In his latest film Death in Sarajevo (Smrt u Sarajevu), Bosnian director Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land, 2002) , brilliantly confronts the “hysterical dualism” at play in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the context of its impending inclusion in the EU. This “hysterical dualism” identified by a Bosnian historian who is being interviewed in a film within the film, is most clearly expressed by the differing attitudes towards the figure of Gavrilo Princip who assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event considered the catalyst of the First World War: was/is Princip a “terrorist” or a “hero”?
Death in Sarajevo, loosely adapted from the play Hotel Europe by French writer Bernard-Henri Levy, in fact takes place on the centenary of Ferdinand’s death, and raises the prospect of approaching the same event in history through radically different narratives. By doing so, Tanovic invites the possibility that history in Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to be radicalised, forces behind the Balkan War of the 1990s in which the country suffered the worst casualties of all the nations of former Yugoslavia.
Set in a swish hotel in modern Sarajevo, where the likes of Angelina Jolie and Bill Clinton once stayed, as the weary hotel manager Omer (Izudin Bajrovic) informs us, Tanovic deftly uses the various spaces, to present us with an allegory of the various strata of Bosnian society, from the nightclub thugs in the basement, up to the French diplomat in the penthouse (perhaps suggesting the true influence that the EU exerts on Bosnia-Herzegovina). Above him, though, on the rooftop a Bosnian journalist, Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan), interviews a number of people for her television show, with modern Sarajevo looming large in the background, and I suspect an affinity for the role that film/television can play here, looking down from a bird’s-eye view at the big issues at play in society. Incidentally, the power of the image is alluded to at other points in the film, through the omniscience of security cameras within the hotel. It is also used as the final shot in the film.
What is striking about the way Tanovic treats each of his subjects – from the smooth-talking gangster in the basement (to whom he gives some of his funniest lines – about a worm living in shit), to Hatidza who has dedicated her last thirty years to working in the laundry, to her daughter Lamija (Snezana Vidovic) who has become a sassy head receptionist, to Lamija’s latest one-night stand, a new love-smitten sous-chef, to the wife-harried, coke-snorting security guard, to the desparate hotel manager, right up to a gun-toting Serb nationalist on the roof – is the depth of humanity he is able to infuse in each of them. Superb editing, sometimes pausing momentarily on a character as they stare wordlessly in deep thought, as if catching a private out-take, intercuts between the various characters, weaving them together into one seamless tapestry, that is a succession of narratives lived together, each unknowingly affecting the other. Long takes following one character, then surprisingly intercepting with the trajectory of another character, bears visual witness to this concept. You can’t help but get the feeling in Tanovic’s universal inclusivity, that in spite of all of his characters’ differences they are united by circumstance; by this shared, complex narrative web called History that has imprinted itself like a scar upon Sarajevo and all who live there.