The film is a collage of different materials, mainly documentary footage from the US, and fictional events taking place in Belgrade, Serbia. The ‘American’ section also contains various materials: interviews that attempt to shed light on the life and the theories on the relation between sex and politics espoused by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, reflections by the transvestite Jackie Curtis, and various other pieces of footage. The ‘Yugoslav’ story depicts events surrounding a love affair between Milena, a Yugoslav communist activist and Soviet art ice skater Vladimir Ilyich, which ends with Milena’s brutal death. Without attempting to coherently link these varied events, the movie strives to lead viewers towards abstract conclusions about hidden links between sex and politics.
Sex is fun, and sex is funny. This is certainly one of the basic premises of WR: Mysteries of the Organism.1 Wilhelm Reich, German psychoanalyst, Freud’s apprentice, who died in a US penitentiary in Louisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1957, would in all probability agree with the first part of this statement, although not with the second. This is the main difference between Makavejev and Reich. Much criticism of Makavejev’s movie stems from this distinction, for many took the director’s amusement and amazement with the topic of sex as his misinterpretation of Reich’s work.2 Reich took sex very seriously, and built his career trying to connect sexual energy with political and historical issues, which is what Makavejev attempted to do, tongue-in-cheek.
The film consists of two main intertwined parts. One is a documentary about Reich’s work and testimony of the people who knew him, as well as about topics connected with sexuality in the United States, at the time the movie was made (1968– 1971). The other is a feature made in Yugoslavia at the same time, which describes events surrounding the main character, Milena, her political activity, and her love affair with the People’s Artist from the Soviet Union, ice skater Vladimir Ilyich. Interspersed is archival footage from various sources, documentary as well as fictional events, songs, poems, music. This structure has often led critics to describe this and other of Makavejev’s films as works deploying the technique of collage.
Reich, convinced that personal freedom is a precondition for social revolution, worked in Germany during the 1930s where he initiated the movement Sexpol connected with the Communist party, with the aim of reaching young people. He was quite influential, but a few months before Hitler came to power, the conservatives in the Communist party, in line with Moscow, took a traditionalist line regarding sexuality, and Reich was expelled from the party as well as from the German psychoanalytic society. Reich persisted and claimed that the fight against fascism could not be led on a ‘strictly rational level of political analysis’, that it was futile.3 He fled Germany when the Nazis came to power and settled in the United States, where he claimed to have discovered ‘orgon energy’, which connects matter, body, and mind. He developed ‘orgon boxes’ to collect this energy from the atmosphere, and sold them across the US. Officially, this is what brought him in conflict with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), which ultimately ended with his imprisonment, and two years later, his death.
In his documentary footage, Makavejev approaches Reich very cautiously. Although excited by Reich’s work, as an experienced documentary filmmaker (from 1958–1964 he made 13 documentaries), he circles around the centre of his investigation, shedding light from various directions. Makavejev is a passionate, but irreverent follower, which can be irritable. Nevertheless, he can hardly be called disrespectful or misleading. We never really know what he thinks of orgon boxes and the somewhat fanciful theories of Reich’s. But his belief in the importance of Reich’s effort in general cannot be doubted. Makavejev does not have ready answers, but assumes that the topic of sexuality is worthy of elaborate investigation, which this film represents. If it can be claimed that Makavejev’s Love Affair: The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) is ‘one of the best movies Godard has ever made’, as Lopate and Zavatsky say, WR is certainly one of the most intriguing film essays on politics, which is what Godard saw himself doing in his politically committed movies.4 But Jean-Luc Godard, who is of crucial importance for Makavejev’s work, rarely has patience to so carefully, consistently probe one topic as Makavejev does in WR. Rather than working from adopted premises, and then interpreting reality according to them, Makavejev investigates the basis of his research that is Reich’s ideas themselves. It is hard to agree or not agree with him, when there is very little that we can take as definite conclusions in this film. However, Makavejev is more pronounced on certain matters than on others. For example, it is evident what he thinks of Stalinism. Footage from Chiaureli’s features glorifying Stalin is readily juxtaposed with pictures of psychiatric patients being maltreated; one even repeatedly bangs his head against the doorframe. On another occasion, Stalin is compared with an erected plastic penis, which Nancy Godfrey makes from a live model, or ‘Lily Marleen’ is played against inserts from Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin. The whole of WR is a montage of various pieces of footage that comes from seemingly very disparate sources. This allows for associations that quickly arise, and sometimes even faster disappear, which makes it difficult to pinpoint their connections and draw conclusions. However, on Stalin they are crystal clear.
