‘A SERBIAN FILM’: WE UNDERSTAND

Fans of extreme cinema and brutal horror tend to forgive and expect low production quality in exchange for visceral and realistic gore, top-notch practical effects, and often buckets and buckets of bodily fluid. The general public and standard horror fans alike tend to group much, if not most, of this subgenre into edgelord material: torture for torture’s sake, gratuitous gore for no redeemable reason, pure shock, and nothing else. And, for the most part… they aren’t wrong.

Even as a fan of some extreme cinema, I must admit that films like August Underground, the Vomit Gore Trilogy, and Melancholie Der Engel, can veer into different realms from found footage to extreme gross-out porn to art film, but many of them can accurately be grouped into the world of edgelord shock. Yet, the most notorious film among the extreme subgenre isn’t quite what you’ve heard it is.

A Serbian Film is dark, brutal, and all types of screwed up, but there are many things that set it apart from extreme films of its ilk. A strong political and social message is at its core, first and foremost – and, while one could argue most transgressive films have such a message, it’s hard to deny that the people involved in this film really believed in the importance of what they were doing. In addition to its message, the film has all of the production value of a Hollywood film, with stellar framing, a distinct vision of the color palette and look of the film, and very strong technical filmmaking prowess. Coupling this strong filmmaking with the painful imagery, practical effects, and sinister ideas that permeate extreme horror creates a singular vision that’s far different from most of what the subgenre has to offer.

A Serbian Preface

Yes, there will be spoilers here and, further, there will be discussion of extremely horrible things that happen in this film. The film – and by extension, this discussion of it – is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Even those with far-reaching limits of blood, gore, viscera, and bodily fluids may find A Serbian Film hard, or even impossible, to get through. Not only is this okay, but it’s both expected and valid. The film is depraved and it’s probably better to avoid it if you think it may be triggering for you. Despite this site not being too concerned about offending you or not doing the “Trigger Warning” thing in most cases, this film deserves a bit of that treatment no matter who the audience is or where it’s being discussed.

I originally began writing a piece on this film over a year ago, but the film’s oppressive nature forced me to put the piece and my rewatch of the film for it down. Despite being a strong and worthwhile piece of art, the film is also a dark, damaging, and cathartic one. It wears on the viewer, and digging deeply into it only makes its effect that much more potent. So, I surely caution you to only experience it as you are able.

However, those able and willing to explore this film should be urged to do so. It is highly effective, well-acted, and very disarming… but we’ll be getting into all of that soon. The plot that directly follows this warning is where the most graphic parts of this discussion will be included, so – once again – be warned.

A Serbian Plot

The film opens with a young boy watching a porn film on his television. We soon find that the film he’s watching stars his father and the son got a hold of it by mistake. This serves to introduce us to Milos (Srđan Todorović), our protagonist. Milos is a (mostly) retired porn star, working on other ways to support his family after leaving his career as a well-known adult film actor.

We soon meet his brother, Marko (Slobodan Beštić). Marko is a corrupt police officer and a disgusting pig of a man. We know right away that he is gross and can’t be trusted, but we don’t fully grasp it for a while. He’s then summoned by an old friend and their meeting matches him up with Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović) for a unique and experimental type of porn project that sets Milos and his family up for life.

Back home, we see him struggling with the idea of going back into the business, but ultimately deciding it’s what’s best for the family. Before he fully crunches the numbers and makes the decision, though, he has sex with his wife. The scene is notable because she begs him to “fuck” her like one of his co-stars. However, once he begins doing this, he notices that she isn’t enjoying it, so he changes his approach to a hard, but far more loving style – showing he’s in tune with her needs and is truly a caring husband. Soon after this, he officially decides to take the job due to the numbers and how well it will set up his wife and son. Milos begins to work out to get back into shape for the project in a montage that juxtaposes his hard work with shots of his dirtbag brother masturbating to his wife – a problematic theme the film will continue to return to, setting up the final, awful climax.

Once the job begins, so does the depraved nature of the film, with Vukmir as the maestro of filth and wickedness. The first shoot involves Milos receiving a blow job while a young girl watches on while eating an ice pop. The young girl isn’t involved, but the situation is enough to truly upset Milos – and, by extension, us as the viewer. With each encounter and shoot, the tasks are ramped up and more despicable.

Also, throughout the process of these increasingly uncomfortable and disgusting film shoots, we see his home life, with beautiful scenes of him and his family interacting. While it’s clear his family is tight and he’s a good father/husband, you can begin to see the life drain from him: the new job is taking away his ability to really enjoy life. The scenes are also spliced in with more scenes involving Marko, one revealing that he cannot get an erection without using his brother’s family’s photos or videos.

