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Project RastkoHistory of Serb culture
TIA Janus

Dejan Kosanovic

Serbian Film and Cinematography

Edited by Gordana Dilber

Chapter from the book
"The history of Serbian Culture"
The history of Serbian culture  


Courtesy of


The first picture-show in Serbia, and in the Balkans as well, was presented on June 6, 1896, in Belgrade, in the cafe "At the Golden Cross" on Terazije. This happened less than six months after the first public demonstration of "moving pictures" in Paris (December 28, 1895). Andre Carr, a representative of the Lumiere brothers from Lyon, the inventors of the cinematograph, had been showing the first films of Lyon producers to the citizens of Belgrade for more than a month. One presentation was attended by Aleksandar Obrenovic, who was the king of Serbia at that time, and the queen mother Natalija.

Migrations, the poster for the film directed by Aleksandar Petrovic, 1994

In March of 1897, during his second stay in Belgrade, Andre Carr shot his first frames in Serbia - the "Kalemegdan Promenade", the "Tramway Station at Terazije" and "Workers Coming out of the Tobacco Factory". This was the first opportunity for the citizens of Belgrade to see their own city on the screen, but, unfortunately, those films have not been preserved. During following years, a large number of travelling cinematographers passed through Serbia and Belgrade, showing their films in rented halls or under tent-stalls. Some of them also made local films, but none of those shootings have been preserved. Stojan Nanic from Zajecar was the owner of the "First Serbian Cinema", which from 1900 showed films in Belgrade and in the towns of Serbia. At the beginning of the twentieth century, cinema became the favourite means of mass entertainment.

The oldest preserved film which was shot in the territory of Serbia is to be credited to the Englishmen Arnold M. Wilson, the honourary Serbian consul in Sheffield, and his cameraman Frank Mottershow. In September, 1904, in Belgrade, they shot the film The Coronation of King Petar I Karadjordjevic, as well as some scenes from Kraljevo, the monastery of Zica and Novi Pazar.

The Crowning of King Petar I Karadjordjevic, by A.M. Wilson and F. Mottershow, 1904

In 1909, the first permanent cinema was opened in the hotel "Paris" in Belgrade, and soon afterwards other permanent picture theatres were opened in the capital and in other cities. On the eve of World War I, there were about 30 permanent cinemas in the Kingdom of Serbia, along with many travelling ones. The repertoire was dominated by French films ("Pathe" and "Gaumont"), and the copies arrived in Belgrade and Serbia very quickly, frequently only ten days after the opening night in Paris.

The first film producers in Serbia came from among the owners of permanent cinemas. In 1911 Svetozar Botoric, the owner of the picture theatre "Paris" in Belgrade, engaged French cameraman Louis de Berry and started the production of newsreels about events in the capital - The Solemn Delivery of Old Flags and the Receiving of New Ones, The Departure of the King, the Heir to the Throne and Princess Jelena to St. Petersburg, and others. In Autumn of the same year, he shot and showed the first Serbian feature film Karadjordje, a historical drama about the life and work of the leader of the First Serbian Uprising. The film was directed by the actor and director Ilija Stanojevic (Cica Ilija), and the roles were performed by the members of the Serbian National Theatre. The film was received as a great success by the audience, and it was shown after World War I as well, but no copies of this or other films by Botoric have been preserved. The Savic brothers, who owned the "Modern Cinema" in Belgrade, began film production at the same time as Botoric. Their cameraman was Carl Freund, who later became a famous German and Hollywood film-maker and the Oscar prizewinner for camera. Besides many newsreels, which were filmed in Belgrade and in the provinces, the Savic brothers produced the feature film The Woeful Mother (1912), a melodrama in which the leading role was performed by the tragedienne Emilija Popovic. The third film producer in Belgrade was Djoka Bogdanovic, the owner of the cinema "Kasino". He developed his activity in 1913, in the period of Balkan Wars. The Russian photographer Samson Cernov filmed for him and they created valuable documentaries about the Second Balkan War and about everyday events in Belgrade in 1913-1914. The greatest part of these films has been preserved, and is valuable historical material being kept in the Archive of the Yugoslav Film Library. Along with de Berry and Freund, Slavko Jovanovic, the first Serbian cameraman, mastered the skill of working the cine-camera and very soon he independently began to shoot short documentaries for Botoric and the Savic brothers.

