Death in Sarajevo

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Directed by Danis Tanovic

Berlinale review

Death in Sarajevo offers a cross-section of the contemporary Bosnian society which is still coming to terms with its own history and rapid political changes. The story takes place in a hotel where the life happening on different floors cannot but help to provoke allegorical parallels to the society as a whole. The darkly-lit basement holds a strip club, a dodgy gambling joint and endless rows of washing machines where the blue-collar workers do the laundry and plot a strike. On the floors above, the manager Omer (Izudin Bajrovic) and his aid Lamija (Snezana Markovic) try to do their best to keep the polished faí§ade for EU dignitaries despite looming bankruptcy while intellectuals are filming a TV show discussing the nation’s historical baggage on the roof. The three different layers complement each other to provide a well-rounded view of life as they know it.

The title of the film and its Agatha Christie connotations hint at a whodunit but the ends to who would be to blame for descending into committing a crime are left very much open until the last part of the film. The manager Omer wants the staff to swallow their pride for one more night to get through a lucrative EU dinner. His aid Lamija is caught uncomfortably between her job responsibilities and strike-prone mother who works in the laundry. The security guard in charge of keeping an eye on an important guest is high on drugs and does not pay much attention. Not to mention the high concentration of thugs in the strip club. The air is ripe with motive and desperation which keeps the pace and tension high throughout the film. Snippets of the backstories and plot are fed to the viewers bit by bit without ever overflowing or underwhelming. The agile camerawork keeps up with constantly moving characters and adds to the sense of urgency of the situation.

"Despite solid performances in all areas, the most striking feature of the film is its Bosnian heritage, sense of place and painful historical baggage."
“Despite solid performances in all areas, the most striking feature of the film is its Bosnian heritage, sense of place and painful historical baggage.”

The struggle for survival in the hotel is framed by an introduction to the history of Bosnia which is masterfully woven into the plot. Unconcerned about the mundane and financial concerns plaguing the staff on the floors underneath, the TV journalist Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan) and her radical interviewee Gavrilo (Muhamed Hadzovic), who are filming a TV show on the roof, are free to discuss the underlying abstract ideas and impulses. Their dissenting ideas about the past delivered at a speed reminiscent of The West Wing offers a fascinating insight into the contemporary plight of Bosnia. The historical references provide depth and weight to the allegories which arise from the floors below. The chemistry between the two helps as well, adding a strange romantic hue to the proceedings.

Danis Tanovic’s film is a strong political allegory which knows how to keep the tension high. The cinematography and editing are faultless in serving the greater symbolistic aims of the film. Despite solid performances in all areas, the most striking feature of the film is its Bosnian heritage, sense of place and painful historical baggage. The roots of these are laid out in the dialogue on the roof, but its aftershocks can be felt everywhere – in the way people interact with each other, the look and feel of the endless mouldy green corridors, slower than slow elevators and faces chiselled by hardship. Creating a subtle atmosphere of silent ruthlessness of the time and space the characters inhabit is the greatest achievement of the solidly constructed and acted Death in Sarajevo.

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