FILM AS AN ABREACTION OF TOTALITARIANISM Vinko Brešan’s Marshal Tito’s Spirit (1999)

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Funny spectre

‘It’s such a scary movie. The film shows how it is still alive.’This was a comment made by one of the Croatian spectators after the projection of the movie Marshal Tito’s Spirit (1999).

But what is that ‘it’? What is the meaning of this ‘it’, this ‘it’ which is so common in our unconscious thoughts, representing for this viewer some kind of repulsion, something uncanny? For many people raised in so-called ‘communist’ countries, one of the associations is that ‘it’ is a spectre, the one from the famous Karl Marx slogan – ‘A spectre is still haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism’.

Tito’s death was for some the death of the father of the nation, while for others it was the long-awaited liberation from a totalitarian leader. While some were crying, others were celebrating. Tito’s majestic funeral in 1980 was a preliminary to the funeral of the country itself, built, as it was, upon different republics, whose new nationalistic leaders, like liberated sons (in some aspects very much like the sons from Freud’s ‘Totem and taboo’), were indulging in separatist and nationalistic feelings (which in former Yugoslavia would once have been liable to sanctions). When the war in former Yugoslavia blazed up with unbelievable atrocity, Tito’s name – as the name of a hated leader who had ruled over Yugoslavia – became almost too shameful to mention and, in the newly separated countries, at times, even dangerous. Those who have been making out Yugoslavia to be Second World War partisans have, in the new republics, become marginalized and considered as members of a ‘red gang’, while all the usual Yugoslav and communist insignia have been removed from public places.

It is not that people want to forget, but sometimes it is safer to forget, to repress the memory of something that has been blamed for all the contemporary troubles, for past injustices inflicted upon those people who fled from Yugoslavia because they feared Communism, for the alleged economic exploitation by certain republics, and so on. To forget everything which has been achieved, to rage against it has become as politically fashionable as being a nationalist or as suddenly remembering all the family members who once were on the opposite side to the partisans or in the Yugoslav army. Yet, again, like the sons in Freud’s ‘Totem and taboo’ who started to forbid the very things which their father was stopping by his mere presence, the nationalist leaders continued to perpetuate Tito’s pattern of governing, his glamour, the undemocratic press and other such characteristics of his rule. Narcissistic grandiosity was the compensation for their vulnerability and bitterness.

Years later, when people were exhausted by the war and national tendencies had proven to be as short-sighted and dangerous as totalitarian anachronistic ideologies, Vinko Breˇsan made this movie, Marshal Tito’s Spirit, in which he articulates the repressed problem with much humour.

The film takes place on a small island off the Croatian coast. Tourism, which was the main source of income, has vanished there due to the war in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the situation on the island is now a rather depressing one. The mayor, a nationalist and a dealer who has recently made his fortune from the transition to privatization, as is so often the case in countries that are going through such change, owns the only (albeit empty) hotel as well as the Museum of the Revolution, the local bar and so on. In the new Croatia, the elderly men who had fought as partisans in the Second World War and who were considered to be die-hard communists, are now on the defensive. Like members of a secret society, these veterans have to keep their red flags and their busts of Lenin and Tito carefully under wraps.

But then, out of the blue, Marshal Tito’s ghost appears at the funeral of one of the partisans, which was being carried out secretly in communist fashion. The story of Tito’s appearance spreads quickly and a young local police officer is appointed from the mainland to investigate the mystery. The reaction of many of the islanders is one of shock as if they had heard the news of a vampire wandering around. Strings of garlic are hung up all over the place and many people display crucifixes. The event encourages the old veterans to dust their insignia and regain once more their self-confidence. And yet these dusted uniforms serve only to emphasize the spectral atmosphere. As for the mayor, inspired by the religious tourism that had attracted millions of visitors to a small town in Bosnia after the apparition of the Virgin Mary there, he now decides to introduce ‘Socialist Spiritualistic Tourism’ to the island, that is to say to use the communist rallies, slogans and parades of the past as a means of capitalizing: what does ideology matter if one can earn money from it? Indeed, the island is soon invaded by veterans and old communists.