Karadjordje, directed by Ilija Stanojevic, 1911

The break out of World War I abruptly cut off the development of the domestic film industry in Serbia. Bogdanovic and Cernov filmed some details of the first war operations in 1914 (the Srem operation and the capturing of Zemun in September, 1914), but soon afterwards all the activities of domestic film pioneers in Serbia ceased because of the war. The whole epopee of the Serbs 1915/1916 was covered by very little footage, filmed by foreign cameramen.

The beginnings and development of cinematographic activities in Vojvodina, which was under Austro-Hungarian rule, had some specific features, which were typical for the peripheral province of the complex state. The travelling cinematographers reached the settlements in Vojvodina approximately at the same time when they came to the Kingdom of Serbia (many of them operated in both territories). The first permanent picture house was opened in Sombor as early as 1906, and domestic film production is related to three film pioneers in Vojvodina. Ernest Bosnjak from Sombor, the owner of the first cinema, procured a cine-camera in 1909 and began filming. Only one of his earliest films has been preserved - The Unveiling of the Monument to Ferencz Rákóczi, from 1912. Aleksandar Lifka, after a decade of showing films with his travelling cinema, settled down in Subotica, where he opened a permanent picture theatre and began shooting newsreels about local events. Vladimir Totovic, a native of Novi Sad, had the greatest film ambitions. He directed two feature films - The Rescuer and The Detective as a Thief, but his career was halted by his departure for the front, where he died near Gorica, as an Austro- Hungarian soldier.

With Faith in God, directed by Mihailo Al. Popovic, 1932

During World War I, as the Serbian army was being reorganized, after crossing over Albania and recovering on the Greek island of Corfu, the Film Section of the Supreme Command was established. The task of this military film service was to show films which had been obtained from the allies to the soldiers, and to shoot films about the events at the Salonica front. Among the many associates and cameramen of this film section at the Supreme Command of Serbian Army, the most significant was Mihailo Mihailovic, who later became one of the most significant film pioneers in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The cameramen in the Film Section made a lot of footage about the breach of the Salonica front, the battles for the liberation of Serbia and the entry of Serbian army into Belgrade. A segment of that material has been preserved.

Belgrade was the most important film centre in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (after 1929), especially in terms of film production. At the Ministry of National Health in Belgrade, the Government Studio for Film Production was established, whose task was to make health-educational films. One of those films was The Tragedy of Our Children (1922), dealing with problems of alcoholism. However, due to the lack of resources, the activity of this studio ceased in 1925. That same year in Sombor, Ernest Bosnjak produced a thematically similar film Lie for My Sake (1922), and his company "Boer Film" continued to make other films as well. In those years, several film companies were founded in Belgrade - "Novakovic film" by Kosta Novakovic, "Artistik film" by Andrija Glisic and Zarija Djokic, "Adrija Nacional" by Ranko Jovanovic and Milutin Ignjacevic, "Macva film" by Slavko Jovanovic and "Pobeda film" by Josip Novak. All these film devotees invested substantial financial resources in film production, creating numerous newsreels and documentary films, along with several feature films, of which some have been preserved. The "Novakovic Newsreel", a film chronicle of events in Belgrade and Serbia, is today precious historical material for investigating the Serbian past. Since the feature films Anything for a Smile, Miner's Happiness ("Pobeda film", 1929), The King of Charleston (1927), The Sinless Sinner (1929), by Kosta Novakovic and Through the Storm and the Flames (1930), by Ranko Jovanovic and Milutin Ignjacevic, only lost money for their producers, not one of these film pioneers in Serbia was able to maintain continuous production of feature films. The circumstances of the film market in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were very disadvantageous for the national film: cinema owners were burdened with high taxes, the market was swamped with low-priced and high-quality imported films (American, German, French), and protection of the domestic film was not organized. Indeed, in 1931 the Law on Organizing Film Distribution was passed, which, among other things, put the distributors and cinemas under obligation to show a certain percentage of domestic films. This was a strong stimulus for film pioneers in Serbia, and only during 1932 were more films shot (in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) than in the entire period after World War I. In 1931, the "Yugoslav Educational Film" company was founded, a privileged firm (it landed orders from the government) which, up to 1941, made many documentary films about Yugoslavia, most of which have been preserved. In 1932, Mihajlo Al. Popovic shot the film With Faith in God, which was undoubtedly the most ambitious and the most successful Serbian feature film before World War II. The author of this film presented himself as an expert in film expression, demonstrating a delicate taste for the composition of the frame. However, under the pressure of foreign film distributors and domestic cinema owners, the articles of the above mentioned law which protected the national film were abrogated. Thus, production was again reduced to occasional newsreels and documentaries, among which The Road of Giants, a film about a bicycle race through Serbia, should be singled out (1939, "Artistik film", filmed by Mihailo Ivanjikov), as should the best national documentary film before World War II, The Story of a Day (1941, "Artistik film", directed by Maks Kalmic, cameraman Mihailo Ivanjikov).

Through the Storm and the Flames, directed by Ranko Jovanovic and Milutin Ignjacevic, 1930

During World War II (1941-1945), there was much film activity in Serbia. In occupied Belgrade, under the aegis of the occupying authorities, a collaborationist newsreel New Serbia was filmed, having today the value of a historic document. The feature film Innocence without Protection was made as well, directed by Dragoljub Aleksic. On the side which fought against German occupiers and their collaborators, allied cameramen shot films from time to time. A segment of that footage has been preserved. In July, 1944, the Film Section at the General Staff of the National Liberation Army and Partisan units of Serbia was established, at the head of which was Rados Novakovic, who afterwards became an outstanding pioneer of modern Yugoslav cinematography. After the liberation of Belgrade (October 1944), this section grew into the Film Section of the Supreme Command of NLA and PUY, which actually meant the beginning of organized cinematographic activity in Yugoslavia after Word War II. Cinema Chronicle 1, the first film of modern Yugoslav cinematography, was shot in Belgrade in January, 1945, and several cinema chronicles and documentaries came after it. Thus the continuous film production in Serbia began at the end of World War II, in the boundaries of new, post-war Yugoslavia.

During the administrative management system in cinematography in FPR Yugoslavia (1945-1951), all activity was centralised: The Yugoslav Government Committee for Cinematography was at the head, and cinematography in Serbia was governed by the Republic's Committee. Belgrade was the domicile of the federal production company "Zvezda film", "Filmske novosti", the republic company "Avala film", the import-export company "Jugoslavija film", the Film School, and so on. Thus, the real administrative and business centre of new, modern Yugoslav cinematography was in Serbia, which certainly had an impact on the development of film in this republic. From then until the disintegration of the SFR Yugoslavia (1991), Serbia produced about 50% of the Yugoslav feature, documentary and short films. The greatest number of Yugoslav film artists and technicians lived and worked in Belgrade and Serbia, and the largest Yugoslav production and technical facilities were placed there. Many film artists and experts from Serbia worked in other republics, and Serbian cinematography was always open for artists and experts from other parts of former Yugoslavia.

