Theater of Cruelty

In the entrance to Yugoslavia's past

Hotel Yugoslavia
Regissør: Nicolas Wagnières

Hotel Yugoslavia appears as a reflection of Yugoslavia's greatness and fall – symbolized by the once magnificent and luxurious hotel in the capital of the country that ceased to exist.


Like other nations once under communist rule, the republics of former Yugoslavia are filled with iconic buildings and socialist monuments. These are now celebrated by the West as fading relics of a world outside capitalism.

Hotel Yugoslavia (2017) is the director Nicolas Wagnières' debut film which appeared at the International Film Festival in Berlin in February. Wagnières regards this flagship of a building as a prism to reflect on the past and to mourn the loss of the performances that have lost their legitimacy.

A Yugoslav memorial

Located on the banks of the Danube in Belgrade, Hotel Yugoslavia opened its doors in 1969 and was one of the years to be one of the largest and most luxurious hotels in former Yugoslavia. The starting point for Wagnières' film is that the hotel's decline reflects the decline of Yugoslavia in its entirety, as the country was broken into pieces by emerging nationalism.

The footage takes place in 2005, and the hotel – which the director discovered as an adult when he reconnected with Belgrade – is going to close due to renovations. Wagnières returns constantly, "almost religiously," and "films to remember and win back" – as he says.

Notorious criminal Zeljko Raznatovic – better known as "Arkan" – ran an on-site casino.

The fading letters in the hotel name that adorn the difficult facade testify to the hotel's former grandeur, which has faded slowly since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Perhaps the hotel today is known to some foreigners as a curiosity and a memorial of the brutalist architecture that was commissioned by order from Tito, which characterized the architecture of this era. The hotel now appears instead as taken straight out of a science-fiction movie.

Wagnières portrays sensory impressions from his past almost as a form of invocation – from catching squid in the Adriatic to the smell of heating oil on the streets of Belgrade and Tito's funeral on French television. As he does so, the camera slowly pans down the paneled entrance to the Hotel Jugoslavija, taking us through the foyer with prism chandeliers in a row. The white spiral staircase, carpeted in blue, which belongs to this impressive example of modernist architecture, testifies to the hotel's former splendor -
even though the abandoned entrance suggests that guests have left long ago.

A political and personal story

Wagnières was born outside the region by a Swiss father and Serbian mother who left Yugoslavia in 1960 to live with her Swiss husband. He has an approach to the substance that mixes a broad perspective on political, nation-building events with a very personal perspective. This is characterized by an obsessive nostalgia for what was always out of reach, but which nevertheless shaped his childhood.

the former YugoslaviaWhen Wagnières tells and at the same time ponders his French mother tongue, it is suggested that he is still trying to find an opinion with the impetus to make the film. In this way we discover that he both feels he belongs in the country, and at the same time is completely distant from it. In his attempts to recreate a childhood with vacations in his mother's homeland – a country he is very aware of has disappeared – he seeks in his own memories the key to the country's collective memory. His scattered glimpses of a historical context are at times frustratingly random and superficial, and appear to be a less systematic examination than a random collection of recalled impressions. Still, the impression fits well with the fact that the film – which instead of being a historical story – is an emotional and associative attempt to fill an experienced void in his own identity. The film also gives the viewer an important understanding of the disappearing socialist idea, but which had a better reputation as unifying and solidarity than the more crushing and Moscow-led communism.

From luxury to decay

The large hotel with over 350 rooms was originally planned as part of a modern and urban utopian project – designed by famous architects from the modernist Zagreb school. It houses well-known guests such as Queen Elisabeth II, Richard Nixon and Willy Brandt, as well as various movie and pop stars. Wagnières has unearthed rare archival footage of the hotel in its heyday – including a German commercial for the city's bustling luxury of the 70s – but this reinforces the ghostly feel of a huge building that has disappeared in the foggy times of the day. He interviews former hotel employees as well as his own mother, who recalls the enthusiasm that characterized the youthful period and who helped rebuild the country after World War II.

Finally, we see the hotel complex today, reopened with boisterous neon lights: an iPhone store and an American-style diner with serving skates on roller skates.

At that time, Yugoslavia was united under Tito's idea of ​​a "socialist third way". It was about finding an alliance-free position away from the east-west divide, and his motto of "brotherhood and unity" kept at bay the conflict that flared up after his death. Archive footage shows youth digging for the heart's desire for a construction site – the symbolic initiatives that required a great deal of effort and effort, but which created a common understanding that transcended ethnic divides. What is implied is that the propagandist slogans surrounding these efforts to rebuild Yugoslavia were uncritically embraced with an optimism for the future – a look at the past that the hotel's destiny itself undermines. At the same time, dissenting voices against Tito's communist order are being kept in the background.

Testimony of war

As the hotel gradually changed owners and became privatized, Hotel Yugoslavia reflected the chaotic fate of a country affected by sectarianism, new war and sanctions. Notorious criminal Zeljko Raznatovic – better known as "Arkan" – operated an on-site casino when it was hit during a NATO bombing in 1999. We see footage from a news broadcast showing the confusion and devastation.

The fading letters in the hotel name that adorn the difficult facade testify to the hotel's former greatness. 

The team behind Luc Bessons' French-American crime thriller, 3 Days to Kill (2014), used the iconic hotel as a location to get exotic mystery into a shooting scene between the CIA and a gang of gun dealers, where the windows of the hotel's facade are blown out by a bomb blast. Wagnières has chosen to include a clip from the action scene in his documentary, to illustrate how Serbia came to appear as an enclave where Balkan lawlessness prevails.

Finally, we see the hotel complex today, reopened with boisterous neon lights: an iPhone store and an American-style diner with serving skates on roller skates. The hotel symbolizes a past that disappeared – not by bombs – but by the impetus of global capitalism to adapt everything in its own commercial image.

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Gray is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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