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I Miss Sonja Henie

(Serbo-Croatian Title: Nedostaje mi Sonja Henie)
(Slovene Title: Manjka mi Sonja Henie) (1972)

A film on which Karpo Godina, Dušan Makavejev, Tinto Brass, Bogdan Tirnanić, Mladomir “Puriša” Ðorđević, Paul Morrissey, Frederick Wiseman, Miloš Forman, and Buck Henry all collaborated? Sounds like a cinephile’s dream — too good to be true! I had never heard of Tirnanić or Ðorđević, but I sure knew of all the others. Why on earth would they all collaborate on a short film? As a matter of fact, I thought it was a phoney listing on the Internet Movie Database  — but then I saw it. It’s for real. And it is absolutely one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. Almost indescribable. Though it’s only 15 minutes and 24 seconds long it is so rich that after a single viewing I couldn’t remember everything I saw. The sequences by Tirnanić and Ðorđević became quite vague within minutes. Drat! But some of the others are, at least for me, unforgettable.

DISCLAIMER: Among those who were not as impressed were: Miloš Forman, Buck Henry, Paul Morrissey. So maybe I’m just a lone nut-case.

How did this movie come about? Well, it was the brainchild of Karpo Godina, who got his start by serving on the crews of a number of commercial movies. Then he started making short films, outside the studio system, on his own. In the US, people who do such things are considered to belong to the “Independent Filmmaking” movement. In Yugoslavia the movement was called the “Amateur Movement,” with “amateur” being used in its original and correct meaning of working for love rather than money, not the current erroneous definition of untrained ineptitude. Among these “Amateur” films was The Gratinated Brains of Pupilia Ferkeverk (1970), featuring the Slovenian poets who constituted a collective called ‘Pupilia Ferkeverk.’ The movie opens with a shot of a woman on a swing in a seasalt field, shot at different times of day and night, and in different weather. When we think, after a minute or two, that we are going to see nothing else, other characters suddenly interject themselves, standing naked or nearly naked in the water, miming different stages of life and politics, using symbolism so abstract as to be meaningless were it not for the captions that are in Serbo-Croatian (or Slovene?) and are not translated into English. The characters all conclude that the universal solution is to take LSD. The depiction of drug use, of course, got the movie banned. But that was probably just a pretext. The movie’s real subversion is not a mention of a drug, but the depiction of civilization reduced to a cartoon level of unoriginal people standing around in the water mimicking one another and following the pointless commands of advertisers and politicians. The imagery is hilarious.

Asked by an audience member at the Brooklyn Academy of Music who had written the background song, Karpo Godina confessed that he knew someone would ask, and that in anticipation of this he had been racking his brains all day trying to remember, to no avail. But now a Google search reveals the answer. The song was written by Rory Gallagher for a group called he was then in called Taste, and the name of the tune is “On the Boards” from an album of the same name.

Manca Čermelj on the swing

Matjaž Kozbek

Ivo Svetina

Tomæz Krelj

Milæn Jesih in foreground

Iucundus Oblak Bard

Gratinirani mozak Pupilije Ferkeverk (The Gratinated Brains of Pupilia Ferkeverk / Browned Brains of Pupilia Ferkeverk, 1970, 35mm, color, 1:1.66) Most images captured from Karpo Godina: Ram za nekoliko slika (Karpo Godina: Frame for Several Pictures, 15 November 2006), an RTVSLO television documentary.







God®: “Be fruitful”

Swallow LSD®

In response to Tito’s endless propaganda of Yugoslavia being a single united people living together in brotherhood, Godina made Healthy People Ready for Fun (1970), shot entirely in Vojvodina, featuring natural locations and local villagers dressed in their traditional costumes, which was really how they normally dressed every day. Each group in this province used a different house color, so that one could know at a glance the ethnicity of the people living inside. In a series of static but beautiful painterly shots of the locals standing still as statues and staring at the camera, the song introduces the people of several of the 33 ethnic groups, insisting that “We love the Russians; the Russians love us” “We love the Ruthenians; the Ruthenians love us” “We love the Buna Croats; the Buna Croats love us” “We love the Hungarians; the Hungarians love us” etc, etc. The relentlessness is devastatingly funny, and though the Yugoslav government authorities agreed that the movie demonstrated brotherhood, they couldn’t understand whether there was more than one message in the irony. So they banned it.