But who is this spectre, this ghost? As the young policeman discovers, the ghost is in fact a patient from the nearby mental hospital, a retired historian whose personality has switched to Marshal Tito’s. Tito, being the charismatic individual that he was, inevitably inspired a whole variety of stories. One such story was that he was actually the ‘double’, the impostor, with whom the Russians replaced ‘our’Tito; there is even the theory that he did not in fact die. In the film Marshal Tito’s Spirit veterans revive this old fantasy: ‘They lied that he’d died’. In this way, the mental patient finds himself the object of interest from two opposite sides. At one point, when the veterans (who have in the meantime once again taken over the island) discover that he is a patient, they keep him in custody, where they can manipulate him. This also corresponds to the stories concerning Tito’s real life; in the final phases of his life, due to his illness and old age, he no longer governed, having become in reality little more than a puppet.

Vinko Brešan – Maršal (1999)

Narcissism of minor differences

A characteristic of totalitarian countries, such as described here, is a mass, almost institutionalized, worship of the country’s leaders – a phenomenon which is instilled from nursery school, carried on into primary and secondary school with textbooks praising and glorifying the history of the rising of communist Yugoslavia, and continued into the workplace and in Party organizations. During the turnover these same phenomena were to be seen: nationalistic leaders merely replaced the old regime pattern, in a complete imitation of the much-hated social model.

The relevance of all this is that director Vinko Breˇsan and his playwright father Ivo Breˇsan have come back to these well-known Yugoslav communist rituals (birthday baton, parades, uniforms, etc.) as well as Tito’s famous slogans from his speeches and, with much sensitivity, have used them in their sarcastic comedy about a man who suffers from the delusional fantasy of being Tito himself. Both communists and nationalists are involved in a tourist performance, a Yugoslav history that has been carefully reformulated and which works as a collective psychodrama in which all the participants abreact not just their individual pasts, but also the collective, denied one. This abreaction has nothing to do with Tito’s death, but rather with a period of time, after his death, in which past communist history was rejected as being a complete failure, as well as with a time when grotesque communist rituals were silently accepted – a period for which, nevertheless, many people feel a great sense of nostalgia.

The psychodrama involves all the citizens of the village and takes place when the mayor comes up with the idea of bringing back to life the village’s tourist industry by using insignia and decorations from Tito’s time in order to revive the past ‘communist recollections’. These include anecdotal past occurrences concerning Tito’s pioneers, parades, birthday batons, and slogans which are divided according to their initial word, starting with ‘Long live’,‘Down with’ or ‘Death to’. For example,‘Down with capitalism’,‘Long live Tito’,‘Death to fascism’, and so on.

This whole interplay also works as abreaction for the audience of the film itself, in particular for those viewers who are from former Yugoslavia. Here, once again, humour proves to be closely connected with the unconscious. Since the film is based on the mechanism of projection, and it also works as an interaction between the unconscious of the director and that of the public, Marshal Tito’s Spirit induces emotional reactions in the audience which are revived by repeated routines in a grotesque confrontation of the past with the present. The play splits the self not only between the author and his characters but also between the actors and the spectator. The spectator’s place is in the dark, not under floodlights, reproducing a confessional scene. In the projection room this has been mediated by a director. It is not just the villagers in some organized spontaneous totalitarian play who go through a sort of psycho-catharsis, being actors acting the part of actors while exteriorizing their own (political) drama and freeing their inner selves, transferring them onto external reality by watching the performance, but also the public who goes through its catharsis. The spectators can relive their conflicts by reminding themselves of former situations and even identifying with the characters in the film, reaching a state of relaxation and sometimes even the solution to their problems.

The unconscious factors inherent in the jokes and comical situations are binding moments for the audience. This film, with its humorous and comic dimensions, gives the viewers a chance to feel superior about their past, contrasting with the weakness of their former and present acceptances of the grotesque situations which are now being mocked. Issues that were once taboo are now discussed openly. In this way, the film serves as some kind of cathartic psychotherapy that enables the public to remember and free itself from the unpleasant effect of the traumatic events it objectifies. As it functions through the use of humour, psychodrama in fact becomes psycho-comedy.

A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear of those who hear it

A joke is an opening from which the truth bursts out. Humour helps deal with difficult issues; the revival of the past by dusted scenery, which is anachronistic and out of place and time, produces comical effects.

