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Underground (1995 film)

File:Underground affiche fr dvd big.jpg
Directed by Emir Kusturica
Produced by Pierre Spengler
Karl Baumgartner
Maksa Ćatović
Written by Dušan Kovačević
Emir Kusturica
Starring Miki Manojlović
Lazar Ristovski
Mirjana Joković
Slavko Štimac
Music by Goran Bregović
Cinematography Vilko Filač
Edited by Branka Čeperac
Distributed by New Yorker Video
Release dates
May 1995 (Cannes premiere)</td></tr>
Running time
167 minutes</td></tr>
Country France
FR Yugoslavia
Language Serbian
Box office

$171,082 (USA only)[1]</td></tr></table>

Underground (Serbian: Подземље, Podzemlje), is a 1995 Palme d'or-winning film directed by Emir Kusturica with a screenplay by Dušan Kovačević.

It is also known by the subtitle Once Upon a Time There Was One Country (Serbian: Била једном једна земља, Bila jednom jedna zemlja), which was the title of the 5-hour mini-series (the long cut of the movie) shown on Serbian RTS television.

The film uses the epic story of two friends to portray a Yugoslav history from the beginning of World War II until the beginning of Yugoslav Wars. The film was an international co-production with companies from FR Yugoslavia, France, Germany, Czech Republic and Hungary.

The theatrical version is 163 minutes long. In interviews, Kusturica stated that his original version ran for over 320 minutes, and that he was forced to cut it by co-producers.

The film won the Palme d'Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival,.[2] It was director Emir Kusturica's second such award after When Father Was Away on Business, making Kusturica one of only seven filmmakers to receive two Golden Palms.


Petar Popara nicknamed Crni (Blacky) and Marko Dren are heading home following a night out on the town. Riding atop a horse carriage while tailed and serenaded by a brass orchestra, they're drunkenly singing and shooting their way through the city's downtown. They pass through Kalemegdan and shout salutes to Marko's brother Ivan who's an animal keeper in the Belgrade Zoo. A stutterer with a lame leg, Ivan is already up to feed the animals and waves to them warmly as he records food portion amounts while listening to early morning radio bulletins.

As the drunk duo pulls up in front of Blacky's home, his pregnant wife Vera comes out to angrily usher her husband into the house while threatening to leave him "just like Marko's wife left Marko". Intoxicated Marko pulls Vera aside and lets her know that they enrolled Blacky in the Communist Party (KPJ), but she's way too angry about Blacky's irresponsible behaviour as a husband to properly process that piece of information.

Blacky is approached by Partisan messenger who just arrived from the high command informing/threatening him that comrade Leka plans on taking disciplinary action against him if the weapons do not arrive soon. Blacky is not worried and brings the messenger into the boat to show him it is full of weapons.

Soon, in late October 1944, the Red Army accompanied by Yugoslav Partisans enters Belgrade thus liberating the city from the Nazis for good. Marko, an important cog in the revolutionary movement is seen proudly waving the communist Yugoslav flag and victoriously exclaiming: "Freedom".

Over the coming years he advances up the party and state ladder: he gives fiery speeches from the National Theater balcony during the Trieste crisis, he socializes with Josip Broz Tito, Ranković and Edvard Kardelj - attending lavish parties and going on foreign state visits with them, and he stands right next to Tito during military parades through downtown Belgrade. Throughout it all, Natalija is right by Marko's side.

With the help of his grandfather who is in on the devious con, Marko oversees the weapons manufacturing and even controls time by adding hours to a day so the people in the cellar think that only 15 years passed since the beginning of World War II instead of 20. They're continuously making weapons, and Marko profits

In a surreal ending, all friends and family, living and dead, are reunited at Jovan’s wedding, where Ivan (no longer stuttering) ends the film with a closing monologue.