Zdrave ljude za razonodu (Healthy People Ready for Fun, a/k/a The Litany of Happy People, 1970, 35mm, color, 1:1.66)
Most of these frames are captured from Karpo Godina: Ram za nekoliko slika (Karpo Godina: Frame for Several Pictures, 15 November 2006), an RTVSLO television documentary. Aren’t these beautiful images? Who could look at these images and not want to move to Vojvodina? How could so many governments get away with playing upon such cultural differences to change neighborliness to hatred overnight and thus get their lucrative bombing campaigns started? Sheesh! Some people get arrested and tortured for taking drugs or for defending themselves against violent policemen. Other people bomb, kill, and mutilate beautiful people like the folks in these pictures and win awards and honors and accolades and political offices and defense contracts for it.

Watch an eight-minute Dutch-language documentary about Healthy People Ready for Fun at Nachtpodium — Litanie voor gelukkige mensen.

In 1972 Godina was commissioned to make a promotional short for the Yugoslav army, and was given access to 60 tanks and 20 airplanes, which he duly filmed — and then entirely deleted from the final film. He filmed the army performing maneuvers in a desert plain (the same spot where the US is now training the troops bound for Iraq) and, with the help of jump cuts, made them increasingly resemble ants at a picnic. He intercut this with nearly static shots of the women of one (or two?) villages (in Slovenia?), who explained that they would never see a single soldier, because mingling of the local women and the military was strictly forbidden. Then the ironies multiplied relentlessly, so much so that Godina entitled the film On Love Skills, or A Film with 14,441 Frames. For making this movie he was charged with anti-socialist ideas and nearly received a seven-year prison sentence. The military destroyed the negative with an axe and attempted to destroy all the prints as well. Only one print survived, from which others have been made. The quality is rather poor, and I can’t tell if the original was 35mm or 16mm.

O ljubavnim veštinama ili film sa 14 441 kvadrata
(On Love Skills, or A Film with 14,441 Frames, 1972, color, 1:1.375).
It’s so nice, for once, to have an unambiguous record of a movie’s actual running time.

That leads us to I Miss Sonja Henie. What was this odd little unseen movie? Olaf Möller, a film curator in Köln, writing in the on-line film journal Senses of Cinema, included it in his list of “Ten Treasures.” Sufficiently intrigued, a few years ago I wrote to Herr Möller, asking him, among other things, to describe the film. Here’s his response:

A few words about this insanity of a masterpiece. I’m not surprised that you couldn’t find anything on this particular film — as it was more or less never shown, at least in public; even the usually quite-reliable and well-researched BFI Encyclopedia of Russian and Central European Cinema got this one wrong: They say that it is a documentary about the Belgrade Film Festival made by some of the invited directors of the (I think) ’72 edition, among them Sergio Leone — which is bulls__t, as the film is neither a documentary nor had Sergio the Great anything to do with it.

It’s a kind of cinephile experiment: Godina asked some of the directors that were present at the Belgrade Film Festival in (I think) ’72 to shoot a short film following a very strict set of rules: no pans, no zooms, no travellings, only one lens (the same for everybody — i.e. a fixed gaze), one roll of raw stock for each director, and at some point the actors had to say “I miss Sonja Henie” (Snoopy is actually credited as the film’s screenwriter). Now, each of these directors shot his segment (some lameass, some weird; some pop up only briefly; some were used, it seems, in their entirety), and out of these individual segments — plus a few additional scenes (stock footage of Sonja Henie, etc) — Godina edited the final film — which did not please the censors. Except for one, all of Godina’s earlier efforts — most of which are EXTRAORDINARY, BRILLIANT WORKS OF A GENIUS — were forbidden to be shown publicly: They said the films were works of Western decadence and therefore a danger to the Yugo-Soc-mindset; now, in the case of this particular masterpiece (his last work as a director for quite some time), they said that now he’d even worked together with those Western decadents, that he’d become their tool. Well, that’s the film, that’s its story. By the way, now Godina is considered to be the most visionary artist Slovenia ever brought forth — together with Serbia’s Želimir Žilnik (check out my piece on Žilnik in Film Comment 1/2 ’04!:-) and Croatia’s Lordan Zafranović he became something like an avant-garde inside the Yu-black-wave-avant-garde of the late 60s and early 70s. And: The real documentary in this case is the making of: 5 hours’ worth of a lot of great filmmakers having a whale of a good time shooting the s__t, filmmakingwise — now, this mother is certainly a document about a place in time in cinephilia!

