PULA, Croatia — Just off the Istrian Coast of what is now Croatia, the Brijuni islands were once the playground of Austria-Hungary’s royalty. Hapsburg princes cavorted on the islands after inspecting their fleet in Pula, the Empire’s main military port after Napoleon’s army was ousted from the area in 1815. In that year the Treaty of Vienna allowed the Hapsburgs to revive the northern Adriatic Coast, their rule extending from Venice through Istria and Dalmatia down to Albania.
Pula had a fairly sound infrastructure even before the Hapsburgs moved in — the Romans, Goths, Byzantines, the Acquilean Patriarchs, Venetians and Napoleon all contributed to the growth of the port in some measure upon conquest. But the Austrians perfected it. They filled up marshes, built a modern sewage system and stone piers along the bay, and neatly arranged parks and trees and town squares. And thanks to the physician Albert Koch, they also managed to eradicate malaria from the Brijuni Islands, making the archipelago safe for aristocrats of generations to come.
Including Hollywood royalty and Communist dictators. When Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were guests of the former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito in 1974, they were treated to a getaway on the islands, then Tito’s private hideaway and nature preserve. Like most of Tito’s guests, they went on a safari on the main island to get a closer look at some of his exotic pets — among them a pair of elephants, a gift from Indira Gandhi.
Taylor and Burton also attended the Pula Film Festival just after Burton played the role of Tito as a young Communist army officer during the waning days of WWII in the film Sutjeska (The Fifth Offensive), a romantic account of the Communist victory over fascist forces in what would become Yugoslavia. The brainchild of Tito himself, the festival was instituted in 1953, and this year celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Marshall Tito’s filmophilia is well known. In this year’s documentary retrospective of the festival, a Serbian director remarks that when the dictator of Yugoslavia was finished dictating — somewhere around 6 p.m. every evening — he needed something to occupy his time. And so he turned to the silver screen. Hollywood in turn had a soft spot for the dictator, as year after year actors and directors paraded through Pula.
Indeed, Tito has always been a hero to many who kept the socialist faith, throughout the Cold War and even beyond. By defying the Soviets and then becoming one of the architects of the nonaligned movement (that group of poor, Third-World countries whose people had no cake, and didn’t get to eat it, either), Tito became something of a cult figure. This was kinder, gentler Communism. Communism with a human face. Compassionate Communism.
But the internal reality of Yugoslavia was a stark contrast to this romanticized notion of Titoism. Like the Soviets, the Yugoslav Communist Party had its own purges — though, granted, never on a Stalinist scale — eliminating various ideological undesirables. In the economic realm, Tito’s “socialist self-management” simply ran Yugoslavia into the ground financially — this in a country rich in natural resources, with the Adriatic Coast a potential goldmine in terms of shipping, fisheries, and tourism.
And so Yugoslavia became synonymous with dinginess and socialist stagnation. While Tito and Hollywood stars vacationed on the Adriatic, ordinary citizens in Yugoslavia endured both unemployment and inflation in double digits. And this while Tito railed against the true enemies of the state — materialism and capitalism, Coca-Cola and Levi’s — both of which, along with all other Western products, it was impossible to purchase in Yugoslavia during Tito’s rule.
But in Pula, year after year the Western celebrities saw an enlightened, cultured, benevolent dictator. And the movie stars continue to come, some for nothing other than to enjoy the sun and the sea air and to catch a glimpse of Vespasian’s amphitheater, the Roman arena where films are screened during the festival. But unlike the celebrities of old, those who attend today cannot be fooled into thinking that Tito is responsible for any of these things.
THIS YEAR’S HEADLINERS WERE the actors John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons. Irons gave a press conference in which he lamented the state of the film industry. While on the one hand disparaging the commercialism and lack of artistic value of special effects-laden American films, he also acknowledged that “there are films being made in Europe — I know having been on juries [at festivals] — that are so boring, it is absolute purgatory.”
Nonetheless, he is proud that the European film industry “is not about money.” His greatest caveat to festival organizers? “If you start to include commercial actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you will destroy it. The worst thing you could do would be to turn it into a total marketplace.”
In his diatribe against the Hollywood movie, he quite aptly likened it to “a prostitute… who always looks great, does everything you want… and then you forget about her right afterward.” As opposed to a “good film that is like a real woman, who isn’t all that tarted up, who very likely doesn’t do everything you want. But after a night with her you can’t get her out of your mind.”
But were his view of the industry implemented, would we not end up with something akin to Yugoslavia’s socialist stagnation — where the women were lovely, but where none of the stores sold Western products like hair remover or deodorant?
Perhaps this takes his brilliant analogy a step too far, but it is worth remembering that film can be art, but that it is also entertainment. And yes, there are negative aspects to every entertainment industry (long before Tito served his audiences films glorifying the state in Vespasian’s amphitheater, the Romans fed their own masses there with bloodsport).
Mass culture will never suit all palates, of that we can be certain. And for those with more discerning tastes, there are good films made every year on both sides of the Atlantic. But the answer is not to prevent the market from functioning, from denying people the entertainment they are capable of enjoying.
If what we want is the return of Kultur on a grand scale, the only way to achieve it will be through an authoritarian system of some kind. Perhaps Mr. Irons would care to lead a Hapsburg restoration, starting in their very military port of Pula. But until that glorious day arrives, the film industry will always have a place for Arnold.