In addition, the contemporary communist regime in the Soviet Union, through the character of Vladimir Ilyich, is represented in very unfavourable light. He is vein, arrogant, and intolerant. He preaches the doctrine of realist socialism, glorifies the Soviet Union not only in relation to the West, but also in the context of the system of socialist self-management, which existed at the time in Yugoslavia, and which his hosts in Belgrade represent. Here we come to see the global disposition established by Makavejev concerning the contemporary political and psychoanalytic stage. On one side are the West, Reich’s disciples, New York, Jackie Curtis, Tuli Kupferberg, anti-communist hysteria, and the Vietnam War. On the other is Vladimir Ilyich, the Soviet Union, while in between lies Yugoslavia with the chaotic private and public lives of its heroes. China is only briefly, but significantly present. This description is, surprisingly, very close to how Tito and his entourage saw themselves and the world at the time the movie was made.5 They criticised the West, of course, trying to keep the equidistance from the Soviet Union that had just invaded Czechoslovakia. The Soviet system of state control over the economy, art, and political life was seen as contrary to the liberating potentials, which socialism as a superior political system should bring to the people. On the other side, at least in theory, the system of socialist self-management, developed in Yugoslavia, should allow social life not subjected to the demands of the all mighty centralised state, as was the case in the Eastern bloc. This experiment, which often was not more than a litany of good wishes, did not survive, and it disappeared from the world stage at the same time as the Berlin wall fell and as communist regimes of Eastern Europe tumbled one after the other. We cannot say that Makavejev spoke for the system; in WR he readily mocked even the holy cows, Tito, the Communist party, and the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), but with all its limits he saw it much more conducive to implementing Reich’s ideas of a liberated society than the communism of Eastern Europe.6
It has been well noted that humour in WR possesses somewhat crude, vulgar, peasant features.7 This we can connect to the uninhibited, ‘uncivilised’ character of Serbian peasantry, whose more than Rabelais-esque relationship to sexuality is visible in its long-suppressed verses of folk poetry.8 This is most visible in the rapport between Jagoda and Ljuba, and in their dialogues, which are difficult to translate into English. Milena, by contrast, is a well-developed, exceptional character. She is an apprentice in a beauty parlour, and has finished a Party course, which made her aware of the pitiful state of the working class. Dressed in a short sleeping shirt and Ljuba’s military jacket, army cap with the red star on her head, boots on her legs, she preaches to the dissatisfied, hostile crowd of workers and citizens in one of Belgrade’s old-fashioned apartment buildings. She is ecstatic about the need for sexual liberation that will complement worker’s self-management. But Milena herself falls in love with Vladimir Ilyich in a completely traditional way. She is impressed with his art, his looks, and his imperial demeanour. He does not respond, and she throws herself at him. He finally takes action, but he cannot stand making love, just like he cannot listen to music – it is too emotional for him. He decapitates her with his skating boot, and the film finishes with him stumbling along the banks of a river with his bloody hands outstretched, singing the song of Bulat Okudzhava. The words of this poem may be confusing, but it seems that they are a fitting end for what Makavejev wanted to say. In the end, human desires, wishes, hopes, aspirations are so complex, diverse, and often obscure, that all that helps is a prayer to God for some happiness and good luck in life.