Never had my appetite been so whetted! [I was later assured by an assistant who handled every frame of the footage that Karpo shot only one hour of behind-the-scenes material.] I wrote to Karpo Godina, but he didn’t reply (because his English was too poor and my Slovene was/is nonexistent). I asked Tinto Brass to tell me about it, but he just smiled in fond recollection and said that he had never seen the movie and had no idea how his footage had been used. I bumped into Buck Henry at a video shop. He told me that he had wanted to show it at the Telluride Film Festival, but all he received were unedited fragments, which were supposedly all that survived of the movie. He also really wanted to see the making-of documentary, but understood that only a few minutes of it still existed. A year or so later he gave a little talk, and I gave him my contact info, just in case he were ever to run across the movie. And then, on Tuesday, 11 September 2007, I got an email from Buck Henry telling me that the movie would be showing at the Rose Cinema at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and that he and Karpo Godina and Paul Morrissey and Miloš Forman would be in attendance! I went onto Google and did a bit of research, and learned that not only would I Miss Sonja Henie be playing, so would several of Godina’s other short films — but I had better hurry, because the screening was a mere two nights hence, on Thursday evening, 13 September 2007. Like a lunatic I immediately purchased an on-line ticket and booked a return flight. I would arrive in New York, see the movies, and then fly right out again. Do I regret it? No. Especially since there was yet one more surprise: a 26-minute video abridgment of I Miss Sonja Henie: The Making of a Film!

So at the event I learned more. The Belgrade Film Festival was at the time considered one of the finest. Buck Henry was there to promote Catch-22. Miloš Forman was there, I would guess, to promote Taking Off (featuring Buck Henry). Tinto Brass was there, I would guess, to promote La vacanza. Dušan Makavejev was there, I would guess, to promote WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Karpo Godina was there, presumably, to grab all the filmmakers he could recognize as they walked into the event’s hotel. He and his assistant would wait in the lobby and then hand the filmmakers a proposal consisting of two pages of rules and regulations, which can be summarized thus: Each filmmaker who wished to participate in the anthology film would be obliged to shoot entirely in a set of Godina’s choosing. They must all shoot in that same room. The camera (the “crappy camera” is how Buck Henry described it) must not move. The lens must not be changed. Each filmmaker was limited to three usable minutes. At at least one point in each three-minute segment, a character must state, “I miss Sonja Henie.” Other than that, the filmmakers had complete freedom to shoot whatever they wished, with whatever actors they wished. And since the shooting took place off-hours (late nights and early mornings) at an international film festival, all sorts of world-class actors were available. Godina expected maybe two or three filmmakers to be agreeable, but to his delighted surprise, all eight he approached signed on! A 100% success rate!

Karpo Godina chose a set for its nearness to a stage theatre, thus allowing all involved to borrow a large variety of props. The set was of a small, unattractive, dumpy efficiency apartment of the sort that a struggling university student might be forced to live in for a semester or two, the sort that surely leads to countless student suicides. It was so cramped that there was barely enough room to fit the camera in. Because of the way the two rooms and corridor were arranged, it was impossible to get a good angle or to light the set professionally. The filmmakers did not blanch, but attacked the problems creatively — so ridiculously creatively that the movie is one of the most inspiring works ever made.

Dušan Makavejev’s sketch opens I Miss Sonja Henie. Makavejev was the only one of the eight filmmakers who ignored the set, which can only barely be seen in the background, and focused instead entirely on the actors.

Here’s an image I just found from an essay posted at Chained to the Cinémathèque, which was written by Dave McDougall, who was in the same audience I was in! He in turn found this image via a Google search at the Filmarchiv Austria site. This is a frame of Miloš Forman being wrapped in bandages by Brooke Hayward preparatory to shooting his three-minute scene. This frame comes from the documentary I Miss Sonja Henie: The Making of a Film, a one-hour record of the shooting. A 26-minute abridgment was shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and that same night Karpo Godina was giving out DVD-Rs of his new 100-minute edition to those who had worked on the movie.

