For the past few years, disturbing films have been a fascination of mine. Some of the most depraved can actually inflict long-term emotional damage on their audiences. I can’t say I think that’s a good thing per se, but it’s interesting, and something I’m very interested in. I’ve been thinking about this feature for a long time (I first pitched it nearly 10 months ago), but there’s been something stopping me: my fear of A Serbian Film. I knew from the beginning there was no other place to start. No other film has disturbed and distressed me the way that A Serbian Film has. Nothing has even come close. I had to just get it out of the way, because throwing it haphazardly into some other month just didn’t feel right.
But I didn’t want to watch it again. Why would I? I could probably have done a shot-for-shot remake of at least 50% of the film from my movie-induced PTSD flashbacks alone. But I needed to see it again, both for the sake of this feature, and also because I was just kind of curious. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered. Maybe the shocks wouldn’t be so shocking.
Then I found out something that terrified me: I had seen the edited version of the film. Nearly five minutes of footage had been cut. I knew I had to right this wrong and see it as the filmmakers intended. Unfortunately, there has not been a proper uncut release of the film in America. So I had to settle for the 103 minute cut released by Invincible Pictures, which is a minute shorter than the Serbian original and four minutes longer than the cut I originally saw. I’m curious what is in that extra minute, but I don’t think I ever feel compelled to find out. Twice was enough. More than enough.
I think it goes without saying that the content of this article will not be safe for work. Perhaps not even safe for life. Consider yourself warned.
[Cinema Disturbia is a look at films both well-known and painfully obscure that break the boundaries of common decency in order to create truly disturbing experiences.]
If what I have written here is enough to turn your feelings of wonder into a burning desire to watch this monstrosity, then perhaps I haven’t been clear enough. You don’t want to see A Serbian Film. You just think you do.
— Tex Anderson, from his review of the film for Bloody Digusting
Just so we’re clear, I’ll reiterate: if you don’t know what A Serbian Film is, what I’m writing about goes well beyond anything you can imagine. Whereas some of the films that will eventually be written about in this feature are mostly shocking due to their presentation, everything about A Serbian Film is horrific. I will talk about the things that make it so horrific in explicit detail, and some of the accompanying images are disturbing even without context.
Still here? Good. So this A Serbian Film thing… yeah. It’s pretty messed up.
I honestly wonder what it was like to be a part of the creation of A Serbian Film. A bit over a year ago, it was announced that there would be a documentary about the creation of the film, and it’s one of the few film documentaries that I am truly interested in seeing. I wonder what the mood was like, what the actors thought the movie was, how they reacted to its release. In the past, I always assumed that people knew exactly what they were getting themselves into whenever they became a part of a movie, and that what was on set was equivalent to what was on screen. Then I was reading the IMDb trivia for Pier Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (a film that will surely have its own entry in this series in the near future), and one tidbit caught my eye:
Actress Hélène Surgère said that the movie was literally “made” in the editing room and the filmmakers had no idea how grim a movie it was until they saw the finished product at the premiere.
Frankly, I think that sounds ridiculous. I have a lot of trouble believing that the actors didn’t realize what the greater context of, say, the coprophagia scene was. Regardless, I do wonder how much the peripheral characters understood about the project they were working on. Certainly I wonder about the children.
The basic premise of A Serbian Film is relatively simple: Miloš (Srđan Todorović), a retired pornstar, is called in for one final job in order to make enough money to get his family out of Serbia. Miloš lives with his wife Marija (Jelena Gavrilović) and his son Petar. His brother Marko (Slobodan Beštić) is a corrupt, sexually deviant police office who seems to be attracted to all of the women surrounding Miloš, including Marija and and Lejla (Katarina Zutić), the woman who convinces Miloš to come out of retirement. The man Miloš is asked to work for is Vukmir Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović), a former child psychologist turned pornographer who creates special films for special clientele. According to Vukmir, this new project, whatever it is, will be a work of art, and only Miloš can play the part, because he is a true artist.
