February 28, 2017
Dušan Makavejev made his directorial debut with Man is Not a Bird (1965), a raucous portrait of a Yugoslav mining city currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of the Directed by Dušan Makavejev theme. Made with the full cooperation of the residents of Bor, an industrial town in eastern Serbia, the movie is filled with hypnotist acts, marriage breakdowns, circus routines and brief, bitter affairs. It is based on the real lives of people that Makavejev interviewed before shooting, while indulging the director’s love of the carnivalesque, injecting Makavejev’s absurdist humor into a film that, by subject matter anyway, inherits the tradition of the Communist social realist films of previous decades. But these worker-heroes, while awarded and celebrated by the local government, have made messes of their personal lives. Makavejev said that with this film he “was trying to explain that you can have global changes but people can still stay the same, unhappy or awkward or privately confused.”
Makaveyev grew up in Belgrade and graduated college with a degree in psychology, though he was attracted to film ever since he saw a German dub of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)when he was a child. He became associated with a group of filmmakers named novi film, or later the “black wave,” which sought to break free of socialist realism and its cheery, patriotic depiction of labor. The Avala Film Studio was looking for first-time filmmakers and gave Makaveyev a chance. The director, according to biographer Lorraine Mortimer, compiled “more than three-hundred pages of facts and anecdotes from factory heads, unions, party members, policemen, technicians, miners, metalworkers, and others.”
The story’s main character Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), a celebrity metal refinery engineer, known for reducing installation times by miraculous amounts. He’s come to Bor to install a turbobooster which will supposedly speed up the processing time at the copper refinery. Jan takes a room with a local family, whose beautiful daughter Rajka (Milena Dravic) begins a bored and successful flirtation. Circulating around this main spoke is the story of Barbulovic (Stojan Arandjelovic), a stoker at the factory, and his wife (Eva Ras). Barbulovic is a bibulous type, prone to drooling over the local nightclub singer. His wife sees his mistress wearing her dress in town, and a very public beating ensues. Their relationship disintegrates from there, as the wife is emboldened to wrench herself away from her husband’s ironclad rule. All the while Jan’s tryst with Rajka fizzles out due to Jan’s devotion to his job. As these relationships self-combust, the factory promotes its record-breaking copper production, and the town attracts a famous hypnotist and a traveling circus act to while away the hours.
Man is Not a Bird was shot in thirty-six days under what Makavejev described as “horrible” working conditions – he recalled that there was acid smoke that dissolved the stockings of his female film crew within an hour. But, he would go on to say that this “strange and literally dark and dirty place” exuded a “charming vitality and unexpected humor.” There are scores of charming throwaway moments, as when a random worker is shown smuggling out copper wire by twirling it around himself like a prima ballerina, or when a hypnotist convinces these hard-bitten men that they are weightless cosmonauts, and they flop around like loosed guppies. But Makavejev and his cinematographer Aleksandar Petkovic get a lot of mileage out of the smoke plumes and dirt constantly emanating out of Bor, a place of no illusions (or amenities). There is a mix of dollied long takes, hand-held shakiness and bird’s eye views, getting every possible perspective and texture of the town, getting everything from street scenes to factory machinery montage.
Jan Rudisnki is a fascinating character, an engineering superstar who could have headlined the social realist Communist films of the 1940s, but now he has aged into apathy. He enters into the affair with Rajka reluctantly, performs his work with gruff speed and agrees to speed up the installation process only to prop up the Rudinski brand, which is enough to win him another medal. To Rajka he’s a diversion and possibly a ticket out of town, but when he displays more interest in copper than her, she moves on to her next suitor, a slick mustachioed worker who keeps flirting with her at the barbershop she works at. While not as wealthy, he at least expresses interest in her existence. So after Jan receives his latest medal from the government, at a ceremony of pomp and Beethoven that the workers barely tolerate (Barbulovic stumbles through it looking for his wife – who has taken a cue from the hypnotist and broken his spell over her), he goes to an empty restaurant to get serenaded by a sarcastic Serbian folk troupe. It ends with Jan breaking a mirror and getting reflected in a shard, one of the showier shots in an otherwise “gritty” film. He is a shattered man, though only for one night. He puts himself together again before he’s off to the next emergency job, where he can be celebrated by another local pol.
Throughout the film the workers are celebrated in words while ignored in reality. Throughout the film two giant photographs of a workers’ worn and calloused hands are being ferried through the neighborhood, moving slowly towards the auditorium. They appear as non sequiturs in the background, but turn out to be backdrops for Jan’s awards ceremony. But at the final rehearsal, as the stagehands are erecting them, an anonymous producer asks what they are doing there and demands they be taken down. They are swiftly removed and the classical choir stands in front of a blank wall instead. The local government lionizes labor and work, but prefers it to be invisible. Makavejev’s film aims to restore something of a work-life balance to his characters’ lives, however dirty and dark and funny.
This coal-dark gem was just the beginning of Makavejev’s career – five more of his features are streaming on FilmStruck if you’d like to see more.