Sofka, directed by Rados Novakovic, 1948

Since the end of World War II (1945), the production of newsreels and documentaries in Serbia has been a continuous process. Among them, one should single out the film New Land (1946) by Rados Novakovic, about the settling of colonists from the backward areas, which had been destroyed by the war, in the fertile plains of Vojvodina. The first feature film in modern Yugoslav cinematography was produced by the company "Avala film" from Belgrade, in 1947. It was Slavica, directed by Vjekoslav Afric. In 1948, three out of four Yugoslav feature films which were shot that year were produced in Belgrade - Immortal Youth, dealing with a war theme, directed by Vojislav Nanovic, Life is Ours, with a modern theme, directed by Gustav Gavrin and Sofka, directed by Rados Novakovic, which was the first film adaptation of a classic literary work among the Serbs (from the novel Tainted Blood by Borisav Stankovic). Together with the production of feature films, the number of documentary and short film creations increased. An animated film with puppets, The Scout and the Girl, directed by Ljubisa and Vera Jocic won the special award in this category at the International Film Festival in Venice.

In 1951, in the framework of the general changes in the Yugoslav social system, cinematography was also reorganised. The Committees for cinematography were suspended, government financing ceased and the film producers were expected to do business more profitably, although the state still partially covered the production costs through subsidies. The system of film-making was changed as well - film artists and their associates were selected from the corpus of producers, now being bound by contract for the production of a film. Although it caused organisational and financial problems at first, the new system was stimulating. The number of production film companies in Serbia increased, artistic and production competition began and the film-makers depended on the success of their films. Due to that, cinematic art emancipated itself from the previously influential Social Realist stereotypes, which had been taken from Soviet cinematography, and new, specific ways of film expression were searched for. That search for novelty was especially pronounced in Serbian cinematography, where the greatest number of domestic script writers and producers worked, which most directly impelled the further growth of Serbian film.

Who's That Singing over There?, directed by Slobodan Sijan, 1980

The following decade (1951-1962) was characterized by mastering in cinematic skills, by the conquering of new genres in the field of feature movie and by artistic achievements which contributed to the elevation of Yugoslav film to European standards. The authors, who had distinguished themselves already in the previous, pioneer period, made their own contribution to it - Rados Novakovic (Distant is the Sun, 1953, The Song from Kumbara, 1955, The Wind Stopped toward Dawn, 1959), Vojislav Nanovic (Gipsy, 1953, Three Steps into the Emptiness, 1958) and others. An extraordinary artistic success was achieved by the films of Vladimir Pogacic, who employed the potentialities of cinematic expression in an exquisite way, whether dealing with war films (Great and Small, 1956, Alone, 1959), or contemporary themes (On Saturday Evenings, 1957). For the direction of the film Great and Small Pogacic received the first prize at the International Festival in Karlovy Vary, the first award of that kind which was given to a Yugoslav author. Zivorad Mitrovic was the one to essentially alter the relationship toward war film, introducing entirely new elements of thrilling adventure film into that very exploited genre (The Echelon of Doctor M., 1955, Captain Lesi, Signals over the City, 1960). The first Yugoslav colour film was made, The Priest Cira and the Priest Spira (1957), directed by Soja Jovanovic. Since 1953, films were co- produced with foreign countries (The Last Bridge, 1953, with Austria, The Bloody Road, 1955, with Norway, and many others). Along with the first generation of Serbian film directors, new authors appeared, among whom Aleksandar Petrovic was especially distinguished (The Couple, 1961). On the other hand, low-cost and popular films were made, in order to attract the masses; a typical example was the comedy The Common Flat (1960), directed by Marjan Vajda.

The next period (from 1962 to 1991) could be best portrayed as the constant advancement of film in Serbia. During those three decades more that 300 feature films were shot in Serbia. Productions of domestic cinematography became an integral part of national culture, domestic film gained the attention of the audience, and many productions represented our country at film festivals all around the world. New authors and new tendencies emerged in the domain of the feature film. Purisa Djordjevic introduced a distinctive poetics into war films (The Girl, 1965, The Morning, 1967), Dusan Makavejev turned toward the problems of contemporary life, introducing original expression into his films, which made him internationally renowned (Man Is Not a Bird, 1965, Switchboard Operator - an Affair of the Heart, 1967, Mysteries of the Organism, 1967), Vladan Slijepcevic used poetic realism in treating contemporary themes (Medallion with Three Hearts, 1962, The Protege, 1966), while Zivojin Pavlovic portrayed modern life in an almost naturalistic way (The Awakening of Rats, When I'm Dead and White, 1960). Serbian film was dominated by the artistic personality of Aleksandar Petrovic, who won the Grand prix at the International Film Festival in Cannes for his film I Met Some Happy Gypsies, Too (1967).

