Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNumérosVol. 18 n° 2ForumNot So Merry Working Class

Texte intégral

  • 1 To broaden this argument would require much more space than the format of this text allows. However (...)
  • 2 Jovanović Nebojša, “How the Love Was Tempered: Labour, Romance and Gender Asymmetry in the Classica (...)

1In this article I use analysis of the film Merry Working Class by Bojana Makavejev (Neoplanta, 1969) to show that amateur and experimental film in the socialist Yugoslavia of the 1960s was one of the nesting grounds of radical leftist and feminist critique of that society.1 After briefly describing the circumstances of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia after WWII, I recollect the gender relations depicted in the films of the period 1948-1958 as described by Nebojša Jovanović in his article “How the Love Was Tempered: Labour, Romance and Gender Asymmetry in the Classical Yugoslav Film.”2 Then, I put the film into the perspective of the lived experience of Yugoslav society and its denied history by connecting it to the experiences described in the book Poljubac za drugaricu parolu [A Kiss for the She-Comrade Slogan] by Dušan Makavejev, Bojana Makavejev’s spouse, who either produced or assistant directed his films and wrote their music scores. After that, I refer to Amos Vogel’s reading of Bojana Makavejev’s film to meticulously deconstruct the latter’s scenes and show how Merry Working Class constructs the reality of the Yugoslav proletarian class and its everyday life. In so doing, I clearly demonstrate its gender asymmetry, where a woman is a double proletarian. Bojana Makavejev’s film and its deconstruction allow me to affirm the critique of the disparate stances between the Yugoslav society as it was promised (during the revolution) and the society as it was (after the revolution) – the ideological crevasse that persisted from the establishment of the social state of the second Yugoslavia in 1945 to its horrid break up in the 1990s. I briefly conclude by emphasizing the importance of the film for the later dynamics of the feminist movement in Yugoslavia.

  • 3 It is often forgotten that the Yugoslav socialist revolution was the only successful one of its kin (...)
  • 4 Mostly presented as an ideological dispute, the conflict was equally the product of a geopolitical (...)
  • 5 Dugandžić Andrea, Okić Tijana, Izgubljena revolucija. AFŽ između mita i zaborava [The Lost Revoluti (...)
  • 6 I say the most important because the burden of the socialist and class revolution, as well as the a (...)

2One of the main tasks for the new Yugoslav socialist society in the aftermath of WWII was the creation of a new emancipatory subject – a proletarian. This figure of the new man and a new woman was largely founded on the fact that socialist Yugoslavia was born in the antifascist struggle but also in the proletarian revolution.3 In the first three years after the revolution, Yugoslav society was nothing more than a reprisal of the Soviet Union. However, in 1948 Josip Broz Tito said his famous “no” to Stalin,4 which consequentially tilted the country economically and militarily more towards the USA, but also led to one of the greatest contributions of Yugoslavia to foreign politics during the Cold War: the creation of the Non-Aligned movement. It also led to the formation of the worker’s self-management system that was inaugurated in 1949. Therefore, we could say that the idiosyncratic position of Yugoslavia rested on three ideological grounds: self-management, brotherhood and unity among different nations within the Yugoslav federation, and the Non-Aligned movement. The missing link, that was never imposed to the fullest, as it should have been, was precisely in gender relations, whereby the ideology of gender equality was disrupted by the abolition of the Antifascist Women’s Front (AFŽ) as early as in 1953.5 As such, by abrogating this female organization, the new Yugoslav state sawed off the most important branch on which the antifascist and class revolution rested.6

  • 7 Libidinal economy can be defined as the system of distribution and arrangement of desire and identi (...)
  • 8 Jovanović, “How the Love Was Tempered,” op. cit., p. 42. While men engage in homosocial activities (...)

3In his aforementioned article that gives a good illustration of that missing link, Jovanović relies on the relation between work and romance to show how the female worker was (not) represented in the classical period of Yugoslav film. After analysing a large number of films from the period between 1948 and 1958, he concludes that the gender asymmetry is ubiquitous: the man is depicted as a natural-born worker to whom romantic aspirations come as secondary, his libidinal economy being homosocial;7 the woman relates to work through the lens of her romantic engagement, her libidinal economy being heterosexual.8

  • 9 Here I primarily have in mind the so-called Croatian Spring and the imprisoning of its leaders.
  • 10 In the same year Merry Working Class was made, another, much more famous film was made by the same (...)

