Cinema Concrete: Dane Komljen’s All the Cities of the North 

By Robert Koehler 

There are several ways to measure the greatness of Dane Komljen’s first feature work, All the Cities of the North, and one of them is simply asking people who’ve just seen it if they can compare it to anything else. I’ve played this little game with viewers, many asked randomly, after festival screenings. So far, the best try came from an Argentine friend who tried to link it with Sokurov, but then, after about a minute, gave up and said, “No, not even Sokurov.” As cinema viewers and as humans, we’re wired to compare one thing against another, and when a work of art defies this natural process, the responses can be interesting. I’ve heard the extremes of utter hatred and mad passion for All the Cities of the North, and it follows from a movie that scouts out previously unexplored territory in the land known as “open cinema.”

As a radical innovation in open cinema, Komljen’s film announces itself quietly. Two men, first seen sleeping together, quietly go about various domestic chores, albeit without the usual kitchen sink—or any kind of kitchen at all. Soon, though, a rhythm sets in, a steady progression of wordless observances that sit equally between the states of examination and reverie, a fecundity of sensory layers supplanting the need for spoken onscreen dialogue, and a detectable movement forward through time and space even as the two male bodies are settling in for a long stay in what appears to be an abandoned warren of concrete buildings tilting toward the state of ruin.

New states of drama replace old states of drama. The old-state, old version of All the Cities of the North would have the older one of the pair (played by veteran Bosnian actor Boris Isakovic, who starred in Vladimir Perisic’s 2009 film Ordinary People) running into increasing conflicts with the younger one (played by non-professional actor Boban Kaludjer). Age, needs, any number of possible character flaws, backstories, and psychological complications would rise and roil this unit, and with the arrival of a third man (played by Komljen himself), the impending rifts would burst into the open for an emotional final act.

As he explains, Komljen was camping and hiking in the southern Montenegro coastal area near the Albanian border when he stumbled upon the decaying remains of the Grand Hotel Lido—an absurdly incongruous name for the forlorn, abandoned complex, surrounded by woods, grassland, marshes, and a river—in a fishing village outside of the city of Ulcinj. The project that formed in his mind was to imagine characters reoccupying an abandoned slice of Yugoslavian architectural utopia, forging a day-to-day life in a place that time had left behind: the old being reoccupied by something new.

The form and expression of the movie is a precise match of this physical project, so that the imprint of the older, utopian, Tito-era cinema, the resplendent excesses, say, of Dusan Makaveyev, aren’t traceable; in its place is something far more interesting and indefinable, an approach to images and sound that takes us much closer to a poetics than anything before seen in Balkan cinema—and possibly anywhere else. The particularly pointed focus on two men, then joined by a third, has to be viewed as well within the context of Balkan movie storytelling, with its prevalent and longstanding machismo. As if to underline and also mock this point, the men even wrestle (and Komljen is seen filming them, making it a kind of arthouse Wrestlemania), but like everything else they do it isn’t to stake out territory, to dominate, or to conquer. In Komljen’s own private Yugoslavia (the country he was born into, before it fell apart), men live to share and coexist in a state of something close to what socialist intellectuals would call mutual aid.

Seen in the context of Komljen’s six previous shorts, All the Cities of the North’s astounding leap forward in open cinema no longer seems to be a bolt out of the blue. Starting with the recognizably narrative I Already am Everything I Want to Have (2010), about a brother and sister facing a critical moment in their lives, Komljen’s films drift away from story and cause-and-effect sequencing toward an in-between sensibility, one blending elements of fiction and nonfiction and evincing a dedication to what might be called poetic awareness: that what we are seeing in this moment is the thing that counts, leaving behind what precedes or follows. Put another way, a viewing of Komljen’s films in the order they were made over a seven-year period reveals a steady development of replacing characters with bodies, and the admission of the idea of utopia as expressed through architecture.

