Small, low-budget productions often provide a better insight into current realities than the multimillion-dollar projects celebrated each year at the Berlin International Film Festival (the Berlinale). This year, in particular, a striking contradiction was apparent.
Taking its lead from the German government, Berlinale management insisted on the in-person festival despite record levels of COVID-19 infections, putting the lives and health of moviegoers, filmmakers, distributors, publicists , media and other industry personnel at risk. Behind the more than hollow phrases proclaiming a “signal for culture” (Minister of Culture Claudia Roth, Green Party) and the victory of “freedom and democracy” (Mayor of Berlin Franziska Giffey, Social Democratic Party, SPD ) hide the very real financial interests of the big media and entertainment companies, as the WSWS pointed out before the start of the Berlinale.
At the same time, serious filmmakers challenge official complacency and indifference to working-class life. This certainly applies to working class heroesa Serbian film by Miloš Pušić featured in the Berlinale’s Panorama program, which was made available to the WSWS online.
working class heroes is not a nostalgic look at past struggles but rather, from start to finish, grounded in today’s reality. The viewer is drawn into the middle of the action at a large construction site in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, where a group of illegally employed workers are being brutally exploited by a real estate speculator. The events take place 30 years after the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia and the restoration of capitalism in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. With a mix of docudrama and suspense thriller elements, we see how the daily abuse of labor leads to growing resistance, eventually taking explosive forms.
“F…ing mud” – that expletive spat out by main protagonist Lidija Jakčić (superbly played by Jasna Đuričić) – provides a fitting opening. She swaps her high heels for rubber boots and goes to a still-inhabited part of a building complex being converted by the company with the pompous name “Magnus Domus Building” to evict a family from their apartment with the help of ‘security agents. “You fascists,” shouts the mother. Lidija is the chief secretary, public relations representative and confidante of the dodgy construction contractor (Filip Đurić). She helps him enforce his illegal dealings around the clock, occasionally shares his bed, and accompanies him on drinking sprees at a seedy club.
With the help of foreman Braco (Predrag Momčilović), she oversees the construction team, which is forced to exert superhuman effort, sometimes with open threats, sometimes with small bribes. For weeks, the workers receive little or no money. For a few extra dinars, they work at night and in shifts on Sundays. Their situation is so desperate that an older worker collapses. He mutilates his hand and shouts the old partisan song “Bella Ciao”, sung in the past not only by the Italian resistance fighters but also by the Yugoslav partisans of ex-president Tito. Another worker has his leg crushed by an excavator, to make sure he doesn’t have to continue working. Lidija hands over the worker’s salary arrears to her hospital bedside with her dismissal notice.
The real estate company uses these methods to meet its deadline for presenting the construction project to the media and the public. The local bishop (Radoslav Vojnović) is also invited, who is supposed to bless the project as “social housing”. Workers are given new, shiny yellow hard hats for presentation, which they must return afterwards. Scaffolding work on the site is taking place without any protection.
As they line up with their helmets on, the pompous company boss struts in front of the cameras. With a condescending gesture and the typical cynicism of new upstart capitalists from Eastern Europe, he proclaims: “Here you see our heroes of the working class!
With an artificial smile and a lot of make-up, Lidija praises the “great investment” of the Magnus Domus team in front of television journalists. “I must say that we are expecting German partners”, she stresses, which means: “This project must be completed in accordance with the [European Union] standards, i.e. the highest quality. She also stresses the importance of this “social housing project” which, in the future, “will welcome young married couples”.
Lidija herself is a victim of the miserable conditions. In the canteen, the workers say they know she has to “talk like that”. Her apartment is a dilapidated one-room apartment where she lives with her unemployed husband and child. To make ends meet, she allowed herself to be bought by the corrupt entrepreneur. On the construction site, however, she faces growing resentment, led by a worker called “the professor” (Boris Isaković) by his co-workers. Increasingly, Lidija doubts her own status. When a young worker, “the kid” (Stefan Beronja), sustains life-threatening injuries after a fall at night, Lidija makes a decision. The boss tries to cover up the incident and Lidija makes an important decision.
At the end of the film, the “working class heroes” fought back. There is no reconciliation, no individual solution, no complaint about conditions. This is the omen of a fight to the death. The final shot of the film discreetly evokes the red color of the revolution. A transparent red lattice fence appears in front of the building with its empty window frames. “The International” resonates softly in the background.
working class heroes is a remarkably invigorating film from a director born in 1980, just 10 years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Thirty years of capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe and the Balkans have shattered many illusions about Western democracy, rising living standards and peace. The EU and especially Germany have used Eastern Europe for brutal exploitation. Pušić’s film heralds a new era, reflecting a growing wave of anger and rebellion on the part of workers in these countries.
The title working class heroes is presumably an allusion in part to John Lennon’s 1970 “Working Class Hero”. Lennon commented on the song: “I think it’s a groundbreaking song. … I think it’s for people like me who are part of the working class, who are supposed to be integrated into the middle classes or into the machinery. This is my experience, and I hope this is just a warning to people. The title also recalls the efforts of former Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe to invoke “working class heroes” to falsely present themselves as representatives of socialism.
Pušić, whose short film lullaby for a boy (2007) gained an international audience and who directed two other feature films, Autumn on my street (2009) and dieback (2013), explains in his director’s notes: “We wanted to portray the life of a worker without any scenery, just as it is. … Our heroes are ordinary people whom we pass by every day without noticing them. They build our cities, our streets and our apartments. Without insurance, medical care and a secure salary, they don’t know what’s next tomorrow. … They are people forgotten by society, which in turn projects a false image of concern for everyone.”
It presents its protagonists as people with normal needs for love, football matches or vacations by the sea. After the break-up of Yugoslavia, the “teacher” tells the “kid” that he has no never saw the sea again. The “kid” has just fallen in love and wants to go to Sutomore, a popular resort on the Adriatic coast in Montenegro.
Above all, the film presents its protagonists not only as victims of oppression, but ready to fight back with growing self-confidence.
The “new era of liberal capitalism that we have so longed for” is characterized by the fact that workers are “the least cogs in the infernal machinery of politics and greed”, according to the director. Workers are the “collateral damage” of the past decades. Some have become wealthy, but the majority have been forced to fight for their existence, he said, adding that he recently felt “a lot of movies dealing with social themes are too polished and fake.”
The immediate trigger for the film was the number of fatal accidents on construction sites reported in the newspapers, accidents for which no one was held responsible. But the yard is just a “microcosm” for today’s social values, says Pušić. In fact, it demonstrates that the maxim “profit first” is destroying the lives of working people around the world.
The illusions fueled by capitalist restoration in the 1990s have suffered severe blows. Instead of democracy, prosperity and peace, European powers and the United States have generated vast social inequalities, brutal exploitation, authoritarian regimes and the danger of war.
working class heroes is a highly topical film, sounding like a call to fight for imminent uprisings. It deserves the widest possible audience.