The 9th annual South East European Film Festival started with — no pun intended — a bang on May Day, with the world premiere of Sarajevo, an Austrian feature about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The liquidation of the heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian throne at Sarajevo, the capital of the Empire’s Bosnia and Herzegovina province, took place 100 years ago on June 28, 1914. The shooting, believed to be carried out by members of the Serbian extremist group “Black Hand,” triggered the events that erupted into World War I a month later, on July 28.
Like Oliver Stone in 1991’s seminal JFK, Sarajevo’s director Andreas Prochaska and writer Martin Ambrosch have created a counter-narrative to the official version of events as to why the Austro-Hungarian Archduke was shot that’s full of dark conspiracy theories. In the thriller, immediately after Ferdinand’s slaying the authorities task examining magistrate Dr. Leo Pfeffer (Florian Teichtmeister) to expeditiously investigate the crime. At first, Pfeffer — a bicycle-riding loyal servant of the state — does so, but in the course of his formal investigation, like New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner in JFK), Pfeffer uncovers unsettling evidence indicating that something is seriously amiss.
As in the JFK case, there are irregularities with the Archduke’s motorcade and lax security measures for the royal passage through Sarajevo’s streets, as well as the revelation in advance of the parade route in the press.
However, unlike the Kennedy assassination, wherein the lone gunman theory was the sanctioned story, a ring of Serbian co-conspirators are implicated in the Archduke’s murder. [NOTE: PLOT SPOILER ALERT.] Pfeffer is pressured by high ranking Austro-Hungarian politicians, law enforcement authorities and military men to hastily put his John Hancock on a concocted Warren Commission type of report that claims the government of Serbia backed the Black Hand assassins. But Pfeffer insists on doing his due diligence in due course and smells a rat. When he balks at signing off on the bogus report, the converted Jew’s ancestry is thrown back in Pfeffer’s face by anti-Semitic officials.
Sarajevo skillfully unravels like a police procedural and becomes a political thriller crossed by a whodunit. But more important than who actually shot Ferdinand is: Why was he killed? The movie mystery includes many film noir conventions, such as the outside investigator who follows his internal moral code versus establishment bureaucrats, and for good measure, a high society dame is thrown into the mix, with Melika Forouton portraying the swanky Serbian Marija Jeftanovic. And in a nod to the post-9/11 “War on Terror,” imprisoned Serbians are waterboarded, tortured and held in Abu Ghraib-type squalor.
[NOTE: PLOT SPOILER ALERT.] Like a dog with a bone Pfeffer doggedly attempts to pursue the truth and in the process uncovers the hidden hand of Austro-Hungarian and German military intelligence services, which have their own sinister agendas. According to the film’s conspiracy theory, the liberal-minded Archduke wanted to grant the Empire’s ethnic groups greater autonomy, so reactionary forces eliminated him before Ferdinand could ascend to the throne by financing Serbian radicals. Plus, his orchestrated death provided the pretext Austro-Hungarian and German gung-ho hawks needed to declare war on Serbia, which was conveniently (if falsely) blamed for organizing and funding an invasion of Serbia. (By the way, Sarajevo is not only exquisitely timed for the centennial of the Archduke’s assassination, but for the 50th anniversary of the falsified Gulf of Tonkin Incident on Aug. 2, 1964, which provided another warmonger, President Lyndon Johnson, with the pretext to escalate the Vietnam War.)
But the best laid plans of mice, men and militarists often go awry, and the Austro-Hungarian and German plot resulted in the carnage of World War I, one of the greatest bloodbaths in human history that laid waste to the Empire and Germany.
More than Stone’s JFK Sarajevo is reminiscent of another classic movie set in South East Europe — Costa-Gavras’ Academy Award winning Z. In this 1969 masterpiece, Greece’s liberal-minded candidate (movingly played by Yves Montand) is assassinated by a high ranking rightwing conspiracy, and a prosecutor who is a faithful functionary of the state (Jean-Louis Trintignant) stumbles upon the truth, then — like magistrate Pfeffer — tries to do the right thing. But unlike the rapidly paced Z (which scored the Oscar for Editing, as well as for Best Foreign Film), Prochaska’s carefully calibrated Sarajevo moves at a more deliberate pace.
On May 1 Sarajevo was SEEFest’s opening night gala, screened at the prestigious Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. Festival Director Vera Mijojlic was among those who welcomed the audience of hundreds to the screening, where the film’s production executive, Klaus Lintschinger, Austrian Broacasting Corporation’s (ORF) head of features, introduced Sarajevo and took part in a post-screening Q&A, which was followed by a reception in the WGA Theater’s lobby.
World War I’s unprecedented mass murder and mayhem, which was set into motion by incendiary events in South East Europe, inspired many of cinema’s greatest antiwar movies, including: Lewis Milestone’s 1930 Best Picture and Best Director Oscar winner All Quiet on the Western Front; Jean Renoir’s 1937 La Grande Illusion; Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 Paths of Glory; Philippe De Broca’s 1966 King of Hearts; Richard Attenborough’s 1969 satire Oh! What a Lovely War; and Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli. The well-acted, well-made Sarajevo, with its vivid cinematography and anti-imperial compelling conspiracy theory — which Lintschinger insists is historically-based — propels this film into their ranks as one of the great pacifist pictures incited by the First World War’s senseless slaughter. 100 years on, Sarajevo reminds us that war is the ultimate not-so-glorious grand illusion — and still hell.
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).