WR: Mysteries of the Organism Today
Revised January 4, 2016. The French translation of the essay is to be published in the journal Au Sud de l’Est (December 2016).
One of Dušan Makavejev’s first short films, Don’t Believe in Monuments (1958), was held back from circulation for five years because a seduction scene was considered by Yugoslav authorities to be too erotic. In it, a young girl tries to make love to a statue against its will. Several years later, Makavejev would once again have one of his films shelved by authorities – this time for nearly a decade – for going too far in its depiction of eroticism. This second time, involving WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), his conflation of the erotic with the political was far more direct. But the term conflation here is not quite accurate. Lorraine Mortimer, a Makavejev scholar, cites a 2001 essay by Paul Arthur who argues that Makavejev’s distinct approach to filmic montage is to foster contradiction for its own sake, juggling alternate meanings without synthesis or endpoint.1 What Mortimer herself refers to as an “ecological magical realism” is in the case of WR more easily unpacked if we eschew Mortimer’s anthropology and consider things rather as Makavejev would have, as a comment on the state of alienation in the World Revolution. This alienation figures very precisely at the juncture of sexual economy and political ideology, mediated by film montage. In the process, the familiar Marxist model of base and superstructure is modified psychoanalytically as sexual liberation is ideologized and politics sexualized. The concept that ties everything together is repression, which accounts for the film’s main protagonist, the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. In the following I offer a brief account of the film and its principal lines of interpretation. My view is that contemporary post-communist film criticism tends to obviate the centrality of the Frankfurt School to Makavejev’s psychoanalytically-informed philosophy of praxis and because of this fails to make an adequately radical assessment of the film.
WR: Mysteries of the Organism (WR: Misterije organizma) is a satirical commentary on the social, cultural and political tensions that were the result of Yugoslav socialism as an alternative to both western liberalism and the Stalinist centralism of the Soviet Union. The split between geopolitical spheres of influence is reflected in the two main parts of the film. The first takes place in the United States, where Wilhelm Reich had taken refuge in the late 1950s so that he could continue his unorthodox experiments in sexual therapy. We are introduced to his belief in the phenomenon of orgone energy, which, if not discharged properly, leads to illness. In order to make this possible, Reich invented Orgone Accumulators, human-sized wood and metal devices used to treat illnesses. As we are informed in this documentary section of the film, Reich’s machines were confiscated and his books were banned by the Food and Drug Administration. Makavejev reflects ironically on this McCarthyite witch-hunt against the (former) communist doctor by interviewing people from what seems to be its two contending sides: the confused rural townsfolk where Reich lived, who comment on his strange manners, and contemporary Reichian practitioners and their patients. Reich’s supporters reflect on his dismay at having to fight communist authorities in Europe and capitalists in the West. In the 1930s, Reich, a youth organizer in the German Communist Party, had founded SEXPOL, the German Federal Association for Proletarian Sexual Politics, a group of “Sexual Bolsheviks” who sought to undermine bourgeois sexual mores. SEXPOL activists worked to weaken the family unit, to abolish laws against abortion and homosexuality, to facilitate divorce laws and encourage short-term relationships, and to provide free access to birth control and abortion. Moreover, this “ideological subversion unit” also encouraged women to work outside the home, to become economically independent, and to allow their children to be raised in state-ideological nurseries. Whereas a thorough representation would have detailed this kind of information, Makavejev is content to act more like an amateur journalist than a documentarian, reveling in the freakish aspects of his supporters’ beliefs. These episodes are contrasted with a “cinema of attractions” of the activities of American countercultural activists.2 Tuli Kupferberg of the rock band The Fugs and member of the Revolting Theatre executes anti-Vietnam war guerrilla performances, stroking the muzzle of his machine gun as if in sexual ecstasy; artist Nancy Godfrey makes a plaster cast of the erect penis of Jim Buckley, editor of the pornographic magazine Screw; cross-dresser and Andy Warhol groupie Jackie Curtis walks by the cinema marquees of Manhattan, looking for a bit of downtown glamour as he and his lover fellate their ice cream cones.