Dušan Makavejev’s opening piece attempted to break down barriers by placing extreme emphasis on a body organ that most of us never bother to think about. The overemphasis is so extreme that it’s simultaneously hilarious and discomforting. (The boy was played by a fellow called Branislav; I assume he was the one credited as Branko Milićević. The girl was played by Dobrila Stojnić.) Tinto Brass did the most meaningless of all the sketches, as Dobrila is in bed, scratching herself madly, and then runs to answer the door when Branislav knocks violently at it. He bursts into the corridor, groaning in pain, clutching his stomach. What’s wrong? Are you ill? Did someone attack you? “I miss Sonja Henie!!!!!” he cries out in explanation. To which Dobrila replies: “Is that why we’re here?” Branislav then screams out that “I want to sh-t!!!!!” — and this leads to one of the oddest images I have ever seen in my life. I was the only person in the entire auditorium who burst out laughing, though. Cut away to another director’s sketch, but then Tinto’s sketch later repeats, twice, with variations each time. Each of the three variations ends, for no physical reason, with Dobrila exhibiting sexual gratification. Finally it ends up with Tinto stepping out from behind the camera in a gag that anticipates a scene from Capriccio (1987). Interestingly, though he directed his actors in English, he had them speak Serbo-Croatian, and he delivered his one line in Serbo-Croatian as well. Little is left of Bogdan Tirnanić’s sketch. It had Dobrila and Branislav taking turns sitting in air by bracing themselves against the walls. And only a moment or two of Puriša Ðorđević’s sketch remains, concerning Dobrila practicing her one line of dialogue in different ways. Paul Morrissey invented a scenario on the fly. He had a coughing Dobrila mime oral sex with one of her boyfriends (Srdjan Zelenović) and then switch to making out (clothed and mimed) with Branislav when he enters. Then her brother (Rade Rančić, I presume) walks into the room to say that their parents want her back home immediately. She won’t budge, but then her brother explains that she needs to come home because their grandmother just died. Frederick Wiseman, the documentary filmmaker, finally got to live a bit of a dream by dabbling in fiction. Dobrila is still traumatized by the death of her beloved Sonja Henie and demonstrates to Branislav how she dreamed she could have served her. Miloš Forman and Buck Henry created the show-stopper. It was easily the dumbest of all the sketches. Miloš Forman described it as “a beautiful, deep, sophomoric joke.” Buck was, and is, a tremendous admirer of Dalton Trumbo, and adores all his works — except for Johnny Got His Gun, which he thought was awful. So he decided to do his own version of Johnny Got His Gun, with Miloš playing the Johnny character. This decision was, in part, revenge for Taking Off, for which Miloš had Buck stand naked on a table. Buck was now going to get even. Miloš played Johnny, presumably a victim of war, without arms, without a face, deaf, and nearly blind. Buck, as the doctor, realizes that Johnny still has one way, and only one way, to send a message to the world. So he gets the nurse (played by Catherine Rouvel) and Johnny’s wife (Dobrila?) to do a striptease (discreetly not visible to the camera) to get things started. Gawd is it dumb, but gawd is it funny! The sheer shamelessness of it all will break down any resistance. Anyway, Miloš was perfectly content to be so humiliated on screen, because he did not need to be alert to play the part, and so he spent all his time imbibing cognac.

Dušan Makavejev’s sketch

Frederick Wiseman’s sketch

Frederick Wiseman’s sketch

Paul Morrissey’s sketch

Bogdan Tirnanićs sketch

Bogdan Tirnanićs sketch

Buck Henry and Miloš Forman’s sketch

Puriša Ðorđević’s sketch
Tinto Brass’s sketch

Karpo Godina thought that presenting these seven sketches, one right after the other, would be too raw. He thought it better to intercut them. This way he retained the freshness without doing any violence to the originals. Unfortunately, because this decadent Western-inspired work of anti-Socialist values was banned, no one, not even the eight filmmakers, was able to see this movie until just a few years ago, in the post-Yugoslav age, when it started popping up at international film festivals and various museums.


