Dušan Makavejev had already made one of the most brilliant political films of the 1960s and a particular favorite of mine, Man Is Not a Bird (Covek nije tica, 1965), when he created perhaps his strangest film, Innocence Unprotected (Nevinost bez zaštite, 1968), a collage of various materials, most of them either contemporary or hailing from a quarter-century earlier, during the Nazi occupation of Belgrade, Makavejev’s birth city. These materials are both fictional and documentary. However, the distancing and editing techniques Makavejev employs transform everything into a nonfictional element as each piece sounds out those juxtaposed to it, and these juxtaposed elements sound out the pieces flanking it, with the originally fictional pieces becoming something else in the process: a documentary consideration of what wasn’t in the first instance documentary. Although (like many Makavejev films) at times gross, Innocence Unprotected is one of the most purely cerebral cinematic exercises I have encountered. It’s a legitimate puzzle, not a manipulative, condescending trick-film like Memento or The Sixth Sense.
One of its materials, cut, rearranged and noncontinuously presented, is a whole other film: Nevinost bez zaštite—a 1942 film of the same title as Makavejev’s by and starring Dragoljub Aleksic, a famous Serbian athlete and celebrity. (Some of the shots of him flexing and popping his muscles, especially in the present, and in closeup, require a strong stomach to take, as do other shots of him testing the strength of his teeth, such as when he bites a chain in half.) Historically, this is alleged to be the first Yugoslavian film, but it has eluded official recognition for having been made during the German occupation. At his postwar trial, though, Aleksic insisted that he made the film without German knowledge, much less support, and indeed the Germans themselves had banned the film as deleterious. Aleksic was exonerated. The film itself is trite and melodramatic (and clumsily framed and shot) but isn’t the last word on itself. Makavejev supplies this, subtitling his film A New Version of a Very Good Old Film. Serbian himself, Makavejev isn’t functioning here merely as a nationalistic archivist, however; his own film unexpectedly contextualizes Aleksic’s, as we shall see.
Although it ends with the romantic clinch that presumably also ended Aleksic’s film, Makavejev’s film begins in the present by introducing members of the film’s cast, crew and production staff, including Aleksic. This material is shot in color, while the Aleksic film is in black and white. However, Makavejev applies color tinting to frames of the Aleksic film, at least at one point alternating between black and white and tinted series of frames, creating the effect of a flashing traffic light. He also applies tinting to some instances of other of the film’s materials—materials that interrupt the continuity of Makavejev’s presentation of Aleksic’s 1942 material. Other materials that the film employs include ones contemporaneous with the Aleksic film: newsreel snippets; German propaganda film snippets; newspaper headlines. Elements of different materials are sometimes edited to create the illusion of brief continuity between disparate materials. Throughout, disparate elements either fuse or collide with one another, establishing coordinates of implied unity and explicit disunity, the latter correlative to bombardment—military warfare, including against civilians. (Newsreel shots of a bombed-out Belgrade are trenchant.) Aleksic’s film is escapist, apolitical, but Makavejev, whose cinema is never so, pursues the political context of Aleksic’s film that Aleksic himself avoided or ignored. Film critics David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson—in a joint educational project for McGraw-Hill available on the Internet—identify this as Aleksic’s own innocence in failing to appreciate the danger from Nazis that he courted by his personal filmmaking, an issue made clear by other Makavejev materials stressing Nazi atrocities. This irony of the political grip in which political innocence or apathy sometimes obliviously unfolds would become the unifying theme of Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret.
But Aleksic himself is a dangerous man, at least a dangerous example, Makavejev’s film implies. One of the other materials Makavejev employs is snippets from Grigori Aleksandrov’s Circus (1936), a haunting anti-racist Soviet musical, here rendered in sepia. (This was my paternal grandmother’s favorite film.) Makavejev relates the human cannonball in this film (played by Aleksandrov’s wife, Lyubov Orlova) with certain of performer Aleksic’s own stunts, and the circus atmosphere of the Stalinist film merges with the atmosphere surrounding the many clips, past and present, of Aleksic performing various feats of strength and death-defying acrobatics. This is the point: inspired by the Aleksandrov film, Aleksic invented a cannon for expelling performers, one of whom was killed in the act of performing the stunt. Makavejev informs us that Aleksic was blamed for this death. The associative satire here interrelates Soviet influence and disaster, becoming an implicit contemporary (circa 1968) commentary. Yugoslavia, under Tito, did much more to resist Soviet influence than did other East European Soviet satellites, and Makavejev implies—again, I must say, associatively, by the collision of elements he presents—that “innocence” of politics, whether Nazi, Communist or any other politics, comes at a price. Aleksic is a sort of hero in Makavejev’s film, but he is not the hero of the film. Rather, the “hero” is we, who, taking Makavejev’s point to head and heart, reject Aleksic’s example and pursue a more politically aware course.
Formally, the success of this film primarily resides in the fact that the collage Makavejev has wrought transforms everything in it, including pieces from two fictional films, Aleksandrov’s and Aleksic’s, into documentary materials. The implication is obvious: within an analytical context, anything can become “documentary.” It goes without saying that all the film’s distancing techniques—among them, the shifts in kinds of materials, the disparate length of elements (some, quick inserts, like bullets ripping the continuity), the shift between color and black and white and, within black and white, the shift to color tinting—direct us as audience to examine the analytical nature of Makavejev’s film as a whole. Innocence Unprotected thus emerges as something else besides: a veritable “textbook” on how to “read” a film. This may be why Bordwell and Thompson chose it as one of the films to analyze (which they do with greater specificity than I do here) for young people learning about film.
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