  • Miki Manojlović as Marko Dren, Communist Party official climbing up the party ladder who becomes an arms dealer
  • Lazar Ristovski as Petar "Blacky" Popara, an electrician who enrolls in the Communist Party before World War II and ends up a Serbian patriot during the Yugoslav Wars
  • Mirjana Joković as Natalija Zovkov, an opportunistic theater actress constantly switching loyalties
  • Slavko Štimac as Ivan Dren, Marko's stutterer brother who cares for zoo animals
  • Ernst Stotzner as Franz, a Wehrmacht officer in charge of Belgrade. Stötzner also portrays an actor playing Franz.
  • Srđan Todorović as Jovan Popara, Blacky's son, who lives almost his entire life underground
  • Mirjana Karanović as Vera, Blacky's wife
  • Danilo Stojković as Grandfather, Marko's grandfather who owns the cellar and helps perpetuate his ruse
  • Bora Todorović as Golub, the leader of the brass orchestra that frequently accompanies Blacky and Marko
  • Davor Dujmović as Bata, Natalija's crippled brother


The shooting of the film began in fall 1993 and lasted off-and-on until early spring 1995. The state-owned Radio Television of Serbia had a small role in financing the film, and the film used rented Yugoslav Army (VJ) equipment as props.[3]


As soon as Underground premiered at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and especially when it was awarded Palme d'Or, it faced aggressive and vitriolic criticism in Europe along political lines.

Critics saw the characters Marko and Blacky as "Kusturica's idealization of Serbs trapped into desperate acts by history and others' evil while the cowardly characters in the film were Croats and Bosnians, who chose betrayal and collaboration."[4] While some critics claimed the film propagated a pro-Serbian view of the Yugoslav conflict (including animosities during WWII), others suggested that its characterization of Balkan ethnic groups was equally caustic to each.[citation needed]

Stanko Cerović

Stanko Cerović, director of the Serbo-Croatian editorial department of Radio France Internationale, strongly denounced the movie in June 1995, accusing Kusturica of spreading Serbian propaganda:

That Kusturica is consciously making propaganda, rather than merely being a victim of aesthetic inspiration gone politically wrong, is proved by his use of documentary material. Wherever possible he uses films that discredit either other Yugoslav nations or the 'rotten West conspiring against Serbs'. We are thus presented with archival footage showing the Nazis being welcomed in Zagreb and Ljubljana in 1941. When dealing with the present war, however, Kusturica refuses to use archival film - to show, for example, the bombardment of Vukovar, or the three-year-long destruction of his native city by the Serbian army - just as he refuses to show us film of the triumphalist farewell given in Belgrade to the Yugoslav army and its tanks as they went to wage war, this war, in Croatia and Bosnia, against literally unarmed people. At his press conferences, he refers to the war in Bosnia as 'civil war'. He describes as 'an earthquake' a war which was prepared politically and militarily in detail for months in Belgrade; which was started by special units sent from Belgrade to Bosnia; and in which the worst crimes, rapes and deportations of population have been executed according to a plan and without the least spontaneity - all with the aim of creating ethnically pure territories in Bosnia. A major role in all this was played by Belgrade Television. If this is an earthquake, then Kusturica is indeed the spontaneous and naive artist he pretends to be, just as spontaneous, naive yet all-powerful as his heroes, who destroy and kill all about them out of generosity of spirit and love of Yugoslavia, its other people and nations - the same love and generosity that has motivated Arkan and Šešelj.
—Stanko Cerović, "Kusturica's Lies Awarded the Golden Palm in Cannes"[5]

In the years since, Cerović seemingly substantially changed his opinion of Kusturica and of Underground. Asked in February 2012 about the movie and its director, Cerović said:

