Ex-Yugoslav Avant-garde Film Production and Its Early Works Seen Through Biopolitics and Necropolitics

Marina Gržinić

My aim in this essay is to find connections between the avant-garde film tradition from the ex-Yugoslav context and the more recent transformations in the political field known as biopolitics. I am particularly interested in Early Works (Rani radovi, 1969) a film by Želimir Žilnik. Director Žilnik was born in what used to be known for decades as the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. His career is closely connected not only with the leading film trends and generations from the 1960s, but also the key situations such as historic and existential collapse of life and ideals in socialism. No other film director in Serbia has remained committed to the idea of socially provocative and politically engaged filmmaking as persistently and as permanently as Žilnik.

As far as Early Works is concerned, there are two issues that I believe are worth consideration. One is the transition from biopolitics to necropolitics that is in process today in the neoliberal global capitalism and the world in general. The other - in relation to this proposed passage – is the life and politics under the old Communist regime not as the obverse, dark side of neoliberal capitalism, but reversely, as the present neoliberal global capitalist system which is the dark side of Communism. This is also my main thesis in this article and it is clearly inscribed in the process of contemporary biopolitics in its transformation toward necropolitics.

Today, at the time of neoliberal global capitalism, "Eastern Europeans" are faced again with what we have already gone through during the time of Communist rule and/or Socialism – necropolitics. Modern western totalitarian procedures are "supported" by ultra modern digital media, technological surveillance and bio-technological data and painfully resemble those from the communist times.

In order to understand the film and its contribution to the contemporary views of the intensification of biopolitics into necropolitics in neoliberal global capitalism, it is necessary to understand it as the symptom and rearticulation of necropolitics ( terms introduced by theoretician Achille Mbembe) as well as the symptom and rearticulation of contemporary "turbo fascistic processes" in the post-Yugoslavia region (as analysed by Žarana Papić, late feminist theoretician from Serbia). In "Necropolitics" (2003), Achille Mbembe discusses two processes: a) the spatial demarcations of the state of exception as the geopolitical demarcation of world zones of expropriation, and b) the more recent mobilisation of the war machine as part of these demarcations. Mbembe argues that it would be better to replace the concept of biopolitics with necropolitics. Biopolitics is a horizon of articulating the politics of life, where life is seen as the zero degree of intervention of each and every politics. But today the capital surplus value is based on and capitalized from the perspective of death (worlds). Also, in the First capitalist societies, the logic is not the maximum of life but only and solely the indispensable minimum and sometimes not even this. It is this "new" logic of the minimum that organizes the contemporary neoliberal global capitalist social body. The minimum that is imposed could be captured through the analysis of all the battles that are going on at the moment in Europe, from the demands to control the processes of precarity, the loss of the social state, social and health security, not to mention the politics of the radically intensified measures of control on the Schengen borders of the entire EU space. The EU is transformed into one giant concentration camp; the guards are semi private firms, such as Frontex, that operate outside of the EU border, already in the non-Schengen territory. The new proposed fierce measures to control the Schengen borders can be seen as the lines of division that will regulate the process and politics of death, as those who will be stopped at the EU’s frontiers are those who have nothing to lose, not even life. The EU’s improved and coordinated politics of immigration and possibility to arrange the status of immigrants and of the so-called lumpenproleteriat is nothing more than the policy which enables the establishing of a system of elimination, evacuation extermination of all those bodies devoid of life at the Schengen borders to which are denied entrance and thus prevented to live and work within the EU.

In his essay "Live and Let Die: Colonial Sovereignties and the Death Worlds of Necrocapitalism", published in 2006, Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee, referring to Agamben and Mbembe, explains how some contemporary capitalist practices contribute to necropolitics. Necropolitics is connected to the concept of necrocapitalism, i.e. contemporary capitalism, which organizes its forms of organizational accumulation that involve dispossession and subjugation of life to the power of death. The necrocapitalistic capture of the social implies new modes of governmentality that are formed by the norms of corporate rationality and deployed in managing violence, social conflict and the multitudes. No conflict is tolerable that challenges the supreme requirements of capitalist rationalization – economic growth, profit maximization, productivity, efficiency and the like.

