WR: Mysteries of the Organism
English Title: WR: Mysteries of the Organism
Original Title: W.R. - Misterije organizma
Country of Origin: Yugoslavia
Studio: Neoplanta Film, Telepool
Director: Dušan Makavejev
Screenplay: Dušan Makavejev
Editor: Ivanka Vukasović
Runtime: 84 minutes
Genre: Avant-garde/Drama/Art Cinema/Surrealist
Volume: East European
W.R. – Misterije organizma/WR: Mysteries of the Organism begins as an apparent documentary work on the later life of Wilhelm Reich, the controversial Austrian-American psychoanalyst who was Sigmund Freud’s assistant. Reich’s later work is covered, with special attention given to his work on the orgasm and how it correlated with the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. This suddenly switches to a story concerning a Yugoslavian woman’s affair with a young male communist. Comparisons are made between this fictional couple, Reich’s studies and several key real-life figures of the Sixties counterculture movement, including artists Betty Dodson and Andy Warhol, superstar Jackie Curtis and Screw Magazine publisher Al Goldstein, before ending in a shocking turn of violence that calls any notion of sexual freedom into question.
Simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, Dušan Makavejev’s W.R. – Misterije organizma/WR: Mysteries of the Organism remains one of the groundbreaking works of the early 1970s, although ultimately it may be a more compelling time capsule than a successful film. A cinematic equivalent to free jazz, it is a work that is deliberately episodic and held together only by a tenuous narrative structure that combines stock footage, documentary inserts and staged, fictive scenes. The film occupies a special place in cinema history due to its moments of explicit sexuality; and at its best it works as one of the most savage satires of the period, as it simultaneously celebrates the youth movement of the 1960s and pokes fun at the societal norms they were rebelling against, especially a fervent culture of commercialization and a cinematic tendency toward the facilitation of audience complacency and inactivity.
Serbian film-maker Makavejev had won much critical acclaim in the mid to late 1960s with his first three features, winning the Silver Bear Award at the 1968 Berlin Film Festival for his documentary collage Nevinost bez zaštite/Innocence Unprotected (1968). However, despite already pioneering his paradigmatic multiform narrative methodology, none of these works could have truly prepared anyone for the ferociously original and challenging WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Upon its release the film was greeted with an equal amount of praise and disdain, acclaim and derision. But, at a time when politically-motivated avant-garde cinema was being produced and celebrated in Western Europe and Latin America, it confounded expectations of communist cinema and culture, and managed to shake up some hitherto clichéd conceptions fostered by the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.
The deliberately fractured WR: Mysteries of the Organism remains an inconsistent and at times exasperating film. For every compelling moment there is a sequence that seems constrained and self-conscious. The film works better as a documentary than a loosely fictive narrative, even though Makavejev is clearly not interested in making just one or the other. The early sections on Reich correlate well with the film’s later investigation of liberated sexual icons, ranging from New York transsexual Jackie Curtis (who is both funny and moving as she recounts her first sexual experiences) to Screw magazine publisher Goldstein. Had the director made a more traditional documentary tracing the connections between the sexual revolution and Reich’s works it might have been more successful, but doubtless its revolutionary force would have been dimmed.
Although it is remembered today for its explicit sexuality, there are only a small number of moments in WR: Mysteries of the Organism that would garner an adult rating today, and it seems positively tame when compared with other trailblazing works of hardcore pornography; something that immediately problematizes its status as such a work itself. What is most noteworthy today is how confrontational it remains. Indeed, it is hard to imagine many other mainstream modern film-makers going quite this far – using editing and collage techniques that sporadically recall the cut-up methods of painter Brion Gysin or the author William Burroughs – to juxtapose seemingly discordant scenes that then comment on each other, and thus give rise to (a la Eisenstinian montage) to new ideas and concepts.
WR: Mysteries of the Organism is at its most predictable as a political treatise. Like some of Jean-Luc Godard’s Dziga Vertov films and experimental video works of the period, the film’s political nature is Makavejev’s most naive and overtly calculating feature. The young couple at the centre of its loose narrative are obvious symbolic stand-ins for the problems of repressed sexuality under communist rule. Makavejev even goes so far to make his male protagonist an heir to Lenin, which needlessly drives home an already overly obvious point. However, despite these mishaps, it is hard to not be shaken by the film’s final moments in which the heroine is literally beheaded because of her lover’s inability to perform and simply enjoy himself as a sexual being (as, it is implied, must we all).
There is no denying the importance of WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and it is worth celebrating, because it still manages to cause such fervent disagreement among viewers. It was banned in Yugoslavia for sixteen years, and ended Makavejev’s career in his native land, forcing him to find backing abroad for subsequent projects. Sweet Movie (1974), the first such film and follow-up to WR, takes man
Author of this review: Jeremy Richey