Kusturica is a great director and I love his movies. He sees politics as a gifted artist does: he feels the deep historical movements, he feels the direction that the world is moving in, and feels what happens to the people. But, he doesn't understand how politics function in real time. Many wrongly labeled him a nationalist, but the only nationalism I see in him is Balkan-wide in character and manifests itself in the way that he sticks up for the losers and the miserable around us. He doesn't mind standing up to the brute force and the hypocrisy of the so-called civilized world. He's not ashamed of the Balkans. Unlike real nationalists who always have a "go to" group to menace and belittle like the Gypsies or the blacks, he goes out of his way to be part of those disenfranchised groups both as a man and artist. The fact that he doesn't understand politics well isn't a big problem for him as an artist, except in time of great tragedy when he's making something that touches on politics. In the context of Yugoslav Wars, Underground is a politically unfortunate film. It walks past the people's suffering, which was taking place precisely during the film's production and release and it also wrongly interprets the Yugoslav history and communism. Still, none of that would have really mattered had the movie appeared outside of the context of that war. It's quite possible that Underground will age well (I haven't seen it since then) meaning that as the war becomes a more and more distant memory, the movie will get that much better, finally ending up with a purely artistic and universal value. To put it in general terms: you can't make a political film if you don't have a full grasp on history and politics. It is especially hard to make political film in the middle of a war and not have it be propaganda (which Kusturica's movie isn't).... Every once in a while, I come across his interviews where he touches upon global issues, the West, imperialism, mundialisation, the Balkans, Serbia... and I mostly agree with him.
—Stanko Cerović[6]

Lévy and Finkielkraut vs. Kusturica

Throughout the 1990s, Kusturica was frequently attacked by French public intellectuals Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut in the French media over his life and career choices.[7] Generally, the two adopted the Bosnian Muslim official nationalist view of Kusturica as a "traitor who crossed over to the enemy side thus turning his back on his city, his ethnic roots, and his nation",[8][9][10] often publicly attacking him along similar lines. Kusturica, for his part, didn't hold back either, responding aggressively to the duo's accusations. The Lévy and Finkielkraut attacks particularly intensified after Underground won Palme d'Or in 1995, often crossing over into name calling and insults. It started in June 1995 with Finkielkraut accusing the Cannes jury in Le Monde of "rewarding a Pan-Serbian nationalist propagandist". Kusturica responded several months later, parodying Finkielkraut in sarcastic tone while criticizing Le Monde for even publishing Finkielkraut's vitriolic text without him seeing the film first. Finkielkraut was thus forced into admitting that he hadn't actually seen the movie when he wrote the previous piece, justifying this by writing in Libération "that offensive and stupid falsification of the traitor taking the palm of martyrdom had to be denounced immediately". Meanwhile, Lévy called Kusturica a "fascist author" while reserving his further judgment upon seeing the film.[11] After watching Underground, Lévy called Kusturica a "racist genius in the mold of Louis-Ferdinand Céline"[12] and later even made a film criticizing Underground. The entire episode soon prompted other intellectuals such as André Glucksmann and Peter Handke to join the debate.[13]

During the September 2008 discussion between the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Bernard-Henri Lévy on the issues surrounding the historical and social significance of May 1968 in France, Žižek brought up Underground and Kusturica to Lévy by saying: "Let me find another point of contact with you. I hope we share another point, which is - to be brutal - hatred of Emir Kusturica. We do agree here. Underground I think is one of the most horrible films that I've seen because it's as if this poem by Radovan Karadžić that I quoted was set to film there. What kind of Yugoslav society you see in Kusturica's Underground? A society where people all the time fornicate, drink, fight - a kind of eternal orgy. And here what you referred to as this "eternal youth excessive energy" - one path, I'm not saying the only one, one path leads to Radovan Karadžić I claim. I claim that the moral duty today is precisely to problematize this carnivalist transgressive model 'Order is bad, let's suspend the rules, let's have a free excess and so on'". Lévy answered that he considers himself an "enemy of Kusturica, the man", but that Underground is "not a bad movie" before going on to commend the film's narrative structure and conclude that "Kusturica is one of the cases, we have some writers like this, where the man is so, so, so more stupid than his work" before likening Kusturica again to Louis-Ferdinand Céline.[14]

Biljana Srbljanović

The reaction to the film continued long after its theatrical life ended. On 8 March 2001, Serbian newsmagazine Vreme published an op-ed piece titled 'Hvala lepo' by Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanović in which she refers in passing to Underground as "being financed by Milošević" and accuses Kusturica of being "an immoral profiteer". She goes on to accuse the director of "directly collaborating with the regime via his friend Milorad Vučelić".[15]

On 20 March 2001, Kusturica decided to sue Srbljanović for libel.[16]