After more awful film shoots and even more graphic nightmares, Milos decides to quit. Despite the money, he realizes the job is not only promoting something wrong and evil, but it’s quite literally draining his will to live. Milos goes into work to tell Vukmir in person, then explains that he can’t do scenes that involve children. This sets Vukmir off, who explains the importance of using children in his vision and how the children represent the victims of the state. This scene culminates in a graphic childbirth scene and the infamous “newborn porn” scene.

Everything that comes after this scene is sheer brutality, with Milos being drugged and turned into an enraged, horny monster of a man. His path of destruction, unbeknownst to him leads to him beating women on camera while having sex with them, eventually beheading a woman while he has sex with her, and raping an unknown person while alongside a second man who is also raping an unknown person. In the end, he realizes the other rapist is his brother, and the two being raped are his family. The sheer intensity of this moment is nearly impossible to handle for Milos or us, the viewer.

The graphic nature of this final spree begins when Vukmir’s people drug Milos, and culminates in the final double rape – the specifics beyond the summary above are unnecessary here, but rape and murder are the keywords – all this is what makes this film both so effective and so offensive. When Milos comes to, he realizes what he did and commits murder/suicide. When Vukmir – accompanied by a cameraman and another man – finds the bodies, the film ends with implications that they will be filming a necrophilic scene.

A Serbian Allegory

While many films claim to have specific themes or allegories but fail to demonstrate them, it’s hard to deny that A Serbian Film was created with the intent to say something about the treatment of the Serbian government of its people. While there are many other pieces out there that have broken it down with a better understanding of Serbian culture, Serbian atrocities, and what everything means, it comes down to a basic idea is that the government screws its people in their life, forces them to screw each other, and then continues to screw them even after their death.

The infamous “newborn porn” scene is meant as an allegory that Serbians are screwed the moment they are born. Vukmir even says this in his explanation of why they are doing it. So, the idea that the Serbian man or woman is screwed from the day of their birth until they die, and even beyond death, is reinforced not only by the film’s plot points but by the story being told in the film within the film.

What lends the most legitimacy and credence to the story being told is the cast and crew of A Serbian Film. Srđan Todorović (Milos) is a respected actor from a respected acting family. Sergej Trifunović (Vukmir) is not only a respected actor, but is politically active, helped form the liberal political activism group Movement of Free Citizens, and is widely respected for using his voice to fight for the Serbian people. The cast and crew are filled with respected members of Serbian stage and screen, a few with international experience as well. Despite writer/director Srđan Spasojević’s intense and brutal script, he had no trouble enlisting Serbian A-listers to get aboard his depraved and extreme film. It’s hard to deny that this team must have really believed in the film’s message, especially when considering they knew the ire their involvement would draw in their own country and beyond.

A Serbian Competence

As noted before, one of the things that really sets the film apart in the world of extreme cinema is its sheer competence. In fact, it’s the film’s competence that makes it hit home more than many others. Extreme genre fans tend to expect the low quality, so seeing something with high quality creates a knee-jerk visceral reaction – at least, it did in the case of this gorehound and extreme horror fan. With a real cinematic vision and the chops to pull it off, the film is every bit as quality a film in its technical aspects as a Hollywood classic (of course, the plot choices are just a tad bit different).

For example, the finale – as only briefly mentioned in the plot breakdown above – is extremely graphic and intense, but also extremely well shot and framed. While there are many benefits to the verite style of films like August Underground or the bulk of the Guinea Pig and American Guinea Pig films, the well-lit and well-crafted cinematography of A Serbian Film brings a whole different level of depravity. It’s decidedly less grimy stylistically, but that somehow allows the griminess of the actual story and effects to shine through in a more potent way. In short, it’s an extremely well-made film and works all the better – or worse, depending on how you see it – because of it.

One could easily argue that the “newborn porn” scene is not only a ridiculous edgelord scene and equally argue that the scene has genuinely poor effects in regards to the very fake-looking newborn baby in the scene. However, there’s also a craft to inserting this absurd scene just before the film ramps up into a darker place than anyone could expect. It disarms the viewer, making the impact of what’s to follow all the worse.

A Serbian Conclusion

It’s certain that A Serbian Film isn’t for everyone and I’ll admit that this piece is only a defense of it in terms of defending why it was made and the quality of the film. I cannot defend the contents of the film to anyone who doesn’t feel like they could watch a film with elements of pedophilia, necrophilia, rape, extreme violence, gore, murder, and countless other taboos. It’s definitely not for everyone.

However, to throw the film out entirely while many continue lifting up a film like Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is completely hypocritical. It’s making the same type of powerful political statements with a competence that certainly rivals legitimate Oscar-bait drama in its craft. It is well written, well conceptualized, and well-executed.

It’s a truly awful watch that I find fascinating. Maybe you do, too. If not, I can’t say I blame you.