The Last Serb in Croatia (Posljednji Srbin u Hrvatskoj, Croatia/Serbia, 2019)
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Predrag Ličina’s feature debut, an ambitious low-budget zombie comedy The Last Serb in Croatia (Posljednji Srbin u Hrvatskoj, 2019, Croatia/Serbia), is a mordant summary of the last 30 years during which Croatia declared independence from the imploding Yugoslavia, brutally squashed an unwise Serb rebellion, underwent a neoliberal political and economic reform, and joined NATO and EU. The film ridicules chauvinism through irony and sarcasm, by contrasting exaggerated feelings of ethnic pride with vices, stereotypes, and shortcomings, to expose the contradictions inherent in the notions of ethnic purity. Ličina’s satire is hyperbolic to the point of absurdity, but never obscures his lucid social commentary. He makes sure the soul-crushing effects of social ills are easily inferred even when the characters are drenched in zombie blood and guts and dialogue steeped in dark humour (the homophobic stigma understood to have delayed the long overdue declaration of love between two paramedics as one of them is about to “turn,” to name one example). Most importantly, the Croatia of the film echoes the real one which is a neoliberal client state whose affairs are overseen by Brussels and Washington, a country where uncoordinated deregulation and privatization of the public sector created powerful oligarchs routinely involved in economic crime, a country whose young are emigrating at an alarming rate in search of job opportunities, a country where fanatical patriotism, encouraged via cultural production, is expected from every citizen.
In Ličina’s film, a globalist cabal, “United Waters of the World,” convened at a space station orbiting the Earth, fences off Croatia, blocks all its ports, and releases a zombie virus into the population in order to destabilize the country and get at its water resources. Part of their plan is to alter international borders and give most of the Croatian territory to the neighbouring Slovenia. Milan (Krešimir Mikić), the son of a wealthy Serb businessman from Zagreb, teams up with Franka/Hrvojka (Hristina Popović), an ultra-popular star of Croatian historical epics, Vesna (Tihana Lazović), a Slovenian expansionist secretly conspiring with “United Waters,” and Maks (Dado Ćosić), an extreme nationalist unaware he is part Serb, in order navigate the chaos that follows the virus outbreak. Desperate to escape Zagreb for the safety of the countryside, the four wind up at an estate owned by a Serb family where they discover that ethnic Serbs are immune to the virus. A seemingly effective serum is developed by mixing Serb blood with rakija (plum schnapps), but instead of being a cure, “Serbum” turns the inoculated into “Neo Serbs,” a violent, crimson-eyed mob bent on destruction. Citing fears of what this “terrorist organization” might do, “United Waters” drops a bomb on Croatia designed to kill humans without affecting animals and natural resources. Milan and Franka/Hrvojka miraculously survive only to find that the now vacant Croatia has been taken over by Albanians.
The Last Serb spotlights the neocolonialist meddling involving powerful Western actors who change state borders in the Balkans, impose economic sanctions, manufacture political and economic crises, acquire obedient client states whose causes they take up and whose enemies they punish with “humanitarian” bombings. The film opens with a radio report about Croatians leaving the country in alarmingly large numbers to find better life elsewhere. The announcement is accompanied with a title, “Zagreb, Croatia in the near future, seven years after bankruptcy,” which appears over a montage of panoramic shots of the Croatian capitol. This is a dystopian Croatia devastated by an economic crisis whose origins, the film immediately hints, are external. The comically villainous “United Waters”—think Dr. Evil of Austin Powers (Jay Roach, 1997, US)—an organization chaired by Americans, but including other global powers, perched up in a futuristic space station straight out of Hollywood science fiction, is pleased that Croatia’s population has been halved as this makes it easier for them to acquire the source of “the best water in the world.” Their military wing, “United Army of the World,” surrounds the country with electrified fence using recruits from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia’s opportunistic neighbour to the east hoping to acquire the Dalmatian coast. That “United Waters” works with Slovenia, Croatia’s neighbour to the west meant to acquire most of the Croatian territory after the country is devastated by the virus, is simultaneously incisive and nonsensical. The notion of a Greater Slovenia has never been operational, but the prefix “Greater” connotes for the former Yugoslav spectators the actual expansionist national programs like the Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia, or Greater Albania. When “United Waters” hears that there is a Serb minority in Croatia immune to the virus, and therefore an obstacle to their plan, they wonder: “Haven’t we bombed some Serbs?” The indelicate question refers to USA/NATO involvement in the Balkans—the redistribution of territories by force between former Yugoslav states previously driven to economic collapse and incited to war.
The Last Serb mercilessly mocks Croatian ethnic nationalism by exposing its paradoxical logic. Maks, who does not realize he is half Serb until he is bitten by one of the zombies and hilariously only “turns” half-way, sports a chest tattoo of the letter “U” with Poglavnik Ante Pavelić’s (poglavnik is comparable to the German word führer) profile inside of it. The “U” stands for Ustaše, the Croatian ultranationalist organization formed in 1929 which came to power in World War II, during the existence of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, usually acronymed as NDH), a German satellite state. Broadly, the contradiction inherent in Maks refers to the biological impossibility of being ethnically pure. More pointedly, it alludes to discourse of ethnic purity frequently employed to disparage Croatia’s minorities, mostly the handful of Serbs still active in the country’s public life. To hammer in the point, the film is populated with billboards, absurdly promoting the ethnic purity of bottled water, which deadpan: “Pure Croatian Water. As pure as a tear.”