4The fact that the film Merry Working Class was made in 1969 is significant given that the previous year was that had seen strong student resistance to the hegemony of the “red bourgeoisie.” The following decade would be marked by disputes on the ideological axis of brotherhood and unity,9 merely stirring the never-healed wounds of WWII, grounded in the fact that during WWII the Independent State of Croatia was de facto a Nazi-puppet state aiming at annihilating the population of Serbs (as well as Roma, Jews, and political prisoners) in Croatia. The atrocities and murders committed in a number of concentration camps forged the antifascist resistance that drew its force from the ideology of brotherhood and unity – antifascist Croats and Serbs fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in combat.10 However, Serbian families could not easily forget atrocities committed against their loved ones, while many Croats felt that they were considered guilty for crimes that were committed by Ustashas.

5In 1965, Dušan Makavejev wrote the book A Kiss for the She-Comrade Slogan dedicated to Bojana with the following words: “To my eleventh thesis,” referring to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, and his obvious hint that, for him, Bojana was the one who changed the world instead of merely interpreting it. Bojana Marijan’s film Merry Working Class, made four years later, precisely uses a slogan-like impression of the lyrics of a popular satirical song to comment on the position of the working class and gender relations in Yugoslavia. The film, again, embodies the substance of the eleventh thesis by Feuerbach (which is also Marx’s epitaph): the ferocious need to change and not just interpret the world via the cinematic dispositive.

  • 11 Makavejev Dušan, Poljubac za drugaricu parolu [A Kiss for the She-Comrade Slogan], Belgrade, Nolit, (...)

6Makavejev’s book illustrates one lived experience of Yugoslav society, one that differed starkly from the promises made in the revolutionary time of WWII. In 1945, Makavejev was admitted to SKOJ (Alliance of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia), and in his book A Kiss for the She-Comrade Slogan he emphasized the rigid scrutiny of the older colleague who performed the “rite of passage” on him – inaugurating a new member of a political organization at the age of thirteen. In seven chapters, Makavejev talks precisely of these events, coming to terms with ideology that sometimes turned into dogma – as he writes in the second chapter, “Taking Off a Shirt of Dogma”. Makavejev describes the post-war reality as misunderstanding and accentuating the brutal treatment of women: young workers turned to whores, for example. In the next chapter, Makavejev recollects his memories of taking part in Youth Working Actions, working on the famous highway of brotherhood and unity which connected Zagreb with Belgrade, while discussing in particular the nature of slogans, to which he ascribes a playful nature. He says: “It is impossible to make a documentary about Youth Working Actions without slogans.”11 By creating a figure “A bit a cannibal, a bit a citoyen,” Makavejev deconstructs the image of the emancipatory subject, a worker, female or male, very often living an enormously different life from that projected on posters and in films and journals, for example.

  • 12 This sentence is often used today too in Croatia, to “explain” the numerous femicides that take pla (...)
  • 13 Makavejev, Poljubac za drugaricu parolu, op. cit, p. 78.

7Makavejev, as previously mentioned, dedicated his book to his wife Bojana Marijan, who was born in the Croatian village of Pakrac, where in WWII and again in the 1990s, the ideology of brotherhood and unity succumbed to the old animosities among two peoples sharing the same language, albeit with different transcriptions. This dedication, “To Bojana – my eleventh thesis,” reveals both his ideological position and the disappointment with it, but also his romantic aspirations. The famous eleventh thesis, about philosophers who interpreted the world that actually needed to change, is here the metaphor both for the macro-political in Makavejev’s oeuvre, on the basis of exposure of the everyday life of workers that is different from the proclaimed ideal of an emancipated worker, and for the micro-political dimension of his relationship with his spouse. On the last pages of the book, Makavejev tells the story of a man who killed his wife. The murder was mediated in the press with the following sentence. “He killed his wife because he loved her so much.”12 Makavejev reinforces the phrase from the press and “screams” the words with which that crime was mediated (and somewhat justified) in the press: “HE KILLED HIS WIFE BECAUSE HE LOVED HER SO MUCH.” The last words in the book are “We should spawn and multiply the sense of responsibility for one’s own, individual life.”13 Unfortunately, that taking of responsibility for one’s own deeds had never come to being in socialist Yugoslavia. Quite on the contrary, irresponsibility and extreme individualism without responsibility are what is shown in numerous sequences of his films, thus mirroring Yugoslav society.