Dušan Makavejev

Dobrila Stojnić, Branislav Milićević, Dušan Makavejev

Branko Vučićević and Tinto Brass

Bogdan Tirnanić in the background

Dobrila Stojnić

Branislav Milićević

Bogdan Tirnanić

Dobrila Stojnić, Bogdan Tirnanić, Branislav Milićević

Dobrila Stojnić and Puriša Ðorđević

Paul Morrissey and Branko Vučićević

Srdjan Zelenović, Dobrila Stojnić, Branislav Milićević

Branko Vučićević translates for Frederick Wiseman

Dobrila Stojnić frightens Branislav Milićević

Catherine Rouvel and Miloš Forman explain the intricacies of French to Brooke Hayward

Buck Henry, Catherine Rouvel, and Miloš Forman in a story conference

Buck Henry

Buck Henry, Branko Vučićević, and Dušan Makavejev

When the BAM screening was completed, Karpo Godina, his interpreter Jurij Meden, Paul Morrissey, Buck Henry, and Miloš Forman were all invited to the front. The maître d’, Jake Perlin, said to them, as they were approaching from the rear of the auditorium, that this was probably the first time the filmmakers had seen the movie in many years. “Or ever!” said Buck, who explained that they had never seen it, that they had been led to believe that it no longer existed. Miloš Forman told how sorry he was to learn that it didn’t exist. And now, he said, “I’m more sorry it exists!” Buck and Miloš provided some of the “back story,” as they say in Hollywood. Miloš was nervous about attending the Belgrade Festival of 1972, since he had fled the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia, which had recently kidnapped a former minister who was living abroad. But Dušan was reassuring, which was a bit ironic, because it was Dušan whom the Yugoslav authorities considered the most difficult of the film artists, and it was he who had the most reason to fear. Yet he promised that there was nothing to worry about, that all would be well and everyone would be perfectly safe, because he was good friends with the Minister of the Interior. But Catch-22 was then screened for the Yugoslav military, and everyone in the auditorium was covered with medals. There was not so much as a giggle during the screening, and Buck realized that, “They’re going to kill us!” So, alas, it was not so safe. And it was Dušan, ironically, who ended up discovering that Miloš was correct to suspect that trouble would be brewing, for there was a plot by the Russian and Czech authorities to kidnap Miloš and haul him back to Prague! Miloš received a knock on his door at three o’clock in the morning. It was Dušan, who told him that they needed to exchange identities. From the window of the hotel they could see the cars parked in front, with the government officials inside, asleep, waiting for Miloš to emerge. Miloš was to get dressed and escape by the hotel’s back door 40 minutes later and one of Dušan’s relatives would drive him to the Austrian border so that he could get away. Dušan then left the hotel as though he were Miloš! Well, it all makes for an interesting life. But Buck did remember that it was “a really good festival” and that it had a “wonderful atmosphere.” Yes, I’m sure that’s true — but when politics gain power over art, there are inevitably, shall we say, problems.

REFERENCES: Here are some references from a festival held on 29 July 2001. If you can read Czech, please send us translations. Thanks!

Tiscali zábava, 28 July 2001
Česko-slovenská filmová databáza
http://www.lfs.cz/flist.asp?nl_id=3&i=42 (No longer active. Oh well.)
Filmowka 2001
Filmové listy, 28 July 2001, page 3, col 3.
Filmové listy, 29 July 2001, page 4, col 2.
It seems to have been shown in Trieste in 1998:
Trieste Film Festival
It seems to have been shown in Oberhausen in May 2002:
Karpo Godina In Oberhausen
Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen
And here’s a Croatian reference: Film.hr
Oh, and here’s another reference, from 2003: Damjana Kolar, “60 let Karpa Godine”
And a Parisian reference from 2003: Paris Cinéma
You want more? Fiche Film

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, if you’re a programmer and would like to rent this movie in PAL Betacam-SP, you might be able to do so for €50 (plus shipping, I presume) through Collectif Jeune Cinéma. If you’re not a programmer, forget it.

ERRONEOUS REFERENCES: Main Seek: Film mentions that the movie is in black and white, and that the MPAA rated it “R for graphic violent and sexual images, and for some strong language.” Methinks that something got mucked up here. You see, there are no graphic violent images in it, the film is in color, and the MPAA did not offer explanations for its ratings back in the 1970s. Besides, the movie was never released. Another reference is at Hollywood.com, which incorrectly lists Dušan Makavejev as the only director, but correctly (sort of) lists Karpo Godina as the production manager.