Concrete walls, floors, and ceilings grow larger and more expressive with each film, including Bodily Function (2012), Tiny Bird (2013), A Surplus of Wind (2014), and Our Body (2015), and so too does a feeling of lost utopia, until, in the short he made just before All the Cities of the North with James Lattimer, titled All Still Orbit (2016), the architectural dream of Brasilia is depicted as the subject of a social tragedy in which the dream city’s construction labour force were condemned to horribly substandard living conditions. In the feature, Brasilia is noted again, but in the context of an account (told in voiceover and still images) of the grand Lagos International Trade Fair Convention Center, designed and built by Yugoslavia’s now-defunct Energoprojekt. In this case, the original utopian dream fizzles, but is unexpectedly reoccupied by local people. The modernist cities and urban centres built after World War II in the former Yugoslavia’s northern region—the cities of the north—still beckon like a promise for the two men, perhaps especially in their extended moments of sleeping. It could be a sleep that revives new dreams.

Cinema Scope: How did you conceive of All the Cities of the North? How much of it was written, and how much of it was discovered during shooting, and then during editing? It seems that it’s a film that finds its forms during the various phases of its making.

Dane Komljen: The film began when I encountered this abandoned hotel bungalow complex on the Montenegro coast near Albania. I was camping with a friend by the seaside and we were walking around and stumbled across these white cubes. Then we saw traces of people who were living and sleeping there, with blankets, sleeping bags, pots, bowls, and we thought we could pitch our tent there. We started to think what it would be like to live there. I thought of the colonization of that place. I started to think about it seriously a year after this. Somehow I returned to those bungalows in my mind, and began to fill them with my own fiction. When I started to write, from the beginning it was clear to me that I wanted to have these two men, these two figures together. I couldn’t see their relationship right away. One actor is an amateur, a firefighter from my hometown of Banja Luka, Boban Kaludjer. The other is a quite famous Serbian actor, Boris Isakovic. I just knew that I wanted to work with them. I proposed that we write the script together, but that was resisted. Then I realized that I shouldn’t force something, so I decided that I would write a more stable narrative that would be something we could fall back on if other more improvisatory scenes and elements didn’t work. I think that actually the film doesn’t reflect the script. The mood and atmosphere are described in the script, and then there are many things that were improvised and made up during the shooting. I can’t really say that it was 50% written and 50% not, but what’s for sure is that I encouraged us to invent and improvise in the moment and on the day of shooting. We might spend half the day on the written script, which was about 25 pages total, and then try stuff that would be proposed by the group. In the end, this work was a communal effort of the film crew on the set.

For the editing, we had shot so much footage and I think that’s where the film found itself. I was looking at these two guys for so long a time, and I didn’t want to get tied into what I originally wanted to do.

Scope: There’s a sense that the film changes when you, as the third character, enter the compound. Although it retains images and the rhythm of the first 30 minutes, things shift slightly when this third figure enters. Was that conceived from the beginning, or did that happen during the filming? After you arrive, we see your presence behind the camera.

Komljen: I’m trying to remember now as you ask me what was written and what happened during the shooting, and it’s hard to recall actually. I should know the difference! What was clear from the start, including the writing, was that this third man would appear, but to be quite honest I can’t remember at which point this intention became firm. That’s because there had been so many versions that I worked over. At one point, I thought I could make two completely different films with the same group of people, in which neither would share a single image. I also knew that my entrance would also introduce this core of the “making-of” element that slips into the film itself. The shooting was chronological, so we shot with just two men for the first week. Then I entered the space as a character, and I really felt as I was watching the footage that somehow the space and the framings became different, along with the relations. Somehow everyone became not just more relaxed, but, well, it can happen during the time of shooting: as you film a face, you don’t want to leave it, you want to discover more. And then, the way that you view the person or place, something can change. It also happened because we were isolated from normal, everyday life, and we were all together, over three to four weeks. You can see the dynamics develop during that period. And that somehow got into the film even if it really wasn’t thought of before that. I can’t even point to the moment when this shift happened. Somehow, when I think about the film, it’s one single movement and there’s change, but it can’t be said to transform totally into something else. When I was watching it, there’s this tension that’s constant, I would say, and then it changes. I feel like I’m becoming philosophical!