In The Last Serb, Croatian nationalism is energized by the culture industry. In an early sequence, Milan goes to see a film starring Franka Anić who plays Hrvojka Horvat (which “translates” as Croata Croat), the Wonder Woman lookalike main character of a series of operatic fantasy epics who delivers her vapid patriotic lines as if reciting poems. Ličina subverts this “poetry” when he sacrilegiously combines the lyrics from songs by Marko Perković “Thomspon,” a popular Croatian right-wing folk singer, and the reviled (in Croatia) anthem of Yugoslavia. The refugees who encounter Franka greet her as if she were Hrvojka and plead for her help, alluding to the “refuge” often found in jingoistic fantasies in times of desperation and crisis. Milan, who became rich after his father discovered “Pure Croatian Water” on his property and sold the land to the state, does not disclose that he is an ethnic Serb unless necessary. The pompadoured Milan is thoroughly Americanised and spends his time in massage parlors and luxury restaurants. That he loves Franka/Hrvojka’s films is absurd as they are aimed against the Serbs, but Milan’s overcompensation rather bluntly points to the performative process of passing—being able to conceal the stigmatized ethnic identity in order to assimilate and prosper in a chauvinistic society.
Ličina wades into the sensitive controversy regarding installation of bilingual, both Croatian and Serbian, signage in the city of Vukovar. The city, which still has a large Serbian population and was nearly levelled when the Serb forces overrun it in 1991, remains one of the most painful symbols of the war for the Croatians. When Milan, Franka/Hrvojka, Maks, and Vesna appear in the Serbian village of Slavujevci, its welcome sign has the Latin alphabet spelling scratched out and Cyrillic version added underneath to make it Славујевци. Hilariously, the Serb family is surnamed Drakula. The surname alludes to the Balkanist stereotype of Eastern Europe as mysterious and monstrous, and to the view, held by most Croatians, that the Eastern Orthodox Serbs and their Byzantine traditions are a vampiric presence usurping and secretly exploiting the Roman Catholic Croatia. Yet, Drakulas, though gruff, are affable. They apologetically recall having to kill a Croat family with whom they had been best friends when the Jurčićs attacked them: “They came over for coffee this morning turned into vampires. Not like in 1991, but real vampires!” Central to the film’s satire is the irony of the Serbs, who have been ostracized and largely expelled, now being needed for everyone’s survival.
“United Army” comes up with a solution: bomb Croatia and kill all its citizens. The rallying cry is sounded by General Christian Ass Lee Turchinson (Sergej Trifunović) who resembles General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964, UK/US), himself modelled after the notoriously cruel American Air Force general Curtis LeMay, a war criminal who famously promised to bomb Vietnam “back into the Stone Age.” The film takes aim at ineffectual liberal posturing through the character of the Italian humanitarian Francesca Gambini De La Norde, played by Croatian pop star Severina, whose activism is merely performative, not meant to dissuade Turchinson from taking the hardline. In an instant, Croatian citizens—Croats, Serbs, zombies, and others—are evaporated. Franka/Hrvojka and Milan, however, survive by jumping into a lake and make their way back to Slavujevci/Славујевци, only to find that the Drakula house is now occupied by Albanians who work for “United Waters.” The estate has been renamed Ilirija—in reference to Illyricum, the Roman province which encompassed much of the Balkans and from whose inhabitants today’s Albanians claim to be descended—while the sign at the entrance to the village has been Albanized into Slavujevcë. This depiction of Albanians biding their time until the Slavs have been disappeared by an outside power corresponds to their real-world partnership with USA/NATO to “reclaim” what they believe is their autochthonous territory temporarily occupied by Slavs.
Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, the region has become a European frontier patrolled by UN Humvees and strewn with USA/NATO bases throughout the states and statelets navigating the neoliberal globalist grinder while renegotiating their conceptualizations of the national. In these borderlands, former US Army generals who bombed the country own businesses with rebuilding contracts, statues are erected of former US presidents in gratitude for their bombing campaigns, Western politicians and former statesmen work as consultants and advisors to local leaders, US federal agencies sponsor the so-called NGOs to keep the region within the American sphere of influence, local politicians consult with Western ambassadors before making decisions, manufacturing industries and resources are Western-owned, social programs are non-existent and living standards dismal. Ultimately, the entirety of this bleak predicament is the target of the film’s satire.
The Last Serb in Croatia has won the award for Best International Feature Film at Madeira Fantastic FilmFest 2020, and several Golden Arenas, including for Best Make-up, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design, at Pula Film Festival 2019. The Last Serb is a treat for the fans of zombie comedy who are looking to expand their palate beyond Western cinema. If you enjoyed The Dead Don’t Die (Jarmusch, 2019, US), Zombieland (Fleischer, 2009, US), or Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004, UK/France/US), you will enjoy Predrag Ličina’s first film. Those looking to dig deeper will find, beneath the trappings of the genre, a sophisticated satirical look at the changing realities of Balkan post-conflict societies, especially the socioeconomic consequences of neoliberal reforms which have made these societies, many led by center-right populists, into pawns in the global geopolitical machinations.