Even so, Vukmir refuses to tell Miloš anything about what he is being asked to do, only the amount of money he will receive for his work. Although the sum is never revealed (and it probably wouldn’t mean much to an international audience anyway), it is clearly substantial, and it certainly gets his attention. He discusses it with his wife and eventually takes the job, albeit apprehensively.
Around halfway through the film, something dramatic and horrible (that will be discussed later) happens, and everything completely changes. Whereas the first half of A Serbian Film is relatively straightforward, and not too disturbing (in the grand scheme of things), all hell breaks lose in the second half. Miloš is drugged and wakes up several days later, unsure of where he is or what he has done. He spends the rest of the film tracing his steps and trying to figure it out. It’s kind of like The Hangover, actually, without the whole comedy part.
His recollections, slowly pieced together, become more and more horrific, featuring more and more disturbing imagery until it reaches apex, at which point my jaw literally dropped (something up until that point that I thought only happened in cartoons). It stayed that way for the rest of the film, and when the true ending came around, I knew that Tex Anderson was right. I really didn’t want to have seen A Serbian Film. But I had, and it could not (and cannot) be unseen.
As one might expect from a movie about pornography, A Serbian Film is intensely pornographic. In fact, it starts with one of Miloš’s old films. He ravages a busty blonde woman in some dark, dirty alleyway. It’s interesting, though, because there is no onscreen penetration, either in the fake porn movies (several of which are shown) or in the film itself (with a single exception). There is some onscreen masturbation (in the fake porn films), but the majority of the overtly pornographic elements are implied.
That being said, there is a lot of sex, simulated or not. I’d say at least a quarter of the characters engage in some kind of sexual act over the course of the film. Maybe more, probably not less. If you exclude minor characters, that number increases dramatically. There are also a lot of different kinds of sex. There’s the obvious stuff (masturbation, blowjobs, handjobs, various kinds of penetration, etc.) and then there’s the larger scale stuff (rape, necrophilia, pedophilia, etc.). That second category, obviously, is where most of A SerbianFilm‘s more distressing elements come into play.
A Serbian Film is best known for its most infamous moment: the “newborn porn” scene. After several days on the job, Miloš decides he can’t handle what he’s being told to do anymore, and he goes to Vukmir in order to quit. What happens next is what cements A Serbian Film‘s place in film history forever. After a tirade about victimization and victims (something I will get to in a moment), Vukmir finally shows Miloš some of his other work. A screen comes down, a projector whirs, and there it is: a very pregnant woman lies on a metal table in a mostly empty room. Vukmir’s (very large) assistant goes to her and helps her birth the baby (not in real time, fortunately). After that’s done, he spanks the newborn and proceeds to have sex with it while the mother watches gleefully.
It’s unsettling, to put it mildly.
Honestly, though, that wasn’t the moment that clinched it for me, because of the all-too obvious message accompanying the act. Underneath the visual horror of it all, you can just hear the writers and director shouting, “Aren’t we so clever? Look at how clever we are! In Serbia, you’re fucked from birth! Get it?”
And it’s not just that, but the entire scene surrounding it. Vukmir talks of victims and victimization. In a talk (part two above, part one here) given after the film first screened at South by Southwest back in 2010, writer Aleksandar Radivojević complained about the role of victims in today’s European cinema:
A Serbian Film also addresses the political correctness that governs the arts. You know, in Europe, political correctness is ruling the art, so in order to get your film financed, you have to have a victim. You have to have a straight victim. You have to have a minority that has suffered. From Albania or some other country, you have to have a straight out victim. A victim with a confession. The victim has to confess that she has been victimized. So this is some kind of a commentary to all that you cannot, if you’re living in Eastern Europe, you cannot finance your film unless you’re dealing with a victim. Unless you’re manipulating the victim’s suffering, selling it.