AND AN ANTI-REFERENCE. Do you enjoy getting confused? Okay. Good. The Torino Film Festival posted a little write-up on Frederick Wiseman that makes no mention of I Miss Sonja Henie. Yet before it disappeared, I saved on my hard drive an earlier version of that web page, which did indeed mention it! So the folks in Torino correctly included it among Wiseman’s credits at one time and then incorrectly deleted it later. Wonder why.

AND WHERE CAN YOU SEE THIS AMAZING MOVIE? Well, it ain’t gonna be easy. The recent-but-rare-and-out-of-print DVD of Karpo Godina/Branko Vučićević’s feature film Splav Meduze, available only in Slovenia, contained The Gratinated Brains of Pupilia Ferkeverk, Healthy People Ready for Fun, On Love Skills, or A Film with 14,441 Frames, the 26-minute abridgment of I Miss Sonja Henie: The Making of a Film, and I Miss Sonja Henie as supplements. If you missed out on that, I guess you need to do Google searches at least once a week, and maybe after five or ten years you’ll spot a screening several thousand miles from where you live. I am infinitely grateful to Buck Henry for telling me about this screening — and for introducing me to Paul Morrissey, who had virtually no recollection of the movie and who was surprised by the documentary to learn that he once had a beard, something he does not recall at all. Paul Morrissey, in turn, won my undying admiration because he took me up to the VIP room where a friend and I crashed the party. And if he hadn’t done that, I would never have had the beautiful experience of having Karpo Godina and one of his interpreters approach me. “Are you the one who flew all the way in just to see these movies? Karpo is so flattered! He wants to meet you!” He wanted to get a photo of me arm-in-arm with him. Never before had I heard of a filmmaker asking for a photo of a fan. He’s so wonderful and charming and big and warm and happy with that beaming smile that he could win anyone over in an instant. And then he gave me a DVD-R of the documentary that RTVSLO did on him — with English subtitles no less! (And by the way, the RTVSLO documentary, Karpo Godina — Ram za nekoliko slika (p 46), demonstrates, once again, that the allegation of age-old hostilities among the various ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia was a vicious myth created by maniacally conniving politicans. It has no basis in reality at all — apart from the artificial hostilities that the politicians and governments occasionally instigate for their own profit.)

NEWS!!! You can now purchase this movie, along with several of Karpo’s other movies, as a DVD supplement to the March/April 2010 issue of a new magazine called The Believer.

Well, since I’m now absolutely wild about Karpo’s movies, I might as well give the world some references. (Before we end this essay, I might as well give the solution to the mystery: Karpo rhymes with Harpo, with a full o at the end, and Godina is pronounced GO-dee-nah.) Oh, if any of you Serbo-Croatian-speaking or Slovene-speaking folks can get me some of Karpo’s movies on video, write to me and I’ll be eternally grateful! Help? Please? Thanks!!!

If you’re really desperate, I guess you can bicycle over to Slovenia, for it seems that at least some of Karpo’s films, including his short films, can be viewed on VHS at the AGRFT: Akademija za gledališče, radio, film in televizijo, as you can see from the listings at eKumba: Kratki filmi Karpo Godina, eKumba: Kratki filmi / Eksperimentalni filmi, and eKumba: Karpo Godina. So who wants to pay for my vacation to Ljubljana?

Sorry. Most of the links below have vanished. I’m certain I archived them somewhere. Somewhere. When I find them I’ll post them if I can get permissions.

(part 1)


(part 2)


A later feature film on DVD!!! Region 0 PAL (which won’t play on most US/Canadian equipment), but it has optional English subtitles! Out of print, but the shop still has a few copies on hand. And... this DVD has the above five short films on it as well!!!

Slovenska Kinoteka: Splav Meduze

Olympic ice-skater Sonja Henie, incidentally, died at the age of 57 on 12 October 1969, which was the day before Makavejev’s 37th birthday. That surely means nothing, but there you have it.

