Special Treatment

Goran Paskaljevic’s Special Treatment (Poseban tretman, 1980), with screenplay (again) by Dusan Kovacevic, is a comedy, really, about what can best be called (today) the “soft” totalitarian management of affect. Dejan initially suggested to me that the film is not just an allegory of the Yugoslavian Communist regime, but also resonates with present-day endeavors to control — or better, to manage — “addictive” behavior, like the anti-smoking campaigns that have their origin in the United States, but have currently attained a worldwide reach. (For an excellent account of this, see Roddey Reid’s book, Globalizing Tobacco Control). In this way, the film sheds a disturbing light — which could not have been intended when the film was first made — on the relevance of the Yugoslav experiment with socialism for current post-Communist globalization.

[Just as a side comment: it’s noteworthy, I think, that Slavoj Zizek can rehabilitate Lenin, and find positive things to say even about Stalin and Mao; but the one major historical Communist figure who seems to be beyond the pale for Zizek is precisely… Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. Maybe, at least in the spirit of carnivalesque parody, a certain revival of Titoism — and, for my Slovenian friends, Kardeljism — is in order.]

Special Treatment is about an authoritarian doctor, Dr. Ilić (Ljuba Tadic — a well known Serbian actor: according to IMDB he appeared in over 170 Yugoslavian/Serbian films and TV shows) who has invented a “special treatment” for alcoholics. The treatment involves exhortations to willpower and the exercise of free will, together with bizarre calisthenics (the patients are supposed to run about in circles, flapping their arms as if they were birds’ wings — birds soaring through the sky being an image of freedom), and therapeutic psychodrama in which the patients re-enact the traumas of the degradation and humiliation that they suffered under the influence of alcohol. In order to demonstrate the success of his treatment, Dr. Ilich takes the patients on a trip… to a brewery (!), in order to prove that they have been “cured,” and will not succumb to temptation.

Of course, things go haywire in the course of the narrative, and everybody gives way to opportunities for enjoyment, and gets drunk. Even the prize patient — and Dr. Ilić’s stool pigeon — Steva (Danilo Stojkovic) ends up getting dunked in what the brewery proudly displays to the public as the world’s largest mug of beer. What’s more, Dr. Ilić himself is revealed as a hypocrite, a drinker who is incapable of heeding the Biblical call of “physician, heal thyself.” Everything falls apart, both farcically and (semi-)tragically, and on one level the film would seem to be repeating the (overly) familiar warning that “social engineering” cannot alter human nature, or penetrate beyond the body to the soul.

Special Treatment

But actually, I think that, in Special Treatment, matters are more complicated than they might at first seem. If one is of a sufficiently cynical and conspiratorial turn of mind, one might even suspect that the failure of Dr. Ilić’s “special treatment” is on a certain (non-conscious) level its intended, and hence effective, result. When the patients re-enact their alcoholic traumas — as they do at the very beginning of the film — the result seems to be, not to liberate them from their pain and dependency via some form of catharsis, but rather to reinscribe them ever more strongly within this prior condition. For this is what defines their subjectivity.

And indeed, by failing the “test” of freedom, the patients condemn themselves to return to the State institution in which they are in fact imprisoned (these are not people who have voluntarily come for help, but who have been legally committed to rehabilitation, after having deserted their children, attempted suicide, gone beserk, etc.). The collapse of the treatment is what necessitates, and authorizes, applying still more of it. Dr. Ilić is not discredited at the end of the film; rather, he is in position to require still more bizarre calisthenics from his patients, who will never be free as birds no matter how often they pretend to be flapping wings.

Dr. Ilić associates his exhortations about the power of the will, and the emulation of being free-as-a-bird, with sublime (mountainous) natural landscapes, and with the music of Wagner. The Liebestod from Tristan, and the Ride of the Valkyries from the Ring, are heard over and over, in the course of the film, both diegetically — in recordings played by Ilić — and nondiegetically. (At one point, Ilić even orders his patients to stop singing a drinking song, so that he can play them Tristan instead). This, of course, gives the “special treatment” Nazi connotations. But at the same time, this treatment, for all that it is supposedly “special”, seems thoroughly routinized, which is to say bureaucratic; this suggests, perhaps, that the gross impositions of Nazism have been emulated, in a smaller, “softer” way, by the day-to-day regulations of “actually existing socialism.” The Yugoslav experiment was, as it were, totalitarianism with a human face. (The film precedes, by seven or eight years, the insinuations made by NSK concerning the uncomfortably close affinities between Fascism/Nazism and Yugoslav Communism).

This suggestion is supported by an incident in the first half of the film, where the director of the brewery where Dr. Ilić has taken his patients confides that he is interested in Ilić’s therapy as a way of controlling the brewery workers, whose drinking on the job is harming the firm’s productivity. What could be a better illustration of Marx’s observation concerning the alienation of workers from that which they produce than this effort to stop workers from drinking their own beer? Yugoslav “self-management” was supposed to combine the best aspects of socialism (democratic control of the means of production) and capitalism (the efficiencies created by the market). But Special Treatment suggests, rather, that self-management synthesized the worst aspects of both systems: capitalist exploitation and alienation, and socialist disorganization, incompetence, and lack of motivation.

On a deeper level, Dr. Ilić’s therapy is founded on a contradiction: it appeals to willpower, and rests its authority on a noble conception of freedom, while in fact infantilizing the people to whom it is directed, and hence making it impossible for them to display willpower, or freedom, of any sort. Near the start of the film, Ilić takes his patients to a pub; when the waiter comes to take orders, all the patients “freely” choose to have mineral water, while the Doctor himself (as if to taunt them) orders a beer. After the drinks arrive, Ilić ostentatiously pours his beer out on the ground, instead of drinking it, as a demonstration of willpower. (But as we see, but his patients don’t, he has secretly swallowed down a quick drink at the bar). Not only is Ilić corrupt, therefore, but his therapy has more to do with the image management — and the affective responses to such carefully manipulated images — than it does with anything else.

During this entire scene, the camera repeatedly cuts to a boisterous, drunken group at another table, where one man bets his friends that he can entirely consume a roasted pig by himself. This is the life that the patients have been forced to give up, in order to be reborn as responsible, compliant citizens. And in this sense, even in their relapses, they are marked by their conditioning: precisely because any such relapse back into drink is now marked by feelings of guilt, abjection, solitude, and abandonment (the feelings instilled by the “therapeutic” psychodrama). None of them will ever be able to joyously consume a roast pig.

The film continually juxtaposes comic images of excess and abandon, with ones of cynically calculated (or inculcated) Foucaultian “care of the self” or self-regulation (might one even call this the real meaning, or the truth, of “self-management”?). One of the patients steals a liquor bottle from the brewery; he gets hold of an enormous hypodermic needle, and injects the alcohol into a bunch of apples, so that all his fellow patients can enjoy it undetected. (Ilić, with his worship of Nature, is always exhorting them to eat apples, because they are a truly healthy food). Later, Ilić seduces the brewery’s public relations manager Kaca (played by Milena Dravic, best known to me as the Reichian militant in Makavejev’s WR) to the sounds of a record playing (yet again) the Liebestod from Tristan, the very music that he uses to motivate his charges. Pleasure and manipulation, enjoyment and discipline, work and leisure, seem to have become inextricably intertwined; and this is what (as per Dejan’s suggestion) links the incentives and disincentives of Ilić’s system (or, more generally, of the Yugoslav socialist system) to those of the hypercapitalist (but nonetheless extensively regulated and bureaucratized) world of today.

Special Treatment isn’t a deep film, nor is it (from a formal point of view) a particularly interesting one. But it certainly leaves a creepy aftertaste — in large part because the system of management it depicts is one that is still very much with us today.

3 thoughts on “Special Treatment”

  1. Indeed. Just to add that ”special treatment” is a modifier of PRIVILEGE in the Serbian language (it refers not just to therapy, but to special privileges on the basis of which samoupravljanje functions in a cynical double-bind of its professed egalitarianism)

    [Just as a side comment: it’s noteworthy, I think, that Slavoj Zizek can rehabilitate Lenin, and find positive things to say even about Stalin and Mao; but the one major historical Communist figure who seems to be beyond the pale for Zizek is precisely… Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. Maybe, at least in the spirit of carnivalesque parody, a certain revival of Titoism — and, for my Slovenian friends, Kardeljism — is in order.]

    Zizek continously and structurally stumbles upon YUGOSLAVIA (and by extension Serbian Yugoslav federalism) as his perverse petit objet a. It is this objet that spoils the picture of perfection, amazing erudition as well as his seeming mastery of the parodic genre. This is where the Real stares back into Zizek’s face. He restores Lenin, but he can’t accept Kusturica, whom he sees as a ”nationalist”, even as Kusturica continuosly demonstrates a love of Gypsy culture, his anarchic cosmopolitism, as well as his belief in Balkan federalism. Zizek condemns humanitarian bombing in Iraq, but the Serbian one seems welcome, I can only guess because the latter was primarily championed by neoliberals and social democrats. Etc etc. In fact, Zizek’s entire intellectual project completely disintegrates on this point, demonstrating forcibly that he’s working from the position of Dr.Ilic in the film. While I’m afraid to say the alcoholics being treated are from this perspective like the Western (esp. ANGLO-SAXONIQUE) academiae, which have made Zizek into the grand success he is today.
    So if this side note interrupts the academiae’s jouissance of Zizek, I believe it is great civilizational progress, bringing us closer to a way out of the totalitarian quagmire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.