Death in Sarajevo, where past and present always overlap
by Vladan Petkovic
- BERLIN 2016: Danis Tanović returns to the Berlinale competition with a drama set in a Sarajevo hotel and revolving around the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
After picking up two Silver Bears for An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker [+see also:
interview: Danis Tanović
film profile] in 2013, one of which went to non-professional actor Nazif Mujić, Bosnia's most prominent director, Danis Tanović, returns to the Berlinale competition with Death in Sarajevo [+see also:
interview: Danis Tanovic
film profile]. The drama set in a Sarajevo hotel and revolving around the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is a look at both contemporary Bosnian and European society, and how the past and the present are inextricably intertwined.
A short history lesson by TV journalist Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan, from Our Everyday Life [+see also:
interview: Ines Tanović
film profile]), as she stands on the spot where Gavrilo Princip shot the Austrian archduke, presents the details of the assassination. Then we enter the Hotel Europe, where manager Omer (Izudin Bajrović, from A Stranger [+see also:
interview: Bobo Jelcic
film profile]) is eagerly expecting the French VIP guest, Jacques (veteran French actor Jacques Weber), the keynote speaker at the EU gala for the centennial celebration.
After Jacques arrives, the dedicated receptionist Lamija (an inspired turn by Snežana Vidović, from The Hunting Party) takes his shirt to the laundry, and we follow her through the hotel, a tracking shot introducing us to some of the characters.
But Omer is on another mission: trying to prevent a strike by the staff, who haven't been paid in two months. As the workers won't back down, he seeks help from Enco (Aleksandar Seksan), the owner of the strip/poker club in the hotel's basement, and his thugs.
In the video surveillance room, Edo (Edin Avdagić, from The Bridges of Sarajevo [+see also:
film profile]) is watching Jacques rehearse his speech. Although stumbling over the name of Gavrilo Princip, he is quite sure about what he wants to convey. And on the rooftop, Vedrana is interviewing Princip's fictional descendant, also called Gavrilo (Muhamed Hadžović, from Snow [+see also:
film profile]). In front of the cameras, the two get into an argument that swiftly moves from Princip's place in history (a hero or a terrorist?) to the issues of the most recent war, and Bosnia's never-ending division between "us" and "them".
The whole film takes place in the hotel, and Tanović turns the limitation into an advantage, switching from one plot line to another. On the roof, history and religion are being discussed; in the middle part of the hotel, it is tension around the big event and the strike; and in the basement, the underground rules. Another effective method is the playful use of tracking shots through the labyrinthine building, by Tanović's regular DoP, Erol Zubčević. The rooftop scenes also open up the view to the modern glass-and-metal buildings in the area, contrasting with both the interior setting and the discussions of history.
The film is based on the monodrama Hotel Europe by Bernard-Henri Lévy,in which Weber created the character of Jacques, and the director expands on it, showing us the face of Bosnia's tormented and frustrated society, but also looking at Europe's (unfulfilled) role in the formation of the country.
The implications are countless, and the director does not attempt to provide any answers. Given that even a hundred years after the assassination that sparked the First World War there is no consensus in the Balkans about Princip's historical role, the more recent tragic events and current divisions will hardly be resolved soon. But what Tanović does offer is a hope that neighbours can find a way to co-exist, if they perceive themselves as fellow human beings instead of "us" and "them".
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