Bosnian director Danis Tanovic has had success before in Berlin, with another offputtingly-titled example of his particular brand of socially aware cinema. 2014’s “An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker” netted him the Grand Prix, aka the Silver Bear, and after the relatively low-impact “Tigers,” a true-life whistleblower saga about the Nestle corporation’s profit-before-people exploitation of the African market for Formula, he repeated that achievement last week, taking the runner-up prize again for “Death in Sarajevo.” Dour as the title sounds, it’s a pleasant surprise that the movie, while certainly presenting an overtly politicized, often angry view of the fraught, complex history of the Balkans, does so largely through fast-moving, satirically-minded parable, in which the tribulations of the management, employees and guests in a top Sarajevo hotel, come to represent all of Bosnian society. Polemical as it is, “Death in Sarajevo” is a hotel movie, one that fluidly entertains even as it educates.
It’s easy to see why Tanovic chose to set the film in this location: if the aim is to expose the various layers and levels of corruption within Balkan society, to have opposing ideologies and grievances represented by people in roles that parallel societal hierarchies, yet who are somehow forced to share the same space, it requires a large enough arena, simultaneously compartmentalized and yet holistic, to make the analogy work. Even so, there are some elements that of necessity feel contrived: of course, the seedy nightclub/casino in the bowels of the building has its ties to organized crime — a literal underbelly. And of course, this very day there is a TV crew filming interviews on the hotel roof which gives Tanovic an excuse to deliver an enormous amount of historical exposition and context, all backdropped by a literal overview of the city. Still, despite these on-the-nose elements and expository conveniences, the film moves so swiftly from one strand to the next and finds such compelling and surprising ways to knit them together that it’s rarely a distraction.
One other narrative choice that makes even the less plausible aspects of the telescoped plot feel more organic, is that it is set on the day an EU delegation is due to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, the event widely regarded as having catalysed the outbreak of World War I. This sudden influx of high-profile business may just be the thing that pulls the hotel back from the brink of bankruptcy, if harried manager Omer (Izudin Bajrović) can keep the creditors at bay for just one more day. To do that, however, he must find a way to quash a brewing trade dispute, with many of the below-stairs employees threatening to strike (quite reasonably, since they haven’t been paid in months). These events all colliding might seem overly convenient, except of course the reason the staff are choosing that day to lay down tools is so that the Euro bigwigs will notice: they all understand that no one cares about the plight of the little guy unless it threatens to disrupt something more “important.”
But the personal is tangled up in the political too: the head receptionist Lamija (Snežana Vidović), hungover after an ill-advised drunken one-night stand with a persistent sous-chef, discovers it’s her own mother Hatidža (Faketa Salihbegović Avdagić) who has worked in the hotel laundry for decades, who’s been tapped to lead the strike, which Lamija opposes. But when she sees the heavy-handed tactics Omer’s shady connections from the nightclub use to suppress the strikers, she starts to fear for her mother’s safety. Meanwhile on the roof the interviewer (Vedrana Seksan) gets into a heated debate with a firebrand Serb nationalist (Muhamed Hadzovic), which continues off camera, with a current of odd attraction fizzing between the two despite their diametrically opposed stances. Elsewhere, in a suite, a VIP (Jacques Weber) practices an important-sounding speech, while being spied on via a closed-circuit camera placed there by an overzealous junior member of the security detail, who himself must constantly field calls from his wife about a replacement sofa.
Tanovic mixes light and dark, earnest debate and soap opera very cleverly, but there is often an issue around characterization in a film constructed as this one is, so that people are less individuals with interiority and backstory than representatives of a type, or an ideology, or an approach. It means that even those whom we get to know most still feel more like pawns being pushed around a chessboard than people with whom we can empathize with on a human level — this may have the ensemble feel of an Altman movie, but it is more concerned with plot than character, and with idea than emotion. Still, the boardgame-style precision with which Tanovic moves his pieces around (until the slightly overcooked melodrama of the finale) foments its own kind of manic interest: we may not care too much about any of these people, but we certainly are compelled to find out what happens to them.
It’s strange that a film with so somber a name, and such an overt agenda to illuminate the murky complexities of Balkan politics, should play out so successfully as a thriller. But though ultimately Tanovic’s conclusions about the inescapably cyclical nature of the Bosnian national destiny seem pessimistic (when their backs are against the wall, almost all his characters behave in a cowardly, clumsy, or tragically self-defeating fashion) “Death in Sarajevo” has the energy and entertainment value of a Hollywood drama. The fluidity of the storytelling is no mean feat, considering just how intractable the region’s intricacies can seem to an outsider, but Tanovic dexterously and intelligently leads us through the minefield, while reinforcing the idea that politics in the Balkans is not a matter of life and death — it’s much more important than that. [B]