The Klassiki Companion: The Yugoslav Black Wave

The Klassiki Companion is our beginners’ guide to the key filmmakers, movements, and concepts in the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we introduce the Yugoslav Black Wave, a subversive avant-garde that challenged Yugoslav state socialism from within during the 1960s and ‘70s.

I Even Met Happy Gypsies (dir. Aleksandar Petrović, 1967)

Transformative film movements often emerge as contested phenomena, characterised by experimental works that push the limits of aesthetics while contributing to socio-political discourse. Eastern Europe has witnessed such “waves” under both socialism – in Czechoslovakia, for instance – and capitalism – take Romania. Similarly, Yugoslavia during the 1960s and early 1970s experienced a unique non-aligned geopolitical stance that created an environment conducive to distinctive artistic freedoms, with critical voices exploring the ethical complexities of bureaucratic state socialism. Filmmakers embraced radical tonalities and surreal aesthetics, resulting in what we now know as the Yugoslav Black Wave, a movement lauded and subsequently proscribed for its sardonic wit, candid portrayals of sensuality, and incisive social critiques.

In 1969, the writer Vladimir Jovičić published an article titled “The Black Wave in Our Cinema”, where he openly dismissed films like Želimir Žilnik’s Early Works for their dissenting views from the orthodox Communist party line. Despite the ensuing countermovement sparked by the article, the Black Wave garnered celebration and acclaim for its unique incorporation of political speechmaking and rhetoric as fundamental aesthetic elements. The films wove fictional narratives with documentary footage, intertwining themes of sex, crime, science, art, and politics, offering not only a profound exploration of Yugoslav socialism but an insightful reflection on the emerging complexities in modern societies more broadly.

In geopolitical terms, the origins of the Black Wave can be traced back to the 1948 Tito-Stalin split and Yugoslavia’s subsequent expulsion from the Comintern (a coalition of communist parties under the influence of the Soviet Union). Tito’s adoption of a “non-aligned” version of state socialism put his nation at the forefront of an internationally-minded movement, with greater openness to Western influences and a relatively liberal attitude to cultural expression. Post-Second World War, government support for the film industry soared, establishing both a film infrastructure and an “official”, mainstream cinema of positive heroes and partisan epics against which the Black Wave would arise in response, redefining aesthetic standards and stretch the limits of imaginative representation. By the late sixties, works like Žilnik’s were showcasing unconventional expressions, critical social themes, and dissenting viewpoints.

Early Works (dir. Želimir Žilnik, 1969). Image:

The rise of the Black Wave: film clubs and the anti-mainstream

Yugoslav cinema owed much of its foundation to cinema clubs and alternative film festivals, which flourished thanks to state investment. These platforms played a vital role in providing practical assistance to cultural workers, facilitating discussions, organising events, and conducting critical research while operating on modest budgets. Cinema clubs were also crucial in offering aspiring filmmakers and young directors access to equipment. This phenomenon, indicative of Yugoslavia’s brand of “self-management” socialism, co-existing with a state-backed version of the socialist realist style that dominated eastern bloc filmmaking. This found expression in big-budget titles like Miloš Stefanović’s factory drama Zenica (1957) and France Štiglić’s war epic The Ninth Circle (1960).

One factor in the emergence of the Black Wave directors was their resistance to this state-endorsed aesthetic orthodoxy. Seeking to explore the role of art in shaping society independently from the state-backed mainstream cinema, young directors began creating revisionist avant-garde works embedded with political allegory, embracing socialism not as an antagonist, but as a platform to both question and re-evaluate.

These directors exhibited a strong concern for broader socioeconomic issues, particularly as they affected marginalised individuals, a subject largely overlooked by state-promoted socialist realism. Central to their social critique was the examination of inner struggles, and this element became a defining feature of their films. Their works often presented a striking contrast, juxtaposing themes of sexual repression, criminal activity, and dark humour against an elusive utopian ideal that remained beyond the reach of those on the fringes of society.

“Our ‘new film’ doesn’t intend to sparkle, but to torture. It doesn’t want to seduce, but rather to burden our ethical, political, and state conformism, by impertinently portraying the fate of its heroes.”

The Black Wave peaks

“Recent developments evolved into a movement difficult to overlook today: ‘New film’. Above all it stands for the subordination of form to the psychological contents of human ethical and metaphysical drama today. It doesn’t intend to sparkle, but to torture. It doesn’t want to seduce, but rather to burden our ethical, political, and state conformism, by impertinently portraying the fate of its heroes. However, ‘New film’ doesn’t use slogans, but the revelation of psychological truths, which come as a consequence of ethical crises and the ideological wilderness of the contemporary world.” — Živojin Pavlović

Notable directors that fall under the Black Wave banner include Aleksandar Petrović, Lordan Zafranović, Miroslav “Mika” Antić, Živojin “Žika” Pavlović, Želimir Žilnik, and Dušan Makavejev. While many of these directors hailed from Serbia, it is important to acknowledge the significant contributions of the Croatian filmmaker, Krsto Papić. His acclaimed film Handcuffs (1970), set during the year of the Tito-Stalin split, tells the story of state security crashing a wedding to arrest unknown members of a small village and is frequently praised as one of the finest Croatian films ever made.