One of the few points of intersection between this and the second part of the film is the equation that Makavejev makes between Godfrey’s dildo and an image of Joseph Stalin, drawn by Makavejev from the archives of the Yugoslav Cinemathèque. The image is of the actor Mikhail Gelovani, who plays Stalin in Mikhail Chiaureli’s 1946 Soviet film The Vow, a work inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Mortimer makes the observation that in his 1933 text The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich believed that the Nazis had an unfulfilled “unconscious orgiastic longing” and that for this reason it was not possible to combat fascism on the basis of rational argument.3 Nazi extremism is depicted through documentary footage of an insane asylum, where electroshock therapy is used on patients that the experts in the film say should be euthanized.
This brings us to Milena (Milena Dravić), the main character of the second, fictional part of WR. Milena is an ideal socialist and an embodiment of the Yugoslav model of self-management insofar as she herself takes on the responsibilities of building socialism. Influenced by the radical ideas of Reich, she is bored with her proletarian boyfriend Radmilović and agitates for sexual liberation among the people in her working-class tenement building. While her freewheeling roommate Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper) is having sex with an enlisted man from the Yogoslav People’s Army, Milena dons his military cap and shirt and with no pants on delivers a rousing speech in favour of liberation through orgasm. “Fuck merrily and without fear,” she tells the assembled, “only by liberating both love and labour can we create a self-regulating workers’ society.” Milena’s quest for liberation through the perfect orgasm finds her enamored with Vladimir Ilych (Ivica Vidvić), a figure skating superstar who is performing in Yugoslavia as a representative of the Soviet Union. As is the case in other Makavejev films, Vladimir’s stoic stance and high-minded idealism is the embodiment of an inflexible and rigid persona, and further, a symbol of Stalinist-Leninist orthodoxy and imperialism. Milena is drawn to Vladimir’s sexual aura and seeks to convert him to her liberated lifestyle (and by implication, to Yugoslav self-management). He condescendingly replies to her advances, stating that “we are confident you will learn from your own experience that our [Stalinist] way is best!” With the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia as a case in point, we discover that Vladimir is willing to resort to violence to subdue Milena’s efforts. Before this happens, however, he spends some time locked up by Radmilović in Milena’s closet, which happens to be beside her Orgone Accumulator. With the help of this device Milena manages to lower his defenses. At first they struggle but she manages to subdue him. After having sex, however, Vladimir experiences an adverse reaction and violently beheads her with one of his skates. Filled with remorse, he joins a group of Roma Gypsies and makes a prayer to God with the hope of redemption. The film closes with the severed head of Milena smiling in the autopsy room and then a photograph of a smiling Wilhelm Reich.
A recent essay by Nina Power suggests that WR represents a time when “fucking was a revolutionary activity” but that, alas, sexual liberation “did not bring about a corresponding social revolution.”4 We could, however, challenge this assumption by looking more closely at the context of the film’s production and by focusing specifically on Milena, a character, I would argue, who is an embodiment not only of the ideas of Reich, but also of the contradictions of his ideas about sexual liberation. Moreover, Milena symbolizes the contradictions of the vanguardism of the New Film (novi film) movement within the context of Yugoslav self-management. Although WR was lionized in Berlin, Cannes and Chicago, it was prohibited from domestic distribution on the order of the Executive Committee of the Commission for Cinematography of the Regional Cultural Commission and savaged by Veterans of the War of Liberation for taking liberties with war songs and Partisan symbolism. According to film historian Daniel J. Goulding, WR is one of the last films to exemplify the New Film movement and marks the end of Yugoslavia’s most fertile period of film production.5 While one might think that with WR Makavejev was at the wrong place at the wrong time, Goulding would rather we think of him as a “sophisticated gadfly” who satirized and debunked all officially sanctioned myths, which included those of the counterculture.6 Makavejev, after all, had a diploma in psychology and was involved since the 1950s in the Belgrade amateur kine klub, where vanguard experimentation was the order of the day. Even in his many documentary films he satirized official rituals, and in Sweet Movie, the film he made after WR caused him to be pushed into exile, the counterculture and the commercialization of sex are even more associated with repressive conformism.
