Sex Against Fascism

Dušan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected

Serbian director Dušan Makavejev’s 1968 film Innocence Unprotected manages both to explore the legacy of wartime trauma seriously and to make fun of itself in the process. 

The past will return: Innocence Unprotected.

It centres on the reconstruction, in two senses, of a previous picture of that name, considered the first Serbian talkie, which was made by the acrobat Dragoljub Aleksić early in Nazi Germany’s occupation of Yugoslavia. 

Makavejev shows us both the original film and present-day interviews with many of the people involved in its production, inter-splicing them with other footage from that era. 

The order of presentation is deliberately convoluted, making sequences that don’t stand out by themselves more interesting because of where they fall. 

Makavejev is like one of those storytellers who can’t seem to remember the tale he set out to tell, only to reveal that it functioned as a narrative Trojan horse, making it possible to convey insights that a more direct approach could not.

Roughly a half-hour into the film, we have seen a little bit of Aleksić’s film and heard him, and some of his collaborators reflect on the experience of making it. We then see three of them walking away from the camera on a rooftop, with a few modern high-rises in the distance.

The man doing most of the speaking explains how Innocence Unprotected outperformed Golden City, the big-budget melodrama that was playing next door: “That film was in German, and ours was in Serbian.” Told that nobody would believe how popular it was, he responds that people also wouldn’t believe “that the film was banned or that we went to prison”.

At this point, we cut without warning to a black-and-white newsreel titled “New Serbia”. 

First, we see how factory workers are transforming cardboard into drive belts, the sort of make-do-with-less propaganda that was produced in almost every nation at war. 

Then we turn to a speech by Milan Nedić, leader of the Serbian puppet regime established by the Nazis when they divided up occupied Yugoslavia. 

He tells a seemingly large crowd that “There are some people who still think only of Yugoslavia. But I ask them, ‘What about Serbia? What about the Serbian people and their future?’” 

Nedić then asks what the crowd wants. We see a few shots of people wearing traditional attire before being informed that they want “a Serbian peasant state”.

The newsreel continues with an item about wine-making before concluding with the funeral of a Serbian military leader who had been “treacherously assassinated”, during which we see representatives of Nedić’s regime alongside Germans in uniform and representatives of the Orthodox church. 

Then Makavejev cuts to a short propaganda film, now in colour, made for Tito’s partisans near the end of the war, before finally showing us, over a half hour into his film, the full title sequence from Aleksić’s Innocence Unprotected. 

In communist Yugoslavia, the montage effects generated by this surprising juxtaposition would have been self-evident or at least treated as such. That is why Innocence Unprotected didn’t run afoul of state censors the way that Mysteries of the Organism would. 

Because the archival footage is allowed to speak for itself, however, it would be possible to interpret it very differently. 

Indeed, since Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s, some Serbian nationalists have sought to rescue Nedić from collaborationist oblivion, arguing that he was doing the best he could in an impossible situation and ended up saving many lives. 

To them, the newsreel about New Serbia would not have seemed an incontrovertible condemnation of Nedić or his regime, despite being befouled by the presence of swastikas.

It seems clear that Makavejev agreed with neither of these interpretations. But Innocence Unprotected is a stronger film for making them possible. 

As someone who advocated for freedom in every sense, even when it was inconvenient or against his own best interests, it was important for the film not to impose his own views too strenuously. 

Given that only a quarter century had passed since the making of the first Innocence Unprotected, taking an oral history approach made it possible for Makavejev to complicate the top-down history of official textbooks without having to make his own position clear. 

That rhetorical slipperiness also characterises the film he made next, 1971’s Mysteries of the Organism. 

But Mysteries’ investigation of Wilhelm Reich’s controversial theory of sexual energy and related matters, coupled with its explicit sexual content, pushed the envelope too far, ending Makavejev’s career as a Yugoslavian filmmaker and eventually leading him to emigrate. 

In the years after Innocence Unprotected came out, postmodern self-reflexivity and the ambiguities it facilitates became second nature, culminating in a slew of mainstream movies designed to appeal, in different ways, to audiences of many different ages. 

Think computer-animated Pixar hits like the Toy Story series or Marvel blockbusters like The Avengers – and a literary culture that increasingly takes its cues from them.  But the delirious ambivalence of Innocence Unprotected felt remarkably fresh when it came out. 

While cinephiles already knew that Communist Eastern Europe could produce provocative art, even irreverent satires like Věra Chytilová’s Daisies, few of them were prepared for that sensibility to be applied in a documentary context, especially one dealing with World War II.

In Roger Ebert’s 1968 review of the film, written when he was just the Chicago Sun-Times film critic with less than a year on the job, he called it “one of the most delightful films” he had ever seen “and one of the hardest to describe: It’s funny, tragic, filled at one moment with black humor and at the next with disarming naiveté and in form and style totally original.”  

Other critics were similarly enthused. Unfortunately, Innocence Unprotected was overshadowed by the scandalous aspects of Mysteries of the Organism and its even more over-the-top successor Sweet Movie, which Makavejev made in exile. 

Because the two films are centred on sex, they tend to be thought of together. As a result the similarities between Innocence Unprotected and Mysteries of the Organism have attracted less attention. But they are clearly companion pieces. 

Both deal explicitly with the legacy of fascism. Both tiptoe precariously on the line between fact and fabrication. And both testify to the power of an anything-goes collage aesthetic, foregoing the consistency that gave films of that era the imprimatur of professionalism. 

In the end, Innocence Unprotected leaves us with more questions than answers. 

Although  Aleksić is tremendously charming, not to mention a physical marvel, he seems strangely oblivious to the suffering caused by the German occupation. He appears to regard it as another plot device, a real-world challenge parallel to the ones his fictional double manages to overcome in his film.

And though the pride he and his collaborators take in having produced the first Serbian talkie is understandable, they don’t perceive how much it overlaps with the nationalism mobilized by Nedić’s puppet regime. 

Because we know what happened after Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s, this seems like a serious blind spot.

Even though Makavejev could not have foreseen how Serbia would be pitted against Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia, his decision to include the newsreel footage of Nedić’s speech, which is also a kind of Serbian talkie, was eerily prescient. 

Lightheartedness of the sort Aleksić communicates is a rare gift. But, like the unprotected innocence of the title, it runs the risk of being exploited by cynical political leaders. 

The trick is to stay in motion, never losing one’s nerve. It’s a strategy that Makavejev employed to brilliant effect.

Screenshot courtesy of the Criterion Collection. All rights reserved.