Djordje Kadijevic: Art is the only thing left that hasn't been compromised
His successful directing career has lasted for over 55 years. In that time span, he has made twenty films and four TV series. Undeniably terrifying yet cult-favorite, "Leptirica" celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and still sends shivers down the viewers' spines. His television epic "Vuk Karadžić" earned him the prestigious Grand Prix of Europe award and left an indelible mark on the world of cinema.
In an interview with 011info, renowned director Đorđe Kadijević reminisces about his upbringing in the Mediterranean, the horrifying ravages of World War II, and how art gave meaning to his life.
You were born during the reign of King Aleksandar. How do you remember the Kingdom?
It was an exceptionally wealthy country, with cultural treasures that few other European nations possessed. Within its borders, you could stumble upon monuments of ancient culture, romance, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, as well as our Byzantine heritage through our monasteries. For instance, if you visit Germany, you would witness the achievements of bourgeois culture and nothing more.
What are your earliest memories from childhood?
Certainly, my memories of my hometown, the beautiful Renaissance city of Šibenik. Although I was born in Croatia, I am Serbian. I sincerely believe that I would still be living there today, likely married to a Croatian woman and with several children, if the Second World War hadn't erupted. It changed everything, and there was no longer a place for us, who make the sign of the cross with three fingers, in Šibenik.
Anyway, I was born in an 18th-century family house built during the Venetian rule over Dalmatia, on a slope below the city fortress, overlooking the sea. Countless towers were visible from there, both Catholic and Orthodox churches. In those times, during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Šibenik was a conglomerate of people called Yugoslavs, which I believe is not the case today.
In any case, my first memory from childhood, which I often recall even in my old age, is the view of the sea from our house. I am very nostalgically attached to that Mediterranean atmosphere, not just visually. I vividly remember the ringing of Catholic and Orthodox bells, signaling the start of the church service at 8 o'clock.
At the same time, I can never forget the scent of olive oil, red wine, cypress trees, and the Mediterranean sea. So, these memories are truly experiences that, I hope, I am able to convey to you through words.
Another vivid memory from childhood was undoubtedly the pogrom of Serbs in Šibenik in 1941. As a naval officer in the royal navy, my father was taken into German captivity. My mother, sister, and I had to avoid Jasenovac concentration camp by any means necessary. My ten-year-old self would have, to put it mildly, suffered greatly in the concentration camp.
That's when you arrived in Serbia, sharing the fate of thousands of refugees.
We settled in Nedić's Serbia, which was a complete antithesis to Šibenik and the Mediterranean. You know, as long as I live, I will never forget that refugee experience. When you're accustomed to not caring about the nationalities or religions of your godparents, neighbors, and friends, it's not easy to accept the fate that awaits you, which is a life amidst the ruins of your homeland. Yugoslavia was and will remain my homeland, regardless of the current divisions.
How did you experience that wartime period?
Whether I wanted to or not, during the difficult occupation years, I was forced to accept the new situation. I witnessed what could be called liberation in Belgrade. However, I intensely missed the environment in which I came into this world, that most beautiful region on Earth, my Mediterranean.
All of that influenced me to develop a dual identity in some way. Undoubtedly, my primary identity was Mediterranean, but at the very moment when a person forms the persona they will present in earthly life, I was exposed to unprecedented stress.
I found myself in the ruins of Belgrade, which had experienced two bombings. First, on April 6, 1941, and then the Allied bombing in 1944, when bombs rained down on the city 20 to 30 times. Brutal acts that were completely unnecessary. The only argument was that supposedly Belgrade was the command center for the German Eastern Military Corps. Believe me, during those outbursts of aggression, not a single German perished, but unfortunately, a quarter of a million Belgraders lost their lives.
As a consequence of all those unfortunate events, I acquired a secondary identity. It didn't conflict with my primary identity because it arose under the influence of external circumstances.
I don't see it as a misfortune. The love for the Mediterranean has forever remained within me, and at the same time, a love for Serbia was born, to which, considering my origins, I belong. My father was Serbian, and my mother was Croatian. So, the fusion of these two bloodlines, along with the period that followed, full of divisions, hatred, and mutual conflicts, from a cinematic perspective, creates a kind of pathological panorama.
