Ever since the establishment of the prestigious OKTAVIJAN award for filmmaking, Oktavijan Miletić has been officially recognized as a legend of Croatian film.
From the way he depicted his surroundings, props, people and their behavior, it is evident that Miletić in his pre-1932 phase saw film as a trendy, easy-going distraction, or at least that he did not yet have the courage to perceive it in another way. Regardless, Miletić really did have his own world, which interested him and which he would surely have observed even better in film terms under more favorable filmmaking circumstances (as part of a more developed production, in cooperation with screen writers,…)
Depicting the world of leisurely pastime indirectly gave an impression of understanding film itself to be a leisurely pastime. On the other hand, a recognizable “signature” is evident in Oktavijan’s skill with film effects. While Miletić must have been personally and creatively attracted to the spectacular possibilities of film techniques, special effects were also the most impressive way to demonstrate that filmmaking requires skill, and isn’t something that can be done by “just anyone”.
All this is best illustrated in Miletić’s five minute film from the end of his first artistic phase, AH, BJEŠE SAMO SAN ! (AH, IT WAS ONLY A DREAM!) (1932), a film novella about a young dreamer in which the real world and the dream world are intertwined. After meeting a young lady in a park, but seeing her indifferent to his romantic overtures, the young man gets drunk and falls asleep. In his dreams he relives the meeting with the young women, which ends in his attempting to kiss her and subsequently falling of the bench. The fall is simultaneously the moment of awakening from his alcoholic stupor, which reveals the reality of his situation. The humor of the story stems from a formal reversal of the plot, a point at which a dream is unexpectedly separated from reality. In this film Miletić retains the ironic distance from the story through witty drawings and text which serve as introduction to individual sequences, and through shattering the film reality by revealing acts of filming.
The film won an award at the international Photo-Kino-Verlaga competition in Berlin in 1932. Cinematographically it abounds with crossfades and unusual camera positions, which beside contributing to visual atractiveness, also illustrate the characters psycologically.
AMADEUS NICKELNAGEL (1932) is an eleven-minute story about a gentle young man, a misunderstood poet whose printed poems the ruffians use to wrap sausages. His misfortune is that he falls in love with an independent young athlete, with a modern worldview, who is interested in sports rather than poetry. Amadeus follows the young woman, brings her flowers and gives her one of his poems, at which point she, instead of offering tenderness, challenges him to a boxing match.
In one of the scenes Miletić filmed Nickelnagel riding a bicycle from a moving car: to catch up with his beloved who is driving through the streets of Upper Town in a Packard convertible, Amadeus undertakes a breakneck bicycle chase and shows that her recreational boxing pastime is but a child’s play compared to his dangerous bike ride. When he encounters her for the first time in a gymnasium, he introduces himself as a boxing coach (whom she had been expecting), but after only a few blows in boxing gloves he is forced to admit the deceit. He leaves, and only his poems remain on the floor.
The film was supposed to have two parts, but the author only completed the first part of the story, which ends in an unsuccessful encounter between the two youths. Miletić envisioned that in the second part of the film, the young man would take up boxing, whereas the young woman would turn to poetry. And so the lovers who were not meant to be would, through their efforts to get closer to each other, once again grow apart…
POSLOVI KONZULA DORGENA (THE AFFAIRS OF CONSUL DORGEN) (1933) is the longest film made in this phase of Miletić’s filmmaking. With intertitles in French, it is an 18-minute story about a young detective (played by Šime Marov), whose task is to investigate the mysterious Dorgen (played by Ivan Alpi-Rauch) – a hypnotist killer, who uses hypnosis to force young women to commit suicide, in order to get his hands on their possessions.
A young man arrives at consul Dorgen’s estate and saves one of the women, whom Dorgen tried to force through hypnosis to drown in a river. In the ensuing gunfight, the consul’s informers incapacitate the young man, tie him to a chair, and the consul attempts to hypnotize him and force him to point the revolver at himself and fire a bullet into his head. But at last moment, the young man’s beloved arrives, takes the gun from him and kills the consul.
This film, which looks like a parody of the crime film genre, was made in a single day, without the use of artificial lighting, at the estates of Ivan Alpi by the river Sava.
Oktavijan Miletić sent the film to a festival in France (according to his own admission, without any ambition), and received recognition there: in 1933 the film was awarded second prize at the international film competition in Paris, with Louis Lumière presiding over the jury.
The much shorter film STRAH (FEAR) (1933) is based on a not-so-innocent practical joke. Two men and two women are chatting in a evening indoor setting, and although there are no intertitles in the film, one could suppose that the topic of the conversation is “the night”, or “fear”, as the film’s title suggests.
