Tomislav Šakić: Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu

Tomislav Šakić: Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu

Zagreb: Disput 2016, ISBN 9789532602494, 323 pp.

Edward Alexander
András Bálint Kovács; national cinema; film history; Croatian cinema; Yugoslav cinema; post-war cinema.

Emerging during the mid-1980s as a challenge to the then dominant integral Yugoslav concept of national cinema, initial scholarly endeavours in Croatian film studies evangelised the newly coined national cinema’s strict distinctiveness and individual elements’ considerable value, often to excess. Tomislav Šakić’s Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu, which endeavours “to determine the periodical and stylistic categories of modernism in Croatian feature films” (Šakić 2016: 21), testifies to Croatian film studies’ growing maturity since the late 2000s and is part of a trend in which scholars no longer view Croatianhood unto itself as a patriotic endpoint but rather the cultural starting point for further endeavours. As Šakić accurately recognises, a “complete aesthetic history of Croatian cinema, which looks upon a filmic undertaking as foremost a filmic artistic artefact, has still not yet been written” (ibid.: 28).

Existing works of Croatian film history that cover the modernist period within their scope have tended to contextualise the national cinematic output in accordance with social and political developments in the Yugoslav and Croatian states. For instance, Ivo Škrabalo’s Hrvatska filmska povijest ukratko (1896-2006) presents the fate of cinema as mirroring a national destiny. It limits its discussion of modernism in Croatian cinema to an identification of the main personalities and the films they produced during their careers within a national-political chronology (Škrabalo 2008: 88-102).1 Daniel J. Goulding’s Liberated Cinema, which places Croatia in a broader Yugoslav context, collates a cinema that is foremostly dictated by the state’s influence upon the filmmaking industry. It exemplifies a broader tendency in English-language studies of Eastern European cinemas for, as Jurica Pavičić explains, a reliance on “a three-part narrative comprised of an early, often onerous rise, an unparalleled peak, and then at the end, either gradually or suddenly, a fall” (Pavičić 2011: 241). In both of these prominent works, the national identity is presented as a dominant extra-filmic identity, possessed by the likes of individuals, political movements, and states, and the film scholar’s task is to identify the ways in which filmmakers have reflected it.

While not ignoring extra-filmic, contextual factors, Šakić’s construction of a modernist Croatian national cinema between 1950 and 1980, a period that encompassed some of the national filmic output’s most seminal productions by directors such as Ante Babaja, Branko Bauer, and Vatroslav Mimica, redresses the balance in favour of filmic over extra-filmic factors and, in doing so, achieves a welcome step towards a genuinely filmic national identity.2 Such an approach is courageous, given how matters of divisive nationhood never lurk far beneath the surface in debates on national cultures in the former Yugoslavia and have regularly tainted film studies. Rather than emphasising the uniqueness of the Croatian experience, Šakić instead provides evidence for how “Croatian film and Yugoslav New Cinema in general during the 1960s did not emerge in a vacuum, rather their stylistic image was embedded in European film modernism” (Šakić 2016: 159).

The period that serves as the historical context for Šakić’s study is the “modernism of sound films of the 1960s”, “an inherently filmic stylistic-historic event” (Šakić 2016: 15).3 The author introduces this modernism as a “heterogeneous composite of various non-narrative and a narrative states of filmic discourse – modernism in film, as in other arts, above all thematises the impossibility of narration or presentation (representation) and the crisis of the subject” (Šakić 2016: 20). It served as a riposte to the enduring commercial dominance of classical narrative cinema, meaning that “[w]herever and whenever there is a departure, deviation or alternative to this narrative aesthetic then it is a form of modernism” (ibid.: 23), and so “films and filmmakers are linked by very little poetically, apart from an opposition to the classical narrative style” (ibid.: 21).

Šakić presents his book’s subject matter in no uncertain terms, through its title no less, as dealing with modernism in Croatian feature films. He states that the “subject of the pages that follow is modernism in Croatian feature films” and rightly notes that while this “sounds seemingly simple [...] not one of the words is self-explanatory” (Šakić 2016: 11). Nevertheless, readers may feel slightly misled when, over half way through the book, there is scant sustained analysis of modernism in Croatian feature films. Instead, it would be more accurate to describe Šakić’s book as a very thorough exploration of modernist film theory for Croatian-language readers. No matter how thorough this exploration may be, this is not the book’s stated goal.

One explanation for this lies in Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu being an “adaptation” of Šakić’s PhD thesis (ibid.: 7). Whilst it is necessary to convince examiners of a firm grasp of the theoretical landscape at the foundations of a thesis’s research, readers of a subsequently published book based on such a thesis can be largely spared the bulk of such material. For a book about modernism in Croatian feature films, it would have been sufficient and preferable to clearly and concisely lay out a definition of modernism to be applied across the study, justify why this definition has been favoured over alternatives, and thereafter explore its specificities through Croatian filmic case studies. This is not to say that modernism within film studies is simple to define, but rather that extensive debate regarding modernist film theory belongs in dedicated books and articles rather than as an engorged introduction to Šakić’s proposed, albeit now maligned, subject matter.

Despite the unambiguous Croatian national identity flagged by the title of Šakić’s book, readers will soon notice how well camouflaged Croatian films are within the text. Of course, cinema is an inherently international medium, not confined by national borders, yet it is difficult to comprehend why, in a book that ostensibly deals with Croatian film culture and is written in Croatian, Šakić often favours examples drawn from other American and European national film traditions to initially illustrate his points. If suitable examples are not available from Croatian films to serve as reliable evidence for what is being proposed then, surely, this content has no place in a book about Croatian cinema anyway. Alongside the use of these international examples, it is also puzzling when Šakić preferences material relevant to Serbian and Slovene film cultures, such as the frequent citation of films by Dušan Makavejev and Boštjan Hladnik. Whilst the strict division of the Yugoslav era into sub-Yugoslav national identities is a post-Yugoslav anachronism that, to his credit, Šakić does not fall foul of, it is difficult to justify such regular discussion of Serbian and Slovene works in a book about modernism in Croatian films. Currently, Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu stands in an inadequate no man’s land: these references to alternative sub-Yugoslav national identities should have either been greatly reduced to fit the existing title’s remit or, if they are adjudged indispensable, increased within an expanded study on modernism in Yugoslav cinema as a whole. There is certainly potential for applying a comparative approach to modernism’s wider Yugoslav context given that one of the most fascinating sections in Šakić’s study explores the ways in which modernism was alternatively manifested in Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia (ibid.: 127-130).

The final content chapter actually addresses the ways in which modernism was manifested in Croatian films between the 1950s and 1980s. Šakić identifies three types of modernism within the national film culture during this period, namely “new wave modernism”, “moderate or discreet modernism”, and “high or radical modernism”. Based on the evidence provided by Šakić, there is little reason to dispute the main elements of this division, and this stands as testament to his strong grasp of his subject. Nevertheless, even this part of the book is not unproblematic. There is a discrepancy between the author’s eagerness to define modernist film theory so thoroughly earlier in the book and, by contrast, the dearth of production information and synopses for the films that he now cites. This is compounded by the book’s tendency to flit between examples drawn from various films. It curtails readers’ engagement with the assertions that are made, since it has the effect of creating labyrinthine arguments that are impossible to dispute not because they are necessarily correct but rather because they depend upon numerous different factors that are only fully familiar to the author. Many of the Yugoslav-era films that Šakić references within the study are limited to occasional broadcasts on Croatian television and unreliable online collections and so are not readily available to today’s potential viewers. Indeed, Šakić even mentions that the one and only time that he himself was able to view some of the films that he writes about was at the May 2010 Subversive Film Festival in Zagreb (ibid.: 8). It would have been preferable to limit the number of case studies used for each strand of modernism and really explore these films in depth. Affording these key films more contextual information certainly would not detract from the study’s aesthetic arguments and seems courteous to readers who cannot be expected to be as familiar as the author is with all of the films. No case studies are ever all encompassing but they can be supplemented by passing references to other films when necessary.