Žarana Papić describes the process in the 1990s and at the beginning of 2000 in Serbia, saying, "I am freely labelling this as Turbo-Fascism." She continues, "It is, of course, known that Fascism is a historical term; that the history of Nazi Germany is not the same as that of Milošević’s Serbia. However, in post-modernist and feminist theory we speak of ‘shifting concepts,’ when a new epoch inherits, with certain additions, the concepts belonging to an earlier epoch, such as, e. g. the feminist notion of shifting patriarchy. In my view, we should not fear the use of ‘big terms’ if they accurately describe certain political realities. Serbian Fascism had its own concentration camps, its own systematic representation of violence against Others, its own cult of the family and cult of the leader, an explicitly patriarchal structure, a culture of indifference towards the exclusion of the Other, a withdrawal of the society into itself and its own past; empathy was a taboo and so was multiculturalism; its powerful media were acting as proponents of genocide; its ideology was nationalistic; its mentality of listening to the word and obeying authority was epic. The prefix ‘turbo’ refers to the specific mixture of politics, culture, ‘mental powers’ and the pauperisation of life in Serbia: the mixture of rural and urban, pre-modern and post-modern, pop culture and heroines, real and virtual, mystical and ‘ordinary,’ etc. In this term, despite its apparent naive or innocent appearance, there is still fascism in its proper sense. Like all fascisms, Turbo-Fascism includes and celebrates a pejorative renaming, alienation, and finally removal, of the Others: Croats, Bosnians, and Albanians. Turbo-fascism, in fact, demands and basically relies on this culture of the normality of fascism that had been structurally constituted well before all the killings in the wars started."

How can we trace historically these processes in relation to Early Works by Žilnik? The film is structured around a series of juxtapositions. The action takes place on the territory of former Yugoslavia, in the period of the students’ riots in 1968, and in the general context of state socialism. Three young men and a young woman, Yugoslava, (bearing the name of the state changed into a female personal name!), leave home and move across the country in search of the true revolutionary socialism and of a society that believes in truth. Yugoslava also wants to find out if it is possible to improve the position of women within this socialist society that would not be simply and solely connected to the strong patriarchal socialist life. She is pressured by the disastrous relationships within her own family, particularly by the pressures that her drunken and despotic father imposes on everybody.

In order to grasp and perpetuate the revolutionary ideas of socialism, the four main characters in the film first try to express their solidarity with the members of the working class. So they engage in all sorts of manual work. Their acts are accompanied by communist revolutionary slogans recited throughout the film, like "Down with the red bourgeoisie!" But the workers do not appreciate these four quasi-revolutionary figures. They are seen as hollow impostors. The three male members of the group are therefore turned over to the police. The police officers punished them by giving them a radical haircut, thus producing a bizarre bodily equivalent of fun and "torture." The four (possible) revolutionaries move to the countryside with the intention to work on raising the peasants’ revolutionary consciousness. The peasants, however, are not interested in their revolutionary spirit, and beat them up. The four are seen squatting by the wall of a collective farm amidst squalor and dirt, surrounded by ugly and primitive people who engage in vulgar dialogues. They smear dung, mud and dirt all over their torsos and faces, thus engaging in a specifically shitty bodily action.

The socialist regime insisted that the "other" should stay different; it segregated him immediately, if it saw him as authentically different, it encouraged the difference only if it was already part of the segregated difference. Here we come across the analogy of the socialist or communist system that behaves as the main protagonist in a Hollywood movie. This protagonist instead of cleaning the table after an action scene that made a mess on the working table destroys everything in an act popularly known as "cleansing the terrain." Today the neoliberal capitalist ideology reacts similarly, "cleans the terrain" against those who are perceived by the same ideology as a non-productive part of the First world matrix.

What is obvious in this film is a process that from today’s point of view can be defined as the (ex)Eastern European bare life. Craving to become bios, to become modal life it positions itself, as argued by the Bosnian theoretician Šefik Šeki Tatlić, towards the very void that separates the two worlds (Socialism and Capitalism) and towards the very life of an "alien," which represents precisely this same void. Tatlić conceptualizes the position of (ex)East European subjectivity today as the alien, as a figure of the void that comes near to Renfield. Renfield is a role created by Tom Waits in Coppola’s movie Dracula (1992). He is Dracula’s hapless slave, who sits in a dungeon in his misery, eating insects and bugs, eating life and everything in order to please his master who promised to make him immortal, a vampire. Tatlić continues "that today’s South-Eastern European nations refer to socialism as ‘the dungeon of nations,’ the prison of nations. East European subjectivity ‘eats’ the dignity of life (as an insect) and represents the void as the consequence of globalization of capital, so that its new master, capitalism – the vampire – accepts it as an equal, but in nothing else than in devouring the life of those that do not fit into the liberal capitalist definition of life."

