Who Is Singing Over There?

Slobodan Sijan’s Who Is Singing Over There? (Ko To Tamo Peva?, 1980) could almost be a prequel to Emir Kusturica’s great 1995 film about the history and breakup of Communist Yugoslavia, Underground. In fact, both films were written by the same screenwriter, Dusan Kovacevic; and Who Is Singing Over There? ends at the precise historical point where Underground begins, with the Nazi bombing of Belgrade on April 6, 1941.

Of course, the two films are very different — and not just because nobody in 1980 (the year of Tito’s death, which occurred while Who Is Singing Over There? was being shot) could have foreseen the horrors of the wars in which Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s. But also because Sijan is a fairly classical director, with none of Kusturica’s extravagance and carnivalesque excess. In fact, Who Is Singing Over There? is (as has frequently been noted) something of an homage to John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939): it follows that earlier film’s narrative structure, in which a group of mutual strangers, all of whom are vividly drawn personalities, find themselves thrown together on a voyage beset with multiple dangers, and various unexpected plot twists and turns. Instead of Stagecoach‘s passage through Monument Valley and other iconic settins of the Wild West, we get a ride on a ramshackle bus that proceeds from “somewhere in Serbia” through the countryside and on to Belgrade. And instead of Indian attacks, showdowns on Main Street, and the travails of giving birth, we get a series of (semi-)comic incidents involving peasants, the Army, and the generally dilapidated economic condition of Yugoslavia in 1941.

In Who Is Singing Over There?, as in Stagecoach and other classic Hollywood films, the characters are all types, each of whom is defined by a number of particularities that get expressed over and over again throughout the film. Such an approach to character is pre-Method Acting (which is why, aside from comedy, which directly depends upon utilizing stereotypes, you don’t see much of this approach in Hollywood past the 1950s, when Method Acting first came into vogue), and indeed “pre-psychological” (as Todd Haynes characterized Sirk’s melodramas). (Another way to put this is to say, in comparison with English-language novels, that this approach to character is more like Dickens than it is like most 20th century fiction, whether “high” — Joyce, Faulkner — or “low” — Raymond Chandler, Stephen King; and whether committed to modernist depth, or to postmodern cartoony caricatures).

This pre-psychological approach is something that contemporary, media-saturated audiences do not find “realistic” — though Ford seemed “realistic” enough to American audiences of 1939, as did Sijan, as far as I can tell, to Yugolsav audiences of 1980. In any case, part of the power of this (now old-fashioned) approach is that it allows characters to function typologically and allegorically, and to “represent”, or stand in for, various national characteristics and tendencies. In Stagecoach, Ford leaves the racial and gender hierarchies of his time basically unquestioned; but in terms of the interactions among the white male characters, there’s a lot about class divisions and about the legacy of the Civil War, and the film comes off allegorizing the politics of the time in which it was made (instead of the time in which it is set), by taking a stance that is pro-New Deal, anti-big business, and anti-the rich’s assumptions of privilege.

Who Is Singing Over There? similarly works as a national allegory, and, like Stagecoach, this allegory refers at least as much to the time in which the film was made as it does to the time in which it is set. As Dejan suggested to me, the film dredges up and displays the considerable antagonisms that subsisted beneath the official Titoist ideology of bratstvo i jedinstvo (“brotherhood and unity”) throughout the time of Communist Party rule.

On an official level, the film was entirely safe and acceptable to the ruling order; it is set in pre-Communist times (so that it doesn’t say anything overtly against the Party or the State); and it makes no direct reference to Serban nationalism, or to relations between the Serbs and the other official nationalities of Yugoslavia (Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians).

The film does, however, address racism in the form of the relation between the Serbian characters and the two Roma (“Gypsy”) musicians who are also on the bus. The Roma have long been the disenfranchised of Eastern Europe, without any homeland to claim the way other linguistic or ethnic groups did in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Who Is Singing Over There?, the Serbian characters display disdain towards, or distrust of, these Roma at every opportunity. At the end of the film, what has been mostly a comic series of misadventures turns serious and ugly, as all the other passengers attack and beat the two Roma, and seem on the verge of killing them, on the basis of a false allegation that the Roma have stolen the wallet and money of one of the characters. (The racist stereotype at work here is, of course, the one that says that the Roma are thieves). The lynching is only interrupted by the German bombing raid, which (in a final ironic turn) kills everyone on the bus except for the two Roma.

