It is the uneasy calm before the bloody Wars of Yugoslavian Succession, and a group of young soldiers stationed on the border between Yugoslavia and Albania are battling lust, boredom, racism and authority in the 2006 Rajko Grlic film, Karaula.
Karaula is a snapshot of a time and place where racial tensions are obvious but the impending disaster is not; characters symbolize various aspects of Yugoslavian society and not a detail is out of place. It injects humor with its use of profanity and portrayal of youthful boredom, but audiences imbued with hindsight know what lies ahead. We begin with a summary of the film, then discuss the off-screen and more technical details before we proceed to the analysis each of the four main characters, and finally evaluate the film’s merits as an agent of political socialization.
The year is 1987, and the movie starts off with Sinisa Siriscevic (Toni Gujanovic) and Ljuba Pauvonic (Sergej Trifunovic) in all their youthful brazenness. Paunovic engages in casual sexual intercourse with an attractive barmaid then monologues about Sinisa's own pursuits of the night, before both men jump naked into Macedonia’s picturesque Lake Ohrid. The introduction reveals their attitude towards their duty as soldiers assigned to the border post, which is to coyly ask, "What duty?"
Only the perpetually drunk Lieutenant Porucnic Safet Pasic (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic) seems to take the job seriously – for more reasons than just allegiance to the Yugoslavian flag. He tells the soldiers that Albanian troops are lining up, and that no one is allowed to leave the border post. And this is only because of his syphilis – he cannot go home to his wife Mirjana (Verica Nedeska-Trajkova) with the disease. The Lieutenant’s directive changes many things. Sinisa has to regularly leave the post to get the Pennicilin and deliver the Lieutenant's messages and salary to Mirjana, while Ljuba slowly but very surely disrupts the devil-may-care lives of the soldiers.
Sinisa and Mirjana become sexual partners; we are not sure if they are anything else. Mirjana asks him to take her to the sea, and he promises that he will. The young soldier does not consider this a commitment, although it is evident that Mirjana does. Ljuba, in his desire to leave the border post, tells Lieutenant Pasic that he wants to walk to the grave of Josip Broz Tito in Dedinje, Belgrade, a journey of about six hundred kilometers. Despite Lieutenant Pasic’s better judgment he was allowed to appear in front of the Colonel to declare his advocacy. Ljuba pretends to have a breakdown and accuses the Lieutenant of forcing him to undertake the pilgrimage; the Colonel does not take this lightly and promises Lieutenant Pasic that he will “never move from that mountain.”
The story reaches its inevitable ugly end when Ljuba returns to the border post and he and the Lieutenant clash in the rainy night. In the confusion someone shouts “Albanians!” Panic ensues, and with tensions already running high at the border post, a soldier opens fire at an oncoming car, reminiscent of a scene in Waltz With Bashir. The car contained, as the audience knows full well, not Albanian terrorists but Mirjana, Yugoslavian soldiers, and the Colonel. Mirjana dies; the film ends with Sinisa in civilian clothing, looking forlorn onboard a steam train, his destination left to the audience’s imagination.
Perhaps the most interesting off-screen fact about this movie is that it is a collaborative effort among Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, the UK, and Austria, and was supported by the Council of Europe’s co-production support fund, Eurimages. This is the first time that the former Yugoslav countries collaborated on a film, and what else should it but a military comedy about the period before the Wars of Yugoslavian Succession, dark years with some of the worst human rights violations in human history. It is amazing how they decided to make not a full-blown Schindler’s List but instead a comedy superimposed over the heavy themes of racism, infidelity, loyalty, authority, and consequences, set before their country broke down.
The style of the director is familiar. As in Die Ehe Der Maria Braun, we glimpse the zeitgeist through the news reports we overhear. We know that Slovenians are mobilizing, that there are riots in Kosovo, and that a Youth Relay Baton is on a pilgrimage to Tito’s grave. The busy town is juxtaposed against the lonely border post, the intimate encounters between Sinisa and Mirjana is juxtaposed against the conquests of Paunovic and the crude references to sex made by the soldiers. The change in Ohrid, from warm and sunny to rainy and gray signifies that things are about to turn for the worse. There are many other devices that are used in the film, and notable among them is the use of sound. The long low alarm at the border means alertness and impending crucial events, the Yugoslavian pop songs that Ljuba and Sinisa listen to seem to be youthful and carefree, but the lyrics say otherwise. Even the song played at the bar before the vertiginous slide into disaster relates all too clearly to the story. Every detail is relevant.
