If Anyone Can, Bata Can

Velimir Živojinović, better known by his nom de guerre “Bata,” was Yugoslavia’s single greatest war hero in World War II. Fighting with Tito’s Partisans, he was a crucial part of the resistance that overthrew Nazi occupation and led to the creation of socialist Yugoslavia, ushering in an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity in the region. He fermented and organized the underground resistance in Sarajevo. He played vital roles in both the battles of Sutjeska and Neretva, when the Yugoslav army was vastly outnumbered and surrounded by Axis forces. He helped birth the Yugoslav air force. There are no exact statistics, but it is believed that Bata has by far the highest confirmed kills of Nazis of any Partisannay, any fighter periodin World War II. He was, without a doubt, one of the central figures in the fight against fascism in the Balkans. At least, that’s what his films would have you believe. In reality, Bata was an actor.

Bata Živojinović was the emblem of the Partisan war genre, a particularly Yugoslav take on the epic Hollywood war cinema of the time, telling stories of the heroism and valour of Tito’s Partisans during World War II. Driven in part by Tito himself, a huge cinephile who apparently watched a film almost every day in his private projection room, Partisan war films aimed to commemorate the hard-won victories of World War II, giving full cinematic weight to the state’s legitimacy. As Yugoslavia rebuilt itself after the war, Tito explicitly tried to build a film industry of which the country could be proud, creating the huge Avala film studios in Belgrade, alongside the founding of film production centres throughout the various national capitals of Yugoslavia (Zagreb, Sarajevo, and so forth). In the ‘60s, international co-productions, particularly those from the U.S. and Italy, increasingly began using Yugoslavia for location shooting thanks to plentiful cheap labour and a large variety of landscapes available within a relatively small country. In the process, they imparted valuable filmmaking know-how to the Yugoslav crews they worked with, as well as considerable financial investment.

This helped create a huge boom in Yugoslav filmmaking at the time, and the Partisan war films that Tito so very loved began to balloon. The budgets for the biggest of these films easily matched any Hollywood productionthe most expensive, Battle of Neretva (1969), cost somewhere up to $12 million (around $80m, adjusted for inflation), an absurd amount given Yugoslavia’s relatively small size.

Mira Turajlić’s wonderful documentary Cinema Komunisto (2010), which tells the story of many of these films, relates how the production opted to rebuild and blow up the bridge over the river Neretva twice, in part because they didn’t get the exact shots they wanted, and also because they could. International stars such as Yul Brynner, Orson Welles, and Franco Nero turned up to cash in on a nice payday and a vacation. Richard Burton even had the good fortune to be handpicked to portray the great leader himself in Sutjeska (1973), in which Burton spends most of his time glowering into the middle distance.

My parents’ entire generation grew up with stories of Bata Živojinović, right there on our small town’s one-screen cinema. In this boom period, he was one of Yugoslavia’s most instantly recognizable film icons, perhaps the closest thing we ever had to a bona-fide action star in a country where most of our cinematic output has been smaller-budget drama or comedy. In the process of becoming the central onscreen figure of these Partisan films, Bata also came to personify what it meant to be a Yugoslav—or, perhaps more accurately, what the state wanted it to mean to be a Yugoslav. His repeat casting in these films produced an image of a kind of unified “Yugoslav” male, ideal for the state’s purpose.

He played significant roles in the aforementioned Battle of Neretva and Sutjeska, but though usually near the top of the bill, he rarely received particularly more screen time than anyone else; this was, after all, Communism in action! The two battles that these films depict hold much the same place in the public imagination as Dunkirk, D-Day, or Stalingrad does for the U.K., the U.S., and the Soviet Union, respectively, and both were huge successes domestically.

The Partisan war films were an attempt to give visual power to the stories which so many in Yugoslavia had heard time and time again, a way of solidifying (and mythologizing) the creation of the country in the service of a collective memory. They presented a vision of Yugoslavia as a unified country, where its many ethnicities, peoples, and languages all worked together under one roof for the greater good, even if in depicting such a world they often glossed over national differences in the service of a combined, generic Yugoslavism. “Brotherhood and Unity” was the defining slogan. They reinforced the state’s intended image as the sole legitimate force in the region, the unifying source of authority by virtue of its heroic resistance against the Nazis, with the great comrade Marshal Josip Broz Tito at the head. The ideological purpose was simple but effective.

Bata’s appeal as an action star within these films is different compared to his parallels in the West. He wasn’t a grizzled anti-hero in the Clint Eastwood/Lee Marvin vein, nor was he handsome enough to be a Richard Burton-style leading man. As an archetype, he mostly embodied the common man, but here too, he was in no way similar to the “Bruce Willis-in-a-vest vs. the world” common man so prevalent to American cinema. Though a good actor with a strong theatrical background, Bata didn’t have the rakish charisma of the other great male icon of his era, Dragan Nikolić, nor the versatility of some of his peers, like the inimitable character actor Pavle Vuisić. He was slightly taller than average, and slightly more handsome than average, but not an exquisite physical specimen. His accent was Serbian—the most widely-spoken language in Yugoslavia is Serbo-Croatian, which nationalists have since decreed consists of two or three or four separate languages (they are lying)—but his Serbian is generic, not tied to a specific region of Serbia. It’s not the high-speed blast of Belgraders, nor the slack-jawed slowness of the northern region of Vojvodina (my home region), or the scrunched-up parochial flow of the southern regions, all of which would have carried with them certain connotations of class and background that would have distracted from his personification of generic Yugoslavism.

