Feature 01 Aug 16

A Very Different ‘Long Dark Night’

The rediscovery of the original 1980 screenplay of the classic Yugoslav wartime film ‘Long Dark Night’ shows how its director, Antun Vrdoljak, adapted to the times.

Sven Milekic Zagreb
A scene from the film. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

The screenplay ends like this: “Traces of last night’s drunken debauchery appear before his face: and Josef and Schnitzinger and Ana lay drunk and naked...He [Hans Sulka] lifts the automatic rifle and calls out: Josef! Josef! Camera freezes on his face. At that moment the firing of the automatic rifle is heard ... Everything lasts a long time.”

This is the last scene from the film Long Dark Night, a great hit by Antun Vrdoljak, a rarity among directors who made films about the Second World War before and after the Nineties. Vrdoljak, now 85, is a well-known director from Yugoslav times, when he made numerous films centred on the World War II Yugoslav Partisan movement.

However, audiences may remember the film, recently rerun by public Croatian Radio Television, HRT, ending quite differently.

It shows the crimes of “both totalitarian regimes,” the German Nazis and the Communist-led Partisans - but not of the Croatian Fascist Ustasa - and then the crimes of the Communists after the war with the persecution of the Volksdeutsche (Yugoslav ethnic Germans) and the communist prison camp at Goli Otok off the northern Croatian coast.

You may remember how the scene in which father Alojz Schmit, and not Hans Sulka, kills his son, Josef, takes place half-way through the film, and not at the end, as in the cited screenplay.

The problem is that you have never seen the original Long Dark Night that Vrdoljak wanted to shoot in 1980.

This has become clear because in the Croatian State Archives, in box number 1408 of the Parliament of the Socialist Republic of Croatia in Yugoslavia, we found the original screenplay, written in 1980 by Vrdoljak and the East German writer Wolfgang Held.

Held, who died in 2014, signed an entire array of screenplays in former German Democratic Republic, GDR, known for its rigid Communist ideology. His cooperation with Vrdoljak happened as part of a co-production between the Zagreb-based Adriafilm and the East German Deutsche Film, Aktiengesellschaft, DEFA.

DEFA was ready to invest 20 million dinars from that time [18 million euros in modern money] because the screenplay was centred on the anti-Fascist unit of Yugoslav Germans who fought against the Nazis. Formed by the Volksdeutsche in August 1943, it bore the name of German Communist chief Ernst Thalmann who was captured by the Nazis in 1933 and killed in 1944.

Adriafilm and Vrdoljak were interested in making the film and correcting the historical image of the Volksdeutsche - who were killed and expelled from Yugoslavia en masse after World War II - and who were more often associated with the infamous SS “Prince Eugen” division.

But they were three million dinars [2.8 million euros] short of closing the budget. That is why, in August 1980, they turned to the Committee for Celebrating Events and Personalities of the Revolution and the People’s Liberation War – as the Partisan struggle was called – within the Parliament of the Federal Republic of Croatia.

The front page of the script and the plea for finance for the film. Photo: Sven Milekic

Before asking for their piece of the financial “cake”, in honour of the 40th anniversary of the 1941 Anti-fascist uprising, they knocked on the doors of the guardians of the revolution, the Alliance of the Associations of the National Liberation Veterans, SUBNOR, which brought together Partisan war veterans.

“The Council of SUBNOR Croatia believes this project, which speaks about the formation and actions of the only German military unit that fought against Hitler’s followers in enslaved Europe during World War II, deserves social and financial support,” SUBNOR wrote to the specified Parliamentary Committee in September 1980, with a comradely request to take into consideration their positive opinion when deciding on the project.

Despite SUBNOR’s blessing, parliament denied financial help in June 1981, “despite all attempts and good intentions to help that project”. Goodwill was there but parliament had already allocated its funds to numerous other facilities and commemorative programmers.

To seal the financial deal, Vrdoljak had to wait until 1999, in independent Croatia, when the then Culture Minister of the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, Bozo Biskupic, backed the film. This was later confirmed by the government led by the Social Democratic Party.

And so Long Dark Night made it to the big screen in March 2004. What a shame that was, because the original screenplay, unlike the screenplay directed 24 years later, really centred on the Volksdeutsche and their fight against Fascism, which only about ten out of the 100 fighters from this unit survived.

While the Long Dark Night from 1980 centred on the Yugoslav Germans as lead characters, the later version pushed the Croats, Jews and even Serbs into the spotlight, the latter exclusively as the bad guys.