Interestingly, the movie opens with Sinisa’s eye. We see through his eye the explosion in a lake which looks suspiciously like a mushroom cloud. It closes with Mirjana’s eye; her dark pupil becomes the tunnel from which the train carrying Sinisa emerges.
The negotiation of identity within the context of racial tensions is the most obvious theme of the film. Everybody seems to know where everybody comes from: Sinisa is the Dalmatian Boy, Paunovic is the “Belgrade idiot,” Lieutenant Pasic is the “stupid Bosnian,” the Colonel smiles at a Montenegrin leader on television, and a soldier remarks, “The Slovenians are breaking up the country.” Nations, as Professor Benedict Anderson would have it, are imagined communities. And in Karaula, thrown together by the charismatic Tito’s national project, the different nations are all too painfully aware of their imagined differences.
For most of the film Sinisa wears a pleasantly befuddled expression, as if he found surprise in both everything and nothing. He treats life lightly, and does not seem to care for ethnicities and races, but he is the one who oversteps his boundaries the most.
The only woman who plays a significant role in the story, Mirjana is a die-cut tragedy. Referred to as an “officer’s wife,” she is intelligent but depressed, and desperate. “It’s so stupid to be a woman. Everything leads to goddamned marriage. Before you learn how to walk they already start putting together bed linen and towels for your dowry.” She complains of her fate but accepts it, that is, until Sinisa comes along. Desperate for escape she latches on to him, puts all her faith in him who never committed to her, and through a series of unfortunate circumstances meets her demise. Her desperation is heartbreaking, perhaps symbolizing what “officer’s wives” go through all over the world. Is her infidelity only truly what meets the eye?
Ljuba is the most conflicted character, but the source of his rather bipolar tendencies seems to be because of his relationship with authority and frustration about his current situation. His actions only seem to make sense when evaluated within the framework of anarchy. He comes across as carefree but he is the most observant of them all.
As mentioned, Karaula is classified as a military comedy. Most of the truly comedic scenes involve Lieutenant Pasic and his drunken antics, from cursing when he is given Penicillin shots to standing at rapt attention even when talking to officials on the telephone. But Pasic is important in that he is tasked to keep together the motley crew of soldiers from different and often conflicting ethnic backgrounds. In this microcosm of Yugoslavia he is the authority figure – albeit a blundering and unconvincing one. He fabricates a story to unite the soldiers, to his own end of course, but he fails in the sense that he unites them in paranoia and ultimately and unwittingly turns them against each other. He symbolizes the incapable elite who contribute to the breakdown.
It should be emphasized that there is a very important character that never actually appears in the film. Present only through the countless mentions of his name and yet all too important is the former Yugoslav “President for Life,” Josip Broz Tito. The text at the beginning introduces us to a world that he shaped, and one that we already know collapsed only a decade after his death. This tells us that the memory of a dead leader is not enough to hold together a country, no matter how much they reaffirm his contributions and honor his life’s work. Identity evolves.
The greatest tragedy in the film is the death of Mirjana and several Yugoslavian soldiers, but not from the Albanian “enemies” they so feared. The soldiers stationed at the border post were the ones who fired, thinking the oncoming jeep contained Albanians. Thus the breakdown comes from within, a blatant reference to what the Wars of Yugoslavian Succession were all about.
As an agent of political socialization, Karaula requires some knowledge of the history of the Balkan States and of Balkanization in order to be effective. Many of the important points are subtle ones, hidden in the profanity and the entertaining playful banter. The film has a lot to say on the issue of nationalism, identity, loyalty, and the national project and should not be taken at face value.
In the end, Sinisa does not betray Ljuba even when he knows that Lieutenant Pasic is mortally injured because of him. They are bound by shared experiences, and that is where loyalty truly lies. The film is also a cautionary tale: there are so many things that can go wrong in creating a nation, and it is not only the means which shape the ends but the objectives which underlie them. Karaula provokes us to evaluate where we are as a people and as a nation, where we want to go, and how we plan to get there – three questions that are becoming increasingly important in a digital age where new borders are being built up and old ones are being broken down much faster than we can even begin to imagine.
Grlic, R. (Director). (2006). Karaula [Motion Picture]. Republic of Macedonia: Refresh Production, Vertigo/Emotionfilm, Sektor Film Skopje, Propeler Film, Yodi Movie Craftsman, Film and Music Entertainment, Concordia Film, Invicta Capital, Macedonian National Television (MTV), Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion GmbH, Pioneer Pictures, RTV Bosnia-Herzegovina, Studios, Viba Film.
Karaula. (n.d.) Retrieved 4 September 2011, from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0466561/
- Roseanne Ramirez