enrichment of the socialist discourse. Yet this position was difficult to sustain as neither official nor dissident logic was prepared to understand or accept this. This is also the reason why Žilnik still remains the most marginalized of all the authors of the so called "Black wave" in Yugoslavia, and it also the reason why, when the shift of ideology was made apparent in the 1980s and fully manifested in the 1990s, this author remained ostracised by the local cultural establishment.

What is important for this line of argumentation is to clarify this method of turning ideology back to its material practice (similar to what Althusser did in his philosophy in the same period). Among the many telling anecdotes for which Žilnik is well known, there is one evoking his discussion with Ivo Vejvoda, one of the leading Yugoslav diplomats and communist intellectuals expressing official lines affecting cultural policy. As Žilnik recently concluded, the biggest difference between the official ideology under socialism and the official ideology now is in the fact that, whilst today it is impossible to intellectually argue a certain artistic case, back then it was usual to have substantial arguments with main ideologists in charge of cultural decision-making. Vejvoda made a remark to Žilnik that it was unfortunate that his films focused so much on the lumpenproleteriat, as it was well known that the "lumpenproleteriat was a regressive force without class consciousness". This was a very important remark as it stems from a reasonable criticism through which Žilnik may be accused for creating a negative image of a society declaratively based on the class consciousness of the working class. But let us explore this aspect of his work, as apparently in all Žilnik’s early documentary films the protagonists are characters that may be typified as belonging to the lumpemproletariat: the unemployed in The Unemployed (1968), the street kids in Little Pioneers (1968), the homeless in Black Film (1972), etc. Later, after the downfall of communism, Žilnik focused on unemployed refugees, smugglers, prostitutes, petty-thieves or vagabonds in films like Oldtimer (1989), Marble Ass (1995), Wanderlust (1999), The Fortress Europe (2000), Kennedy Goes Back Home (2003), Europe Next Door (2005), etc.

The lumpenproletariat were an unwanted surplus of socialism. Yet, as it was proven later, they had become a very important political force which was used during the processes leading to the demise of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, and especially during the wars of the 1990s. Marx callously described this social group as "this scum of the depraved elements of all classes ... decayed roués, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel keepers, tinkers, beggars, the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society." (6) In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx describes the lumpenproletariat as a 'class fraction' that constituted the political power base for Louis Bonaparte of France in 1848. In this sense, Marx argued that Bonaparte was able to place himself above the two main classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, by resorting to the 'lumpenproletariat' as an apparently independent base of power, while in fact advancing the material interests of the bourgeoisie. The same was repeated during the collapse of Yugoslavia and the insurgence of Slobodan Milošević and his clique against other nations of the former Yugoslavia.

Instead of hiding the representatives of this "underclass" in socialism when they were not given any structural role, Žilnik offered them roles in his films. He intended to communicate with these people, in order not only to make them visible, but also to confirm their significant part in constructing the sense of reality. Also, he wanted to question his own ironical attitudes. This was done first by observing their "material practices" (in the earliest films), then by contradicting their status with the inability of official ideology to integrate them in society (as in one of his crucial films, Black Film) and later, in his TV films from the 1980s, to literally employ them as his actors. Žilnik refused to use professional actors, and by this refusal he actually symbolized his non-participation in the cultural establishment which definitely gravitated towards theatres as show-cases of verbal culture of "mild dissidence" in socialism. Even in his major films he preferred to collaborate with beginners and with intellectuals on the margins just like himself, notably with Branko Vučićević who was never part of any academic establishment yet the influential scriptwriter and the "master mind" behind some of the crucial films produced in Serbia in the late 1960s and 1970s. (7)

If we depart from Marx’s observation, and from a general colloquial use of the term, the term lumpenproletariat carries an entirely negative connotation. Here we have an image of some social residue which is put in motion only for the purposes of serving and reinforcing regressive politics such as fascism or any contemporary form of populism and fundamentalism. Leon Trotsky elaborated this view, rightly perceiving the lumpenproletariat as especially vulnerable to reactionary thought. In his collection of essays "Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It", he describes Mussolini's capture of power: "Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat - all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy." (8)

Žilnik’s mission was to come up with a certain re-definition as well as a re-invention of the role of this underclass. We may speculate that he was motivated by his own life story, as an orphan born in a concentration camp, and someone who thus did not belong to any inherited class identity. Yet, Žilnik did not limit his approach to a certain humanistic empathy toward the underprivileged but explored the unpredictability of the political and the social role of this group. There is no sentimentalism in his approach yet there is an understanding for a certain creativity-from-below (as opposed from modernisation-from-above which was the tendency of the cultural policy) which Žilnik observes and later incorporates in his films, especially in those made for TV in the 1980s.

Maybe the most important social and political aspect of Žilnik’s films is their timeliness in observing and reacting to social and political trends. A thorough demystifier of cinematographic rules and procedures – always working on minimal budget which allowed him perhaps the biggest independence in comparison to any other prolific professional filmmaker in Yugoslavia, Žilnik was able to produce films hastily yet concentrate on a specific issue of a specific moment. By doing this, he inaugurated these issues as crucial symptoms of contemporary ideology and its effects on larger political destiny of the society. His documentary June Turmoil (1968) on the students’ protests in Belgrade in 1968, was the first case of this "timeliness" built on a lack of historical distance yet providing not only a significant document for any future understanding of this protest, but also a form of prediction of the future resonance of a certain event. Žilnik has always managed to point to a blind spot of ideology, or to some highly controversial symptom of the impotence of an ideology appearing as operating in accordance to its declared principles. Early Works is an important manifesto of this approach, but also many other later films exposed problematic symptoms often before they became fully decisive for social relations. After the widely discussed political backlash against the so called "Black Wave" in Yugoslav cinematography, when he found himself fully isolated and unable to produce any new project, Žilnik moved to Germany in the mid 1970s where he managed to produce a series of very low-budget projects.

His production in Germany was not characterized by the exploitation of his socialist experience (as it happened with many dissident writers and artists who left their countries of origin) but by shifting his interest to analyzing relations between the ideological discourse and social practice in liberal capitalism. His first film made in Germany, the documentary Öffentliche Hinrichtung (1975), remains the only documentary film banned in Germany immediately after its completion.(9) The film was about a group of South-American left-wing terrorists who were shot dead in front of TV cameras after robbing a bank. The film discloses this case of a public execution about which the media was apparently informed in advance and hence prepared to broadcast. Žilnik sensed that "free media" played the crucial role in creating the anti-terrorist hysteria that still shapes the ideological discourse of liberal democracies.

Furthermore, when talking about the timeliness and far-sightedness of his films, we may interpret his work for TV in the 1980s as films announcing the process of economic and ideological transition. (It was then that he found support among TV commissioning editors for his projects which were impossible to produce otherwise). His TV serial Hot Paychecks (1987), for instance, explores the tactics of the underprivileged to accustom themselves to new forms of market economy. Again, his heroes are on the social margin yet active in finding their creative and entrepreneurial potential. His heroes are people with some potentially "profitable" features or skills, like the man who swallows and digests metal and glass, strippers performing in village pubs, their shady provincial managers or uneducated labourers learning to sell whatever brings them any income. Again the image of society is challenged and the new ideological currents announced. In 1988 he produced a TV film Brooklyn-Gusinje, a story which dealt with Serbian-Albanian relations over which a social and political lid had been placed for decades, instigating miscommunication and alienation which in later years proved prophetic.

The most striking example which combines Žilnik’s manner of work and his need to intervene within a political symptom, which has not been fully articulated yet (and the consequences of which are to become decisive), is his film Oldtimer (1989), produced for Slovenian television. In this film, an aging rocker who plays hardcore and heavy-metal music on a local radio station, after having been sacked decides to move "south". On his way, he learns about current protests in Novi Sad against the "party bureaucrats" (a.k.a. "yoghurt revolution"). These were the events that brought Milošević to power and were organized by his own fraction in the Serbian Communist Party in his confrontation with the other fraction, and not as some spontaneous revolt, as it was presented by the media he already controlled. It is a film about the ideological confusion which enabled Milošević to seize power and about the inability to discern new political events from old dichotomies of what was official and what was non-conformist, of what were static and dogmatic structures of power, as opposed to an idea of a progressive rebellion against it. Žilnik detected a form of politics in which the notion of revolution was not in the domain of freedom but a form of a state-organized in-house coup. What was understood as normative ideology with its dichotomies was turned upside down. Now the underprivileged became a dangerous force for the implementation of a new type of fascism, and the main protagonist of this film, unaware of this new ideological current like many others, displays a state of utter confusion, characteristic of an "aging" non-conformist raised on the ideology of protesting but embedded in different forms of political goals. He observes these protests and participates in them to a certain degree, but he cannot decipher them adequately. He can neither find his place in any of this, nor is he able to locate his own social and intellectual position in the new social dichotomies.

What has been challenging in Žilnik’s work in general (and this is particularly so considering his focus on the social strata that was once identified as lumpenproletariat) is the exploration of "bare life" which seems to anticipate what would become the focus of the influential theories of Giorgio Agamben. In his Coming Community, Agamben writes: "If human beings were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible... This does not mean, however, that humans are not, and do not have to be, something, that they are simply consigned to nothingness and therefore can freely decide whether to be or not to be, to adopt or not to adopt this or that destiny (nihilism and decisionism coincide at this point). There is in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one's own existence as possibility or potentiality"... (10) This quotation alone demonstrates how conspicuously the discourse of Agamben’s philosophy is present in Žilnik’s work. His films are about existence as potential, and his own position is a work in progress in this direction.

