Man is not a Bird

English Title: Man is not a Bird

Original Title: Čovek nije tica

Country of Origin: Yugoslavia

Studio: Avala Film

Director: Dušan Makavejev

Producer(s): Avala Film

Screenplay: Dušan Makavejev

Cinematographer: Aleksandar Petković

Art Director: Milenko Jeremić

Editor: Ljubica Nešić

Runtime: 81 minutes

Genre: Drama

Language: Serbian

Starring/Cast: Milena Dravić, Janez Vrhovec, Eva Ras, Stole Arandjelović, Boris Dvornik

Year: 1965

Volume: East European

In a small mining community in a heavily industrialized east Serbian landscape, a newly-arrived professional named Jan, brought in to oversee a big job at a factory, meets and moves in as a tenant with the family of a hairdresser, Rajka. Although much younger, she pursues Jan, and the two become lovers. At the same time, a hard-drinking copper factory worker named Barbulović argues with his submissive wife over the mistress he keeps, after which his wife accosts her husband’s mistress over a dress of hers that Barbulović gave to his lover, leading to a violent altercation. Rajka begins seeing a truck driver, a man of her own age, who continues to accost her in her place of work. After Rajka’s parents discover their daughter’s tryst, she sees more of the younger man, and this coincides with Jan working harder to complete his job ahead of time, leading to a division that threatens his relationship with the girl.


By introducing a new repertoire of cinematic styles and thematic preoccupations, Dušan Makavejev’s first feature film, Čovek nije tica/Man is not a Bird, not only laid the foundations for his subsequent works, but also co-defined the second phase of New Yugoslav Cinema (Novi Film). Makavejev’s debut technically fits into the genre it anticipates by virtue of its subtitle (‘A Love Film’). The focus remains resolutely on two parallel love relationships: the one between the violent copper factory worker Barbulović and his overly submissive wife; and the other between a professional technician named Jan and a local girl, Rajka, with whose family he moves in as a tenant.


Yet, it appears that the generic label is there to ironically question, rather than define, this film: everything in Man is not a Bird (plotline, imagery, characters) breaks with the melodramatic conventions that were known in Yugoslav cinema. Barbulović treats his wife abominably: he torments her, physically beats her and openly keeps a mistress; while the portrayal of his submissive wife was also out of ordinary. However, Makavejev emancipates her in an unprecedented way. After visiting a show featuring a hypnotist, she reaches the point of self-realization and compares her own situation vís-a-vís her husband to the state of hypnosis. What ‘husbands and the authorities do,’ she boldly confesses to her friend, is precisely what a hypnotist does: they tell you to shut up ‘and you shut up.’ In what might arguably be called the first Yugoslav feminist manifesto, she states that hypnosis is ‘when you silently listen and do what he tells you’ and then she boldly declares: ‘I know what I’m going to do. No more hypnosis.’


In the context of rigid socialist and patriarchal morality, the other couple in the film are depicted in an equally transgressive way. Jan is much older than his lover (and it is hinted in the film that he may well be married). More importantly, this declining relationship thematizes what will in the years to come become one of Makavejev’s preeminent concerns: the possibility or otherwise of marrying affection and duty; or, on a more universal level, the coexistence of the libidinal and the political. At some point in their relationship Rajka complains to Jan that she is not seeing much of him: ‘You’re married to your factory work,’ she says to him, actualizing the conflict between private and public spheres in socialism.


The way Makavejev stages the decline of Jan and Rajka’s relationship is indicative in this respect. Rajka enters an affair with a local womanizer and lorry driver, Boško, while Jan is awarded a major prize for exceptional achievement. Makavejev radically juxtaposes the scenes from the latter’s official ceremony, in which we hear the bureaucratic proclamations of political leaders followed by the sounds of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ performed by a Philharmonic Orchestra, with a scene in the cabin of Boško’s lorry, in which he and Rajka are having sex. The significance of this radical juxtaposition is twofold: in addition to raising the issue of the appropriateness of a socialist cultural model to cater to the real needs of the working classes (the grotesque academic performance of Beethoven in a copper factory to the at best indifferent audience), Makavejev’s juxtaposition, on a more general level, suggests that, contrary to the dictum of Party bureaucrats, the fullness of life will not be achieved either by work or in great ideas, but might be lying hidden in the private or libidinal sphere.

Author of this review: Dušan Radunović