When Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries Of The Organism was presented in 1971 at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street – at that time the premier art house in London – it was only after some wranglings with the censor, who objected to the brief views of an erect penis, albeit one encased in plaster.
The Academy was allowed to get away with it, saying that it wouldn’t screen the film at all unless it could show it complete. Later, the situation was compounded by the fact that a great many people referred mistakenly to the film as WR: Mysteries Of The Orgasm.
Makavejev’s film – however controversial it was in the early 70s – is not a sex film. But it certainly is a film about sex, since WR stands for Wilhelm Reich, a close associate of Freud and a Marxist who believed, among other things, that sexual freedom was a true expression of communism.
This is the fourth film by this highly original Yugoslavian director, and it became easily his most audacious, a landmark in the film-making of the time, after which he never again had quite the same success.
The first Makavejev film I ever saw was Innocence Unprotected, the marvellously stitched together story of Dragoljub Aleksic, a Yugoslavian strongman who made the first Serbian talkie in 1942 and got into trouble with the occupying Germans when it became an outrageous success.
The film quotes liberally from the 1942 dream fantasy, interviews some of its veteran actors and then cuts in and out of newsreel footage of what was actually going on in Yugoslavia at the time. The result is a remarkably funny, moving and nostalgic collage. WR used the same methods. It begins as a documentary, shot in America where Reich had died in prison after he was expelled from both communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Friends and disciples and even his barber are interviewed before we move to Milena in Yugoslavia, and to a girl who, riotously, tries to prove Reich’s theories in the context of being a party member.
This is a political and moral satire and a lot else besides, again manipulating various films and newsreels in and out of the proceedings. One of these films is Chiaureli’s The Vow, a 1946 Soviet hagiography of Stalin of unbelievable banality. Another is a tinted German Sexpol movie from the early 30s showing lovemaking in a meadow. Added to that, there is a sequence with Jackie Curtis, the famous Warholian transvestite, with the editor of Screw magazine having the above-mentioned penis moulded in plaster, and with a woman painter who had depicted men and women masturbating (in Reichian terms, this is a way of releasing tension).
All this and much more is put together with what one can only call magisterial abandon, so that it not only makes sense, but also makes hay with our preconceptions. Makavejev always said that he wanted to put together two and two and make five – the original purpose of Eisenstein’s theory of dialectical montage. Unfortunately, he added cheekily, Eisenstein didn’t have the humour to do it properly.
Makavejev certainly did, and created a unique film in so doing, highlighted by the fact that Yugoslavia was balanced precariously between the East and the West at the time. Alas, after WR came the grave disappointment of Sweet Movie and Makavejev’s subsequent translation into a peripatetic international director who could never quite hit the same mark again. But since he’s an old friend of mine, and a most stimulating companion, I always hope that he will. And for four of his earlier films alone (Man Is Not A Bird, The Switchboard Operator, Innocence Unprotected and WR) Makavejev deserves all the fame and fortune that has been latterly denied him.