Emir Kusturica establishes the freewheeling tone of Underground from its opening seconds, with the film roaring into life on the boisterous din of a brass band that doesn’t so much march through Belgrade’s streets as it sprints through them while blaring its music in an accelerated triple-time whirl. The band plays at the behest of Marko (Miki Manojlović), who celebrates his friend, Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), joining the communist party. The next morning, Nazis invade Yugoslavia, bombs falling on Belgrade as Marko has sex with a prostitute and Blacky eats breakfast, only acknowledging the German invasion through irritated mutterings, as if the Luftwaffe flying overhead were merely loud upstairs neighbors. A nearby zoo monitored by Marko’s brother, Ivan (Slavko Štimac), is destroyed, leaving most animals dead and Ivan sobbing as he catatonically cradles a young chimpanzee.
The manic intensity of this opening stretch prefigures a film that maintains its sense of sweeping, grandiose farce even as the action narrows around a basement hideout that Marko sets up in his grandfather’s house and uses to shelter family and friends from the Nazis. Yet this ostensible altruism turns to exploitation when the war comes to a close and Marko, seeing opportunities for financial gain and power over others, keeps his loved ones, including Blacky, in the literal dark, staging an illusion of a never-ending war and keeping them locked underground for their “safety.” Afer Josip Tito takes power, Marko establishes himself as a key figure in the communist government thanks to the number of weapons he can supply the regime—weapons built by the people in his basement who assume they’re crafting them for the resistance. As generations are born and come of age underground, the hideout gradually turns into its own kind of makeshift hamlet. It takes on the properties of a demented Plato’s cave, where the illusion of a still-existent Nazi occupation keeps people fervently hoping for the communist rule they have no idea is actually in place.
From the moment Underground played at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s been the subject of intense debate over whether or not it ignored Serbian atrocities during the Bosnian War and its attendant ethnic cleansing. And though the film does cover a time period leading all the way to the Bosnian crisis of the early 1990s, it doesn’t explicitly address the genocide that was then unfolding across the former Yugoslavia. Having said that, Kusturica paints a caustic portrait of his homeland in a constant state of flux, always subservient to whatever strongman happens to be in charge at the moment. Archival footage shows invading Nazis receiving a warm welcome in cities like Zagreb, while the iron-fisted rule of Tito hangs over the film’s middle section. Various characters embody the oscillating loyalties of the easily duped, none more visibly or comically than Marko’s lover, Natalija (Mirjana Joković), a two-bit actress who’s giving performances in German before the Nazis have even settled in Yugoslavia and responds to the murder of her Wehrmacht lover by instantly switching sides to Marko’s partisans. Marko himself represents the internal forces who exploit the constant political upheaval to their own material gain, further repressing his beleaguered countrymen.
The closest analog to Kusturica’s satire of the apocalyptic impact of war and its capacity for permanently altering a nation’s self-image might be Gravity’s Rainbow. Like Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Underground mingles slapstick, complex commentary of military-industrial destruction, and sexual frenzy bordering on the pathological. The targets of its satire are clear, yet those subjects so fascinatingly overlap that they form an insoluble morass that does more to capture the scope of a nation’s chaotic identity crisis than any objective work of nonfiction. Detractors argue that the film attributes Yugoslavia’s violent internal fracture to a history of foreign meddling, yet, if anything, Kusturica treats the influence of Nazis and Soviets as mere catalysts for unleashing the latent fury and self-immolation that had permanently scarred his homeland before the director had shot a single foot of film.
The earthy, green-yellow tones of Vilko Filač’s cinematography look vivid throughout Kino Lorber’s transfer, maximizing the hyperreal qualities of the film’s vision of Belgrade. The underground lair where citizens hide looks particularly jaundiced, its brownish tones conveying the stale, fetid air that everyone breathes. Details are occasionally soft, usually in close-ups, but colors are consistently rich. The intentional cacophony of the soundtrack, which mixes grating music with loud and overlapping dialogue, sounds appropriately dizzying in either the original 2.0 audio or a 5.1 surround mix. Both tracks ably capture the sheer din of the audio without any noticeable artifacts, keeping the noise as clear as reasonably possible.
The Blu-ray itself is a barebones affair, with only a trailer to accompany the main feature, but two DVD discs contain the complete TV cut of the film, alternately titled Once Upon a Time There Was a Country. This cut uses its additional two-and-a-half hours of running time to dig into the story's satire at a more leisurely pace, resulting in a fuller study of the characters and historical context compared to the theatrical version's more impressionistic feeling of madness. The DVDs also come with behind-the-scenes footage, as well as a 75-minute making-of documentary, "Shooting Days," that not only shows the intricacy of Emir Kusturica's technical achievement, but also the careful consideration beneath the filmmaker's seemingly freewheeling aesthetic, such as the way that recurring images act as anchors for the film and help to mark the passage of time. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by critic Giorgio Bertellini that digs further into the controversy that greeted Underground while also explicating the complexity of the film's themes.
Emir Kusturica’s overwhelming satire of Yugoslavia’s tortured history receives an excellent high-def release, which is bolstered by the inclusion of the film’s television version and an in-depth documentary.