“Be proud, Yugoslavia!” — lyric, sung by workers on an East German recording
Can humans sufficiently “reform” to fulfill the Stalinist aspiration of a new political order? Writer-director Dušan Makavejev’s gray Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice PTT opens with an elderly sexologist who asks this while lecturing us. From time to time he returns in this fascinating, funny film to address us again—such as at a farm hen house, outside which he marvels at a freshly laid egg, which he calls “the most highly developed female reproductive cell.” Izabela Garodi, a young switchboard operator, is pregnant with his child (unbeknownst to him) when, after she cheats on him, devastated and jealous, Bušatijia Ahmet, a sanitation engineer (translation: rat catcher), kills her by accidentally pushing her down a well. This “modern girl” precipitates this outcome by clinging to him, not permitting “Meho” the time alone he needs to process her betrayal of their love affair and master his feelings of dejection, disgust and rage. Meho is still governed, it seems, by his old-fashioned sex organ.
Dazzlingly, Makavejev’s tragicomedy is full of indications of the “newness” toward which the joint protagonists (beautifully played by Eva Ras and Slobodan Aligrudić), as well as society, strive. Both characters have relocated to become part of the Yugoslavian adventure (while maintaining a Communist dictatorship, Tito split with Stalin following the Second World War): Izabela, from Hungary; Meho, from Albania. The city is under tumultuous construction. Both Izabela and colleague Ruza get their feet scraped of dead skin!
Makavejev lets Izabela’s autopsy reflect satirically on Communist aspiration. However, he scores an even more brilliant coup by drawing upon archival material that Dziga Vertov also used in his 1931 Enthusiasm: the people’s raiding and ransacking of churches. Seeing this undoes this because Makavejev is himself (metaphorically) raiding and ransacking the political culture that assaulted and “replaced” its predecessor. “CLOSE THE CHURCHES!” reads a placard in an old street demonstration—as, in the present, church bells can be heard ringing!
The final struggle between Meho and Izabela as they move through dark, dank tunnels, the camera dogging them, suggests a descent into a mindset that may be more a part of human nature than adherents of the “new order” grasp or care to admit.
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