In fact, it took decades and decades for me to become what I am now, a doctor of theoretical sciences and a professor at a university, to realize that there is no real difference between the Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, or Bosnian people. They are all Southern Slavs, children of the same father and mother. If we look at it more broadly, in fact, we are Russians who settled here from the Russian taiga after crossing the Carpathian Mountains. When you think about it, it's quite fascinating how history plays with the uncertain human consciousness.
Why do I say that? Simply because there is only a difference in dialect, which is far less pronounced than in Germany or France. I have filmed in those countries, so I know that, for example, a citizen of Munich can hardly understand a resident of Leipzig.
What was Belgrade like at that time?
It was nothing like it is now. Actually, Belgrade was and remains a small town. Attempts were made to make it worthy of and develop a civic environment, but all efforts were cut short by the Second World War. During the communist era, the ambition was to turn Belgrade into the capital of a new country or even an entire civilization.
Considering your difficult childhood, how did you decide to study art history?
From a logical point of view, for me, it was the only acceptable decision. When you experience a terrible war, you lose the greatest values that a person carries within themselves: the belief that you know what the world is, the belief that you know who the other person is, and the belief that you know who you are yourself. During the war, I lost all three beliefs.
Do you know why? Because I saw that the world was far from my perception of it. Because I realized that even close people, of the same blood, can grow distant from each other. From all of this, the conclusion was that I didn't even know myself. I felt the deepest possible loneliness, and that feeling has never truly left me.
After this preamble, it's time for me to specifically answer why I ran into the arms of art. During the war, I realized that all other professions were significantly compromised. They were abused for the worst purposes. All sciences, from chemistry and physics to catechism. It was clear to me that there was only one profession that remained pure and based on love for beauty, and that was art. I was naturally inclined towards it.
When I finished high school, I enrolled in the least profitable faculty and dedicated myself to the art history department. Alongside my studies, I immersed myself in reading, manically attended concerts and visual arts exhibitions, and immensely enjoyed the theater and frequent visits to the cinematheque. That's how my new identity was formed.
Did you have support in that?
My choice did not receive my father's approval. After his captivity, he continued to live in Germany, with no intention of returning to Yugoslavia. He thundered at me, telling me not to be crazy and study art. He claimed that art would lead me to a life of destitution and that it would eventually be my downfall. He believed that I should pursue medicine, architecture, or something useful.
He couldn't comprehend that what he was talking about, I understood much better than he thought. Since I wasn't exposed to his patriarchal aggression on a daily basis and instead lived with a lenient mother, I graduated with a degree in art history from the Faculty of Philosophy. Then, I dared to try my hand at art myself.
And it was there that I found my world. Everything I had lost during the war was now present again in my soul. I rediscovered the world, other people, and myself in a pristine place. Because art hasn't killed anyone. Art is the only human endeavor that remains uncompromised.
What did your further professional development look like?
I studied art history meticulously at the University of Belgrade. When I say meticulously, I mean that I had a reading list that went beyond the prescribed curriculum. Moreover, I completed my postgraduate studies in France. I did everything because I saw art as my salvation and survival.
After my studies, the question arose – what's next? Professorship, writing... Or should I grit my teeth and venture into the creation of artworks? To be honest, I didn't know if I was capable of it because a person is never fully aware of their potential.
Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by friends who were already highly intellectually and creatively accomplished and who, in a way, pushed me towards art and instilled in me the courage to give it a try.
This resulted in your application for the regular annual competition of the Ministry of Culture for a debut film.
It's an understatement to say that I was surprised when I won and received funding for the film. It was back in 1967, and my debut was called "Praznik" (The Holiday). My astonishment knew no bounds because suddenly, that work became a festival film and was screened worldwide.
The achieved success greatly facilitated obtaining financing for my next film. And so, they started to follow one after another. In my lifetime, I directed twenty films and four television series, and I never expected any of it. That's precisely why I never refer to myself as an artist but as a person who has spent his whole life trying to engage with art.
How did you choose the themes for your films?
When I started making films, I tried to avoid an inflation of apologetic works on the big screen that glorified our victory, revolution, and achievements in building a new country. Honestly, it never crossed my mind to direct like Žika Mitrović or Veljko Bulajić, with all due respect to them. The three of us experienced the war, although they viewed it through an ideological lens. I witnessed those things with my own eyes.
