How does one even begin to describe Nevinost Bez Zastite? It is a film that is utterly off-the-wall. It is at various times chronically funny, painfully poignant, quietly thought-provoking, and all manner of things in between. What is it about? Dear Lord, I really don’t know, but I’ll try to explain. It is, first and foremost, a film about another film of the same title, produced in 1942 under the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. I think almost all of the original film is reproduced within this film, but that older film was only about 45 minutes long anyway so its length is no issue. That older film was written, directed by and starring one Dragoljub Aleksic, a Serbian acrobat and strongman who performed some pretty daring feats back in his day, judging from the fact that half of his film features simply him performing his stunts. These stunts are woven into a melodramatic story about Aleksic’s love affair with an attractive young woman, whose evil stepmother wants to force her to marry a rich, creepy old man.
I say “woven into” but really, these stunts are just put randomly into the film in between scenes. And I say “story”, but what I really mean is “hat-stand for Aleksic’s ego”. The original Nevinost Bez Zastite is incredible. It is not quite on the level of The Room, but it’s easily in that ballpark. The camera struggles to keep the tops of actors’ heads in-frame in mid-shots. The action scenes seem to feature Aleksic, a man with pretty huge muscles, genuinely punching his co-stars in the face with no attempt to use special effects or editing so that it only looks like they’re getting battered. The performances around all this, it has to be said, are just the teensiest, tiniest, littlest bit wooden.
Out of this, Dusan Makavejev layers and constructs a completely different film. The film that Makavejev creates is, on some level, a movie documentary. There are interviews with the surviving cast, mostly Dragoljub Aleksic, and we learn about how the film was created, without the knowledge of Nazi officials, with little money, and with much resourcefulness. To add to this, we see old wartime footage of Serbia under Nazi occupation, mostly newsreels and propaganda films. These three strands of the film combine to create something entirely new and utterly brilliant. This then becomes not just a film about a film. It becomes a film that is created through the act of pushing three separate films together. It might be a film about a film about a film. Or something like that.
Makavejev’s primary skill as a filmmaker has always been his brilliance with a pair of scissors. The man is a masterful editor. The primary function of editing is to connect different strands of the story, or different images into one collective whole. A shot of a man talking is often followed by a shot of the man he is talking to. In our cinematic minds, this means the man is talking to the other man, but the nature of editing means the two men may have never met each other during filming. It is simply our brains processing the images that the editing has organised in a particular chronology. What Makavejev does in Nevinost Bez Zastite is he takes this basic function and extrapolates into a film wherein he interweaves not just separate images, but three separate films.
So what film comes out the other side? I saw a film about liberty under oppression, a film about fighting authority, about the line between truth and fiction, about the very act of filmmaking, about the very act of creating. Dragoljub Aleksic may be an awful filmmaker, but as an athlete and a showman, he is quite incredible. The contemporary footage of him, even at his advanced age in the 1960s shows a quite incredible human being. Despite apparently losing 4.5cm of height in a horrific accident during one of his shows and being unable to walk without crutches since, he is still able to perform some incredible stunts of balance and strength, such as bending an iron plate with his teeth and climbing atop a precarious pillar of objects to balance on a unicycle. It is somewhat difficult to believe he can do these things and still be unable to get around without crutches, and I suppose that may be the point Makavejev is trying to make – this is a quite incredible human being, full of bluster and charisma. You are never quite sure if Aleksic is telling the truth or simple selling you horseshit.
Trying to figure out what’s real and what’s staged is pointless; Nevinost Bez Zastite continually shows us how myths can be facts in the minds of some people, and facts can turn into myths for others. In some ways, it’s an allegory for state propaganda but it never even approaches the tone of a preachy anti-state film, rather this an anti-authority film – a film that simply screams at you to believe it one moment, then turns around and invites you to question whether any of it is true or not the next. This is truly one of the most refreshing, unique, fascinating, brilliant films I have yet to see, and in a career as laden with fascinating films as Dusan Makavejev’s, that’s no easy feat.