If WR has been criticized for making short shrift of Reich’s ideas, this is only to show how such complex and unfinished ideas can easily be mismanaged. The burden in this case falls on the counterculture, with its assumption that one can return to the utopia of a pre-linguistic, pre-social polymorphous perversity. This eroticism agenda is complicated by Milena’s transformation of the ideology of sexual liberation into the teleology of desire as a known positivity. Someone has to step in. In the U.S. it is the FDA, but in the late 1960s in Yugoslavia, it was a short article published by a party apparatchik in Borba, the official Communist daily newspaper. Penned by Vladimir Jovičić, the 1969 article, “The Black Wave in Our Film,” argued that the artistic license enjoyed by New Film artists departed from the portrayal of basic realities. In this, Jovičić merely repeated the warnings made by Josip Broz Tito in 1962 against bourgeois, non-socialist ideas, and by Veljko Vlahović in his 1963 speech to filmmakers to avoid ideological and aesthetic waywardness. WR therefore acts as an ironic, possibly dystopian, over-identification with these strictures, which Makavejev may not have disagreed with entirely. Makavejev himself referred to the film as a pro-Titoist anti-Stalinist film.7 While Jovičić’s article refers to a much broader selection of films than simply WR, his view that the New Film directors were anti-Zhdanovist Zhdanovists reflects the tendentious optimism of a character like Milena.
For the editors of a recent anthology on the Black Wave, a radical approach to the current conjuncture requires not only that retrospective readings of Yugoslav film avoid the assumption that regional decentralization under self-management necessitated the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which comprised Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia, as well as Kosovo and Vojvodina, but also the tendency of western film criticism to view such films as WR in simplistic terms as dissident art opposed to the totalitarian state.8 According to Gal Kirn, the liberal nostalgia that looks for positive signs of the sexual revolution conforms to an anti-totalitarian narrative that rewrites the Yugoslav cultural past.9 This is a complex matter as Yugoslav authorities exploited the radicalism of student protesters, and of radical Praxis philosophers and experimental filmmakers like Makavejev, not only to hold on to power, but also against the rearguard views of regional nationalists. The contradictions of the consumer communism of 1960s Yugoslavia, as Owen Hatherley defines it, is reflected in the slogans that are shouted by the character Radmilović.10 Like the students who mobilized in Belgrade in 1968, Radmilović struggles against the “red bourgeoisie,” economic liberalization, market socialism and capitalist reforms. Such popular demands were used by the League of Communists to repress nationalism and to increase the burden on everyday people to make responsible social, political and economic decisions. While working-class people resented this added pressure, young petty bourgeois agents like Milena rose through the rabble to introduce new socialist directives.11 Milena, in this sense, is not merely a fictional character, as witnessed for instance in the 1970 Genre Experimental Film Festival in Zagreb, which had as its theme “Sexuality as a New Road Towards Humanism,” and showed the work of Norman McLaren, Paul Morrissey, Carolee Schneemann and Fluxus.12
One of the most prolific commentators on Makavejev in today’s post-communist context is Sezgin Boynik. Boynik repeats the critique of the anti-totalitarian liberal position and the idealization of subversive art, but he is also weary of reductive materialisms of various sorts, whether it be Goulding’s emphasis on the historical context of state economic and cultural policy, or Mortimer’s phenomenological emphasis on the so-called concrete.13 Whereas Mortimer’s moralistic and confused reading of the eroticism in Makavejev sees it as straightforwardly affirmative, Boynik calls for a more “complex” understanding.14 His idea is that “sex should be dealt with in its own terms,” an approach to the “autonomy” of the sexual economy that parallels his aesthetic theory.15 Boynik is correct to suggest that vanguard filmmakers like Makavejev had to position themselves outside the paradox of liberal experimentation (self-management in the cultural field, competitive freedom, commercial success) and ideological conformity (realism, socialist themes, identification with workers), but he perhaps misses the point when he suggests that readings like Goulding’s over-emphasize the pressure of the state apparatus and should look instead to the avant garde’s efforts to emancipate art from politics, or by implication, sex from politics.16 In the case of a collage artist like Makavejev, who toyed with the liberation themes of partisan anti-fascism films, Boynik certainly has a valid point. But while a non-historicist model might help to unravel the mysteries of art, it can potentially do the same for politics. It can also do more for contemporary readings of a film based in Frankfurt School theories of psychoanalysis. This is, as Janet Wolff has argued, to avoid the traps of sociological imperialism but also of postmodern nihilism, especially as sexuality today is caught up in the identity politics of a hegemonic neoliberalism.17 The theoretical strategy I would propose in this case is to broaden the frame of reference and consider the research agenda of the Frankfurt School, and in particular the ideas of Herbert Marcuse, as essential to Makavejev’s approach to the contradictions of both self-management and world (sexual) revolution in the 60s.18