Those words would have flowed seamlessly into Vukmir’s speech. I can’t claim to know very much about Eastern European cinema, so I don’t know how much validity there is to what Radivojević said, but there is no question that his beliefs found their way into A Serbian Film and especially in the character of Vukmir. And I could tell even before I had seen the talk or read up on the film any further. It was all too clear to me what that moment was meant to symbolize.
Blatant or not, the “newborn porn” scene is significant, both as something new and shocking in the history of cinema and as something of a justification for what director Srđan Spasojević and his team have created. There has been a lot of discussion in critical circles about the social significance of A Serbian Film, but I don’t think it’s something that most of us can speak legitimately about. Without any real knowledge of Serbia over the last twenty years (where writer Aleksandar Radivojević said the tension present in the film came from), I don’t feel right in condemning the film for its message and imagery, but I don’t feel right praising it either.
I can say, however, that I believe that everyone involved with A Serbian Film felt that it was meaningful and that they were a part of something meaningful. Radivojević said that the cast was made almost entirely of the filmmakers’s first choices. Srđan Todorović and Sergej Trifunović, who played Miloš and Vukmir respectively, are both very prolific Serbian actors. They didn’t need to take on those roles, especially since it was an independently funded, low-budget production, but they did anyway, and they were willing to see it through to the end. That dedication shows. The care and the craft that went into A Serbian Film‘s production is clear from beginning to end, which makes it all the more unpleasant to watch.
A Serbian Film’s true strength lies in the quality of its production and filmmaking. It is, in many ways, the antithesis to the infamous August Underground trilogy (something I expect will also get its due in this series). Whereas the August Underground films used terrible production values to create the illusion of a snuff film, A Serbian Film uses its top notch production values to create the reality of a snuff film. It’s not the work of a couple of crazy serial killers who just want to document what they do. It’s the work of an organization with a singular, horrible purpose.
Throughout the film, video cameras record the events that take place onscreen. Sometimes they’re on tripods, sometimes they’re handheld, but they’re constantly watching. This leads to a series of horrible moments in the second half of the film when Miloš finds some tapes that had documented the missing days. They start off relatively innocuous but quickly turn as Miloš watches his unconscious self get raped and then another character violently (and awfully) murdered. They are presented in much the same way that a found footage footage could be, but they have none of the trappings. The video quality is impeccable, and the footage leaves nothing to the imagination.
And that is true about the entire production. Nothing is left to the imagination. The most disgusting moments all occur at least partially onscreen, and everything about their presentation is excellent. The heavily electronic soundtrack verges on being annoying, but it keeps the tone of the film well, especially as the pace speeds up in the second half. The cinematography is fantastic and incredibly effective. Although it’s not apparent in the above images due to cropping, most of the film takes place with the action slightly off center. Blank, asymmetrical space creates a weird sort of tension and A Serbian Film uses it to great effect. There is clearly a lot of talent at work, which is why I was shocked to learn that this is director Srđan Spasojević’s first (and so far only) film.
Watching A Serbian Film a second time, I found it much easier to take in. It still disturbed me (especially the “family” scene near the end, which is when my jaw dropped the first time), but after the shock has worn off, I can look at it more passively. The cuts were primarily used to shorten existing scenes rather than excise them entirely, so I knew what was coming, and I was able to brace myself for it. I don’t think, though, that simply reading the plot summary on Wikipedia or IMDB will prepare you. I don’t think reading this will have prepared you. Even watching the trailer won’t prepare you.
What Srđan Spasojević and his team have accomplished is truly incredible. It has to be seen to be believed, but it’s not something you should see. I’m glad that A Serbian Film exists. The mere fact that it can exist says something fascinating about humanity, and the fact that it hasn’t received an uncut release in the US or in many parts of the world says something else. A Serbian Film is wholly unique, and it should be acknowledged as such.
Nonetheless, it should be avoided at all costs. Consider yourself warned.