As the film develops, the rhythm of cutting quickens, getting more complex. The choice of music plays a very important role. Makavejev (or his wife, who did it) is very inventive in this regard. His use of lively Balkan folk music well complements various scenes of WR. We move from one type of footage to another, while cuts are often motivated by a movement, or a sound, often shrieks. Various footage contributes to the rich field of associations. For example, what is the connection between Radmilovic´ and Kupferberg, except for the crouched position of their bodies as they move? Or, what do the cries caused by electro-shock psychiatric treatment have in common with the cries produced at the mass therapeutic session of one of Reich’s followers? These are not precisely formulated propositions, but allusions, inklings, the beginnings of thoughts the viewer is invited to further develop (or not). The medium of film with its rich arsenal offers here an idiosyncratic opportunity to do so. Also, this is what makes WR more than just an apt compendium of the problems and issues that the world faced during the 1960s.
1. WR here stands for Wilhelm Reich, but also for World Revolution.
2. The American theatre release version begins with the inserted designation: ‘This film is, in part, a personal response to the life and teachings of Dr Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957)’. This was added to allay the fierce criticism of some of Reich’s followers from New York who claimed that the movie severely distorted Reich’s ideas.
3. See James Roy MacBean, ‘Sex and Politics: Wilhelm Reich, World Revolution and Makavejev’s WR’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring 1972, p. 3.
4. This didn’t stop the regime from practically, although not officially, banning the movie as soon as it was finished. It was shown in Yugoslavia for the first time in 1986.
5. Josip Broz Tito was a communist dictator of Yugoslavia from 1945–1980. He broke relations with Stalin in 1948 to set up a system of socialist self-management, and was one of the founders of the non-aligned movement of states, which tried to keep equidistance from the West and the East during the Cold War.
6. See Dušan Makavejev and Wilhelm Reich, WR: Mysteries of the Organism: A Cinematic Testament to the Life and Teachings of Wilhelm Reich, New York, Avon Books, 1972. The book contains Phillip Lopate and Bill Zavatsky, ‘An Interview with Dušan Makavejev’.
7. See Lorraine Mortimer, Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
8. Vuk Stefanovic´ Karadžic´, a Serbian language reformer from the nineteenth century collected these songs, but they were published in Serbia as late as 1979. English translation: Vuk Stefanovic´ Karadžic´, Red Knight: Serbian Women’s Songs, edited and translated by Daniel Weissbort and Tomislav Longinovic´, London, Menard Press / King’s College London, 1992.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Yugoslavia, Germany. Production Company: Neoplanta Film, Novi Sad and Telepool, Munich. Director: Dušan Makavejev. Producer: Svetozar Udovicˇki. Screenwriter: Dušan Makavejev. Cinematographers: Aleksandar Petrovic´ and Pega Popovic´. Music arranged by: Bojana Marijan. Editor: Ivanka Vukasovic´. Cast: Milena Dravic´ (Milena), Jagoda Kaloper (Jagoda), Ivica Vidovic´ (Vladimir Ilyich), Zoran Radmilovic´ (Radmilovic´), Miodrag Andric´ (Soldier Ljuba), Tuli Kupferberg, Jackie Curtis, Živka Matic´, etc.]
Raymond Durgnat, WR – Mysteries of the Organism, London, British Film Institute, 1999.
Daniel J. Goulding, Five Filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Forman, Polanski, Szabó, Makavejev, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994.
Kurt Jacobsen, ‘Interview with Dušan Makavejev’, Left Curve, Vol. 19, 1995.
David W. Paul (ed.), Politics, Art and Commitment in the East European Cinema, London, Macmillan, 1983.
Nevenka Stankovic´, ‘The Cities of Play and Disclosure: WR: Mysteries of the Organism’, Third Text, Vol. 19, No. 4, July 2005, pp. 385–98.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.