Indeed, the Roma serve as a kind of Chorus for the film. We see them in the first shot, and in the last; throughout, they comment, with their improvised lyrics, on what we have just been seeing. In the film’s one departure from classical form, these songs are addressed directly to the camera, and to the movie audience, instead of to the other characters. The Roma characters, perhaps because of their outsider status in Serbian or Yugoslav society, thus partly step outside the diegesis and reflect upon it. They distance us from the other characters’ obsessions, putting into perspective how self-obsessed and self-congratulatory they are, and how oblivious to the larger forces that determine them or loom over them (the coming War, the class divisions of Serbian society, the parochialism and attachment to tradition, etc.).

(Dina Iordanova writes extensively about the depiction of the Roma in Balkan films in her fine and useful book Cinema of Flames. She remarks, apropos of Who Is Singing Over There?, that “this symbolic ending, asserting survival for the marginal and oppressed, is believed by many to be a prophetic vision of Yugoslavia — a country busy fighting imaginary internal demons while vulnerable to destruction from the outside”).

The hatred of the Serbs for the Roma is the only form of racial or ethnic antagonism that is dramatized in the film. But all sorts of other antagonisms come out in the course of the bus ride, even if they are mostly treated comically. One of the passengers is a Germanophile (Bata Stojkovic), who extols at every opportunity the order and efficiency of the Nazi State, to which he continally compares the waste, corruption, and inefficiency endemic to the Serbian/Yugoslavian condition. Then there is the hunter (Tasko Nacic), who seems to have a problem with guns — they tend to go off in his presence, whether he is holding them or not, and (in the former case) without his intending to fire them). There are constant arguments about money: partly because Krstic, the owner of the bus (Pavle Vujisic) is continually working out schemes to overcharge or rip off his passengers. There are questions about the role of the Yugoslav Army, which is always ordering people around, and commandeering their property, but doesn’t seem capable of actually defending the country (and indeed, the Army did prove utterly unable to stand up to the Nazi invasion).

Then there is an amazing, almost surreal (despite the overall naturalism) sequence of the funeral for a schoolteacher who, we are told, has been murdered by bandits or terrorists (I do not recall exactly; sinceI could only get the film on VHS, not DVD, it is too difficult for me to scroll to the spot). But while the funeral ceremony is still going on, the alleged murderers (apparently another family — this would seem to be one of those long-lived feuds that are the stuff of legend, or cliche) come riding by on horseback. The mourners take out their guns and start shooting, the horse riders fire back, and a miniature battle ensues.

The entire film is structured around a series of such conflicts, which are both (usually farcical) turning points that drive the narrative, and markers or condensation points of social antagonism. The film as a whole might be seen as a three-way conflict between the forces of social order (represented mostly by the Germanophile), of bureaucratic imposition (both the various Army officers they encounter, and the bus owner Krstic, are continually citing rules and regulations to back up their predatory behavior), and of chaos and anarchy and generally wild behavior (incidents of which are continually breaking out, though Sijan doesn’t quite carry this to extreme, carnivalesque lengths, or celebrate it, in the way that Kusturica does in Underground and his other films).

Order and bureaucracy are both Germanic (or German and Austro-Hungarian, respectively). They both stem ultimately from the Enlightenment; they are both rationalistic through and through, and yet deeply irrational in the ways that they regiment and pervert human and social impulses. The Germanophile is rigid to the point of inhumanity; it’s a fitting touch that he collects rock specimens for geological analysis. He is utterly intolerant of the way that human imperfection gets in the way of his idealizations of order and efficiency. This is rationality imposed from above, and destroying anything that gets in its way.

Bureaucratic regulations are another thing entirely; though they must be rigidly followed, once they have been invoked, they are so arbitrary both in their formulation and in their administration as to be little more than a smokescreen for venality and corruption. At one point, Krstic will not let the hunter onto the bus, even though the bus has in fact stopped: because, he says, the legally mandated bus stop is 200 meters further on. The hunter must run, trying to get to the bus stop before the bus has had time to pause and start moving again. Later, Krstic demands that all the passengers show their tickets — even though there is no doubt that everyone on the bus has already paid — just in order that he can charge anyone who has lost their ticket a second time. This is rationality, not imposed from above, but seeping into every pore of social space from below: instrumental reason in its tiniest and furthest consequences. (The Germanophile’s rationality is that of what Deleuze calls irony; the bureaucratic rationality of the bus owner and the Army, like that in Kafka’s novels, is that of what Deleuze calls humor).