8It is unknown to me at this point of research why this first film was Bojana Makavejev’s last own one. She later produced several of Makavejev’s films in the 1980s and 1990s, and worked as the assistant director on his well-known masterpiece WR: Mysteries of Organism (1971), for which she also composed a score, then also on the Sweet Movie (1974), Montenegro (1981) and The Coca-Cola Kid (1985).

  • 14 Vogel Amos, Film as a Subversive Art, London, C. T. Editions, 1974. p. 147-148
  • 15 To further argue that Yugoslavia was wrongly placed in this book would require a broader space than (...)
  • 16 Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, op. cit., p. 139.

9In his book Film as a Subversive Art, in the chapter “Subversion in Eastern Europe: Aesopian Metaphors”, Amos Vogel also mentioned the film Merry Working Class, describing it as a “clandestine political argument, presented in the form of satirical songs and vulgar couplets about nutrition and sex, foreign policy and the belief in the future. Instead of complaints, there are lyrics, music and wine.”14 The superficiality of the reading of the film’s context is clear from the start, placing it within the frame of Eastern European Films – Yugoslavia was not a part of the Eastern Bloc.15 However, one of Vogel’s sentences can be seen as very much connected to the film Merry Working Class: “where politics is inhibited, art tends to assume its function and form and style – not merely content – become ideologically charged.”16 If we dwell on Vogel’s sentence for a while longer, his argument that “where politics is inhibited, art tends to assume its function…” is highly reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s notion of aestheticization of politics as a primary feature of fascist regimes. Benjamin claims that the “logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” That aesthetics was present in Yugoslav society through innumerable public rituals that served to strengthen Tito’s hegemony, but art such as Bojana and Dušan Makavejev’s film art was not that that assumed the function of politics, but rather that that deconstructed that function and opened political imagination for alternatives. It worked to show the everyday in Yugoslavia and its spatiality and practices, as if placing a magnifying glass over the socialist reality that was very much class-divided and, as both Bojana and Dušan show in their work, deeply grounded in the patriarchal order and its violence, the most ancient form of fascism: male fascism.

  • 17 The same is also true for Dušan Makavejev’s later and much more famous films, in which Bojana’s rol (...)

10The poetics and politics of Bojana’s Merry Working Class fit into Vogel’s notion of International Left and Revolutionary Cinema by exposing “social ills” and “injustice.” What is also congruent with his remark is the fact that Bojana Makavejev exposes social ills and injustice with the form and style, and not merely the content, of the film.17 In doing so, Bojana Makavejev’s film penetrates the viewer’s consciousness, changing the constructive models of society, that rested on the pillars of monumental political rituals or solid monuments to antifascist and class revolution, towards the abilities of film to transform the political imagination of the viewer by showing them the reality, not as it is but as the film constructs it, which are, of course, different things.

11So, how does Bojana Makavejev’s film Merry Working Class construct the reality of the Yugoslav proletarian class and its everyday life?

  • 18 Forbes magazine proclaimed in 1976 that socialist Yugoslavia was one of the fastest growing Europea (...)

12The first frame of the film shows a plaque with inscription “Factory to the Workers,” one of the main slogans of Yugoslav class revolution. But the following verses sink into melancholy: “The entire working class listens to that.” So the proletarian class hears about it, which is very different from living it. They continue optimistically: “We are now among the developed nations of great European countries.”18

13While the film slowly introduces female workers as well, the title appears and the song goes on, saying that “the village is flourishing, industry is growing, freedom is what people want,” but then comes the subversion: we hear the folk singer almost lament the “elements” which devour that freedom by “executing shameful deeds,” because “the workers’ class is offended when being exploited, it works while the others enjoy the fruits of its work.”

14The next sequence shows a worker who is washing his feet while saying how gases destroyed his lungs so he cannot sing anymore. He also talks about a strike for better salaries and the manager’s broken promises. And then says that “[i]f we entered real socialism, everything would be better,” a statement that manifests the workers’ attitude: they still believe in socialism, but not in that particular socialism anymore. The promise of class revolution was broken at the time, the whole burden of economic reforms fell on the backs of the proletarian class, just as it had before the revolution.

  • 19 Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, op. cit., p. 147.