Dulcineja, art and direction by Vera Vlajic, 1993

In the middle of the 1970s, a new generation of film directors appeared in Serbia: young, talented and ambitious authors who were educated in Prague and Belgrade - Goran Paskaljevic (The Beach Guard in Winter Time, 1976, The Dog Who Liked Trains 1977), Srdjan Karanovic (The Fragrance of Wild Flowers, 1977), Goran Markovic (Special Education, 1977), Dejan Karaklajic (The Love Life of Budimir Trajkovic, 1977), Slobodan Sijan (Who's That Singing over There, 1980) and Darko Bajic (Live Broadcast, 1982). The films of this generation of authors received numerous awards at the Festival of Yugoslav Feature Film in Pula, as well as at many international film festivals, and their creative work marked the modern Serbian film as an artistic field of special national and international significance. Along with names and works which have been mentioned, there are also many other important authors (Miomir Stamenkovic, Predrag Golubovic, Aleksandar Petkovic, Dragan Kresoja, Milos Radivojevic, Zelimir Zilnik and others), who each gave their contribution to the growth of film and cinematic art in Serbia.

Along with feature film, the documentary, short and animated film have developed in Serbia. Serbian documentary film followed the events in the country; the turning-point from the Social Realist sugarcoating toward the genuine cinematic document was the film In the Heart of Kosmet (1954), while the poetic values in this genre were discovered by Aleksandar Petrovic, with his film Flight over the Swamp (1957). In the middle of the 1960s, the Belgrade school of documentary film was formed around the company "Dunav film" and became internationally recognized, due to the many prizes it got at international film festivals (Oberhausen, Leipzig). These were, above all, the films directed by Krsto Skanata, Vladan slijepcevic, Stjepan Zaninovic, Mica Milosevic, Nikola Jovicevic and Aleksandar Ilic. A special place belongs to the cameraman and director Petar Lalovic, whose films about nature won significant international awards (The Last Oasis, 1983). Along with documentary film, the production of cartoon films in Belgrade developed rapidly after 1970; their authors received many prizes at national and international film festivals (Zoran Jovanovic, Nikola Majdak, Vera Vlajic, Veljko Bikic and others).

The Deserter, directed by Zivojin Pavlovic, 1992

With the disintegration of SFR Yugoslavia in 1991, Yugoslav cinematography as a whole deteriorated as well. However, this had a minor effect on Serbian cinematography, since it was already operating as a separate entity in the previous period, depending very little on cooperation with the other Yugoslav republics. In spite of substantial difficulties, which certainly had an impact on such a complex activity as film production, progress was not halted. In 1991, eight feature films were made in Serbia, in 1992 - eleven and in 1993 (up to the beginning of November) - seven. Along with names of experienced Serbian directors of the middle-aged generation - Srdjan Karanovic (Virgina, 1991), Dragan Kresoja (The Original of the Forgery, 1991), Goran Paskaljevic (Tango Argentino, 1992), Goran Markovic (Tito and Me, 1992), Zivojin Pavlovic (The Deserter, 1992), some new young directors emerged, a new generation which is yet to make its contribution to cinematic art in Serbia. Among them, Srdjan Dragojevic is outstanding, whose first feature film, We Are Not Angels (1992) was declared to be the best film of the year. In spite of the blockade and sanctions, which included the domain of culture as well, during 1992 and 1993 Serbian films were presented at many international film festivals, and they won several significant awards and acknowledgments, demonstrating the great vigour and vitality of culture and cinematic art in Serbia to the world.

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