About a year ago, a popular image of a horror movie iceberg chart circulated Reddit and Twitter. Each tier represents a number of horror films, beginning with the sky and a smiling stick figure, all the way down to the dark depths of the ocean and the enlightenment meme (pointed sarcasm). The very first tier, which is still in the sky above the actual exposed section of iceberg, includes beloved classic horror films such as The Ring, Nightmare on Elm Streetand The Grudge.
The second tier, or the portion of the iceberg that lies above the surface of the ocean, features more controversial movies like The Human Centipede, Tuskand The Hills Have Eyes films that many casual horror fans avoid due to their notoriety as explicit and nauseating. As the films descend into more brutal gore, graphic scenes, and twisted themes, the tiers grow darker, and the stick figure boasts a deepening frown and scraggly beard. Allegedly, everything listed below the fourth tier are snuff films; that is, the violence that is being portrayed is actually occurring. Most are illegal to even watch.
A Serbian Film
A Serbian Film (2010), co-written and directed by Serbian director Srdjan Spasojevicappropriately lies within the third tier, just below the surface, alongside a frowning stick figure with unkempt hair, accompanied by the films Cannibal Holocaust, Suicide Cluband Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Spasojevic, who also directed the “R is for Removed” segment of the gruesome anthology The ABCs of Deathcreated a film about a once-popular former porn star named Milos (Srdjan “Zika” Todorovic) who has been lured out of retirement by the promise of large sums of money – money that his family needs.
The plot spirals as Milos is repeatedly drugged and threatened, forced to carry out horrible, brutally violent acts of physical and sexual abuse against unwilling participants, many of whom are children. The scenes are alarmingly graphic, and the film is banned in 46 countries. In order to even receive an NC-17 rating in the US, they actually had to cut a minute of film. Arguably gratuitous violence aside, it is nevertheless a piece of visual media that serves as a sociopolitical commentary. The means by which Spasojevic conveys that commentary are, however, justifiably controversial. Is A Serbian Film truly a work of art, or does it deserve the widespread vehement public denouncement that it has faced?
A Political Outcry
Contrary to popular belief, A Serbian Film is not just violent for the sake of violence. However, one could certainly argue that there is violence in excess of what would be purposeful; the level of brutality is obviously exaggerated in part for shock value. Although it may not be as apparent to a Western audience, the film does have a purpose. Spasojevic has described his work as a “family drama” that spirals into a nightmarish tragedy, but the story also serves as a political allegory that underlines the struggles that Serbians faced as a consequence of the political upset that ultimately collapsed Yugoslavia.
Prior to its tumultuous dissolution in the 1990s, Yugoslavia occupied much of the Balkan Peninsula, or the Balkans, of which Serbia is at the geographic heart. This region experienced tension throughout the 20th century, as it was a sort of physical buffer zone between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. When nationalistic president and eventual war criminal Slobodan Milosevic came into power, this tension reached its breaking point, resulting in inner turmoil.
Milosevic betrayed his nation and was responsible for the outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars, an ethnic conflict, and a mass exodus of Serbs from their home nation. Milosevic, who controlled the state with heavy propaganda, drew hate from neighboring nations, toward other ethnic nations, and internal hatred that Serbians directed toward its own government. The vast majority of Serbs felt a strong connection to their Yugoslav roots. Those who remained in Serbia still felt displaced.
Historically, the term “rape” was defined as “an act of plunder” and “violent seizure,” typically referring to a location (a definition that’s yet another dehumanizing aspect of violence against women). During his reign, Milosevic conducted a rape of the land, leaving Serbians without any sense of national pride or identity and subjecting them to aggressive external bias. They were totally isolated from others and themselves.
A Serbian Film can be interpreted as an extreme dramatization of these events, depicting graphic scenes of literal rape as a representation of the Serbs’ plight and Milosevic’s rape of the land. Just as nationalist Milosevic seized and rebranded Serbian identity, Milos’s captor injects him with drugs, depriving him of bodily autonomy and forcing him to commit atrocious acts he would otherwise refuse in abject horror. Under the influence, Milos relinquishes total control, and therefore his own sense of identity is destroyed.
Because he has no control over his own actions, Milos is also raped; he cannot consent to the acts he is a part of due to his altered state. From an outsider’s objective perspective, Milos, like Serbia, appears to be responsible for his own actions, when in reality those actions are not truly his own. The film’s violent nature is the manifestation of a Serbian’s desperate, angry outcry. It is a plea for justice and for freedom of autonomy and identity. Regardless of whether one would consider this film a work of art, it is far too well-thought-out to be considered “trash.”
A Surprisingly Well-Structured Story
It is not a stretch to write A Serbian Film off as gratuitously violent. Scenes far exceed the cringe-worthy violence typical of average gore-centric horror films (as depicted in the first tier or two of the aforementioned iceberg). As has been established, the film has been banned in dozens of countries worldwide due to the nature of the violent acts being committed. One scene in particular, which involves a newborn infant, enraged many. Scenes include a number of rapes, including that of minors, and even instances of necrophilia. BBC Radio 5 Live‘s Mark Kermode stated that the movie is “a nasty piece of exploitation trash.” The original film was unavailable in the UK until four minutes were cut.
A Serbian Filmhowever, does not in any way glamorize or fetishize exploitative pornography – it is rather the opposite. In fact, Milos is living an utter nightmare, a point that is emphasized by drug-induced dreamlike sequences in which he and the audience question his ability to perceive reality. What begins as a means to provide for his family during times of financial hardship ends with the total destruction of his family as a result of his exploitation.
Perhaps A Serbian Film‘s saving grace is its devotion to conveying a compelling story from beginning to end. The stakes are high, and there is a clear plot line. It is not merely an hour and 44 minutes of simulated snuff film; Milos is sympathetic, enduring significant and irreparable trauma that he is unable to escape or protect his wife and young son from. He is a victim of necessity. This film is not just an excuse to put shocking violence on display; it’s a brutal contemporary tragedy.
While watching this film, there are a few moments in which one asks, “Was this necessary?” The answer is likely no. There are obviously ways to make great movies about 20th century politics without graphic violence, and perhaps Spasojevic exceeds the level of violence necessary to exercise his main point. Though the extent of the violence may be unwarranted, Spasojevic’s work is not garbage. He manages to craft a well-developed, sympathetic allegory in the midst of the horror he has established. In the objective sense, A Serbian Film is a piece of artwork. Whether the film is a masterpiece that deserves widespread recognition, however, is a separate argument altogether.
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