The 1998 Yugoslav film "Cabaret Balkan" (which played at festivals as "The Powder Keg" but ran into title registration problems in the United States), is a blindingly powerful look at a society in its death throes, a society imploding and taking everything and everyone with it. To the film's everlasting credit, it is also a work that exemplifies the way in which art can explain more about life than life itself can.
Written by Dejan Dukovski and directed by Goran Paskaljevic, it is set in Belgrade during the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, as the government maneuvers to keep NATO from attacking. But the film is not about politics or government actions. It's a series of vignettes in which more-or-less ordinary people confront the horrors of a city and country in which no one can or will control even their worst, most hideous impulses. It is both a reflection of and an explanation for the otherwise unexplainable ethnic cleansing.
An opening scene, obviously an homage to "Cabaret," sets the mood, with a heavily-made-up cabaret host leering at us to say that we are in for bad times. And then we see what he has in mind. We see two lifelong best friends working out at a boxing gym, sharing a beer, taking a shower, exchanging confidences. One reveals to the other that he once slept with the other's wife, and then other betrayals come out, in a kind of can-you-top-this mode. We watch the escalation, the quick shift in mood from camaraderie to hate, and the scene ends with a brutal murder in the shower.
What else? A young psychopath boards a bus, whose driver is taking too long for a coffee break, and proceeds to terrorize the passengers. A young couple are taken prisoner by two men, who intend to rape and kill them -- slowly and sadistically. The woman's fingers are deliberately broken, one by one, as her boyfriend is forced to watch helplessly. And then the tables are turned, also viciously. A man is mistaken for a thief of gasoline from cars, and is stoned to death trying to escape from the mob that chases him.
There are no regrets, no atonements, no heroes, and in a way no villains, because if one is a villain than all who aquiesce are also tainted. This film tells us that death and torture, murder and torment, are within us all and need very little to trigger their release. The Balkans are merely the exemplar, but -- as we see every day -- they are just today's news. Yesterday it was Rwanda, before that Guatemala, East Timor, Cambodia; the list is endless.
So although this is Belgrade 1998, certainly a city and a society spiraling down to hell as we watch, we should be careful not to isolate ourselves from it, and take as its moral that we must look within to see and understand what's outside. The film opened this spring in New York at the tenth Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, and is now in wider release. It is essential viewing.