Surrealist Carnography: The Allegory of A Serbian Film


NOTE:  This post has a number of spoilers, as well as descriptions of graphic scenes and images from said scenes.


aserbianfilmAs far as debut films go, few, if any, are more shocking that Srđan Spasojević‘s A Serbian Film.  Like the works of Sarah Kane, which were likewise dismissed as being writing strictly to shock, the film is not simply and exercise in shock value.  Spasojević’s film is a metaphor where sex represents something more than simply sex.  Oscar Wilde famously wrote that “Everything in the world is about sex except sex.  Sex is about power.”  There is perhaps no film that better exemplifies this than Spasojević’s A Serbian Film.  Though Spasojević has been quoted as saying that the film does not touch upon war themes, the film is very much about war, and not just the Yugoslav Wars, but the structure of all conflict, be they international, national, domestic, interpersonal or even intrapersonal.  The film exemplifies how our current social structures and economic systems generate conflict and facilitate exploitation and abuse.  Be it patriarchal authority, economic authority, or systematic authority, Spasojević’s film illuminates that corroding effect of any kyriarchal system.  Whilst Hobbes suggests that without authority ‘man’ is in a natural state of war, Spasojević suggests that it is when a kyriarchal system is in place that humanity is plunged into a state of war, and no amount of empathy, education, or good intentions can overcome a kyriarchal authority that exploits the love of one’ family.


When framing the narrative as a metaphor for war, especially when the director/author says the film does not touch on war themes, it is important to make the link clear, and for all his talk to the contrary, Spasojević makes the link quite overt.  The primary antagonist in the film is named Vukmir, a name that he shares with Vukmir Cvetkovic, who was on trial for war crimes during filming and was convicted the year the film was released.  As a member of the Serbian police force, Cvetkovic evacuated and burned down houses in Klina.  The name alone, though, does not make the link explicit as there are others with the same name.  Dragan Vukmir, for instance, a footballer, and Leah Vukmir, a Wisconsin legislator, both share the same name, but it is clear the film is neither a metaphor for soccer or for Wisconsin law making.  The link with the war criminal is made clear when the protagonist of the film, a retired adult film star named Milos, tells his wife, Marija, the name of the director who wants him to come out of retirement, she suggests that the name “Sounds like [a Serbian] guys at the Hague Tribunal”, and then asks Milos if he is sure Vukmir is he’s “not an arms dealer?”  (21:16).  The Hague Tribunal is an international tribunal that tries wars crimes and formed the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia specifically to try war crime from the Yugoslav Wars.  This, coupled with the question as to whether or not Vukmir is an arms dealer, clearly links the figure with the Yugoslav wars.



This link is reinforced by Vukmir’s language in the film, a language that frames violence and exploitation, not as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself.  He sends Lejla, an adult actress who used to work with Milos, to recruit her former co-worker.  She tells Milos that Vukimir makes “artistic pornography” (5:30).  Vukmir reasserts this when he first meets Milos, stating that “Pornography is art, but people can’t see that” (15:38).  He later tells Milos that his work is “Not pornography, but life.  The life of a victim” (55:30), and then tells Milos that “Victims sell” (56:00).  This is where the language begins to demonstrate that exploitation and victimization are ends in and of themselves.  This is not a path to life, but rather is life.  The films Vukmir makes are about victimization and this is what sells.  This victimization is the end product, not a part of the refining process.  Vukmir’s reasons for recruiting Milos are linked closely with this.  He tells Milos that he had a “talent to humiliate” a woman “and then when she is reduced to dog shit—to win her back” (16:39), alluding to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where the victim comes to identify with the power of his/her abuser, which is not dissimilar to the relationship shared between Serbia and NATO.   This shows an understanding on the part of Vukmir, which is reinforced by the fact that he has a background in psychology.  He understands the implications of what he is doing, much as the Serbian military leaders during the Croatian War of Independence and the Bosnian War who ordered their Serbian military men to repeatedly rape Croatian and Bosnian women with the aim of impregnating them and asserting the Serbian ethnic seed in ethnically Croatian or Bosnian women.  This is a conscious form of exploitation.  The link between the film and war, then, seems overt.