Yugoslava, the female member of the group in Early Works decides to return home and leaves her three mates behind. But they are not willing to leave her alone and soon arrive looking for her. What follows is a clash powered by male chauvinism that is still deeply rooted in the bodies of these comrades. Their chatting with Yugoslava suddenly changes from mischievous fooling around into a real and threatening rape situation, ready to be effectuated. Yugoslava shouts: "Who'll be the first? You always horsed around and you never finished anything!"

The men shoot Yugoslava and set her body on fire. This macabre and cowardly "revolutionary act" takes place under the accompaniment of one of the numerous popular communist songs from the beginning of the century, invoking fraternity and communal bondage.

In his film, Želimir Žilnik pictured the type of social totality that can be defined as psychotic socialist. This type of social totality today does not fit the serious political analysis of contemporary neoliberal global capitalism, but if taken seriously, the thesis I proposed in the beginning of this essay that neoliberal global capitalist system, contrary to a common perception, is the dark side of Communism, and not vice versa, we are finally at a point to restart to make serious analysis of this social totality texture with all its institutions, rituals, discourses and ideological apparatuses. What is that is going on in a psychosis? In a psychosis, a subject is in relation to an irregular, bizarre Other. In this type of social totality the symptom does not represent a subject, but an Other that is irregular. The Other as a grotesque, pathological, irregular entity is an ultimate identification reference for the "member" of the psychotic totality, who is in fact a kind of hybrid of the hysterical and perverse totalities. Hence, the whole symbolic structure for the psychotic is perceived as corrupt and as such, does not deserve an effort to try to function in accordance with some universal ethical values. Why should one function ethically when "everything" has already been "corrupted"?

This subjectivity perceives every argument that criticizes the psychotic totality not as a critique that is coming from some independent position, but as an argument that presumably comes from the subjectivity which ALSO perceives the Other as bizarre, irregular.

All this is nowadays seen as the situation in the region of ex-Yugoslavia and EU as Šefik Tatlić accurately depicts: When one criticizes fascist chauvinism, the moral majority will try to present the position of the critic as part of some other psychotic totality, but never as an objective position. Those who dare to criticize will be analyzed through ethnic heritage/political inclinations, and therefore the responses will not focus on the content of the criticism. Today all this leads to unconditional acceptance of capitalism that acts against the politicization of society, leaving to society itself to disintegrate through the proper fragmentation which, in this case, consists both of ethnical and class fragmentation. So what we have, as argued by Tatlić, is a kind of totalitarian rhetorical twist which turns any criticism of the pathology into a confirmation of the pathology in itself. Or, as Tatlić describes, and I will slightly modify for the purpose of my thesis, being a Yugoslavian, bearing the name of Yugoslav (male)/Yugoslava (female) is a stigma today because of its association to the ex- "Yugoslavian" concept of brotherhood and unity. From the aspect of the psychotic totality of fascist profile, brotherhood and unity are perceived today only as somebody’s (but definitely) not "our" agenda (therefore certainly the agenda of the "enemy"), mostly because brotherhood and unity presume the possibility of some other social totality, the one that (possibly) does not see the symbolic as pathological.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the film was temporarily banned after two months of distribution in 1969. Trained as a lawyer, Žilnik’s clever arguments forced the court to lift the ban and allow the distribution of the film. Nonetheless, in 1969 Žilnik was expelled from the Communist party and prevented from working in cinematography, a situation that came about mostly because of his Early Works. Yet it was around the same time that the film was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. The award immediately gave Early Works the aura of a powerful underground testament and turned it into a monument of the European Left.