As Freud has reminded us,‘every joke calls for a public of its own and laughing at the same jokes is evidence of far-reaching psychical conformity’ (1905, p. 151). The essential condition for the recognition of the joke is tacit social understanding and correspondence between the structure of a joke and the social framework. Or, as Freud would say: the third person must be able as a matter of habit to erect in himself the same inhibition which the first person’ s joke has overcome, so that, as soon as he hears the joke, the readiness for his inhibition will compulsively or automatically awaken.This readiness for inhibition, which I must regard as a real expenditure, analogous to mobilization in military affairs, will at the same moment be recognized as superfluous or too late, and so be discharged in statu nascendi by laughter. (Freud 1905, p. 151)

Many of the dialogues in Marshal Tito’s Spirit are not translatable in a way that foreigners could appreciate because the humour in them is connected with particularities of language and consists of an interweaving of the historical and political context of Yugoslavia’s past with current everyday life. One such example is Tito’s famous slogan, which many adults today know having learned it from their history textbooks in the Fifties or the Sixties and even the Seventies, ‘The window must fall down’, which in Croatian is ‘Prozor mora pasti’. This command of Tito’s originates from the Second World War, in reference to a battle for a little place Prozor (‘window’ in English) in Bosnia. In the film, this slogan is used to help a mentally ill patient, immersed in the fantasy that he is Tito, to free himself from custody by taking out the window. The translation ‘this is the window of freedom’ removes the historical reference but retains the humour created by the literal depiction of the metaphor. Humour is also achieved by similarity and incongruity. The young detective couple who arrive on the island look like popular detectives from the television series the X-files and their names are Croatian versions of the American ones. Another example is that Tito’s psychiatrist, that is his former so-called anti-psychiatrist, resembles Karl Marx. Drollery is attained by exaggeration: at the moment when the nationalists come across Lenin’s bust, they want to call in the police. For them, the hidden collection of sickle and hammer, Lenin’s bust, and other such objects, are as horrifying as the devil’s insignia. Politics too has been turned into comical nonsense: caricatures of cultural commonplaces, grotesque exaggeration, parody, or, quite simply, a travesty.A joke is, Freud writes,

the most social of all the mental functions that aim to yield pleasure. It often calls for three persons and its completion requires the participation of someone else in the mental process it starts. The condition of intelligibility is, therefore, binding on it; it may only make use of possible distortion in the unconscious through condensation and displacement up to the point at which it can be set straight by the third person’s understanding. (Freud 1905, p. 179) As he points out, a joke is developed play’ (ibid.).

Vinko Brešan – Maršal (1999)

‘Tito rules’, or idealization

The words of an old veteran – ‘They lied that he’d died’ – confront us with something that has not yet been properly buried. Marshal Tito’s Spirit reminds us of the formerly trained respect with which Tito is hailed, and in the film, it functions even in situations when it has already been revealed that the person in question is a mental patient. This can be seen when the policeman’s assistant arrests ‘Tito’ and at the same time apologizes for doing that, or when the village fool salutes as soon as he sees someone whom he thinks might be Tito. The reality of the situation was that the ‘misuse’ of Tito’s person was protected by the law. In 1977 the Yugoslav Parliament passed a bill (‘The law concerning the use of the name and likeness of the President of the Republic Josip Broz Tito’ sanctioning the use of his picture) which, as it were, remained but suppressed as the ‘visual unconscious’ (Pejic´ 1999, p. 247). In this way demonstrators used to be able to protect themselves by wearing Tito’s photographs as a shield, knowing that no police officer would dare attack it or remove it. A new bill issued in 1984, four years after Tito’s death, announced the compulsory presence of his portrait, stating that his picture ‘must be present in every public room of post- Tito Yugoslavia. Although a photograph of the deceased is a dominant iconic symbol used in mourning, this law was a mere political imposition. Tito, as a sacrosanct political figure, was politically idealized in such a way that all over former Yugoslavia were monuments of him or dedicated to him, while museums were being opened everywhere: his place of birth, his summer houses, and so on. Embalmed history has tried to stop, for a while, the inevitable process of democratization.

By mocking idealization and presenting it in a comical context – even when it is done in a simplified and banal version as is sometimes the case in this film

  • one is given the chance to distance oneself from it. In Marshal Tito’s Spirit humour serves to detach oneself from previous over-idealization, or from unreasonable idealization which later produces such feelings of shame. Also of interest is that the film has a double plot, combining a general story with the particular story of a mental patient who believes that he is Tito. Unaware of what is going on around him, his personality, as was Tito’s, is (once again) protected. This time, however, he is safeguarded as a mental patient. In an unfortunate way, he is also a comical figure, like Don Quixote de la Mancha who, as Freud notes, ‘possesses no humour himself but who with his seriousness offers us a pleasure which could be called humorous’, because he has been influenced so strongly by his history books, just as the fantasies from Don Quixote’s ‘books of chivalry have gone to his head’ (1905, p. 232). This also has an interesting cultural aspect: the history of mental illness shows that nowadays we rarely encounter old-fashioned big figures like Napoleons or Kings or Tsars among mental patients, and that type of megalomania is now anachronistic. Today mentally ill patients are more likely to be affected by a multiple personality disorder, which opens up questions regarding the dynamics of the transformation of mental illnesses and their diagnosis.