As someone who held the highest title in the study of historical sciences, I was well aware that the new system, the communist one, that variant of soft dictatorship, was an ephemeral phenomenon. I knew it would pass, just like the monarchy my father had served, and nothing would remain of it. That's why I told myself to make a film that would express the thoughts and feelings I had within me while observing reality as it truly was.
Your debut film "Praznik" was probably the first film about World War II without partisan characters. In fact, it was marked by the character of the executioner Manolo. How was that film initially received?
The entire plot of the film is a paradoxical encounter of pilots who crashed into the Chetnik headquarters after being shot down over Yugoslav territory. Initially, they were welcomed as allies, but then, out of fear of the Germans, they started to see them as enemies.
The most brutal scene in the entire Yugoslav cinema occurs when those pilots escape, and the Chetniks have to dress up their own men and, in the end, execute them on a snowy clearing. That's where the famous character Manolo enters the scene, whose specialty is execution. Throughout the film, which lasts just under an hour and a half, he doesn't utter a single line of dialogue. His presence alone sends a message about the consequences.
Regarding the absence of partisans, I deliberately did that, wanting to fully focus on a topic that had not been explored before, which was the counter-revolution, or what happened on the other side of the line. All in all, it was the most horrifying story about us that could be told. So horrifying that certain friends, with stronger national feelings, turned up their noses and got angry with me. Certain intellectuals quoted Friedrich Engels' famous sentence from "The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State," where he claims that we are savages. On the other hand, highly emancipated individuals stated that the film "Praznik" was a necessary self-critique that only a non-savage nation could express.
Speaking of acceptance, the film was initially received coldly. It was screened at the Jadran cinema, in front of a relatively small audience. That was quite natural because it wasn't for everyone, especially not for the audience at that time. I didn't get too worked up about it because I didn't make the film for the audience or to be admired at the Writers' Club. I didn't care about that at all. I only cared about the next film.
I earned that opportunity because the majority of the Yugoslav critics' elite welcomed "Praznik" positively in terms of its artistic value. They emphasized that the negative accumulated energy in the film, culminating in the character of Manolo, was so powerful that it deserved its place in our cinema. That's why I received a call from Avala Film, which gave me the green light for further shooting.
Originally, "Praznik" was supposed to be part of a trilogy with "Pohod" (The March) and "Božja volja" (God's Will), which was never filmed.
That's right. The plan was to make three films, but it was thwarted by the emergence of a phenomenon called the black wave. A certain Mrs. Sofija Mišić, the secretary of the city party committee, delivered a fiery speech at their meeting, emphasizing that films like mine should not be made. The promotion of the black wave targeted Dušan Makavejev, Žika Pavlović, Aleksandar Petrović, Želimir Žilnik, and myself. However, they fared better than me because I didn't make films that took place after 1945. I didn't insult the new Yugoslavia, but I portrayed the occupied Yugoslavia like no one before or after me.
After "Pohod," the darkest of all the films within the black wave, a period of abstinence followed. Although I regularly presented projects, I always received rejections. I genuinely thought that my directing career had come to an end, even though I was only in my thirties. That was the case until I found myself on television, where I encountered brilliant editors of the drama program who were not appointed based on the party line. There, I found understanding from people like Pavle Ugrinov, David Filip, Slobodan Stojanović, Zoran Korać, and many other mature and emancipated individuals.
Did they limit you in any way on television?
All those terrible films of mine were liked by all of them. There was just one catch – I couldn't continue the cycle of war films; I had to change genres. Fortunately, I had free rein to shoot.
For me, fantasy meant knowing Christian mythology, Islam, Confucius, Buddha, and so on. That field was very close to me. And then I wondered if I really had to make war films for the rest of my life. Yes, it was terrible, but I survived it and should move on.
And do you know what I did? I let a powerful force that resided within me work. It had diverse synonyms in our language: horror, terror, fear, wonder, madness, superstition... Suddenly, it became clear to me that I had a passion for such themes. And I translated that onto the big screen in the form of "Leptirica" (The She-Butterfly).
"Leptirica" gained cult status. Was that expected?
That film achieved a level of success I never even dreamed of, and at the same time, it stirred up the entire nation. Suddenly, there was a public debate about whether such terrifying films should be shown in cinemas because, supposedly, it was a communist world fighting for a better future, and the film dealt with the fear of vampires, witches, and the supernatural. The newspaper "Borba" took the side that protested against "Leptirica," while "Ilustrovana politika" came to my aid, claiming that it was the only way to overcome fear.
