Sarajevo is at the heart of Europe, and not just geographically. The city epitomises the continent in all of its diversity and conflicts. Late American writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag claimed that the 20th century began in Sarajevo, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferninand of Austria, and that it also ended there, with the siege of the city in the 1990s.
Oscar-winning Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanović’s latest film Death in Sarajevo is about the fictitious build-up towards the arrival of an EU commission with several heads of state in Hotel Europa, in the Bosnian capital. Led by Hatidza (Faketa Salihbegović-Avdagić; pictured above), the employees are threatening to go on strike during the event because they have not been paid in two months. The hotel manager Omer (Izudin Bajrovic) soons finds stealthy and nefarious ways to prevent the workers’ action from taking place. Meanwhile, the journalist Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan) conducts heated political interviews at the hotel rooftop, and a VIP guest speaker (Jacques Weber) rehearses a speech about the centenary of the murder.
Death in Sarajevo is a fast-paced and catchy comedy about the absurdity of conflict – be it at war, at work or at home. It places the futility of fighting in opposition to the urgency of having dissident voices. One of Vedrana’s interviewees urges armed conflict as the solution to the country’s problem, while another one believes that it is precisely the country’s split identity that defines it. He cries out: “please protect us from uniform thinking!”
The film discusses the roots of Bosnia’s conflicts in detail. It reveals that the country has always been a showdown arena for the armed fighting between Croats and Serbs. Bosnia Herzegovina is divided into two autonomous entities: Bosnia Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, with the Serbians claiming the latter as part of their own country. It was in Srpskan city of Sebrenica that the Serbs killed more than 8,000 Bosnians, the biggest massacre in Europe since the Second World War.
Most importantly, Death in Sarajevo is a film about much-needed reconciliation. Vedrana has a very impassioned and tense interview with a Serbian nationalist, which triggers the subject of the interview to point a gun to the journalist. He is called Gavrilo Princip (Muhamed Hadžović), named after the murderer of Franz Ferdinand in 1914. For ethnic Serbians, the historical Gavrilo Princip is a national hero, while for Bosniaks (ethnic Bosnians) he is a terrorist.
Reconciliation occurs when Gavrilo and Vedrana find a middle ground and agree on a description for the controversial figure : “he was a kid, a dreamer and a romantic”, states the journalist. She also reminds the ferocious nationalist that his hero was just 19 when he carried out the assassination. If Gavrilo and Vedrana can get on, then Bosnia must be a feasible nation after all.
Death in Sarajevo was presented on February 15th at the 66th Berlinale, and it is an entry for the official competition. It is a strong contender for the much coveted Golden Bear, as the event often gives its most important award to highly politically-charged films. In 2006 the also Bosnian Grbavica (Jasmila Žbanić), which delved into the consequences of war and rape, took the accolade home. Two journalists from DMovies are now at the Berlinale bringing the event’s best and the dirtiest films firsthand to you.