I Miss Sonja Henie / Nedostaje mi Sonja Henie

Because various reference sources have contradictory credits for this movie,
I thought it would be a good idea to do something nearly definitive:

35mm, 1:1.375, monaural optical, direct sound

A Personal Musing —
Two Peas in a Pod

Now that we’re dealing with a pair of movies on which both Tinto Brass and Dušan Makavejev worked, it’s about time to mention how similar the two filmmakers are. I was introduced to the wonders of Makavejev back in the autumn of 1978 when the University of New Mexico had a rare screening of WR: Mysteries of the Organism for a class that I was not enrolled in. I sat in anyway at the screening room in the Student Union Building (or SUB, colloquially), and proceeded to have my mind blown wide open. Yes, I had heard of the film before, and basically I knew that it was an infamous artsy porno movie that had flopped on the midnight circuit. I decided to watch it out of sheer morbid curiosity. Well, it wasn’t artsy and it wasn’t really porn, despite a few hardcore scenes. It was the most challenging film I had seen up to that time, with its head-spinning conglomeration of several different documentaries intermixed with an absurdist comedy — all merging in surprising ways to demonstrate the ideas of the semi-brilliant semi-kook Dr Wilhelm Reich. To my surprise, I wasn’t the only outsider who sat in for that session of the class. Shortly after I sat down in the second row, a gorgeous young curly haired blonde woman sat down almost directly in front of me, flanked by her two boyfriends, whom she had brought along partly because she had seen the film before and found it a major turn-on, and partly because she wanted to share with them her infatuation with Milena Dravić’s stunning beauty. I think about her once in a while and still regret that I didn’t introduce myself.

Three years later UNM had a public screening of another of Makavejev’s infamous porno movies, Sweet Movie. Plastered all over the campus were small color posters depicting Carole Laure bathing nude in a vat of chocolate. Along with the attractive image was a prominent X rating and a quote at the top: “‘The most beautiful film on sexual politics I have ever seen.’ — Jack Nicholson.” Enticed by the effective advertising campaign, students packed the 250-seat house — sold out! — and there was much buzz as the audience of mostly guys but also a fair number of gals murmured excitedly about the delights awaiting them. The guys sitting behind me mused about how jealous they would feel if they discovered that their girlfriends were also in the audience. (Huh?) The lights went down, the curtains opened, the film started, and with the second scene approximately everyone grew disappointed, as we in the audience actually did not see what the gynecologist on the screen was analyzing. There was further disappointment when it turned out that the film was made in nine languages and had subtitles. People were horrified to see that it included excerpts of a Nazi newsreel documenting the exhumation of the mass grave shortly after the Soviets’ Katyn Forest massacre. I still remember the agonized comment of one of the guys sitting behind me, one of the group who had come to see a porno flick: “Oh I didn’t come to see this!” And nobody seemed enchanted with Otto Mühl’s radical-therapy commune (least of all Carole Laure, who sued Makavejev over it). Before the end of the film most of the audience had left in total disgust. When the lights came up there were, I think, only 13 people left, including myself and my geology professor, whom I hadn’t noticed until then. One of his female students vented as the curtains closed, “Wasn’t that SICKENING!?!?!?!?!?!?” The professor calmly and bemusedly said, in his offhanded way, “I thought it was funny.” But as for me, I was totally bowled over, and thought it one of the greatest movies in the world. When WR and Sweet Movie were eventually released on VHS in brutally expensive editions, I bought them and starved for the next week.

For more of the beautiful Sweet Movie soundtrack by
Μάνος Χατζιδάκις, click here.

I plundered four different translations — by Christos Stasinopoulos, Amy Mims, Omiros2, and azimut —
edited them all together, and came up with the following:
Τὰ παιδιὰ κάτω στὸν κάμπο
δὲν μιλάν μὲ τὸν καιρό
μόνο πέφτουν στὰ ποτάμια
γιὰ νὰ πιάσουν τὸ σταυρό.

Τὰ παιδιὰ κάτω στὸν κάμπο
κυνηγούν ἕναν τρελό
τὸν επνίγουν μὲ τὰ χέρια
καὶ τὸν καίνε στὸ γιαλό.

Ἔλα κόρη τῆσ σελήνησ,
κόρη τοῦ αὐγερινού.
νὰ χαρίσεισ στὰ παιδιά μασ
λίγα χάδια τοῦ οὐρανοῦ.

