Some films are so disgusting, repellent, ugly, violent, prurient, and awful that audiences are unable to define them. Films like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s SALÒ, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM, Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, Gaspar Noë’s IRREVERSIBLE, Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER, Tom Six’s THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE trilogy, or even John Waters’ PINK FLAMINGOS confront audiences on a visceral level so powerfully, that the only natural reaction can be to recoil.
These films are extreme in a way that most run-of-the-mill horror flicks (and audiences) don’t even think about, even during the darkest days of “Torture Porn.” That genre merely sought to depress and disgust; so-called “extreme” cinema is notable because of the tantalizing notion that there is a core idea, a philosophy behind them.
“Extreme” horror is often less an exercise in entertainment, and more an intellectual experiment in certain philosophical extremes; it doesn’t take a very sophisticated mind to see that there is something cerebral at work beneath the blood and gore of many of these films (THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE notwithstanding; those three films all function solely as a geek show). Much of the time, there is also a politic at work, and any extreme film is always going to be a pointed comment on the time and place in which it was released.
What sort of political environment would produce such darkness? And what sort of censorship will it encounter? What is being said by something so pointedly difficult?
The most recent “extreme” film to take the world by storm was Srđan Spasojević’s A SERBIAN FILM — a borderline pornographic horror film about the underground porn industry, sexual abuse, rape, exploitation, snuff films, and horrifying acts inflicted on children. It was violent. It was horrifying. And it was censored in eight or nine countries. To this day, it remains banned in Australia. It was one of those films passed around through underground channels, its title whispered surreptitiously into the ears of daring explorers of the deepest cinematic chasms.
One evening a while back, when my wife was out of town, I dared to rent and view this twisted neo-classic of extreme cinema. I come to you now, dear readers, to report on the filth I have trudged through, and to attempt to unlock what may actually be the intellectual and philosophical meat behind this dark and dirty and, yes, repellent film.
As far as I can tell, to offer a brief thesis, A SERBIAN FILM is about dictator Slobodan Milošević and fascism in general, but may also be about how political climates can brainwash the populace into doing horrible things during times of war. Yes, all that from a film about porn and snuff films.
First of all, I had to remind myself of recent Serbian history — most notably the 1989 breakup of Yugoslavia. The former nation was in turmoil, embroiled in a violent Civil War between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. By 1992, Milošević came into power in Serbia. Milošević, if memory serves, was seen as both heroic and fascistic. He did dismantle the Serbian one-party system, allowing — at least on paper — a more varied political voice in the country… but he continued to dominate like a dictator, manipulating politics and media in favor of his own machine. Milošević was eventually tried for crimes against humanity, thanks to his awful military actions in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia. Milošević was pretty much a villain. He was deposed in 2000, and died in prison in 2006.
Since the fall of Milošević — and I had to do some research here (this essay helped) — Serbia has been slowly getting back on its feet, although not in a hasty or even beneficial way. It took six years for the post-Milošević government to write up a constitution, and internal bickering has kept the populace in an uneasy place. They were, for a decade, pulled left and right by opposing political regimes, told to feel opposite extremes. The populace became very cynical about their own recovering government, even if there was a good deal of economic and social recovery.
What does all this have to do with A SERBIAN FILM? Well, filmmaker Srđan Spasojević clearly wanted to, in addition to shocking and confronting a complacent audience, comment on the post-Milošević desperation that had risen in his wake, and illustrate how poverty and social climbing — which had replaced Milošević’s fascism — was, in many ways, even more damaging for the soul of the country than living under the yoke of a dictator. Serbian Reconstruction was, in Spasojević’s eyes, a massive and hurtful sell-out.
To finally recap the story of A SERBIAN FILM: it follows the misadventures of a once-big-but-now-struggling porn star named Miloš (Srđan Todorović), who, to support his wife and young son, agrees to be part of an X-rated “art” film orchestrated by a villainous benefactor named Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović).
At first, it seems like Miloš is merely going to be engaging in rough sex, but soon sees that children are going to be witnessing these brutal acts, and the “hidden camera” aesthetic of the film is conducive to making him feel like he’s simply committing rape. After a few filming sessions, he bows out. Unfortunately, the mob-like secrecy of this project has him stuck, and eventually he is drugged with a type of super-Viagra that also erases his memory. The second half of the film is Miloš piecing together what Vukmir made him do while he was under the influence. Yes… Miloš engaged in some of the most hideous sexual crimes imaginable.
If one can get past the extreme sex and violence, one may find themselves asking who could be implicated in Miloš’ crimes. If Miloš was drugged, how responsible is he? If his financial desperation put him in this situation, and his morality was artificially deactivated, how much of a victim is he — even if he’s the perpetrator? Given the extent of Miloš’ crimes, it’s hard not to see him as a monster… and he even sees himself as a monster. One that is driven to despair and disgust with himself.
The financial metaphor is also obvious: the need to work, to escape the stranglehold of post-Milošević poverty, is a form of fascism that the country’s political and financial leaders are all to willing to exploit. Milošević may have been a monster, but the post-Milošević atmosphere of Serbia allowed for a deeper exploitation of the people. Now, Spasojević seems to be arguing, the oppression of capitalism will force you into being a monster. And not a monster we can stomach — a monster we can barely witness. This is no mere murder. This is rape and child exploitation at the basest level.
Was the extremity necessary to tell this story? It’s possible A SERBIAN FILM may not have been as powerful were it not for this extreme imagery. The commentary would have been there — but our minds would have been in a safer place. We could have distanced ourselves from the on-screen actions by explaining to ourselves that it’s just a fiction with political underpinnings. By being so awful and dark and extreme, audiences are no longer allowed to be complacent: they are shaken and shocked into awareness. Sometimes you need to punch someone in the face to get their attention.
Is A SERBIAN FILM an important film? Is it one that you should see?
Ironically, I think its extremity is the thing keeping it from becoming the worldwide political rallying cry that it seeks to be. By being so very extreme, A SERBIAN FILM will not just rattle audiences, but keep them at arm’s length. It’s too disgusting to casually analyze. One must have a strong constitution going in. Also, by being so extreme, it often only invites horror fanatics and audiences prepared for shock. Overall, A SERBIAN FILM plays like one of the sickest exploitation movies you’ve ever seen — it looks and feels like a horror movie, and it won’t necessarily invite serious seekers of difficult art.
Maybe there is something at work in A SERBIAN FILM that makes it a worthwhile political statement; it’s also a film that will actively and viscerally revile you, no matter how jaded you might be. It’s meant to be hated — which oddly enough keeps it from its own audience. The brave may find something deep… but those inclined toward simpler things would do well to stay away.