Bata is not an imposing screen presence; he always appears at ease with himself, as if he doesn’t want to steal the scene or draw too much attention, shifting back into the screen even when the camera focuses on him. Bata seemed to subsume himself into the wider scope of the film, a star who rarely ever shone brightly. In a filmmaking environment where the prevailing ideological authority privileged collective endeavour onscreen ahead of rugged individualism, these qualities were perfect. Bata became such an obvious, blatant go-to for the Partisan war films, mowing down battalion after battalion of Nazis time and time again, that he would come to lament his typecasting as Nazi-killer extraordinaire.

At the time, his position as poster boy for Tito’s prescribed vision of Yugoslavia must have seemed kitschy. No doubt Bata was popular, especially amongst the masses, but my father remembers that he was largely scoffed at by intellectuals and critics as a shiny icon for Tito to promote and tell everyone a cute bedtime story. Maybe his typecasting in these films did produce something akin to this perception. Looking at them now, his films reflect history twice over: history as we saw it then, and history as we see it now.

Yugoslavia is now purely a memory, a country that exists largely through the ephemeral experience of its cultural artifacts, changing with the perception of each individual who lived there and those, like me, who are too young to remember it but hold it dearly in our hearts. So it goes with the image of Bata Živojinović, fading like a film print does over time, vulnerable to changes in the elements until restored or digitised for posterity.

One can see this in how he was cast throughout his career. Though he was a poster boy for pan-Yugoslavism as a national identity in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, that all changed in the ‘90s when war came. Suddenly, resurgent ethnically-based national identities made these Partisan war films look like pure propaganda. One of Slobodan Milošević’s nastiest tricks in the process of turning Serbia into his own personal mafia-controlled fiefdom was to force the Yugoslav National Armya dogmatically Marxist institution whose top branches were diehard Yugoslavs prepared to defend Yugoslavia to the bitter endinto a position where being pro-Yugoslav also meant, in effect, being pro-Serb: Yugoslavism became Serboslavism. This explanation is, admittedly, a little simplistic, but to detail the political maneuvering here would make House of Cards seem mild in comparison; even Bata made the mistake of standing for Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia in the first free elections in 1990, and a whole generation allowed themselves to be manipulated in this way.

In the ‘90s, we find Bata Živojinović still playing Yugoslav soldiers, most notably in Pretty Village, Pretty Flames (1996). Here, he is cast as an embittered, aging Yugoslav army commandant clinging to his love for Tito and charging senselessly into the war against Bosnian independence even though it means fighting on behalf of Serbian ultranationalists. The film remains perhaps the most cutting and pointed onscreen analysis of ‘90s-era Serbian nationalism, and director Srdjan Dragojević expertly positions Bata’s character to show just how twisted and futile the notion of Yugoslavism had become within the ugliness of that decade. It’s not a Partisan war film by any stretch; much of the film takes place in a dark cave where our protagonists, a cross-section of Serbs fighting in Bosnia, are trapped bickering and fighting with each other whilst outside the enemy, a Bosnian Muslim squadron, awaits. It’s as much a bitter riposte to the fabled vision of Yugoslavia proposed by The Battle of Neretva and Sutjeska as it an exposé of the poisoned chalice of nationalist ideology.

But the notion of Yugoslavia is constantly changing, even as the country is long gone. Once-dead ideas become rejuvenated. Viewed today, when Balkan politics is rife with amorality, the simple good-vs-evil nature of Bata’s Partisan war films appear more idealistic and hopeful than ever. It’s as if these films are suddenly pointing to a hypothetical future where people can be as one and the horrendous forces of fascism are well and truly defeated. Today, the Prime-Minister-turned-President in Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, regularly wins his elections through cheating, whilst gladly razing down Belgrade’s organic creative hubs in favour of huge gentrification projects funded by Emirati oil money. Meanwhile, Macedonia is in the middle of an extensive period of governmental limbo. Bosnia is, well, a fucking mess, and the current Croatian government has been quite content to appoint fascists and neo-Nazis to cabinet positions. In the midst of all this, you also get inane bullshit like Putin gifting a train decorated with Orthodox symbols and the words “Kosovo is Serbia” in 20 different languages to re-open the line from Belgrade to Mitrovica in Kosovo, an act of blatant provocation designed purely to offend Albanians.