When one of the ladies retires to bed, the remaining three start forming a plan: they will put on a mask, sneak up on her while she’s sleeping, and scare her. And really, when the young women wakes up, a disfigured man appears trying to scare her, but she is overcome with laughter, assuming that one of her friends is wearing a mask. The audience is left to wonder, because the man’s mask does not look right. And when the woman’s three friends enter the room, the three of them and the audience realize that someone unfamiliar had appeared, a “fifth person”. This person turns out to be a runaway mental patient, who is taken away by the police at the end of the film…
This parody was inspired by the news of the Düsseldorf vampire, and by Fritz Lang’s film “M”. STRAH could also be defined in terms of genre as a five-minute humorous incident, which could also serve as a prologue or final scene of a feature horror film. In this work, Miletić has once again demonstrated his mastery of one of the most important storytelling tools: the observer’s perspective. One is clearly able to distinguish between the perspectives of individual characters (girl observing the intruder, and her friends having a different view of the same intruder), the perspective of the audience (which has doubts about the new character), and the directors own perspective, in which he connects all the others, and he is in fact not joking at all.
An 8-minute film FAUST (1934) is a parody of the legend of Dr. Faust, in which an old doctor telephones hell and asks the infernal forces to help him rejuvenate, then chooses the photograph of Rudolph Valentino and sells his soul to Mephistopheles by signing a promissory note to his charity fund. In this film also, the waking world and the world of dreams are intertwined, and the plot reversal occurs upon waking up. However, it is a young man who wakes up in place of an old man.
The film’s dramaturgical model is based on unexpected plot twists which are in constant counterpoint to the witty puns and jokes which fill every scene. This fits well into Miletić’ first creative phase, where parody and gentle mocking dominate, and where the story told is constantly being “confuted”. That Miletić is mocking is evident from the choice of Faust’s wish in his film: of all the desires and achievements of Goethe’s Faust, Okti has chosen rejuvenation, a strong desire of mostly those people who could invest more time and money in its fulfillment.
The film won second prize at the Pan-Slavic competition in Zagreb, and also an award at the 1935 international film festival in Barcelona (the first UNICA competition). It was shown in many European cities, where it received very favorable reviews.
IDILA NA JADRANU (IDYLL ON THE ADRIATIC) (1934), with a running time of six minutes, brings us images of a summer trip on a sailing ship: the work of sailors during navigation, shots of the sea, waves, and a sunset, as well as scenes from a shipyard. In this short documentary, which can occasionally also be found under the title JADRANSKA IDILA, Miletić adheres to the typical schedule for travel and tourist reports: scenes of the arrival, followed by the stay. He seems to “like”: the ship captain (he is the “sea wolf” type), a girl filmed from a low angle in a romantic light setting with shot framing reminiscent of Vigo’s ATALANTA, which was filmed later, and he seems to find the main “attraction” in building of a ship. Not being able to find a better ending to the report that started with his arrival to the coast, he ends the film with the ship’s launching. In any event, it is better that the ending, even if not the most logical one (according to the established scheme, the film should have ended with the departure), is at least spectacular.
The film was shown at the international competition in Barcelona, as well as in Budapest, Vienna and Prague.
Intrigued by detective novels, and at the same time ironizing vampires and werewolves, Miletić made NOCTURNO in 1935. It is an eleven-minute parody of crime films, structured according to the established canons of horror films, and according to many, it’s one of Miletić’s most successful films.
A young man who is a traveling salesman is forced by a storm to spend the night in an unfamiliar house, where he witnesses several mysterious events. Convinced that a murder took place, he runs from the house and calls the police, only to find out – while observing hidden in the bushes along with a police officer – that the “villains” only buried an ordinary dog.
Most of the film was shot at night, under artificial lighting, and though play of light and shadow Miletić successfully created an expressionist ambient. Riding in an automobile was simulated (the car was shaken while standing still), as was the rain (poured “from a bowl”), but all of it was done quite skillfully.
The original film has disappeared, having been stolen on the train while it was being sent to Berlin, according to the author. Only one, relatively poor copy was preserved, which was later copied onto 35 mm stock through the “blow-up” process.
The film won first prize at the Festival of Modern Art in Venice, in 1936 (the 4th Venice Biennale).
ĐUMLIN – IMITATOR CHAPLINA (ĐUMLIN – THE CHAPLIN IMITATOR) is a 4-minute recording of the cabaret act by a Zagreb-based actor Ivan Đumlin, in which he imitates Charlie Chaplin in one of his more frequent roles: that of a confused lover.
