Berlin Film Review: ‘Death in Sarajevo’

An expertly modulated choral drama that is also one of the most clear-cut and boldly stated summations of Bosnia’s paralyzing discord.

'Death in Sarajevo' Review: Danis Tanovic
Courtesy of The Match Factory

The benign yet caustic spirit of Robert Altman infuses Danis Tanovic’s terrifically fluid top-to-bottom precis of a century of conflict in “Death in Sarajevo.” As much a cry of frustration at the cycle of hatred in Bosnia-Herzegovina as it is an expertly modulated choral drama, set in a hotel and incorporating the totality of the country’s citizenry, the film seamlessly weaves together Tanovic’s cherished themes and is certainly one of the most clear-cut and boldly stated summations of the region’s paralyzing discord. International arthouses will be scrambling for bookings.

Some buyers may be nervous that offshore audiences won’t recognize the litany of names bandied about in one particularly heated moment: Not to worry, since a relatively educated audience is the target anyway, and that sort of in-depth background knowledge isn’t necessary when the plot and thrust are so well delineated. While liberally inspired by French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy’s play “Hotel Europe,” the film incorporates only small portions of the text and is more indebted to a “Grand Hotel” model, using a very Altmanesque sense of multiple characters in forming the body politic.

The Hotel Europe (shooting used Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn) is prepping for a major EU get-together marking the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip. The timing couldn’t be worse: The hotel is short of funds, the bank refuses to extend credit, and the workers, unpaid for two months, are about to strike. Cool-headed manager Omer (Izudin Bajrovic) will do what it takes to prevent the staff from walking out, including getting Enco (Aleksandar Seksan), the gangster owner of the cellar strip club, to have his thugs beat up the labor leader.

Chief receptionist Lamija (Snezana Vidovic) glimpses the goons attacking the worker, but she likes her job as Omer’s No. 2 and wants things to run smoothly, so she says nothing. Meanwhile, French star Jacques (Jacques Weber) checks in before going on that night to perform the Levy play; over-eager security guard Edo (Edin Avdagic) places a surveillance camera in Jacques’ suite to ensure his safety, though between snorts of coke and texting his g.f., the actor isn’t paying much attention.

On the hotel rooftop, TV journalist Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan) is doing interviews for a show about Princip, interviewing experts and historians (including real figures) about how perceptions of the assassination and its perpetrator have changed. She also brings on Gavrilo Princip (Muhamed Hadzovic), a combative descendant and Serb nationalist who argues that Princip was a hero rather than a terrorist.

Tanovic smoothly glides his gimbal-attached camera through the hotel’s varied spaces, using Lamija as his connecting guide through the hotel’s different levels, from the dark warren of basement corridors where kitchen and laundry staff toil, to the open reception areas. Her erect posture and precise, clipped walk keep the camera trailing in her wake as she attempts to ensure the smooth running of the establishment. But then her laundress mother, Hatidza (Faketa Salihbegovic-Avdagic), is elected to lead the strike when her predecessor disappears, and Lamija needs to choose between filial devotion and hotel loyalty.

The ace script keeps everything in balance, effortlessly interlacing scenes with humor as it merges the different strata together en route to its disturbing climax. Tanovic uses the news reportage as a history lesson of sorts, clearly demarcating the different sides, and making Vedrana a righteously quick-witted slayer of cant as she argues with the modern-day Princip about the brutal civil war in the 1990s and the reasons why Bosnians aren’t able to embrace multiculturalism. Graphic designer Bojan Hadzihalilovic characterizes the Bosnian soul as one of “hysterical dualism,” and Tanovic’s message — “protect us from uniform thinking” — is a plea for fraternity. Without it, the nation is destined to remain paralyzed by enmity.

Vedrana asks, who would Princip kill today: one of the Euro fat cats, or a nationalist leader? And unlike in 1914, would an assassination make any difference today? “Death in Sarajevo” engages with this and other very big questions, knowing that dialogue, rather than a pat answer, is the only way to move forward. The only air of uncertainty in the film concerns the Levy text, though perhaps that’s Tanovic’s goal: Is the philosopher’s very calculated balance of European intellectualism with emotion designed to help a nation destroyed by civil conflict, or is it too tainted by the blatant self-promotion of an outsider? The answer is likely found in preconceptions viewers already have of Levy’s persona and his work.

Performances are uniformly riveting, with each lead given their moment to shine. For much of the time, Vidovic is seen from the back and at a slight distance, until audiences yearn to be able to stare into her face; once they’re given the opportunity, in Omer’s daylight-filled office, it becomes a gripping moment.

Lensing is far smoother than in Tanovic’s previous effort, “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” (although that too used its visual design to great effect): Erol Zubcevic’s thrillingly lithe camerawork flows through the hotel, following the characters and giving a proper sense of the building’s various levels in both a physical and metaphorical sense. Redzinald Simek’s editing is impeccable.

Berlin Film Review: ‘Death in Sarajevo’

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 15, 2016. Running time: <strong>84 MIN</strong>. (Original title: “Smrt u Sarajevu”)

  • Production: (France-Bosnia-Herzegovina) A Margo Cinema, SCCA/pro.ba, France 3 Cinema production, with the participation of Canal Plus, France TV, Fondacija za Kinematografiju Sarajevo. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Francois Margolin, Amra Baksic Camo. Co-producer, Adis Dapo.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Danis Tanovic, liberally inspired by the play "Hotel Europe" by Bernard-Henri Levy. Camera (color, widescreen), Erol Zubcevic; editor, Redzinald Simek; music, Mirza Tahirovic; production designer, Mirna Ler; costume designers, Ina Arnautalic, Hatidza Nuhic; sound (Dolby Surround 5.1), Samir Foco, Camille Lotteau; assistant director, Nermin Hamzagic; casting, Timka Grahic.
  • With: Jacques Weber, Snezana Vidovic, Izudin Bajrovic, Vedrana Seksan, Muhamed Hadzovic, Faketa Salihbegovic-Avdagic, Edin Avdagic, Aleksandar Seksan, Rijad Gvozden, Bojan Hadzihalilovic, Nihad Kresevljakovic. (Bosnian, French, English dialogue)