Early Works can be described as a socialist Easy Rider (1969) in that it focuses on general discontent, social disturbance, erotic violence and exploitation, the features that can be attributed to the Yugoslav Black Wave film movement of the 1960s of which Early Works is a prime example. The film explored the radical protests of the young generation against the daunting reduction of lofty socialist values into a rigid system of absolute command. This was a protest against those Communist Party members who, a decade earlier, had been Revolutionaries and who, by the 1960s, had become members of the New Nomenclature and were endowed with unlimited power. Some of the slogans that the protagonists of Early Works shouted in the film (e.g. "Down with the red bourgeoisie!") were used to challenge precisely this fallacy of socialist ideology according to which power belonged solely and entirely to the people, workers and peasants. The truth was, in fact, rather different: the power was totally concentrated in the hands of the political elite that occupied the highest positions in the Yugoslav Communist Party with all material and social benefits.

Žilnik marks a trajectory that can also be correlated to the esoteric Japanese cult cinema and Koji Wakamatsu, particularly to his Tehshi no kokotsu (The Angelic Orgasm, 1972). For both directors the juxtaposition of images of self-destruction is paired with a radical questioning of basic social concepts such as democracy, truth and deceptions all concerns that become a quintessential motif in their film work. Whereas Wakamatsu’s films are mostly preoccupied with issues of extreme terrorism and sexual anarchy, Žilnik’s interest lies more in investigating the communist pathology and the specific Yugoslav life as a "third way" into socialism (known as self-management), as well as in the cinematic recreation of the infernal conditions of life and lack of freedom. The venture here is not to gamble with the simple crossing of established limits; it does not matter if we are provoked to think about the limits of capitalism (Wakamatsu) or socialism (Žilnik), or to subvert other, still unfamiliar areas of existence. It is much more about highlighting the connection between safeguarding the limits and the disintegration of social, political and ethical domains.

The profound meaning and inventive narrative structure of Žilnik’s Early Works can be appreciated even better if one establishes the parallel to John Waters’ masterpiece Mondo Trasho (1969). In order to prove that the Divine and his entourage are the "filthiest people alive," Waters made the overweight drag queen to eat doggy shit on screen. Žilnik, instead, simply incorporated in the film references to the "socialist" shit that filled the life around him and got an even more subversive effect, a passage from an excremental object toward life as a tightly monitored and censorship excrement, i.e. the passage from good life to life under the minimum. A passage from biopolitics to necropolitics.


A slightly modified version of this essay was published in German in the book Film, Avantgarde und Biopolitik, Sabeth Buchmann, Helmut Draxler and Stephan Geene, eds., Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna and Schlebrügge.Editor, Vienna 2009.
Acknowledgements: Marina Gržinić would like to thank Dr. Dina Iordanova and Tanja Passoni for their language editing suggestions.

dr Marina Gržinić, philosopher, artist and theoretician. She works in Ljubljana and Vienna. Gržinić is Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Institute of Fine Arts, Post Conceptual Art Practices. She is researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the ZRC SAZU (Scientific and Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Art) in Ljubljana. She also works as freelance media theorist, art critic and curator. Marina Gržinić last book is Re-Politicizing art, Theory, Representation and New Media Technology, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna and Schlebrügge. Editor, Vienna 2008. Marina Gržinić has been involved with video art since 1982. In collaboration with Aina Šmid, Marina Gržinić realized more than 40 video art projects (http://www.grzinic-smid.si/).


(1) Giorgio Agamben, The State of Exception, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

(2) Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee, "Live and Let Die: Colonial Sovereignties and the Death Worlds of Necrocapitalism," in borderlands ejournal 2006, volume 5, no. 1, 2006.

(3) Cinema of the Balkans, Dina Iordanova ed., Wallflower Press, London, UK 2006.

(4) Marina Gržinić, "Meditations "noir" on normality, violence and identity: Karpo Godina, Želimir Žilnik," in The Catalogue of the 48th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Karl Maria Laufen Verlag, Oberhaseun 2002.

(5) Achille Mbembe, "Necropolitics," in Public Culture, volume 15, no. 1, Winter 2003, pp. 11–40.

(6) Žarana Papić, "Europe after 1989: Ethnic Wars, The Fascisation of Social Life and Body Politics in Serbia," in Filozofski vestnik, special number The Body, edited by Marina Gržinić Mauhler, Institute of Philosophy ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana 2002, p. 191–205.

Šefik Šeki Tatlić, "Enjoying Trauma" in Reartikulacija, no. 4, Ljubljana 2008.