ASerbianFilm3One might wonder how it is that the likes of Vukmir are able to solicit the participation of people like Milos, especially considering the fact that Milos is overtly unwilling to participate in certain acts several times throughout the film.  The answer is simple: family.  When Vukmir sends Lejla to recruit Milos, she appeals to Milos’s desire to provide for his family, telling that there is “Phenomenal pay” and that his “family will be settled till the end of” his son’s life (5:35).  Vukmir drives this home when they meet, stating that Milos will be able to “provide for [his] family for good” (12:19).  Vukmir then asks if Milos is tired of working in adult films where he must kiss “some wretched cunt with the same lips [he]’d kiss [his] kid” (18:26).  This speaks to the traditional goal where parents aim to give their children a better life than they had.  It is this desire to provide for his family, and give his son a life that is better than his own that motivate Milos, but ironically, it is the logic inherent in his willingness to exploit others that that facilitates the exploitation of his family.  This irony becomes especially apparent when one views the former Yugoslavia, not as a country, but as a family.


The metaphor of the former Yugoslavia as a family, is perhaps best explored through the subplot related to a post-pubescent girl named Jeca.  Jeca’s father went to war to protect and provide for her family, but the irony is that whilst he was gone, his wife had to resort to prostitution to provide for the family.  The first scene Milos shoots for Vukmir requires that Milos enter a home for abandoned and orphaned children (32:00).   In this orphanage Milos watches Jeca’s mother slap her before going to another room where the mother performs fellatio on Milos as he watches a video of Jeca eating ice cream.  The images on the scream bring Milos to climax, but the sequence frames Jeca not simply as a young woman, but as a daughter specifically.  Though Milos clearly fanaticizes about Jeca sexually, he refuses to have sex with her when offered it in another scene.  Jeca’s grandmother tells Milos that Jeca’s father was meant to take her virginity, (a ‘virgin’s communion’), just as the grandmother’s own father did to her.  Jeca’s father,however, died, and so Milos is supposed to do perform this incestuous communion instead. Milos does not do it, though, and jumps out a window instead (1:16:00).  Jeca’s father is linked with the Serbian soldiers who were ordered to commit mass rape, and this rape of other people within the ‘Yugoslavian’ family is then consistent with the rape of his own daughter.  The two acts are equated through the narrative.


ASerbianfilm13This framing of Serbia, or the former Yugoslavia, as a ‘family’, and the implications of the civil war, are key to the narrative.  In one passage, Vukmir tells Milos that the “whole fucking country is a giant shitty kindergarten.  A bunch of kids discarded by their parents” (54:05).  This frames the government as parents, and the nation’s people as abandoned children.  The civil war, then, is tantamount to child abuse, and the process of discarding the children, predestines the children to a life of misery.  Nowhere is this articulated more overtly than in the infamous ‘new born porn’ scene.  In the scene, Vukmir shows Milos a video of a mother giving birth.  The crowning is shown, and shortly afterwards the baby is raped upon exiting the womb with the mother smiling as she watches (57:00-55:00).  It is easily one of the most disturbing scenes in the history if cinema, but as a metaphor, nothing could be more effective.  The generation being born, is being born into a system of exploitation they cannot escape.  This can be viewed in the context of war, economic systems, or environmental issues.  The children being born today, in many instances, are destined for a life of misery, and sadly, in many instances, the parents take delight in it.  In the case of the Yugoslav Wars, the generation of leaders that were initiating the conflict profited from and delighted in it.  They are no different than the mother who smiles whilst watching her new born being raped.  Capitalists who facilitate a class system where the masses live in poverty and the wealth gap increases annually, take delight in profits that facilitate poverty.  This capitalist system is doubly oppressive to future generations because big business currently exhausts the planets resources and pushes the planet to the brink of ecological extermination, and rather than address environmental issues, big business would rather hire scientists to confuse the reality of global warming to justify the terrorist attacks they carry out on the environment and turn a profit from.  Much like the oil companies who pumped poisonous lead into the air and hired scientists like Robert A. Kehoe to defend them, these ‘captains of industry‘ simply do not care about future generations.  If our carbon output continues, this generation will be responsible for making sure that future generations are metaphorically fucked at birth, much like the infant in the film.


