The Powder Keg

Cabaret Balkan and Black Cat, White Cat explode NATO's vision of Yugoslavia

Ah, Belgrade in August: Open-air markets glistening with the colors of harvest-time vegetables, the deserted Danube at Kalemegdan Fort smelling of fish and breeze, cafés full of men chain-smoking and guzzling beer at eight in the morning. Downtown is swamped with foot traffic--young, old, human, canine, strolling past vandalized American and British cultural centers. On Nemanjina Street, reams of old cable and pieces of concrete are woven into the curbside trees--remains of the two gaping orifices that are the bombed-out Yugoslav army headquarters, now said to be full of unexploded cluster bombs. In New Belgrade, across the river, the Chinese embassy has been split in two, like a model cross-section, and you see pieces of life--an intact blue sofa, a broken chandelier floating in piles of shattered glass. There is still a guard on duty, protecting who knows what.

This is postwar Belgrade, which I visited a few weeks ago. If you step outside and walk around, keeping your vision in soft focus, it's as if nothing ever happened. There are beggars, there are gold-chained Mafiosi; there are women in Prada shoes, and barefoot Gypsy orphans. The markets are full of food, and the 200,000 Serb refugees from Kosovo are well-ensconced in cities of the interior. People are living the same lives they've lived for the last ten years under Milosevic, only each year the situation has gotten markedly worse. Today most Serbs are unemployed (see headline: "NATO Bombs Car Factories and Petrochemical Plants"), but they'll almost always have money for a round of slivovitz for themselves and their buddies. My friend Sanja calls this deception joie de vivre. I call it resilience, while Goran Paskaljevic, the director of Cabaret Balkan, would call it denial.

Cabaret Balkan is the first Yugoslav film to open in the U.S. following the NATO air war, and it's a morbid pity that it wasn't released here six months sooner. (The film did screen in April at the Mpls./St. Paul Film Festival under its former title, The Powder Keg.) Paskaljevic, who is an articulate critic of Milosevic's regime and of Serbia's role in the recent Balkan wars, has the instinct of an animal and the optimism of a man dying of cancer. Cabaret Balkan is set in 1995, but it could well be set in the chaotic days preceding the bombs. In the fashion of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, the film is a series of interconnected vignettes that occur during a single, rainy winter night in Belgrade. We know we are in for something sinister when a kohl-eyed Cabaret emcee (Nikola Ristanovski), wearing a glittering boa, sniggers at the camera and announces: "Welcome. Tonight, I am going to fuck with you."

MC Mad Chaos: Nikola Ristanovski in Goran Paskaljevic's Cabaret Balkan
MC Mad Chaos: Nikola Ristanovski in Goran Paskaljevic's Cabaret Balkan

At the beginning of the night, a reckless teenage driver without a license crashes into the beloved beetle of a fortysomething man (Bogdan Diklic). Seething with rage, the man orders the teenager to get out of the car, which, after the boy's refusal, he proceeds to pound. The teenager escapes in an instant of diversion, but the man later appears at his apartment, buddy in tow, ready to kick his ass. After a round of homemade slivovitz is served by the boy's befuddled father (Bata Stojkovic), the unappeased victims-turned-executioners shatter everything of value in the sitting room, including a picture of the boy's deceased mother.

As the night goes on, the violence grows more senseless and agonizing. In one of the film's most brilliant sequences, two lifelong friends (Dragan Nikolic and Underground's Lazar Ristovski) meet at the gym for their regular boxing workout. Between punches and jabs, they begin exchanging confessions of brutal mutual betrayals--a poisoned dog, a sabotaged car, a stolen wife. As the punches grow more determined and aggressive, each man assures the other that he is the best friend he has ever had, and that he could never not forgive him. In good Serbian spirit, they even down a couple of beers between rounds, leaning against the ring and hugging each other. "To our health!" they toast each other giddily. (Toasting followed by bashing is one of Cabaret Balkan's more cynical motifs.) Later, in the dressing-room shower, the most searing confession of all is dropped into the overheated atmosphere. Fed up, the victim cracks a beer bottle and slashes his best friend to death.

But Paskaljevic's victims are never victims more than once. In fact, they morph into assailants or ambivalent bystanders before we've had the chance to feel empathy for them. As one violent episode bleeds into another, and the brutality quotient grows to a fever pitch, the viewer may find herself emotionally blindsided, like an autistic child dropped into the middle of a frat party. When I saw the film in Belgrade, a young girl of about seven laughed uncontrollably for the duration of a bone-chilling scene involving a bus hijacking. One may question her mother's judgment in bringing her to such a film, but in reality, the girl's reaction was not in the least at odds with Cabaret Balkan's schizoid content. By laughing at the violence in Cabaret Balkan, one seems to grope toward a common language with those who snort a line of coke, toast to their health, and proceed to lynch someone to death.

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