Shadows on the Wall: Power, Politics and Propaganda in Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) and Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

    • Cover Photo
    • Presentation speakers
      • Evelyn Preuss, Yale University, USA


    A year before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, walls have multiplied. In Israel’s West Bank, Romania’s Baia Mare, Slovakia’s Ostrovany, the Czech Republic’s Usti-nad-Labem, Germany’s Celle, France’s Calais, Spain’s Melilla and United States’ South—to name just a few—physical markers point to a phenomenon that presents a paradoxical reversal to the 1989 paean of peaceful pangaean prosperity brought about the victors of the Cold War. Contrary to Western predictions, history refused to end. Reshuffling identities remap the northern hemisphere. Indeed, the proliferation of nationalisms, separatisms and even blatant racisms invite the specter which haunted the 1990s’ hymn of the ‘happily ever after’: Balkanization and the genocidal wars it unleashed next to the very cradle of Western civilization. From the bloodshed in the Balkans emerges a poignant critique of the identity politics that ripped one of the most successful countries of Eastern Europe apart with blunt brutality. Perhaps most prominent among the responses from the war-torn region are Emir Kusturica’s 1995 and 1998 films Underground: Once Upon a Time There Was a Country and Black Cat, White Cat. Filmed during the wars, Underground condenses the history of Yugoslavia, drawing a direct line from the German annexation in 1941 to the region’s bloody struggle to enter a German-dominated European Union. The Second World War, the Cold War and the Balkan Wars fuse into one, all fueled by the same propaganda machination and the same source of profit. Imprisoned by projections of self and Other, the protagonists paradoxically provide for their own disempowerment in an underground arms factory, a metaphor for Plato’s Cave. The dream-like surrealism of the film at once renders cinema as a return of the repressed on the ‘dream screen’ and problematizes the mechanics of dissimulation and displacement that underlies colonial identity construction, aligning the dominant medium of the 20th century with political manipulation. While Underground is primarily concerned with the apparatus that forms such impelling identifications of self and Other, Black Cat, White Cat analyzes—and subverts—their colonial impetus. Although Kusturica reiterates Western projections of the Balkans as Other, as Slavoj Zizek laments, he also recasts them. Seen as the most lacking and ‘un-European’ among Europe’s peoples and demonstratively precluded by the notorious ‘Roma walls’ from access to ‘Western’ freedom, democracy and consumerist affluence, the film’s Roma protagonists belong to the lowest of Europe’s ‘racial hierarchy.’ Kusturica reverses this projection of deficiency and, thus, the pecking order that legitimizes colonialist entitlement. His characters take their affairs into their own hands, bringing their story to a happy end; they fulfill themselves the consumerist promise by stockpiling—in the form of outmoded commodities—its failure, outdoing it with their own ingenuity and even subverting it with a better product; and, truly Europeans, they are at home on every part of the continent, accepting no walls. Along with his characters, Kusturica debunks the stratagem of lack and suture that legitimates by alleging the insufficiency of the Other that is them. As Pankaj Mishra sees colonialist identity politics boomeranging in the European wars of the last century and reads their resurgence along a trajectory leading to a fatal conclusion, Kusturica’s analysis of the shadows of Balkanization that the West casts on the wall of Otherness should invite reflection.