As with the other nations once under Communist rule, the republics of the former Yugoslavia remain home to iconic buildings and monuments that are now being fetishized by the West as fading relics of a world outside capitalism.
Director Nicolas Wagnières in his debut documentary feature Hotel Jugoslavija (2017), which screened at the Berlin International Film Festival this February, considers such a flagship edifice as a prism to reflect on the past, and to mourn the loss of images that have lost their legitimacy.
Located at the Belgrade Danube banks, Hotel Jugoslavija opened its doors in 1969 and was in the years that followed one of the biggest and luxurious hotels in the former Yugoslavia.
Wagnières’ film argues that the declining fortunes of the hotel mirror those of Yugoslavia as a whole, as it broke apart amid rising nationalism.
At the time of the filming, the year is 2005 and the hotel – which the director only discovered as an adult when he rekindled contact with Belgrade – is about to be closed for renovation. Wagnières keeps returning to it «near-religiously» over the years, «filming to retain and regain», as he puts it.
The fading letters of the hotel name, emblazoned across its vast façade, now bares the witness of its past time glory that has been slowly fading after the end of the Yugoslav era. Perhaps it is known to some foreigners nowadays as a curiosity and a memorial to the Brutalist architecture commissioned by Tito, which characterised the era and appears to us as taken straight out of a sci-fi movie.
Wagnières portrays sensory impressions of his past almost as a form of invocation – from catching octopuses in the Adriatic Sea to the smell of heating oil on the streets of Belgrade and Tito’s funeral on French TV. As he does so, the camera slowly and perpetually pans down the wood-panelled hallways of Hotel Jugoslavija – taking us through its sprawling foyers, lined with glass-cut chandeliers. The blue-carpeted, white spiral staircase of this impressive example of modernist architecture, gives testimony to the hotel’s former glory – even when the deserted hallway suggests its occupants have long departed.
A political and personal narration
Wagnières was born outside the region to a Swiss father and a Serbian mother who left Yugoslavia in the 1960s to be with her Swiss husband. His approach mixes a wider lens of political, nation-shaping events with a very personal one – imbued with an obsessive nostalgia for what was always out of reach but still somehow formative for his childhood.
As Wagnières narrates, musing in his native French in a manner that suggests he is still trying to make sense of his impulse to make the film, we realise he feels both as belonging to the country and completely distant from it. In attempting to recapture a childhood of holidays spent in his mother’s homeland – a country he is very conscious of that has now vanished – he searches his own recollections to find the key into its collective memory. His scattershot glances over an historical context feels frustratingly meandering and cursory at times, and comes off as a less ordered research than a chance collection of remembered impressions.
«Notorious career criminal Željko Ražnatović, commonly referred to as ‘Arkan’, was running a casino on the premises.»
Still, the impressions stay true enough to the conception of a film that is less of a historical narration than an emotional and associative attempt to close a perceived gap in identity. The film also offers the viewer an intrinsic understanding of the erasure of an idea of socialism that has had a more positive reputation as a unifier than the more crushing Moscow-led manifestations.
Past time glory
Originally planned as part of a modern urban utopia project, the huge hotel structure of more than 350 rooms – designed by famed architects of the Zagreb school of modernism– hosted persons of high rank, including Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon and Willy Brandt, as well as various film and pop stars. Wagnières has unearthed scant archival footage of the hotel in its heyday – including a German commercial for its bustling luxury from the ‘70s–- but this only increases the ghostly feel of a grand building lost in the mists of time. He interviews previous hotel employees as well as his own mother, who recalls the enthusiasm that characterised the youth group projects that assisted in rebuilding the country after the devastation of World War II.
Yugoslavia was at that time united under Tito’s conception of a so called «third way socialism», which sought a non-aligned move from the East-West divide, and his motto of «brotherhood and unity» kept at bay the conflict which erupted after his death. Archival footage shows youth heartily digging on a construction site – the symbolic initiatives that invested such labour with a shared sense of history transcending ethnic divides. The suggestion being that the propagandistic slogans around these efforts of reconstructing Yugoslavia were embraced uncritically with an optimism for the future – a slant on the past that the fate of the hotel itself undercuts, while dissenting voices against Tito’s communist system are kept peripheral.
As the hotel changed hands over time and was privatised, Hotel Jugoslavija mirrored the tumultuous fortunes of a country hammered by sectarianism, a return of war, and embargoes. Notorious career criminal Željko Ražnatović, commonly referred to as ‘Arkan’, was running a casino on the premises by the time it was hit during the 1999 NATO bombardment. We are presented with a Belgrade news station’s footage that shows the confusion and damage.
The team of Luc Besson’s French-American crime world thriller 3 Days to Kill (2014), recently used the iconic hotel as a location to add exotic mystique to a shoot-out between the CIA and an arms trafficking gang, showing the windows across its facade blown out as a bomb is detonated. Wagnières has chosen to include a clip of the action scene in his documentary to illustrate how Serbia came to be stereotyped as an enclave of Balkan lawlessness.
Finally, we see the hotel complex today, re-opened with tacky neon accents, a slick iPhone store and an American-style diner with waitresses on roller-skates – portraying an erasure of the past, not by bombs, but by the drive of global capitalism to transform everything into its own commercial image.