Scope: You describe it in the way that it works on the viewer’s mind while watching the film. Once you’re done, you can’t quite point at the moments when the changes happen in the film, but you know that they’ve happened. Those become important, because often very little happens, and then there are moments when big things happen, such as passages of sleeping and napping, and then sections full of activity and work. There’s actually a lot of physical action that may not impress much itself on a first viewing, from painting a white chair red to setting up a bonfire, to rowing a boat, to chopping down a tree, to climbing up a giant hill.

Komljen: Yeah, it’s true. The physicality became incredibly important after a while. That giant hill is actually salt. After coming across the hotel bungalows the first time, I returned to them in order to be in that space and figure out what we could do and what was possible. During those repeat visits, I found this enormous salt factory, which is barely functioning today. The story there is similar to the bungalows in the way it was privatized and then gradually fell apart. This is the kind of thing you see all over the former Yugoslavia. The thing is that they formally exist, but don’t really produce much salt at all. So you end up with this giant pile of salt in this hangar.

Scope: What’s interesting in these scenes of activity is that we see, in the final film, many traces of those activities, but we can also imagine the longer version of the activity that was cut from the final version that we’re watching. It becomes easy to picture the dozens of hours of footage that you removed. We’re also reminded of this because we see you filming. We’re thus reminded of the 150-hour film that you had shot.

Komljen: I wanted to have many lived-in actions by these men, and they tend to be really physical. It’s hard to describe what it is that makes these activities not just believable, but just there. You know they are there. Maybe it comes from my experience as a viewer. When I see something performed on screen, it doesn’t have to be so much real, but it has to be there in the image. For example, for the first two days, it was really hard for Boris Isakovic. He needed to understand why he was doing something. Like, why we do have to perform the whole thing, the whole chopping down of a tree, why? I have extreme respect for him because it was very different from anything he had done before. He had a strong resistance at first. And my best response to his questions was that I didn’t know what was going to end up in the film, so let’s try to do many things, and then we’ll have a range of actions to select from. I make cinema about bodies in movement, and trying to define it more precisely can take away from the final results. It comes from this need to deal with bodies. And it’s as you said, as you watch these bodies going through these activities, you can begin to imagine a different, separate film involving many more actions, and longer ones than you’re watching. Even when they’re sleeping, they’re not still. There’s always something going on, the breathing, the skin, the bellies going up and down, the nostrils. That’s something that’s very simple, but inexhaustible.

Scope: When we see the men sleeping or dozing, we’re tempted to think that the following images are dreams. But I think that’s a temptation that should be rejected. Would you agree, even though there may be a dreamlike quality that seeps through the surface of the film? And having said this, there’s no denying that the final night sequence at least suggests something dreamt.

Komljen: I think you’re right. I wouldn’t see any single image in the film as a dream, but that’s just me. I’m not an authority! I have the singular experience of having made it, but how it’s interpreted is not up to me. It wasn’t about making dream images or real images. The images that stuck in my mind most are the images that I can’t define exactly what they are. Like on a purely optical level, I can’t really understand what it is I’m looking for, but I end up with images containing relations that aren’t necessarily complex, but are somehow not definable and then they stay with me. It’s funny—there wasn’t that much sleeping in the script. As the shooting went on, people somehow became more horizontal. I ended up with hours of footage of people lying around. When editing the film, I began to realize that it’s so easy to cut away from an image of a sleeping body to any other image. You have no problems matching whatever you want to match. It always seemed to work. It was a way of condensing all this filming. If you read the images so that the ones following those of sleeping are dreams, then this allows for something that’s too easy. By that I mean that it allows for a continuity, that one thing directly connects to the next, when actually it can’t really be pinned down like that.

Scope: The sleeping images also are a nice way to convey the passage of time. Sleeping itself defines a periodic passage of time, so now is the time to nap, now is the time to sleep, and it marks out days and nights in a progression. Then we can see this process, which creates a nice friction with the timelessness of the state of things in the film, as if the men are in a state of frozen time.

Komljen: I hadn’t thought about that, but what you’re saying is interesting. I get where you’re coming from. What’s important is this thing existing in a sheltered place but also in a sheltered time—a time that is different from the way we in everyday life perceive time. Somehow, time can move or be in a different kind of flux. I don’t even need to understand how it works because on film it’s possible. It gives us something. This notion that a different perception of time is possible even though it’s quite different from the machine of the clock that we have made. When I talked with my actors at the beginning, Boris would ask, “How are things done here? There’s something very concrete about the men’s lives here. How do they get water? How do they heat those rooms? How do they get food? What types of food? How often do they sleep? When do they sleep?” A lot of solutions that ended up on screen came out of such concrete questions.

Scope: To carry the sleeping aspect one step further, the sleep is also used in the film as a means to convey intimacy between the two of them. And to visualize the connection of love, which then much later is addressed in words, in such passages as the recitation from the celebrated epic poem about Prince Marko. That’s when the viewer realizes that we’re watching something that’s close to a love story.

Komljen: Yes, I think it’s about love. But love is divorced from the relationship that it’s embedded in. It came from me trying to figure out my relationships with men. With my father and my lover in particular. And then to explore what these relationships have in common. There’s this moment in love when people don’t actually stay in their roles, and that the roles become interchangeable. You can be truly anything to someone else. Even though someone may be older or younger, these relations can shift and shift constantly. They’re not stable. I was wondering if I could make a film that doesn’t try to pin down love into something or doesn’t try to address this moment that’s present in love.

Scope: Was a way of doing that by not having dialogue between the two men? This would be a way of removing the kind of relationship element you’re talking about, and leaving us with bodies, images, and voiceover text as ways of indicating that?

Komljen: I think so. Actually, I don’t like to film spoken dialogue. As with silent cinema, as soon as you abstract the spoken language, it becomes something else. For this film it was a way of allowing their relationship to become an image of a relationship.

Scope: You’re almost back at silent cinema with this, aren’t you?

Komljen: I like silent cinema a lot. It gives me pleasure. I don’t see it as somehow divorced from the contemporary sound films that I watch. It’s just a different way of modelling it. The idea isn’t to make some sort of pastiche. It’s more of a feeling. When I can’t hear people speaking, I don’t feel that this is less real than sound cinema. It’s all just approaches. The world remains inside of it. When I imagined the characters, I didn’t hear them talking. Because they’re focused on work, we can’t necessarily see them speaking to each other. The language ended up being texts, such as the Prince Marko poem. It was this notion of giving a text to another person. That’s why you have shots of people listening to these stories. I couldn’t really hear them. Actually, the actors tried to speak, and wanted to. Boris felt it was unnatural to be silent. I filmed him talking, but I told him that I couldn’t guarantee that it would end up in the final film. Then after a while, he gave up. They’re peeling potatoes, and the best you can have is this tautological stream-of-consciousness dialogue about peeling potatoes. How far could that go? I liked that there was this tension between the way he was accustomed to making films and the way we were working here, sort of giving up during the shooting.

Scope: An ongoing concern that you can see in most of your short films is architecture, buildings, and expressions of utopia. And how in many cases those utopias have become modern ruins. It’s a massive, great subject with so many facets to it, and such a natural subject for cinema. Where does that fascination come from in your own life?

Komljen: Some of it comes from living through the last 25 years of the country I come from. I was born in Yugoslavia, lived in it for just four years, and then the country started to violently crumble. In a certain way, my parents were raised in that society of Yugoslavia and carried the values of that society, so even though territorially it was not the same, there were remnants of the previous life that was declared invalid. The years go by, you have this impoverishment of these countries. Yugoslavia was an industrial country, and after the civil war, all the big industries were shut down, as they weren’t profitable anymore. Growing up there was like living in a post-industrial wasteland. It’s this soft spot of mine, the people I know, who lived through these massive changes. And now, you can see these massive architectural endeavours are like signs of another time that’s gone. It contained a lot of paradoxes for us, because it’s too easy to reduce these places to ruins. All of these buildings still stand, and a lot of effort has been made to find new expressions and utilities for what these spaces and buildings might be. An attempt to fill them with something creative. I think my interests in this come from that. These kinds of projects aren’t made on such a scale anymore. Of course, there are the Middle Eastern urbanisms like Dubai, but those are completely different and made with different intentions. Most of urban Yugoslavia was created after World War II, since before the war it was largely agricultural. The idea was to build something new, and those buildings contained within them some of the expectations of a movement and utopia. And they are still there.

Scope: These are the new cities of the north, which are discussed in the voiceover at the middle of the film.

Komljen: It sounds like science fiction, but all those cities have parts that are labelled as “new”—New Belgrade, New Zagreb. They’re all socialist-era residential and factory buildings. An example of this is the Hall of New Belgrade, built on land that was reclaimed from a swamp.

Scope: This is a more abstract idea, but I was wondering how much you see in terms of metaphor or in the thing itself. Both the cinematography and the presence of sound compel the viewer to think in terms of physical presence, the thing. But then there are many moments when the viewer is drawn to thinking in terms of metaphor. I’m thinking of such moments as the spray-painting of red on the white chair, and the use of certain colours, the uses of fire.

Komljen: I don’t want to make an enemy out of metaphor. I get lost, though, if I spend too much time thinking that way. The colour red appears when the third character appears, blue is there from the beginning, so I don’t know. I like some colour combinations and like to see them in the film. Fire is always great. Those are the best shooting scenes when you have a fire. It never gets boring. When in doubt, have a fire scene. Or someone sleeping! But if I’m honest with myself and with you, there was no conscious intention. If it’s there, it can’t be denied, though.

Scope: When we first talked about the film, I mentioned the beauty of brutalist architecture, and the still controversial notion that Brutalism contains beauty. But what I didn’t ask you then was whether that was something you were thinking about and wanted to bring into the film while filming, or again, is that something that can be taken away by the viewer who finds it, like an Easter egg hidden in the film?

Komljen: Well it wasn’t conscious, but if this film functions as a propaganda piece arguing for the beauty of brutalist architecture, then I’m more than happy with that. Even when I was studying in Belgrade, I was fascinated with Brutalism, since the city is a repository of brutalist architecture. I find the older parts of Belgrade unfilmable. It’s always better when you have a bit of concrete. My cinematographer Ivan Markovic is also a fan of brutalist architecture.

Scope: What’s fascinating in the short films is to trace your development as a filmmaker. You start with a more-or-less narrative drama in which characters speak to each other and a story is played out. Then, with each film, drama is drained and dialogue disappears and in its place poetics takes over. It seems that this is a very deliberate course and development.

Komljen: Very much so. But I also wanted to remove notions of dramatic struggle and conflict, yet still remain cinematic. I don’t even know what it means to make an experimental film. I don’t get that. Even this film, I don’t really know what I made. It has actors and is a fiction, but is it really? I think I was trying to go through all the things that I like in cinema, and trying to make it myself, trying to make what excites me. Going to cinema school in Zagreb, we were expected to make narrative films. But I found it all a bit suffocating. On the other hand, it’s not that I don’t like narrative films. I really like them a lot. I wanted to make films, just not the way the school was insisting upon. And then figuring out how I would go about making them in a way that makes sense for me. That’s how these short films became the way they are. My problem is, “How do I film speech?” What’s the way I want to do it? I can do it in a certain way that makes sense, and that’s how I got to the point of making these films. Which already feels like a station that I have visited and left behind, even though this took the last few years. How things will go after this film, I don’t know. Koehler Robert