The writings of Herbert Marcuse deserve special attention as an important figure in the construction of WR. Moreover, given the ruined state of socialism, it would appear to be the issues regarding the politics of sexuality that make the film most relevant today. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Marcuse made use of the ideas of Sigmund Freud to understand the ways in which unconscious drives account for people’s libidinal attachments to repressive collective systems.19 Most importantly, Marcuse’s analysis was undertaken as militant research on the prospects for a socialist society. As with Marx, Marcuse was interested in the second nature produced by the overcoming of alienation, a higher rationality that could be liberating, but that within a capitalist division of labour tended rather to be irrational, coercive and destructive. By defining the connection between the death drive and political control, Marcuse drew on and modified established Freudian concepts. In his Eros and Civilization of 1955, he sought to expand the Freudian analysis of pleasure and reality principles, wherein secondary process requires that people repress and sublimate unconscious drives in order to propose that a desublimated and non-repressed society is possible, since, beyond some basic requirements of repression, there is a surplus-repression that is historically specific, and so the relationship between Eros (libidinal desire) and Thanatos (death drive) could be transformed.20 Whereas capitalism diverts libidinal energy into procreation and regimented mass production, it could instead be spent pursuing other gratifications, from the development of culture into broader social relations beyond the patriarchal family.
Marcuse advanced the problems of Eros and Civilization in his 1964 text One-Dimensional Man, addressing the problem of how to shift from small-scale advances, tailored to individual needs, to social change on the level of mass society.21 In this text he admits to the utopian aspect of his earlier work by introducing the concept of repressive desublimation, the actually existing process by which a more permissive society that lessens the grip of the reality principle does not actually provide for the satisfaction of needs but contracts these impulses through localized gratifications, limiting the scope of desublimation by adapting it to the current reality. This in a nutshell is the conundrum of Milena, Makavejev’s one-dimensional woman. In a more contemporary context, Slavoj Žižek has referred to this process in Lacanian terms as the weakening of the function of the big Other. Becoming post-Oedipal does not make people happier, but increases anxiety. Žižek refers to Eros and Civilization as a kind of “psychoanalytic fundamentalism,” suggesting that rather than refer to the reality principle as alienated social conditions – the theme of Marx’s humanist writings – we should think of it instead as the human condition as such, where there is no easy distinction that can be drawn between social and subject formation.22 The subject is thereby understood as constituted by a lack that one always attempts to abolish. The endless diversification of satisfactions that today’s capitalism offers are illusory insofar as there is no such thing as a sexual economy. Lack is fundamental but not positive, and so Milena is indeed the SEXPOL equivalent of the anti-Zhdanovist Zhdanovists of the Black Wave, looking for the perfect synthesis-cum-orgasm.
How can we go beyond the structure of enjoyment that Žižek identifies in both bureaucratic Stalinism and in today’s post-political biocapitalism? How can we build a better world? For the French philosopher Alain Badiou sex and desire are mostly a matter of “animal disquiet,” which he distinguishes from those truths that are not part of the dominant consensus and that are not part of the democratic materialism of languages and bodies. The truths of politics are universal and generic and so are fundamentally different from the truths of love.23 There is no sexual politics. Love derives from the difference between two people. The contingency of love leads to the appearance of necessity and fidelity over time. Love translates into politics not through the machinations of the state but there where there are no enemies. Whereas Badiou argues that love must be rigorously separated from politics, the future of communism, he believes, affirms a world of equality that is not held hostage to the frenzy of desire. A Lacanian maxim would be that one must determine for oneself one’s desire. We are here well beyond the realm of fucking as a revolutionary act, according to the hippie conceit “we made love on the barricades,” and beyond countercultural peer pressure. Yet we are not beyond the human condition. All of this might be a little bit high-minded for a person like Makavejev. If he was busy making a film today, he would likely be studying those people involved in post-human animal studies and speculative realism, those who would make the perfect subjects for another Sweet Movie, drowning in their own chocolate.