Ana Sakic (right) and Srdjan Todorovic.

Ana Sakic (right) and Srdjan Todorovic.

Whilst Milos seems like a moral center for the film, his past suggests that he himself was willing to participate in exploitation to at least some degree in the past. When lying in bed with his wife, Marija asks Milos about “All those poor girls [he]threw away like used condoms” before asking why he’d “never done [her] like that” in a tone that suggests she might like it (11:42).  He answers: “Well, I love you.  I just fucked them” (11:56).  This shows his willingness to exploit women so long as they are women he does not care about.  Marija, though, seems to be aroused by the power associated with Milos’s exploitation, suggesting that she does not take issue with such exploitation in principle.  When Milos tries to down play his past and speak against torture, Vukmir draws on Milos’s own past, telling him that he seems “to know a lot about torture” and then asks if he enjoyed “the midget woman whom [Milos] locked in an over in Stuttgart”, and allowed to perform fellatio on him through a hole he pierced in the over, keeping her in there for several hours (48:10).  This offers viewers insight into the degree of abuse Milos himself is willing to hand out, and foreshadows the climax scene in film.



Slobodan Bestic as Marko (left) and Srdjan Todorovic.

Slobodan Bestic as Marko (left) and Srdjan Todorovic.

It is Marko who seems most willing to ignore familial bonds.  In his first scene, he speaks with his brother Milos, and when Marko leaves, he tells Milos to “Say hello to [his] kid” (7:55).  This wording seems awkward because Milos’s son, Petar, is Marko’s nephew.  Why, then, doesn’t Marko ask Milos to say hello to his nephew?  The language Marko employs implies a disconnection between him and his family.  He does not see Petar as being a part of him.  This is reinforced by the fact that when he goes and visits his brother’s family, he leers are Marija and his lust for her is so strong that he must go to the bathroom and masturbate.  Later, Marko is receiving fellatio from a sex worker, and rather than having pornography on the screen, he is watching a family video of Petar’s birthday party.  Throughout the film it is clear that Marko, a member of the police force, is willing to ignore familial bonds in order to satiate his sexual desire.  His being a member of the police force suggests that at least some members of the Serbian police force were willing to ignore familial bonds, be they literal or metaphoric, if it meant satiating their own desires.


Ana Sakic and Srdjan Todorovic.

Ana Sakic and Srdjan Todorovic.

As for Milos, when he begins his work for Vukmir, the acts in which he engages in are linked with his family.  First there is a dream in which a the mother he has received fellatio from lies beaten on the floor and one of the police who participated in the beating is waving a balloon Milos’s son was playing with earlier (50:30).  It is then his son watching, in place of Jeca, which thereby links Jeca’s mother with Petar’s mother.  Later, when Jeca’s mother is handcuffed to a bed and Milos is drugged, he begins to rape he and as he does this he is told to imagine she is his son’s mother, reinforcing the link with family (1:06:20).  When Lajla tries to rescue Milos from his captors, Vukmir tells her that when the drugs takes hold in Milos, “he’ll forget all, including his wife, son, mother” (1:11:45).  It is in the climactic scene that the implications of his actions reach their tragic fruition.  Drugged up again, Milos enters a room and sees two hooded bodies, one of an adult woman, and one of a male child.  Milos enter the hooded woman from behind, before moving over to the child.  A hooded man enters and begins to rape the woman and is unhooded, revealing that it is Marko.  The woman and boy are then revealed to be Marija and Petar (1:26:00-1:28:30).  It is then that Vukmir shouts: “A real happy Serbian family” (1:28:30).  The scene is perhaps as horrific as the ‘new born porn’ scene, but again serves as a tragically accurate metaphor.  To see this one need look no further than most recent war in Iraq where members of the American military gang-raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, and also murdered her family, afterwards setting the girl’s body on fire.  As gruesome as A Serbian Film is, it is no less disturbing than the reality of war.  The fact that America and Iraq are different countries does not make this any less reprehensible, but when one considers that conflict in the former Yugoslavia took place literally between family members, there is an element of the events that adds perhaps even more disgust.  The film asks where our empathy is for those who we are not related to.  If we are so disgusted at the thought of this happening to a family member, why are we not equally disgusted with it happening to somebody else?  The scene drives this home and asks us to consider the morality of this barbarity in a familial context and forces us to realize that regardless of who a victim is, they are a part of a family.