15In the following scene one can see a kind of bar, with a female singer singing what Vogel calls “vulgar couplets”;19 “When I eat white bread, I can fuck like a horse.” However, what is to be seen here is not primarily sexual desire, but hunger: white bread is luxury for the privileged, and so is sex. Workers conform with copulation. Another female singer, with a tattooed hammer and sickle on her breast, takes the money into her bra, while we see a male hand pushing the money there: commodification of the female body was omnipresent. It was the time of the sexual revolution, but it brought to the fore only promiscuity and commodification of the female body, nothing more: the question of female pleasure was tackled as a subject in Yugoslavia much later, in the 1980s. Lascivious comments by the workers on scaffolds in the next scene contribute to the sudden feeling that the workers’ class is not just hungry but overwhelmed with desire – seemingly for sex, but… perhaps wanting acceptance, love and dignity, too? One can see adult men acting as children, but it is an act. And it is not for the camera only; the act is there to cover for the inability of an individual to act responsively, so he acts like a child.

16The next scene reveals the darkest of the patriarchal order that continued to execute its violence on the female body: we see a worker at work in a factory, doing the type of work that is determined by the pace of the machine, and we hear the folk song which says “hit your woman, hit her hard.” The cultural reference to the notorious song “Hey, Joe” by Jimmy Hendrix is also there (“I shut my woman down, she messed with another man”): the hippie sexual revolution, just like the socialist one, did not bring liberation to female members of the society that kept on dismembering their bodies as men pleased. While the misogynist song goes on, we see the singer with his fellow workers and the slogan “Proletarians of the world, unite!” Male workers come together while female workers remain invisible until the next sequence, where we see one talking about death of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s death was taken seriously in Yugoslavia; people were aware that it would change the US, but for the worse and that nothing was going to stay the same. The Non-Aligned movement was at its peak, and Yugoslavia was taking the best not just from East and West, but also from its Non-Aligned friends. The talk takes on the form of a couplet, too, so the proletarian class is not uninformed, the people not unemancipated or “raw,” yet the class consciousness that was given momentum by the Communist Party before WWII was in transformation. A hypothetical spectator might ask, here: if workers are managing themselves, who is managing the managers? And, in the next scene we see a manager, obviously, because he is wearing a suit while sitting in a canteen with workers in their greasy and dirty clothes, expressing his love to Yugoslavia; he feels like a “Yugoslav.” Yugoslavian nationalism was somehow reserved for the ruling class. The privilege of the elites proved true again in the late 1990s when it was so easy for the transforming elites (ex-Communist elites were transformed into nationalist elites, honourable exceptions aside) to divide the working class according to their nationalities. While the manager talks, we see workers chewing their meal with resignation. An elderly gentleman speaks to Yugoslav youth – that kind of patronising attitude was common, and the elders knew what was best for the younger generations. The film ends with a group of workers singing about their desire for a pay raise and their inability to live in dignity without it.

  • 20 Milka Planinc was a Croatian communist politician who served as Prime Minister of Yugoslavia from 1 (...)

17The film Merry Working Class speaks of both the cynical reflection on the reality of the working class and the reality of being a woman. The figure of the female proletarian was dissolved in female apparatchiks such as the prominent politician Milka Planinc,20 while the reality of the female worker was such that she ceased to be a protagonist of the still-young socialist society. In my opinion, the film also carries the seed of the feminist critique that took on more pronounced organizational forms in the 1970s, with the range of working groups and conferences such as the first formally registered feminist group in the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia – the “Woman and Society”/“Žena i društvo” section (established in 1978) of the Sociological Association of Croatia, and the conference “Comrad-ess Woman. Female Question – a new approach”/“Drug-ca Žena. Žensko pitanje – novi pristup?” held in Belgrade in 1978. Bojana Makavejev did not make another film of her own, nor did she take part in any of these working groups or conferences. It is not her life or career that carries that seed of feminist critique; it is “just” that one and only film.

Haut de page

Notes

1 To broaden this argument would require much more space than the format of this text allows. However, Petra Belc has written about the fundamentals. See: Belc Petra, “Eksperimentalni film sa ženskim potpisom: kratak pregled odabranih tema i filmova” [Experimental Film with a Female Signature: Short Overview of Selected Topics and Films], Hrvatski Filmski Ljetopis, no 85, 2016, p. 56-78; Id., “Some Remarks on the Position of Women in the History of Yugoslav Experimental Cinema: The Case of Tatjana Ivančić,” in Silvana Carotenuto et al. (eds), Disrupting Historicity, Reclaiming the Future, Naples, ‘L’Orientale’ University Press and Zagreb, Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, 2019, p. 249-270; Id., “Poetika jugoslavenskoga eksperimentalnoga filma 1960-ih i 1970-ih godina” [Poetics of Yugoslav Experimental Film in the 1960s and 1970s], doctoral thesis, Zagreb University, Faculty for Humanities and Social Sciences, Filozofski fakultet, 2020; Id., “Home Movies and Cinematic Memories: Fixing the Gaze on Vukica Đilas and Tatjana Ivančić,” in Sonja Simonyi, Ksenya Gurshtein (eds), Experimental Cinemas in State Socialist Eastern Europe, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2022, p. 151-174.

