Goran Paskaljevic's "Midwinter Night's Dream" A Dark Vision of Serbian Society By Klaus Eder

in 15th Tromso International Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

Serbia, the winter of 2004. After ten years in prison, a man, Lazar, returns home to his small apartment somewhere in the suburbs of Belgrade and the outskirts of society. Later on, we learn that he had a quarrel and brawl with a friend in a pub called “The Powder Keg”, on the banks of the Danube, and had killed him without any reason, just the tragic ending of an argument among friends.

This killing was not, but could have been a scene in the episodic film The Powder Keg (Bure Baruta) Goran Paskaljevic shot in Belgrade in 1998. The reference is obvious not only because Lazar Ristovski acted in The Powder Keg and is now the lead in Midwinter Night’s Dream (San zimske noci, 2004), but in particular because the earlier film told exactly this kind of story: of people over-reacting in an explosive Belgrade after the war, where a small car crash ended up in a life-and-death fight and friends killed friends for no reason.

Midwinter Night’s Dream continues The Powder Keg and shows the country a couple of years later. Goran Paskaljevic shot the film again in winter, in a grayish light without contours, the housing estates are poor if not run-down, the streets are muddy, the landscape is depressingly empty, without life and full of garbage (in long calm shots photographed by Milan Spasic). The music (written by Zoran Simjanovic, one of the best Serbian film composers) adds a poetic dimension to the landscape and creates an idea of a gap between the former zest for life (in the tradition of Serbian folklore music) and a new melancholy created by inner conflicts. (The whole soundtrack is wonderfully worked out.) In only one scene Goran Paskaljevic dares to show a sort of harmony: when Lazar, the main hero, visits his family in a village, they celebrate a festivity, they eat and dance, old women sing the old songs (and play on the accordion), children play around, and the world appears for a few moments as if the war had never happened. Back to the roots?

The biggest difference between the films of 1998 and 2004 is, maybe, that the people aren’t rebelling anymore against nothing. They have come to terms with their personal and social situation, as miserable as it may be. They have learnt to practice silence and devotion to their fates. The most significant change happens to Lazar Ristovski. He’s a very vigorous actor bursting with strength, extroverted, physically present even dominating, somehow very Serbian. Now, he’s extremely soft, introverted, a distant observer pained by inner conflicts which wake him at night, bathed in sweat.

The conflicts are nevertheless there. When Lazar returns home, his apartment had (after the death of his mother) temporarily be given to fugitives from Bosnia, a mother and her daughter. As Lazar wants his home back, he takes them the next day to a transit camp which is primitive and unfit for human beings (he’ll not leave them there at the end). The fugitives, Serbs after all, are waiting there, as the film says, to be sent back to Bosnia. The racial and religious conflicts which broke ex-Yugoslavia into parts are still there and far from being solved.

The other burden from the past is the memory of the war. In one scene, Lazar unveils his inner conflict: the killing of his friend, of course, but in particular that he had observed, as a Serbian soldier, how his soldier-colleagues had murdered a group of civilians, peasants and their families in a village, children among them, who were having a peaceful dinner. The details of this scene as told by Lazar are indeed horrible and show a veritable brutality of Serbian soldiers towards their fellow countrymen. This is probably the very first time that a Serbian film admits that Serbs killed Serbs — a statement which will certainly not be appreciated in Paskaljevic’s own country.

Until now, I haven’t mentioned one of the film’s most essential characters: Jovana, the young daughter of Jasna (Jasna Zalica), the woman Lazar finds in his apartment when he returns from prison. Between Lazar, the home comer from prison, and Jasna, the fugitive from Bosnia, a slow and shy love grows. It’s not a romantic nor melodramatic love, it’s more of the kind that two lonesome people find in each other and share their despair. Consequently, this love does not have a future: Jasna gets killed by a former lover (the weakest scene of the film), Lazar shoots himself at the very end.

The daring idea is to introduce Jovana, the daughter, as autistic. She suffers from a version of autism called “echolalia” which makes her repeat everything she hears. She’s only 12 (and is played by an autistic girl, Jovana Mitic). Already when Lazar meets her for the first time, returning to his apartment, he’s interested in her, attracted, touched. Later on, he shows a lot of concern in her and her illness – maybe because he feels himself as a sort of father, but in particular because he hopes that she will be brought back to reality (a silly hope, from a medical point of view) signifies his own hope: to get hold of, and win back a feeling for reality which he has totally lost. Sometimes I’ve the feeling, he confesses to the teacher in Jasna’s school for the handicapped, that it needs only a small push and she will be back to us. It’s an illusive hope, for the girl and for himself.

Susan Sontag wrote about “Illness as Metaphor” (illness is fact, not fate, she wrote). That’s it. Jovana suffers from autism, but in a metaphorical way her suffering comes from her society: in Goran Paskaljevic’s film, this character works as a metaphor. This is indeed a daringly dark vision Goran Paskaljevic unfolds: that the inner conflicts of Serbian society, a decade after the war, are still so present and dominating and insoluble that the only answer and reaction is autism. Midwinter Night’s Dream has indeed the worrisome quality of a dark and daring and frightening and poetic comment on Serbian society.

At the very end, Lazar drives to the countryside, into a blossoming landscape. Jasna, the mother, bleeds to death on the back seat of the car. The camera follows Jovana, the girl, as she slowly disappears between the trees. Then: the shot (which is heard only), Lazar commits suicide. Then: Silence. The only survivor of the Serbian tragedy is Jovana, the autistic girl.

Is there indeed no way out for Serbia?