Τὰ παιδιὰ κάτω στὸν κάμπο
κυνηγάνε τοὺσ ἀστούσ
πετσοκόβουν τὰ κεφάλια
ἀπὸ ἐχθροὺσ καὶ ἀπὸ πιστούσ.
The urchins down in the meadow
don’t converse with the times.
They just dive into the rivers
to retrieve the cross.

The urchins down in the meadow
chase off a fool,
they strangle him with their bare hands
and burn him on the seashore.

Come, daughter of the moon,
daughter of the morning star,
offer our children
heaven’s embrace.

The urchins down in the meadow
chase down the city slickers.
They smash the heads
of heretics and believers alike.
Τὰ παιδιὰ κάτω στὸν κάμπο
κόβουν δεντρολιβανιέσ
καὶ στολίζουν τὰ πηγάδια
γιὰ νὰ πέσουν μέσα οἱ νιέσ.

Τὰ παιδιὰ μέσ’ τὰ χωράφια
κοροϊδεύουν τὸν παπά
τοῦ φοράν ὅλα τὰ ἄμφια
καὶ τὸν πάν στὴν ἀγορά.

Ἔλα κόρη τῆσ σελήνησ,
ἔλα καὶ ἀνάψε φωτιά.
κοίτα τόσα παλικάρια
ποὺ κοιμούνται στὴ νυχτιά.

Τὰ παιδιὰ δὲν ἔχουν μνήμη
τοὺσ προγόνουσ τοὺσ πουλούν
καὶ ὅτι ἁρπάξουν δὲν θὰ μείνει
γιατί εὐθὺσ μελαγχολούν.
The urchins down in the meadow
cut little sprigs of rosemary
to adorn the wells
so that the young girls will fall in.

The urchins in the fields
make fun of the priest;
they dress him in all his vestments
and march him through the square.

Come, daughter of the moon,
come and light a fire
and behold how many young lads
are sleeping in the still of the night.

The urchins have no memory,
they sell their forebears short.
And all that they grab will never last
for they are instantly overcome by sadness...

Wishing the only two friends who shared my taste in films to witness the brilliance of Makavejev, I convinced them to watch Montenegro when it was released in the early 1980s. But when I saw it my heart sank. Where was the old verve and vitality? Where was the boisterous imagination? Where was the wild editing? Instead, I saw a simple, straightforward comedy, and one that didn’t even have that many laughs in it. I apologized to them, but they didn’t know why. They loved it, thinking it wonderfully quirky and delightful. I was genuinely surprised at first, but soon realized that they were right. Yet I tried to explain that it was nothing at all compared to WR and Sweet Movie. I don’t think they believed me. And a year or two later when The Coca-Cola Kid came out, I didn’t bother to encourage anyone to see it. I’ve grown to love both of those movies, though. Finally, in September 1993, in the midst of the Yugoslav war, Makavejev appeared in person in Toronto for a festival screening of Gorilla Bathes at Noon. I knew better than to expect another WR or Sweet Movie, and so I thoroughly enjoyed the touching, gentle, understated comedy. After the screening I spoke with him for just two or three minutes — about Yugoslavia, not about movies. Even though he was putting on a show of being in a jovial mood, it was clear that he was in the midst of a deep depression. He was a prominent member of Serbia’s largest anti-war group, the Belgrade Circle, and I must say he was the only Yugoslav I had met (up to that time) who was in no way whatsoever a nationalist, and he was the only Serb I had met (up to that time) who made no excuses at all for the behavior of the Serbs. So I found our momentary meeting to be therapeutic.

When I finally got to see Tinto Brass’s major works, I went through the same exhilaration I had experienced when I discovered WR and Sweet Movie, only more intensely. The Key, NEROSUBIANCO, L’urlo, and La vacanza just blew me away. I really had a tough time squaring these films with Così fan tutte and Paprika. But after a few weeks I finally began to accept the later films as legitimate works of legitimate master. I would not have done so, however, had I not seen the earlier works.

P.S. If you like early Brass and Makavejev, give Vĕra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies) a try!

Berlin Film Festival


Brass served on the jury at this festival.

“Berlin@2001 — Italian Awards: Italians Beyond Competition,” 9 January 2001.

Original research and commentary copyright © 2009 by Ranjit Sandhu. All rights reserved.

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