Lena Bogdanovic. who plays Doktorka.

Lena Bogdanovic, who plays Doktorka.

Many believe that instances of mass genocide occur amongst people who are barbaric by nature and perhaps uneducated, but nothing can be further from the truth.  During WWII, many members of the Nazi party held doctorates, and some of the most vicious people were those who believed reason was on their side.  Josef Mengele, for instance, was guilty of a number of cruel experiments that most would call torture, yet he was a medical practitioner.  Spasojević’s film speaks to this issue as well.  Early in the film it is noted that Milos is the only porn star with a university degree, so Milos, who is participating in this exploitation, is an educated person.  Vukmir is likewise educated, as his wife and assistant, who is a doctor.  Both are educated in psychology, and so have a firm and extensive understanding as to the ramifications of their actions.  Those who instructed Serbian police and soldiers to rape Croatian women were no less aware of the impact of such orders and the dehumanizing effect they would have on both the victims and the perpetrators.  Education, far from eliminating such cruelty, can often times make it frighteningly effective.


Andela Nenadovic

Andela Nenadovic

There is also existentialist despair and nihilist elements to the film.  When first being given instructions for his role in Vukmir’s film, Milos asks what is expected of him as he will not have any foreknowledge as to what is going on.  Vukmir instructs him to simply show up and “be what [he is], relax and react as Milos would” (29:28).  The filming, then, becomes an existentialist experiment to see how the ‘existence’ of a person interacts with the context of the facticity that surrounds them, or their ‘essence’.  Milos is given choice in terms of how he is to respond.  Vukmir, though, wants more, and so drugs Milos with an aphrodisiac meant for cattle.  It is at this point that Milos’s is almost entirely taken over by his Id.  His biological urges, then, take over him.  This is an interesting piece of the narrative because so many people are prescribed antidepressants and other such drugs to treat mental illness, and this raises questions as to where our identity ends and where the drug begins.  For Milos, even though he is drugged, he still refuses to have sex with Jeca, though he does rape and kill and Jeca’s mother, and likewise rapes both his wife and son, though he is unaware of their identity whilst he does this.  Is it the biological urges induced to heightened extremes that motivates Milos?  Or is there something else.  If it is strictly biological, why does he move from his wife to his son in the climactic scene?  What is his choices?  We often define ourselves by our moral choices, and not our innate urges.  How much of this is our authentic identity?  Milos, for instances, clearly desires Jeca, but chooses not to have sex with her.  Is this his ‘existence’ or his ‘essence’ that shapes his choices?  The existentialist despair and nihilistic element enter in the final scene when Milos returns home with his wife and son and the three line themselves up together and Milos fires a single bullet three all three of them at once (1:37:30-1:37:50).  Why Milos and Marija make this decision is unclear.  Is it because they are disgusted with their own authentic identity?  Or is it because they recognize they are have no autonomy?  Perhaps they simply cannot bear to live with the reality of what happened, or realize that there is no mercy in the world.  Whatever the reason, their act of joint suicide recognizes the utter lack of hopelessness that is left.


ASerbianfilm7There are few movies that are more difficult to watch than A Serbian Film, but the truth of the matter is that there are far more atrocious things going on in the world than what goes on in this film.  If anybody were to watch ten minutes of undercover footage in a factory farm, they would likely turn the video off before 60 seconds had elapsed.  There is an epidemic of people who remain willfully blind to the atrocities that are going on around them.   Be it in regards to the components for smart phones and laptops being procured from conflict zones, or oil purchased from a country where the an foreign occupier is gang-raping and murdering 14-year-old girls, or the child labour that produces the coco in our chocolate and the clothes in our department store, we too often turn a blind eye to these exploitation involved in these things.  And when we are made aware of these things, the temptation is to distance ourselves from the actions and to see them as happening to some ‘other’.  One could dismiss the film as a carnographic version of The Hangover, but the film is more that its carnage.   A Serbian Film forces the us to look at that which we wish to remain blind to, and asks us to consider how we would feel if the exploitation we are complicit in were projected onto our own family.  It is easy to dismiss this film as a gratuitous attempt to shock, but as disturbing and disgusting as the scenes in this film are, every drop of blood, and every scream, every punch, and bullet and machete are necessary. There is not one second of gratuity in this film.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. The name “Vukmir” is there to throw you off track . And it clearly worked .