In Marshal Tito’s Spirit the role of the analyst has been assigned to the young policeman and the whole quest is somewhat like a psychoanalytic process. The policeman penetrates the mystery and discovers the identity of the ghost; he then must re-establish ‘normality’ and ‘reality’. Like a psychoanalyst, he maintains neutrality but at the same time he is also interested in the decoding of meaning. However, the moral of the film, which could also be understood as its maxim, is pronounced by the psychiatrist: ‘Psychotic patients are the loudspeakers of social madness.’ In this film, this is social truth.

The return of the repressed

However, as Simon Critchley (2001) says, jokes could be read as symptoms of social repression and their study corresponds to a return of the repressed. When we mock authority, we reveal its contingency, we realize that what we have considered as strong and established is nothing much and that the emperor is in fact naked. True humour works not just as a critique; it also has a therapeutic function, especially if it is communicated through the direct medium of film.

By identifying problematic situations and indicating ways of resolving them, humour can function as a form of social critique, which is why repressive authorities have always censored comic plays or parodies. When Marshal Tito’s Spirit had its Croatian premiere in 1999, just before the parliamentary elections, the editors banned the broadcasting of the commercial for the film on Croatian television. This was because of its evocation of associations with contemporary Croatia, which offended the Croatian constitution that officially prohibits censorship. Yet in spite of this, Marshal Tito’s Spirit was a great success in Croatian cinemas. One of the reasons is, undoubtedly, to do with the humour in the film which articulates the past and present ideologies in such a relaxed way. At the same time, the film, as a powerful rhetorical instrument, becomes itself part of some kind of ideology. The film not only abreacts through humour the totalitarianism of Tito’s time but also makes the public aware of the nationalist ideology which shares all the components of the former autocracy. The joke could be understood to be a ‘communion’ for the community which shares the same ideology. The final scene of the film is a visual representation of the act of freeing oneself from the past: we see ‘Tito’ on a boat, leaving the island, going out to sea, into the world of legend. It is interesting to note that in Serbia too (now known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) a film has been produced on the issue of the cathartic moment in which Tito comes back. It is a comedy-documentary by Zˇelimir Zˇilnik called Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time (1993). Here, Tito comes back after his death to hear people’s opinions on all that has taken place since his death. An actor impersonates President Tito walking through the streets of Belgrade where people speak to him spontaneously, as though he really had come back to life. Some praise him and his era, while others accuse him of the way that his followers have been governing the country. Their need to voice their problems arising from the way of life they were forced into completely obscures the fact that they are, in fact, talking to an actor. In their mind, their father is back, this figure whom they both fear and adore, and who has always taken care of the country, providing Yugoslavia with a good reputation. The camera has taken the place of the Other.

In both cases, the film has fulfilled the role of mourning. Something that could be understood as subversion through mockery is in fact the process of mourning itself, and while history has been turned into comedy, the present has become the mockery of history.


Critchley, S. (2001) ‘A sense of humour’, unpublished manuscript. (A part of the text has been translated for the Croatian cultural magazine Zarez, summer 2001.) (In the meantime Critchley’s book has been published: Critchley, S. (2002) On Humour, London: Routledge).

Freud, S. (1905) ‘Jokes and their relation to the unconscious’, in Standard Edition 8.

London: Hogarth Press, 1960.

Pejic, B. (1999) ‘On iconicity and mourning: after Tito – Tito!’, in G. Ecker (ed.) Trauer tragen – Trauer zeigen. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.

Author Profile
Ljiljana Filipović

Ljiljana Filipović (born 21 January 1951 in Zagreb) is a Croatian author and philosopher.

Filipović received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Zagreb. Her first published work in literature was a radio play produced by Radio Zagreb in 1973. Besides writing radio plays (for which she got several prizes from Radio Zagreb). For innovation in the radio program, she received the annual prize in 2002 from Croatian radio. She taught Philosophical and psychoanalytic critique of drama text at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb from 1998 until 2013 when she acquired the position of associate professor.

Filipović is the author of several philosophical books and novels as well as numerous radio plays. She has contributed regularly to a variety of Croatian and foreign cultural magazines. Her essays and articles cover topics on cultural and political phenomena that are explained through a conjunction of philosophy and psychoanalysis. She has also translated it into Croatian books.