If Bata Živojinović films in the ‘90s represented the dying gasps of a broken ideology, of Tito’s failed project, the changes (or lack thereof) in Balkan politics since then ensure that we’re now looking to Bata Živojinović once again as an emblem of happier, simpler times. Of course, it’s dangerous to re-imagine Yugoslavia as a shining happy country, even though Tito would have loved for it to be thought of that way. The fact remains that most of us are not in any way better off: a recent poll found that only a majority of Croatians and Kosovans think the break-up of Yugoslavia benefited them, with everyone else within the old borders firmly regarding it as harmful. Bata’s films still come across as powerful totems of Yugoslavism; they might not be masterpieces of nuance, subtlety or complexity, but they are proud and powerful, monolithic and impressive.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bata’s most iconic role in Walter Defends Sarajevo (1972). Though not particularly well known in the West, it’s an immensely popular film both domestically and in China (which was a big export market for Partisan war films), to the extent that the titular character, played by Bata, has his name on a Chinese beer brand. Walter Defends Sarajevo is a much smaller-budgeted film, lacking the thousands of extras of Sutjeska and its peers, but in terms of cultural impact, no other film is as pure an evocation of Tito’s Yugoslavism.

It tells the story of resistance fighters in the Bosnian capital, led by Walter, and their attempts to sabotage a delivery of fuel that’s due to pass by the city, whilst the Nazis reactively are trying to crush him and his resistance by planting their own false “Walter” into resistance circles (Walter’s trick to success is that few actually know what he looks like). Whenever capture runs close for Walter or other resistance members, as it does throughout the film, the entirety of Sarajevo instinctively closes ranks around him, shielding him from capture.

As an action film, it’s full of goofs: Henchmen flying dramatically when shot, plenty of dumb planning by the villains, and some cheap-looking sets. Yet, one only has to start humming the iconic theme music or quote the instantly recognizable ending to get Yugonostalgics like me all teary-eyed. Unlike the didacticism of the bigger-budgeted Partisan films, Walter Defends Sarajevo prefers to let its action do the talking, with only the film’s ending spelling things out for the audience; as the failed German commandant tasked with capturing and killing Walter looks out across the city and says to the Gestapo officer escorting him away: “I have finally found Walter. You see this city? That is Walter!”

Sarajevo was once one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. The siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces on the majority Bosnian Muslim population has sadly seriously damaged the city’s demographic makeup, but for a long time the city’s various populations lived together, spread out on top of one another. Unlike in even the most multicultural Western cities where specific ethnic groups tend to become ghettoized through economic or social circumstance, Sarajevo’s ethnic groupsBosnian Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews, and whoever elsetraditionally never had specific neighborhoods, living instead literally cheek to jowl, on top of one another.

This is the version of Sarajevo that Walter defends. This version of Sarajevo is itself fading into memory, and it now looks like a Yugoslav dream. This version of Sarajevo understands itself and its citizens, it understands that their ethnicity is a footnote in their daily lives. Sarajevo holds a unique place in Yugoslav cinema because its skyline is recognizable in a way that Belgrade’s or Zagreb’s never will be. The city is as much a leading character in its films as its protagonists, but it hasn’t suffered the same misfortune of cinematic oversaturation as New York, London, or Paris. This Sarajevo—with its compact sprawl cuddling in the steep hills surrounding it, the morning fog sticking to the city’s belly, the thin sliver of the Miljačka river slicing across—is the Sarajevo I so often find in the cinema of Yugoslavia.

It’s not necessarily a happy Sarajevo, but it’s a Yugoslav Sarajevo. This is the Sarajevo I find in watching Bata play Walter. He does not impose himself on the film, instead letting the city do the acting. He slides by like a ghost, turning up where the plot requires him to be, but it is the makeup of the city, with its narrowing, steep streets, and winding layers of every kind of building, that provides him with the ability to move about freely. The city and Walter have a symbiotic relationship; one cannot survive without the other’s assistance. This is the Sarajevo that those of us who are too young to remember want to remember. 

I’ve never been inside that little cinema back home where my parents used to watch Bata’s films. For as long as I can remember, the space where it lived, the opposite side of the courtyard from the apartment where my mother grew up, has been an empty husk of aging concrete filled with stale pools of water. Returning home during the summers, my friends and I would sometimes sneak into this empty space to play. Or at least, that’s what I remember us doing. Much like Yugoslavia itself, this cinema is a space I am not old enough to remember, but one which I have reconstructed over time, through the films, music, and stories imposed upon me; through the history books feverishly devoured; through the sorrow, anger, and eventual numbness I feel when I see how it all ended.

Velimir “Bata” Živojinović died in 2016 at the ripe old age of 82, another emblem of Yugoslavia gone. Although his films are far from perfect in their conception and execution, we can hold on to what they stood for. We can look at the Yugoslavia portrayed on film, and what remains of Yugoslavia today, and we can ask, “What happened?” We can hold Bata in our imagination, the imagination that says even if Yugoslavia is gone, we can still adhere to the principles of Brotherhood and Unity; to the rallying cry of Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People; to a life lived according to the theory that the many are stronger than the few; to the idea, the simple, bog-standard, no-nonsense idea that so many still have trouble understanding: that your ethnicity, your class, your background, doesn’t and shouldn’t define you.