  2. Sasa, thank you so much for your comment. I impressed with how much pretensions, superiority and condensation you managed to fit into just fourteen words. I always welcome contradictory ideas because I believe that open dialogue is the source of progress, however, you seem to want to boast about what you know rather than contribute to the conversation as your comment is completely devoid of any critical thinking and instead is filled with what reads as gloating.

    Firstly, the name may very well be there to ‘throw people off’ as you say, but if so, do you have anything t support this claim?

    Secondly, if you read my piece, you will see that I address the ambiguity of the name and how there are several people in varying fields with that name. The link I make between Vukmir and the Yugoslav Wars is not based on his name, but rather on the dialogue as Marija links him with the Hague trials by saying he sounds like one of the Serbian men from the Hague trials, and further links him with the Yugoslav Wars by alluding to the possibility that he is an arms dealer. It is the context of the dialogue that is the basis for my conclusions, not the name alone. So your comment isn’t really contributing to the conversation, it merely reads as condescending gloating.

    And as to your approach, it frankly isn’t helpful in a critical dialogue. Any writer worth their salt is going to use a name that enhances the narrative. If every critical reader were to simply dismiss all names as simply being there to throw people off track, then nobody would ever pay attention to names and they would become useless. You approach, then, encourages people to NOT think about the choices the author makes, which is frankly a lazy and unproductive approach. Considering how names influence the text is a key components of analysis.

  3. Marija’s statement is also there to throw you of track . More relevantly so , since most people wouldn’t know anything about the name . “Sounds like [a Serbian] guys at the Hague Tribunal” . Key phrase here is “Sounds like” .

  4. When you start dismissing that actual content of the dialogue, you know you are going down the wrong path. The word “like” draws parallels and similarities. That is the purpose of the word. The point of including this comparisons is to draw parallels. That how a simile works. That is one of the most basic literary tools there is.

    If you are just going to say that everything that is said in the dialogue is meant to throw you “off track”, then there is no point in discussing any of the dialogue.

    I respect that you might have a different opinion, but the way you are reading this is simply dismissing evidence and not providing any in its place. If you have a source that argues the intent of this parallel is something else, or a source that indicates that the intended meaning of this dialogue and name is something other than this, feel free to share it. If you have an alternate interpretation based on the text, feel free to share it. There is always more than one way to read a text, but coming out with something that pretty much translates to “Your wrong” doesn’t facilitate critical conversations.

    You seem to be promoting a closed reading of the work, and that simply is not productive to generating a dialogue about the issues at hand. This film is about more than simply shocking the audience and making them feel disgusted. There is something behind that.

  5. You keep thinking what you want to think . My comments are directed to those with a more open mind who know what the movie is about but might like to know what the meaning behind Marija’s comment and the name Vukmir might mean . Now , if you want to keep talking , you keep talking . Not interested in you or your narrow view of the world .

  6. OK , I’ve read some of your other articles so I take back the part where I say you have a narrow view of the world . It seems to me you should be able to figure what I have been saying . All you need to do is take what the authors have said at face value and put 2 and 2 together .

    Good luck . Take care .

  7. I’m not suggesting my reading of the film is the only reading, simply one of many readings.

    As for taking things at face value, that is not what I do. If I do nothing more than take something at face value, then all I will be doing is providing synopsis, and at that point the reader might as well simply go to the source text. Part in parcel with this is the fact that the director himself has articulated that the work is allegorical, which completely undermines a face-value reading.

    As to speaking to people with an open mind, I’m not sure what you mean. You seem to be projecting a closed reading onto this work, which is the opposite of being open to a dialogue. As to being able to figure out what you are saying, I don’t even know what it is that you are trying to say. All I frankly see in your words is contradiction.

    I have invited you to offer an alternate analysis or bring in some other sources, and you have declined, so I’m not sure where the conversation can go from here.

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