The most conspicuous issue afflicting Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu, however, is Šakić’s serious over-reliance on the work of another scholar: András Bálint Kovács and his 2007 study Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. Whilst other scholars are cited in a normal fashion, the sheer frequency with which Šakić references Kovács soon becomes quite vexing. Šakić’s book does contain a novel contribution to the advancement of Croatian film studies, regarding manifestations of modernism in the national film culture, however its originality is diminished by how this is essentially achieved by affixing a Croatian context to Kovács’s existing research with the aim of justifying how “Croatian films [...] fit his stylistic description of filmic modernism” (Šakić 2016: 163). Kovács’s categorisations form the framework around which the research is constructed, so much so that there are large sections of text in which Šakić merely recounts Kovács’s work rather than using it, as it should be, to support his own assertions. Moreover, the way in which Kovács is mentioned is disconcerting. For instance, one section of text, covering less than two full pages, features nine uninterrupted, incrementally rising references to pages in Kovács’s book (ibid.: 114-116).

In spite of the criticisms that I have outlined, Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu is a book with a solid concept and offers a number of positive elements that should be emphasised. The work is free from any trace of antagonistic post-Yugoslav national relations, both in the content it covers and in the way it delivers it. Its focus on aesthetics affords Croatian film culture a place within a wider European context without this being motivated by a desire to condemn ex-Yugoslav neighbours to a Balkan doldrums. As Šakić measuredly assesses, “on the one hand, Croatian it has been established that Croatian film is inseparable from a Yugoslav context [...] but, on the other hand, it has been established that the move to so-called auteur cinema, because of the dominance of modernist artistic ideology, brought about the creation of national styles” (Šakić 2016: 261). We can certainly hope that this will prompt similar aesthetic studies of other significant periods in Croatian film history, such as the mid-2000s, and how explorations of the links to neighbouring cinemas. The book’s academic contribution would have been superior had it focussed more on this national aspect, instead of modernist film theory. Nevertheless, whilst these initial theoretical chapters are excessively long and do not adequately aid the elucidation of modernism in Croatian films in particular, they do serve as a thorough theoretical exploration of modernism for Croatian readers.

Tom Šakić's contribution to Croatian film studies is already considerable on account of his existing scholarly endeavours and he can rightly be viewed as the torchbearer for a new generation of film scholars in Croatia. Nevertheless, troubling issues unfortunately run through Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu that may dent the likelihood of it becoming a trusted resource in Croatian film studies. This book will, for the time being, fill the gap in Croatia for aesthetically-directed material on this subject but we must hope that it will galvanise either Šakić or somebody else to deliver a better executed study before too long.

Edward Alexander

Independent Scholar


Gilić, Nikica. 2011. Uvod u povijest hrvatskog igranog filma. Zagreb.

Goulding, Daniel J. 2002. Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, 1945-2001. Bloomington.

Kovács, András Bálint. 2007. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. Chicago.

Pavičić, Jurica. 2011. Postjugoslavenski film: Stil i ideologija. Zagreb.

Šakić, Tomislav. 2016. Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu. Zagreb.

Škrabalo, Ivo. 2008. Hrvatska filmska povijest uktratko (1896-2006). Zagreb.

Turković, Hrvoje. 2009. “Filmski modernizam u ideološkom i populističkom okruženju.” Hrvatski filmski ljetopis 59: 92-106.

Suggested Citation

Alexander, Edward. 2017. Review: “Tomislav Šakić: Modernizam u hrvatskom igranom filmu.Mise en geste. Studies of Gesture in Cinema and Art (ed. by Ana Hedberg Olenina and Irina Schulzki). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 5. DOI:


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