The apprehension was so great that certain ladies who watched the film experienced shocks and ended up undergoing psychiatric examinations. Eventually, they went to visit Mirjana Nikolić, who portrayed the She-Butterfly, to make sure she wasn't a demonic being but just a beautiful actress. That's the kind of effect "Leptirica" had on the people.
My British colleagues told me that if I had made this work on the Island, I would be granted the title of "sir" (laughter). My longtime friend and great writer, Dobrica Ćosić, stated that the film was unforgettable, especially the last frame because the fate of the main character played by Petar Božović is unknown. It was actually a postmodern trick, where the work had no beginning or end and unfolded in a way that was least expected.
It's interesting that the character of the demonic appears in all your films. Why is that?
Indeed, but in my films, Satan is never portrayed as ugly, horned, or pig-like. Those were all inventions of embittered medieval times, where the aim was to vilify the devil as an opposition to the Lord. My role model was Oscar Wilde and his beautiful Dorian Gray. The difference is that I often chose beauties to depict that impure force because most of us secretly believe that the devil more often takes on a female form rather than a male one.
That's why in "Sveti Mestu" (The Holy Place), I assigned that role to a former ballerina, Branka Pujić. She was 28 years old and unbelievably beautiful. With her, I set a kind of record. Namely, she appeared naked before the camera for nine minutes. Prior to shooting, I explained to her what was required, and she was so confident in herself that she undressed without hesitation.
I don't like dry films where armed villains run through. Creating a villain isn't a big challenge, but portraying Satan, delving into mysticism and the transcendental space, that's the real challenge that requires a foundation in serious philosophical literature, which was my hobby.
How did you turn to making historical films?
When the 70s and 80s arrived, I moved on to the third cycle of films – historical ones. History fascinated me. The culmination of that historical period was "Vuk Karadžić" (Wolf Karadžić). I spent four years traveling through Europe and filming. On the small screen, I portrayed giants like Karađorđe, Hajduk Veljko, Matija Nenadović, but also Goethe, the Grimm brothers, Metternich, the Russian and German emperors.
Shooting was a real pleasure, especially since I immortalized original objects.
Our diplomacy made it possible for me. I had an international agreement in my hands between Yugoslavia, Russia, Hungary, Austria, France, and Italy, with all the rights for filming and permission to enter sacred objects.
Did people have understanding for the filming of "Vuk Karadžić"?
You wouldn't believe it, but the biggest difficulties with filming were right here. Accompanied by the Prime Minister, Dušan Čkrebić, I visited Patriarch German to obtain permission to enter sacred objects with cameras. He gave us his approval, as did the Synod, but the troubles didn't end there. Unlike the Catholic Church, where the bishop decides everything, the Christian Church is democratic. So, we had to beg and plead with every church elder to open the doors of their home for us.
When persuasion didn't work, we used force. I wanted to film a scene with Karađorđe in the Fenek Monastery in Zemun, where the voivode found refuge in 1813 after the failed uprising. It was there that the famous tears of Karađorđe were shed during his meeting with Proto Matej Nenadović, where the voivode cried upon learning that the people were cursing him. And how could I not film that in an authentic setting?
However, the abbess of Fenek Monastery did not share this view, nor did the nuns. Even though I arrived at the monastery with actors in makeup, equipment, and all the other wonders, they persistently refused, claiming that the monastery was a sacred place, a place for prayer, and that I was creating a circus in the studio. Not even the sight of Marko Nikolić dressed as Karađorđe managed to appease them.
When I saw that the one thing I lived for at that moment would slip away from me, I acted extremely rudely. I ordered the extras and stuntmen to enter without paying attention to the nuns. They started screaming and cursing, which, in my opinion, went beyond all bounds, so I ordered them to be confined to the cellar.
Once I finished what I came for, I went to the abbess to ask for forgiveness. I told her that a large amount of money had been invested, and a tremendous responsibility rested on my shoulders, so I had to tell this story that the whole world would watch as it should be told. I encountered her understanding but also her friendship. Despite that, I never set foot in the Fenek Monastery again, fearing the "vengeance" of the nuns.
Well, that's the director's job for you. The hardest in the world.
The series "Vuk Karadžić" achieved tremendous success, both domestically and beyond our borders, but despite that, there were still criticisms directed at you.