Before the first court date in September 2001, Vreme magazine organized a mediation attempt between the two parties, with Kusturica and Srbljanović meeting face to face in the magazine's offices. At the meeting Kusturica expressed willingness to drop the charges if Srbljanović issues a public apology, which Srbljanović refused. The next day at the first court date Srbljanović once again rejected the offer of a public apology.[17] The court case thus continued with Kusturica's lawyer Branislav Tapušković presenting details of the film's financing sources, most of which were French production companies. On 11 December 2003, the municipal court ruled in Kusturica's favour, ordering Srbljanović to pay the damages as well as to cover the court costs.[18]

Aleksandar Hemon

Bosnian-American novelist Aleksandar Hemon criticized Underground in 2005, saying that it downplayed Serbian atrocities by "presenting the Balkan war as a product of collective, innate, savage madness."[19]

Critical reception

United States

The film has not been widely reviewed by English-language critics, though it has gained generally favorable reviews. On the Rotten Tomatoes website, it currently garners an 83% approval rating out of 18 reviews.

Variety's Deborah Young reviewed the film after seeing it at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, praising it as "a steamroller circus that leaves the viewer dazed and exhausted, but mightily impressed", adding that "if Fellini had shot a war movie, it might resemble Underground".[20]

Janet Maslin of the New York Times praised the film whose "real heart is its devastating idea of a morning after: the moment when, after being in the grip of a political delusion lasting several decades, a man can emerge from a subterranean hiding place in his native Yugoslavia and be told that there is no Yugoslavia any more". While acknowledging that "the politics of Underground have been assailed and dissected by international audiences", she feels that "this debate is largely specious as there's no hidden agenda to this robust and not terribly subtle tale of duplicity with Mr. Kusturica's central idea being a daringly blunt representation of political chicanery that fools an entire society, and of the corruption that lets one man thrive at the expense of his dearest friend".[21]

Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it a "sprawling, rowdy, vital film laced with both outrageous absurdist dark humor and unspeakable pain, suffering and injustice".[22]



See Underground (soundtrack). The film's soundtrack includes music by Goran Bregović and the participation of Cesária Évora.

See also


  1. ^ "Underground (1997) - Box Office Mojo". 
  2. ^ a b "Festival de Cannes: Underground". Retrieved 2009-09-05. 
  3. ^ "The many lives of Emir Kusturica". International Herald Tribune. 11 May 2005. 
  4. ^ Halpern, Dan (8 May 2005). "The (Mis)Directions of Emir Kusturica". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Stanko Cerović (June–August 1995). "Kusturica's Lies Awarded the Golden Palm in Cannes". The Bosnian Institute. Retrieved 3 February 2011. 
  6. ^ "Na svojoj strani". 23 February 2012. 
  7. ^ "The betrayal of the scholars Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard Henry Lévy, two propagandists of the «clash of civilizations". Voltaire Network. 18 May 2005. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Sarajevan's Journey From Cinema Hero to 'Traitor'". latimes. 
  10. ^ "Finding roots in a reel Balkan village". latimes. 
  11. ^ Le Point, Bloc Note of June 10, 1995 and of October 21, 1995
  12. ^ Le Point, Bloc Note of November 4, 1995
  13. ^ "CINEMA DISPUTE". The New Yorker. 5 February 1996. 
  14. ^ "Violence & the Left in Dark Times: A Debate" 36:45". Fora TV. 16 September 2008. 
  15. ^ "Umesto pomirenja - tužba". Glas javnosti. 14 September 2001. 
  16. ^ "Kusturica encore montré du doigt". 27 September 2001. 
  17. ^ "Ko je (ne)moralan?". 14 September 2001. 
  18. ^ "Srbljanović kriva za klevetu". Večernje novosti. 28 December 2003. 
  19. ^ Halpern, Dan (8 May 2005). "The (Mis)Directions of Emir Kusturica". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 March 2010. 
  20. ^ Young, Deborah (30 May 1995). "Underground". Variety. 
  21. ^ Maslin, Janet (12 October 1996). "From Former Yugoslavia, Revelry With Allegory". The New York Times. 
  22. ^ Thomas, Kevin (30 January 1998). "'Underground' Is Epic Tale of Troubled Land". Los Angeles Times. 

External links

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