Žilnik has always been an engaged essayist but never a pamphletist. He has never marked his own position as heroic in any sense. He has never positioned himself above the failure of the society and dominant ideologies to either improve the subject or to discipline the subject. His films, therefore, do not provide some righteous point of view but explore his own beliefs and assumptions in the most critical way. One of his most outstanding films is a short documentary from 1971 entitled Black Film. The camera follows Žilnik who, in the middle of the night in the town of Novi Sad, comes across a group of homeless "lumpenproletariat" and offers them the possibility of staying in his two-bedroom flat until he finds some solution how to help them. By exploring the topic of homelessness, Žilnik takes a critical position in relation to the official socialist discourse that prescribed social equality, ignoring the fact that the country was unable to solve the problem of poverty and homelessness (which officially "did not exist" in SFRY). He presents himself as someone whose task and conviction is to intervene, and to intervene not on the level of declaration (as was typical for the dissident position) but to intervene with concrete action, taken by someone who intends to amend the system, and not to remain a dissident who is fully outside the system.

The scene that follows was shot in the filmmaker’s two-bedroom apartment where he brings the homeless and wakes up his wife and a little daughter in order to make room for five men whom he invited to stay. The same logic of spontaneous and participatory documentarism of this film applies both to the public and the private sphere. The filmmaker’s wife, not prepared for her husband's sudden "humanitarian deed", is forced to cope with a very unpleasant invasion of her privacy over the following few days while the homeless live in her flat. Meanwhile, Žilnik, with the help of his crew, tries to find a permanent solution for his guests, but without any success. All his attempts end in failure, and after a few days he is forced to announce to his protégés that he is to kick them out, back into the street. (There is a biographical appendix to this story, namely, the Žilnik allegedly divorced soon after this episode...)

Black Film shows how fragile any position of humanistic empathy is. Žilnik even caricaturises his own approach by openly suggesting that his action to help the homeless is carried out just for the purposes of shooting the film. His activity is narrowed down to interviewing people on the street for their opinion on the subject which results in no solution. Also, he opens up one much less discussed topic of the relation between a certain public goal and a certain personal or intimate concern. This film is therefore not just about some social failure but also about a failure in intimate life. It also stresses the dualism of relationships of someone who is engaged in the social arena but also intends to keep the coherence of family life and marriage. By bringing the social issue literally to his private home he intervenes in both domains and in both domains he faces failure. The formal dualism of the social and the personal is to be overcome in this attempt, but the mode of overcoming this dualism is to be found in the failure in both domains and not in some successful utopian synthesis. The dialectic method looks for the transcendence or fusion of the opposites, and here a sense of failure is a binding factor which provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or helps clarify a real but somewhat veiled integral relationship between opposites that are normally understood as something to be kept apart and distinct. The Women are Coming, the film that immediately followed Black Film is further proof that Žilnik’s method has been characterised by the timeliness of his "cinematographic interventions in social and intimate fields" (if his approach can be generalised as such). The Women are Coming (1972) is a film about women labourers who go off to work in Western Europe, leaving their husbands and families behind. In 1999 Žilnik made Cosmo Girls, a unique film in the history of Yugoslav cinematography, a documentary which dealt solely with the social and intimate issues of women of different classes and ethnic backgrounds. As each new film stands in a dialectical relationship to the previous one, the work of Želimir Žilnik can only be assessed by comprehending the entire process and methods of a remarkable artistic investigation into the fully exposed tissues of society.

(End of Part One)

Branislav Dimitrijević is a Belgrade based curator, lecturer in art history and theory, and writer on contemporary art and culture. He is working on a PhD thesis on "Consumerism and cultural westernization in Socialist Yugoslavia" at the University of Arts in Belgrade.


(1) The title is taken from a remark made by the renowned film historian and critic Ulrich Gregor in his enthusiastic review of Žilnik’s Early Works for Züricher Woche in 1969. Quoted by Bogdan Tirnanić, Crni talas, FCS, Belgrade, 2008, p. 76.

(2) Karl Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), Afterword to the Second German Edition, 1873 (

(3) For example: in the most extensive survey of Yugoslav cinematography published in the English language, Liberated Cinema – The Yugoslav Experience 1945-2001 by Daniel J. Goulding (Indiana University Press, 2002), his name was mentioned only twice and none of his films were discussed.

(4) Karl Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), Afterword to the Second German Edition, 1873 (

(5) As quoted in: Bogdan Tirnanić, Crni talas, FCS, Belgrade, 2008, p. 73.

(6) Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852 (

(7) These films are: Love Affair; or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (Dušan Makavejev 1967), Innocence Unprotected (Dušan Makavejev, 1968), Early Works (Žilnik, 1969), The Role of My Family in the World Revolution (Bato Čengić, 1971), Life of a Shock Force Worker (Bato Čengić, 1972) and The Medusa Raft (1980) directed by Karpo Godina. Karpo Godina began as a cinematographer of Early Works and later became one of the most original film directors in Yugoslavia. The Medusa Raft is his most important work and this film is related to Early Works as it focuses on a group of youngsters travelling through rural areas, but this time this is a group of avant-garde artists spreading their ideas in the 1920s.

(8) Leon Trotsky, "Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It", 1944 (

(9) See: Petar Jončić, Filmski jezik Želimira Žilnika, SKC, Beograd, 2002, p. 72

(10) Girgio Agamben, The Coming Community (Theory Out of Bounds), University of Minnesota Press, 1993.