Finally, chaos and anarchy are manifested as a sort of premodern and prerational “Balkan” way of being — though again, Sijan doesn’t push this, or affirm it, in the wild and crazy way that Kusturica always does. This is the space in which rituals of hospitality and generosity resist being reduced to mere calculation; but it is also the space in which antagonism maintains its full stupidity, resistant to any form or adjudication or compromise. It’s a space of continual violence (all those guns, going off when they aren’t supposed to) and of sexual desire, but also of a sort of low cunning (mercantile or peasant) that is always looking to extract a monetary profit one way or another.

Sexuality enters into the film in the form of a weird triangle, involving a newly married couple (the bride being the only woman passenger on the bus) and a would-be seducer (a small-town singer, who lays on really thickly the attitude of being suave, debonair, and cosmopolitan). The newlyweds are continually on the verge of quarrelling, even though they haven’t been together long enough for such a relationship to develop. At one point, when the bus has stopped, they run off to the woods to have sex. All the other passengers follow, and watch them from a distance. The Germanophile says they ought to be ashamed of themselves; other passengers seem, rather, ashamed by their own all-too-eager voyeurism. The singer takes note mostly of the groom’s sexual inexperience and clumsiness, and renews his efforts to seduce the bride. As always, one wants to avoid leaning too heavily on sequences that are basically being played for comedy; but — in the context of the film as a whole — these episodes do demonstrate how even the sexual bond (as the sort of most basic form of the social bond) is riven by confusion and antagonism.

The film’s violent ending pulls the rug from under the comic mood that has obtained until that point — it forces us to re-evaluate, and perhaps take things more ‘seriously’ than we have done throughout — which is how I have approached the film in the comments that I have just written. In any case — and in direct contrast to Ford’s Stagecoach — there is no John Wayne figure in Who Is Singing Over There?, no point of audience identification, but only the Roma chorus, with its sardonic attitude towards the entire spectacle. Sijan and Kovacevic show us Yugoslavia imploding, though without making a heavy point of it, and also without any endorsement of any of the alternatives to (or, ultimately, successors of) the tarnished “Yugoslav ideal.” Bratstvo i jedinstvo is an ideal that, historically, never really worked — and the same can be said, of course, as well, for Tito’s other ideal of samoupravljanje (self-management). [A quick search through the IMDB reveals that a half-hour documentary called Samoupravljanje — Jugoslovenski put u socijalizam (Self-Management: The Yugoslav Road to Socialism) was also released in 1980]. It’s enough to make me (a complete outsider) feel oddly, and dangerously, Yugo-nostalgic (as many of the present-day nationalists disparagingly say).

One thought on “Who Is Singing Over There?”

  1. It is important to note that the Gypsy racism in the film is Communist: a stark contrast to the multi-cultural, tolerant and pluralistic marxist consitution that Tito took pride in, even selling it as an answer to Stalinism. And so Germanic rationalism (Slovenia) shows itself a counterpart to Communist racism (Serbia). Even more to the point, it is precisely the fact that this is ”little racism”, almost unnoticed, and ”little” compared to, say, anti-Semitism, that reveals the totalitarian nature of samoupravljanje. The same way that nowadays, little things like the antismoking crusade can tell you a lot about the nature of biopower.

    I think this films takes on the form of a ”morality play”, and the same is the case with UNDERGROUND. However it is precisely the flatness of the characterization that allows for a certain ”emotional depth”, which I would rather designate in Deleuze’s terms as manifestations of Affect, than psychologically. Where a Western film would have to resort to melodrama in order to address emotions in such a flat and schematic setup, I think Kovacevic’s films do something much more original.

    It is possible to explain the ending psychoanalytically (the repressed particularist conflicts between the passengers exploding…the repressed ethnic resentments and ressentiment between the ethnic groups coming back…etc) but it falls short of the way the explosion inexplicably, suddenly, radically puts an end to society’s attempts at planning and control, and lacking in any apparent causal motivation, whether conscious or unconscious. (It is quite literally a ”deus ex machina” from morality play)

    Looking retrospectively, then, the explosion in the end is not really, not solely explicable as the Return of the Repressed, but feels instead like an outburst of AFFECT.

    Kovacevic’s intense disliking of the psychiatric establishment, which you will see in its full blackly comic glory in SPECIAL TREATMENT, would also endorse such an alternative reading.

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