2 Jovanović Nebojša, “How the Love Was Tempered: Labour, Romance and Gender Asymmetry in the Classical Yugoslav Film,” Studies in Eastern European Cinema, vol. 6, no 1, 2015, p. 33-48.

3 It is often forgotten that the Yugoslav socialist revolution was the only successful one of its kind in Europe after the Soviet one. So-called “Eastern Europe” was just automatically drawn into the Warsaw Pact.

4 Mostly presented as an ideological dispute, the conflict was equally the product of a geopolitical struggle in the Balkans, which involved Albania and Bulgaria. Tito and Yugoslavia also supported the communist insurgency in Greece, which the USSR secretly opposed.

5 Dugandžić Andrea, Okić Tijana, Izgubljena revolucija. AFŽ između mita i zaborava [The Lost Revolution. Antifascist Women Front between the Myth and Oblivion], Sarajevo, Udruženje za kulturu i umjetnost CRVENA, 2016.

6 I say the most important because the burden of the socialist and class revolution, as well as the antifascist struggle, was mostly borne by women, who were fighters, nurses, teachers, political workers, agitators, etc. This topic is covered in Izgubljena revolucija. AFŽ između mita i zaborava, see the previous footnote.

7 Libidinal economy can be defined as the system of distribution and arrangement of desire and identification, connectable to so-called “structure of feelings,” coined by Raymond Williams. See: Williams Raymond, Orrom Michael, Preface to Film, London, Film Drama Limited, 1954. Homosocial refers to the social interaction among the members of the same sex, predominantly men, such as team sports (soccer, American football, basketball, etc.) that fosters identification with that particular sex and its hegemony.

8 Jovanović, “How the Love Was Tempered,” op. cit., p. 42. While men engage in homosocial activities from early age, girls are more often directed towards domestic activities and raised to support the nuclear family (as was particularly the case in the socialist Yugoslavia of the 1950s and 1960s).

9 Here I primarily have in mind the so-called Croatian Spring and the imprisoning of its leaders.

10 In the same year Merry Working Class was made, another, much more famous film was made by the same production house, Neoplanta. It is a film by Želimir Žilnik and also refers to Marx, “borrowing not only the title but also the lines from the 1953 collected volume of Marx and Engels’, Early Works.” An especially puzzling coincidence lies, however, in an equally consequential event the same year: the aforementioned abolition of the Women’s Antifascist Front (AFŽ), a revolutionary women’s organization, founded in 1942 as part of the partisan struggle during the Second World War.

11 Makavejev Dušan, Poljubac za drugaricu parolu [A Kiss for the She-Comrade Slogan], Belgrade, Nolit, 1965, p. 33.

12 This sentence is often used today too in Croatia, to “explain” the numerous femicides that take place.

13 Makavejev, Poljubac za drugaricu parolu, op. cit, p. 78.

14 Vogel Amos, Film as a Subversive Art, London, C. T. Editions, 1974. p. 147-148

15 To further argue that Yugoslavia was wrongly placed in this book would require a broader space than this article allows.

16 Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, op. cit., p. 139.

17 The same is also true for Dušan Makavejev’s later and much more famous films, in which Bojana’s role still needs more careful examination.

18 Forbes magazine proclaimed in 1976 that socialist Yugoslavia was one of the fastest growing European economies. In the last 15 years (2009-2024) the Croatian economy, for example, has been at the bottom of the European economic scale.

19 Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, op. cit., p. 147.

20 Milka Planinc was a Croatian communist politician who served as Prime Minister of Yugoslavia from 1982 to 1986. She was the first and only woman to hold this office. Planinc was also the first female head of government of a socialist state in Europe in general. She was not popular among the people because she introduced severe austerity measures.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Sonja Leboš, « Not So Merry Working Class »Balkanologie [En ligne], Vol. 18 n° 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 décembre 2023, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/balkanologie/5587 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11qfh

Haut de page

Auteur

Sonja Leboš

Association for Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Research, Zagreb
sonjalebos[at]gmail.com

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés), sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search