The film was made when Oktavijan Miletić used a 9.5 mm camera to record Đumlin’s act during the making of one of Zora film’s newsreels in their studio. This film, which shows the preparations for filming (lighting setup, preparing the 35 mm camera, and adjusting the sound recording device), as well as the filming of three acts of a program in which Đumlin imitates Chaplin, is the only surviving recording of a performance of Zagreb cabaret. In the first shot Ivan Đumlin sits on a bench with a boy playing the accordion and a young woman; in the second shot Đumlin dances in front of the woman, and in the final shot he is leaving the scene.
Oktavijan Miletić and his assistant (in charge of lighting) take turns appearing in the film, as does cameraman Aleksandar Gerasimov (who appears operating the sound recorder) during the filming using a 35 mm sound-recording camera, and the actor on stage whose backdrop is actually the western part of Strossmayer’s Promenade with the stairs and a bench in the foreground.
The first sound-recording camera in our region, constructed by Aleksandar Gerasimov himself, and used in the making of this film, is a valuable exhibit in the extensive museum collection of the Croatian Cinematheque.
And finally, the last film directed by Miletić before World War II, and at the same time his last short film, is ŠEŠIR (THE HAT), made in 1937.
Telling the story of a hat, from the shelf in a shop to the beggar in whose hands it finally ends up, Miletić was able to skillfully tell a story about the protagonist in only 7 minutes, using humor and suggestion, and creating a dramaturgically, visually, and poetically well rounded whole.
A young man (played by Šime Marov) buys a new hat, which increases his self-confidence to a point where he seduces the first girl he sees along the way. The hat, however, is not a lucky one. After a brief idyll in the hay, his beloved agrees to the next meeting but doesn’t show up, because she is with another man at that time. Desperate young man goes to a bar, gets drunk, and spends the evening with a prostitute. That night he has a terrible dream: in the park, in which he met his fickle young lady, now he sees himself. Then he believes he can see his bellowed with her back turned, but when he approaches the woman, he recognizes the prostitute with whom he had spent the last evening.
Ironing it carelessly, he ruins the hat, so he throws it out the window. It is found by some children, and subsequently changes several hands until it finds its way to a beggar, who uses it to collect handouts. One coin is tossed into the hat by its previous owner, who now has a new hat and a new beloved, and together they walk down the road towards the horizon…
ŠEŠIR is the only pre-WWII sound film by Miletić, and the only sound film on this DVD. It was filmed on a professional 35 mm stock. Miletić directed the film without lines of dialogue, wanting to tell the story using images alone. Unlike his other amateur films, made on a narrow format stock, in which the camera angle was never changed (the camera was positioned at eye-level), in this film we can observe camera tilting, high and low angles, double expositions which were carried out very precisely, with identifiable image components from both shots, and this can also be said for the tilts, in which the camera is rotated at a constant speed. All of these elements were used in a very functional way, which leads to the conclusion that Miletić no longer experiments with filming techniques, but is instead able to incorporate even difficult shots into the film in accordance with the needs of the story.
ŠEŠIR was hailed by film critics as possibly the best of Miletić’s pre-war films, not only because of the unusual visual elements used in the film, but also because of very skillful acting by Šime Marov, who was a constant in Miletić’s films.
This film was shown in Croatian cinemas (Zagreb, Osijek), and it was also sold to Germany (Tobis) and Sweden.
As Zoran Tadić, certainly one of the most important Croatian film directors, wrote in one of his inspired essays: “Whether because of his noble origins, his intellectual and family pedigree, his long career in filmmaking, or something else – it is hard to say – but Oktavijan Miletić is certainly an exception to the sad and ugly rule of disrespect for our own traditions.”
… “Certainly this early understanding of self-confidence in film enabled Okti to have not only a dignified filmmaking career, but also the pride with which he quietly and persistently broke the shell of our general conservatism and inspired the younger generations”.
If we were able, through this DVD edition, to bring Oktavijan Miletić closer to the younger generations, and remind the older ones of his work – work of the first Croatian film author who systematically dedicated himself to creating films (for which he is rightfully called the founder of Croatian filmmaking) – then we have indeed achieved our goal, but at the same time gave ourselves a new task… to continue creating new editions containing valuable and internationally recognized Croatian films!
*Sources used in the writing of this text include parts of the book “Monografija Oktavijana Miletića”, written in 2000 by dr. Ante Peterlić and dr. Vjekoslav Majcen, as well as the book „Filmovi u Hrvatskoj kinoteci pri Hrvatskom državnom arhivu 1904-1940“, written in 2003 by dr. Vjekoslav Majcen and dr. Mato Kukuljica
Translation : SRĐAN RANDIĆ