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While Edgar Allan Poe’s black cat cries its way out of a walled-in-tomb, the one quietly meowing while feeding its offspring at the beginning of Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić’s impressive war drama The Blacks (Crnci, 2009) remains in the centre of a trap. Quite literally—a typical offhanded reveal late in the film makes shockingly clear why and how the clothes making for a comfy cat’s nest are here—but also metaphorically. A model of tight, well-thought-out and immaculately executed construction, The Blacks conceives a situation from the Yugoslavian war as huis-clos: the self-destruction of a Croatian paramilitary death squad is laid out with force, intelligence, and clarity, in the form of a constricting spiral, at its centre an existential void. But you could also say there’s a mirror, whose merciless reflection triggers a deadly implosion upon self-recognition. Staring into the abyss, you realize that while you can continue your battles in the name of hate and revenge, you can never escape the enemy within. Uncompromisingly bleak, but deeply resonant in its spare, smart realization, The Blacks may be the finest feature from post-Yugoslavian Croatia, addressing its subject head-on, despite the assured-yet-uncomfortable cool, detached style. Tellingly, it is the cat that provokes the most spontaneous human gesture in the film. When one squad member kicks it, almost absent-mindedly, he is reprimanded sternly: “Don’t ever do that again!”
But doing things again is what The Blacks is all about: a snapshot from a last chapter in an increasingly suffocating cycle of violence, it devotes approximately the first third of its brief 75 minutes to a military mission that escalates fatally. This remarkably executed bit of Alan Clarke-like existential marching towards destruction might make for a great short in itself. As the credits right after the cat scene illustrate—the letters partially obscured by the black-and-white-silhouettes of a dense forest, as the camera arcs measuredly—this is also a movie about the shape of things and how they constitute a bigger meaning. Dević and Jurić employ a colour-drained palette, for the most part evoking an experiment like William Wellman’s astonishing art-western Track of the Cat (1954), a black-and-white film shot in colour. The black uniforms of the titular squad, a night drive, the shadowy dark of a nocturnal river—later they will stand in stark contrast to the light walls of the squad’s lair. But first there is the almost mythic image of a boat slowly crossing a misty lake, the sun low on the horizon, glowing faintly, but maliciously: like a painterly premonition of doom in a classical western or war film, but also inevitably evoking the ferryman of Hades, Charon. Around the film’s halfway mark, the squad will pay its price for following other members of their unit “of Croatian fascists who went where they shouldn’t go,” per the gleefully derisive announcement on enemy radio, which broadcasts a replay (due to many listener requests) of a recording of those soldiers who met their end in a minefield, capping it with a song called “It’s Been a Long Time Waiting for You.” Part of this resolutely minimalist film’s ingenuity is how the pieces of the background puzzle lock into place with absolute precision. The first third has actually already presented the whole situation, but in entirely physical terms: a walk through the woods is a mixture of confusion and headlong rushing, the exchanges of glances—less so, words—between squad members alternately conveying misdirection, fear, nervousness, and pushing forward while hanging on blindly to a purpose they no longer believe in. In particular the squad’s aging leader, whom everyone simply addresses as “boss,” presses on, calling for action so he can cling to old convictions rather than having to consider future consequences. His unsteadiness does not go unnoticed, however: when he stumbles, and others try to help him up, the best he can do is try to brush them off with a brusque “Let me go!”
But it’s too late to let go. After the inevitable catastrophe, Dević and Jurić flash back to the previous day. Shot by Branko Linta in long, precisely calibrated takes, and abetted by a congenial style of uniformly strong, clipped acting, the backstory is gradually unveiled. Dialogue is kept to a minimum: this is a superbly scripted piece, unpacking just the necessary amount of information with subdued, yet mean impact. Although it is never directly alluded to, The Blacks is ostensibly set during the Croatian war, more precisely, after the ceasefire in January 1992. Despite the announcement of the truce, the boss, having just lost a few members, prepares his squad to retrieve the bodies and blow up a dam, rather than follow the order to disband. Yet clearly, the sense of purpose is gone: Dević and Jurić explore a mental stalemate in skillfully alternating stasis with bursts of—mostly aimless—movement. The headquarters is sealed off from the outside: “No one ever comes here. Even by mistake.” In a pointed gesture, the boss even goes out to listen to the tape with the broadcast of the other squad member’s death on the car radio’s cassette deck. (“I smashed the player,” says the soldier who hands him the tape.) Inside, claustrophobia and a sense of threat reign supreme, with empty corridors, the proceedings often half-buried in shadows, occasionally accompanied by an ominous synthesized drone. Stuck with their inner demons, the soldiers engage in a series of unfinished and frustrated activities. One cooks up a heroin shot, only to throw the spoon away. Starting a quasi-recruiting dialogue, the boss makes an unusually obliging gesture and offers a cigarette, but doesn’t follow up by lighting it. During conversation it gets tucked away quietly into a soldier’s pockets in one of the film’s many casually, yet felicitously observed bits. Similarly, along the way, emphasis is put on the squad’s uniform emblem, as if that would help.
The bomb is dropped with a visit to “the garage.” Puddles of dried blood on the floor and spurts on the walls matter-of-factly convey more about the devastating “business” of the Blacks than any murder scene could: no excuses. The moment alludes to the so-called “Garage case,” in which Serb civilians were tortured and killed in Osijek in 1991, and for which successful Croatian right-wing politician Branimir Glavaš was tried and sentenced over one-and-half decades later (in the meantime, he fled into exile to Bosnia-Herzegovina). The political bent of The Blacks certainly fits with the previous documentary works of Dević (it’s his first feature; unfortunately I haven’t seen any of Jurić’s previous films). There are also stylistic continuities: I Have Nothing Nice to Say to You (2006) is a half-hour investigation into an unsolved crime during the war, its traces and unspoken remnants, and adroitly uses genre tropes to generate a sense of menace; Tri (2008), also half-an-hour long, follows three war veterans from opposing sides on their lonely drives to a therapeutic meeting, and lets them interact via economical montage; Happy Land (2009), a 50-minute-mindboggler, juxtaposes communists on their way to Tito’s birthplace with fascists on pilgrimage to Bleiburg in Carinthia, Austria, where in 1945 a massacre took place that has been co-opted by Croatian nationalists. Dević’s seemingly neutral, yet meaningful recount certainly points towards The Blacks, which stands as the towering achievement in a recent wave of films that break with the dominant self-perception of Croats as just being victims of the war. That it was passed over by the major festivals since it first turned up in the Berlin market in 2009 is kind of inexplicable, although by now it has made its way on the circuit, deservedly garnering prizes at many stops. At least it hasn’t shared the fate of the squad member in the film, who, before bringing on the final escalation, tries to justify himself with the sentence: “I wanted out!”—only to discover there is no exit.