In the original version there is no role of an honest Croat, Ivan Ivo Kolar, who opposes all totalitarian regimes, nor is there his morally correct and anti-Communist parents, Luka and Kata. The original does not include his slightly promiscuous atheist wife, Vjera, or her brother, Joka, who are suspected of being “at least” half-Serbian in the film. The original version does not feature Ivo’s best friend, “a Croat but not an Ustasa”, as his character says in the movie, the Ustasa soldier, Matija Mata Cacic.

The role of one of the lead characters in the realised film, the Partisan commandant Spanac, has been developed from a considerably weaker role of the Partisan Matija. The original also did not feature the Partisan war criminal Brko from the later version, or the bad guy, Major, and even less the Serbian Sergeant (or, as Kata would put it, “Chetnik”).

“Once a Gendarme, always a [Royal Yugoslav police] Gendarme,” as his character states in the film.

SUBNOR's letter of support and parliament's rejection. Photo: Sven Milekic

The original does not contain scenes from Zagreb, or the partial reconstructions of historic events, like the call-out of Jewish students (though both Jewish and Serbian students were called out in reality) from the University of Zagreb to the Maksimir Stadium in 1941.

While the first version ends with the horrific murder of the lead character’s own son, to stop and prevent an even greater evil, the second version treats this event as only one of an array of dramatic moments, not as the greatest.

Though the dialogues among the characters are mostly transferred from the first to the second screenplay, the realised version contains an additional series of events and conflicts after the murder of the son. The 2004 film adds in the Partisan victory, the shooting of the Ustasa, the saving of Ustasa Mata, Ivo’s meeting with his parents, the “revolution that devours its children” and Ivo’s imprisonment on Goli Otok and his later return home.

To find out why the later version endured such radical revision, we called Vrdoljak to obtain his own explanation.

He gave a statement that boils down to saying that the original screenplay was never realised due to his dissatisfaction with the German co-producers, while the screenplay of the realised film is different due to the workings of the imagination in any given moment, as it would probably be different again in another 20 years.

He quoted a poem by famous Croatian 20th-century poet, Tin Ujevic, and concluded that he actually did not want to comment further on this.

Vrdoljak thus wants people to believe that, quite by chance, imagination changed the screenplay to such an extent that a film that was supposed to entirely promote anti-Fascist and Communist values became harshly critical of the Communist regime, erasing all the differences between Ustasa and Partisans, whilst showing audiences only the crimes of the Partisans.

Vrdoljak will have a hard time convincing anyone that it is just by chance that the film - in both screenplays - corresponds to contemporary political circumstances and the dominant ideologies of those times.

This is because, during that delicate year 1980, when Yugoslav Communist leader Josip Broz Tito died, Vrdoljak did not open up what were then taboo topics and tell a story about the fate of the Volksdeutsche after the war, about Goli Otok or about the human side of Ustasa who helped the anti-Fascists and did not commit crimes.

He only processed these topics 24 years later, when it became opportune to do so, just as it was opportune back in 1980 to celebrate Communists among German folk.

In 1999, during the rule of Croatia’s wartime HDZ President, Franjo Tudjman, Vrdoljak rewrote the screenplay, blaming characters of Serbian origin for most of the crimes, regardless of whether they were Partisans, Chetniks or Gendarmes. And so it was that the crimes of the Croatian Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, NDH, against Serbs were not mentioned, or rather only those against Jews, which in his film were committed by domestic and foreign Germans, not by Croatian Ustasa.

Critic Damir Radic gave the most accurate description of his film by depicting it as like Jakov Sedlar’s 1999 Cetverored (Four by Four), which underplayed the Ustasa and exaggerated Partisan crimes. Not only was this done to strengthen Tudjman’s narrative about the need for pan-Croatian reconciliation but it also suits the current narrative of the current HDZ and of Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, in their condemnation of “both totalitarianisms”.

“This is surely my most favourite film because it is the first film which I did without compromises, no one could tell me: this is OK, this isn’t OK,” Vrdoljak said at the promotion of the film in 2004, as if already responding to questions about changes to the screenplay.

That is the point. It is not that no one was able to tell him “this is OK,” but no one had to. Over decades of work, Vrdoljak has developed a certain sensitivity for recognising and adapting to every political situation.

Between the original screenplay from 1980 and the realisation of the rewritten film in 2004, Yugoslavia and the German Democratic Republic fell, and so did Socialism and Communism. Regimes and interpretations of historical events and evaluation of heroes and criminals - both Ustasa and Partisans – changed; everything was turned upside down. Except for Vrdoljak and his creativity. He has remained adaptable to the regime, whatever regime that may be at any given moment.

The article was originally published on the Novosti website.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus