– Summer 2008

Behind the Velvet Curtain. Remembering Dušan Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism

Boris Buden

Reviewing filmmaker Dušan Makavejev's W.R.: Mysterije Organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971) a critic wrote: 'A movie that, had he been compelled to see it, would surely have given John Wayne a stroke.'1 Tito, who happened to be a big fan of John Wayne, saw it upon its release - and W.R. was banned in Yugoslavia. Britain also censored parts of the film: Channel 4 asked Makavejev to cover some details (mainly male erections) with computer graphics.2 In the USA, the film never received a proper theatrical release; its distribution was restricted in some areas to porn cinemas, where it was billed as a 'sex film'.3 W.R., however, is not a sex film, but a film about sex and freedom, an assemblage of heterogeneous material - fictional, documentary and archival footage - that is held together by one main theme: the life and work of Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst, sexual therapist and communist who invented the notion of the 'sexual revolution'. Both capitalism and communism at their late modernist stage had accepted that sex, to some extent, needs freedom. But Reich's point - and the very idea at the centre of Makavejev's W.R. - is exactly the opposite, namely, that freedom needs sex, or, more precisely, that a healthy sexual life of the masses is a precondition for the development of a free society. This is actually what the film is about: the belief, or rather the historical fate of the belief that a liberated sexuality ('free fucking', to use an expression from the film) can change the

  1. See J. Hoberman, 'Happy B-day, John Wayne', The Village Voice, 12 June 2007. Also available at http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0725,hoberman,77001,20.html (last accessed on 18 February 2008).

  2. Makevejev chose to do so with goldfish and psychedelic patterns.

  3. Raymond Durgnat, W.R. - Mysteries of the Organism, London: British Film Institute, 1999, p.12. See also http://www.filmreference.com/Films-Wi-Z/W-R-Mysterije-Organizma.html (last accessed on 18 February 2008).

  4. See http://www.bam.org/film/series.aspx?id=151 (last accessed on 18 February 2008). Also R. Durgnat, W.R., op. cit., p.6.

  5. Ibid., p.12.

  6. See Walter Benjamin, 'The Task of the Translator', Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), London: Fontana Press, 1973, pp.71-72.

  7. The label 'Black Wave' refers to a series of Yugoslavian films made in the late 1960s and early 70s. These films were derogatorily labelled as 'Black Wave' by the official critique because of their overall pessimistic character and their interest in the dark side of the socialist reality. Some of its most prominent representatives are Dušan Makavejev, Živojin Pavlović, Aleksandar Petrović and Želimir Žilnik. The Yugoslavian Black Wave was one of the most politically and aesthetically subversive film movements of that time.

  8. The documentary footage also shows counterculture poet Tuli Kupferberg performing a satirical song in the streets of New York, and Screw editor Jim Buckley having a cast made of his penis, as well as testimonies from Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis and painter and feminist Betty Dodson.

  9. 'Red Fascism' is a term coined by Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (trans. Vincent Carfango), New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980.

  10. The Action T-4, also referred to as the 'euthanasia program', was established by the Chancellery of the Third Reich under the direction of Philipp Bouhler and Dr Karl Brandt in 1939. By the time it finished in August 1941, between 200,000 to 250,000 adults and children with disabilities and hereditary and mental conditions had been secretly killed by lethal injections or in gas chambers.

  11. Sexpol is the short name for the German Association for a Proletarian Sexual Policy that was founded in 1931 by Wilhelm Reich. Its publishing project, Sexpol-Verlag (Verlag für Sexualpolitik), had as its goal the sexual education of young people. See R. Durgnat, W.R., op. cit., p.10.

  12. Asked in an interview whether he had finally abandoned communist ideology in Sweet Movie (1974), the film which followed W.R., Makavejev said: 'Actually I don't know. When Ana Prucnal and Pierre Clementi sing a refrain from "Bandiere rosse", "evviva il comunismo e la liberté" - you see that all this is in vain and yet there is some tenderness in it.' (Dušan Makavejev, 'Veliki povratak "unutarnjeg neprijatelja" Razgovor s Nenadom Polimcem', Jutarnji List, 25 August 2007). If Makavejev had ever been ashamed of his own communist past he probably wouldn't have mentioned such feelings, as the very purpose of shame is to put our feelings under control.

  13. Rastko Močnik, 'East as a Problem', 2006, unpublished essay.