1. Lorraine Mortimer, Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009) 111-12.
2. See Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” Wide Angle 8:3-4 (Fall 1986) 63-70.
3. Mortimer, Terror and Joy, 24, 159.
4. Nina Power, “Blood and Sugar: The Films of Dušan Makavejev,” Film Quarterly 63:3 (2010) 42.
5. Daniel J. Goulding, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985)142.
6. Daniel J. Goulding, “Makavejev,” in Goulding, ed. Five Filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Forman, Polanski, Szabo, Makavejev (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) 209.
7. See Dubravka Sekulić, Gal Kirn and Žiga Testen, “Interview with Želimir Žilnik,” (2010) in Gal Kirn, Dubravka Sekulić and Žiga Testen, eds. Surfing the Black: Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and Its Transgressive Moments (Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Academie, 2012) 100.
8. Gal Kirn, Dubravka Sekulić, and Žiga Testen, “Prologue,” in Kirn, Sekulić and Testen, eds. Surfing the Black: Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and Its Transgressive Moments (Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Academie, 2012) 7. According to Pavle Levi, the notion that the breakup of the Yugoslav federation was either “understandable” or “inevitable” naturalizes ethnic intolerance and becomes a “key mechanism of ideological deception.” Levi goes further, however, to also challenge “individualistic-libertarian” narratives since apolitical “balkanist” explanations have some of their sources in the West. In this regard the ‘open cinema’ of the Black Wave represents a continuing and valid critique of the absolutism of any political ideal. The next point to be added is that the extreme ‘openness’ of capitalist reforms in the 1990s leads to further nihilism of ethnic nationalism. See Levi, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007) 3-6.
9. Gal Kirn, “New Yogoslav Cinema – A Humanist Cinema? Not Really,” in Kirn, Sekulić and Testen, eds. Surfing the Black, 12.
10. Makavejev is known to have a great interest in the communist use of slogans. See Dušan Makavejev, Poljubac za drugaricu Parolu (A Kiss for Comrade Slogan) (Belgrade: Nolit, 1965).
11. See Owen Hatherley, “Marxism and Mud: Landscape, Urbanism and Socialist Space in the Black Wave,” in Kirn, Sekulić and Testen, eds. Surfing the Black, 210.
12. See Ana Janevski, “We Cannot Promise To Do More Than Experiment’: On the Yugoslav Experimental Film and Cine Clubs in the 1960s and 1970s,” in Kirn, Sekulić and Testen, eds. Surfing the Black, 51.
13. Sezgin Boynik, “On Makavejev, On Ideology: The Concrete and the Abstract in the Readings of Dušan Makavejev,” in Kirn, Sekulić and Testen, eds. Surfing the Black, 110.
14. Boynik, “On Makavejev, On Ideology,” 149.
15. Boynik, “On Makavejev, On Ideology,” 118.
16. See Sezgin Boynik, Towards a Theory of Political Art: Cultural Politics of ‘Black Wave’ Film in Yugoslavia, 1963-1972, Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Jyväskylä (December 13, 2014) 61-70.
17. Janet Wolff, “Against Sociological Imperialism: The Limits of Sociology in the Aesthetic Sphere,” in Ronald W. Neperud, ed. Context, Content, and Community in Art Education: Beyond Postmodernism (New York: The Teachers College Press, 1995) 128-40. See also, Slavoj Žižek “Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes Please!” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000) 90-135.
18. The influence of so-called Western Marxism and the ideas of Marx’s early, humanistic writings were well-known in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, in particular, thanks to the presence of luminaries like Ernst Bloch, Lucien Goldmann, Henri Lefebvre, Jürgen Habermas, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse at the Korčula Summer School (Croatia) from 1964 through 1974. The school was organized by the philosophers associated with the journal Praxis. See Herbert Eagle, “Yugoslav Marxist Humanism and the Films of Dušan Makavejev,” David W. Paul, ed. Politics, Art and Commitment in the East European Cinema (London: Macmillan, 1983) 131-48.
19. My thanks to Cayley Sorochan for her writing and thoughts on the relevance of Marcuse to these issues.
20. See Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).
21. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press,  1991.)
22. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989) 4.
23. See Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love, trans. Peter Bush (New York: The New Press,  2012); see also Badiou, Philosophy and the Event, trans. Louise Burchill (Cambridge: Polity,  2013).