Aleksandar Petrović played a pivotal role in promoting the Black Wave within Yugoslavia and globally, with his works Three in 1966 and I Even Met Happy Gypsies in 1967 receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. The latter film explores the lives of Romani people in Vojvodina, with themes of love, ethnic relations, and the complex social dynamics of marginalised communities.

Often regarded as one of the greatest films to come from the Black Wave, Žika Pavlović’s When I Am Dead and Gone (1967) epitomises the existential essence of the Black Wave, delving into human depravity through the story of the charming and unsuccessful singer Dzimi Barka, and demonstrating Pavlović’s interest in the struggles individuals face when confronting the absurdity of existence. The Rats Woke Up (1967) is another of his works which unapologetically exposes the dark underbelly of humanity.

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (dir. Dušan Makavejev, 1971)

It was Dušan Makavejev, who began his career as a psychology graduate, who became the most renowned filmmaker associated with the movement. Cementing his reputation, the 1971 film W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism contrasted eastern and western ideologies by exploring psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s theories of “orgone energy”, drawing thought-provoking analogies linking Stalinism to Freudian sexual repression. Throughout the film, a series of speeches shed light on the demands of the students for greater freedoms, particularly focusing on sexual liberation. These speeches challenged oppressive patriarchal structures while embracing radical and subversive ideas originating from the young Left. These concerns were central to this rich period of Majavejev’s career. In Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), as well as his debut film Man Is Not a Bird (1965), he explores human sexuality unburdened by conservative moral codes. The film revolves around a switchboard operator and her tragic relationship with a sanitation inspector, with scenes of drunkenness, suicide, death, and sex, portrayed with dramatic irony, dark humour, and striking fourth wall breaks. Based on a true incident, it stands out as one of the Black Wave’s most elegant and dramatic works.


State response, exile, and censorship

After an initial release, Mysteries of the Organism underwent a 16-year ban within Yugoslavia. Makavejev faced criminal charges for deriding the state and its institutions, which led to his exile until the regime’s eventual fall. This fate was not unique to Makavejev, as numerous other directors also found themselves in similar situations, with some of their films remaining banned in multiple countries to this day.

Despite their international acclaim, the distribution of Black Wave films has been severely impaired over the years, leading to limited exposure in many regions. Yugoslavia accommodated both liberal reformers and conservative hardliners; it was a socialist state which welcomed revolution in theory but feared it in practice, at least in cultural terms. As the Black Wave gained momentum within the cultural sphere, the Yugoslav government responded by tightening control over emerging counter-narratives, resulting in the exile of directors and restrictions on their work as the state aimed to maintain ideological dominance.

Yugoslavia accommodated both liberal reformers and conservative hardliners; it was a socialist state which welcomed revolution in theory but feared it in practice

Lazar Stojanović became the sole filmmaker to be imprisoned due to his artwork. His film Plastic Jesus (1971) faced an immediate ban, attributed to the director’s perceived “anti-state activities and propaganda.” The film was a counter-propaganda piece, subverting and reinterpreting both original Nazi and communist propaganda and drawing bold comparisons between Hitler and Tito. Furthermore, the film depicted the wedding of two of Stojanovic’s friends, Ljubiša Ristić and Višnja Poštić, who were incidentally related to Generals in the Yugoslav People’s Army. This portrayal was deemed offensive not only to Tito but to the entire socialist system – an example of the kinds of boundaries that even the Black Wave could not transgress.

Breakfast with the Devil (dir. Miroslav Antić, 1971)

After the Wave: Yugonostalgia and revival

The legacy of Tito’s Yugoslavia continues to provoke debate. While some hold a nostalgic view of the period, others are wary of its idealisation. This wariness is rooted in the recognition that sentiments of so-called “Yugonostalgia” can inadvertently cater to western Orientalist narratives and inadvertently endorse calls for more authoritative political frameworks. In terms of cinema, this debate has often circled around a cohort of (post-)Yugoslav filmmakers who inherited elements of the Black Wave’s ethos. Referred to as the Prague Film Group, this grouping comprises late-Yugoslav filmmakers who pursued their education in Prague and have continued to produce work in the decades since the collapse of communism. Among its notable members are Srdjan Karanović, Lordan Zafranović, Goran Marković, Rajko Grlić, Emir Kusturica (Black Cat White Cat, Underground), and Goran Paskaljević. Despite marked variations in their artistic styles, these filmmakers share thematic undercurrents, their work characterised by irony, dark humour, and a poignant sense of lament for the Yugoslavia they once cherished.

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of an enduring fascination with the former Yugoslavia and its tumultuous disintegration in the 1990s, Black Wave films have experienced a resurgence. In recent times, these works have found their place in both art galleries and cinemas, with ongoing discourse surrounding the movement highlighting its lasting impact. It is important to recognise that the significance of the Black Wave often risks being underestimated, reduced to a mere reaction against the specific historical context from which it emerged: a post-communist perspective that unfortunately overlooks the broader humanist and geopolitical dimensions at play.

Explore Klassiki’s collection of Black Wave films here.

Thomas Sensini is a freelance writer and videographer interested in creative production, cultural history, and sound design, studying at Central Saint Martins and living in London.