Although I dedicated my youth and free time to reading, it turned out that my erudition was causing stumbling blocks. A critic from "Politika," whose name I won't mention because she is now a respected matron at her age, constantly wrote about how there was a grave mistake in entrusting the filming of the series about Vuk Karadžić to an intellectual. It bothered her that I distinguished between early and late Wittgenstein or that I knew that Blaise Pascal had a dispute with Isaac Newton over infinitesimal calculus. If we followed that formula, we would be left without Bergman, Buñuel, Tarkovsky, or Wells, all of whom were top intellectuals. However, I paid no attention to her criticism.
Nevertheless, a confrontation took place when the monumental series "Vuk Karadžić" won the Grand Prix of Europe in Rome for the best television series. Moreover, Umberto Eco, one of the greatest writers and intellectuals of the 20th century, who was the spiritus movens of the Rome festival, wrote an essay for the jury. In it, he said that "Vuk Karadžić" was not a film fresco of just one part of Serbian history but a film fresco of a part of European history, which is why it deserved the first prize.
Regarding the trophy as the European champion, the director of television, Ratomir Vića, organized a cocktail party where everyone gathered. And now the critic who had made my wife's life miserable by writing nonsense about me was forced to approach me. Despite her attempt to mask it with a big smile, her eyes betrayed the presence of sorrow.
She said there was a misunderstanding and that I shouldn't take to heart what she had written. I told her that there was no misunderstanding and that she had written exactly what I had expected. Honestly, it all seemed funny to me. I never paid any attention to others' negative opinions.
However, it wasn't just that particular lady who criticized me; even colleagues did. A certain television director complained and appealed to the general director of RTS, wondering why such a significant project was given to an external collaborator instead of their own employee. I had the opportunity to respond to all these opponents in the column I had been writing for NIN for half a century, but I didn't want to stoop to that level. It was enough that I triumphantly returned from Rome and they had to congratulate me on the achieved success.
What has been your motivation for filmmaking throughout your career?
I have never worked for money, fame, or countless awards. Absolutely not. I worked solely out of one inner drive, which was very personal, and I hope you'll understand. To better illustrate it, I'll paraphrase Franz Kafka: "Everything I have ever done and created was my attempt to make my death possible." There is a rebellion within you, dressed in a black suit with bared teeth, that doesn't let you reconcile with the idea of disappearing without a trace.
Simply put, people like me, who search for a reason for existence, are madmen. I don't mean that in a clinical sense. That madness is the greatest wisdom I know. Throughout my life, I have delved into philosophical and dramatic literature, and they have all convinced me that there must be something beyond ordinary, practical reason.
Leo Tolstoy himself, in the novel "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," contemplates the misfortune of a man who faces a double death: one banal, the death of his body, and one profound, painful, and tragic—the death of his being. I am aware that I must physically leave this world, but at the same time, I want to show my teeth to this other modality of death.
And this feeling is by no means narcissistic or driven by vain aggression. It is a sublime sensation, and it is a love for everything, despite all the horrors, such as wars. The only way to counter that is with a sense of love for the world, regardless of how it treats us. In short, that is my motivation.
You have had a successful career. Nevertheless, are there any regrets?
There were two occasions when I was sad. The first time was when I didn't film "God's Will," and the second time was when I didn't film a series about Saint Sava. After the triumph in Rome with the series "Vuk Karadžić," I gained European status, and as a student from the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy, which had a provisionist orientation, I was more than ready to film the next TV show. The script was completed, and the series was announced. Shortly after, the NATO bombing happened. I am deeply convinced that the series about Saint Sava would have been more successful than the one about Karadžić, which received all possible accolades. But what's done is done. At least, with "Vuk," which was watched by millions, I satisfied my vanity, which, of course, I don't have. (laughter)
Do you have any plans?
Yes, currently, I am deeply involved in negotiations with producers to film a serious and heavy film, like "The Feast," about the NATO bombing. It would be my swan song. Although it would deal with the theme of war, with the darkest emotions imaginable, it would not be provocative. I would be focused on not offending either side: neither the Serbian nor the Albanian. It would depict the primordial Balkan curse that has haunted us since we settled here and from which we cannot free ourselves.
Furthermore, I think it could be screened in Pristina as well. I don't believe the local people would have anything against it. It would be an opportunity for them to understand that their destiny is as tragic as ours, and that we, to a large extent, were also responsible for what happened to us.