The Living And The Dead

In his recent book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin (2010), the historian Timothy Snyder describes how, between 1930 and 1945, over 14 million people were murdered in a part of the Eurasian landmass stretching from Poland in the west to what is now St Petersburg in the east. These millions lost their lives through the savagery of war and the mechanism of genocide, and also through a series of famines purges and forced resettlements carried out by both the German and Russian governments of the time. That humans managed to murder close to a million people a year every year in such a small corner of the planet is not only horrifying, it is also puzzling. What is it about that land that makes people so willing to both kill and die in order to possess it?

One answer can be found in Halford John Mackinder’s classic 1904 paper ‘The Geographical Pivot Of History’. In this paper, Mackinder argues that the geography of the world is such that certain parts of the globe possess greater strategic importance than others. For Mackinder, the single most strategically vital part of the world was Eastern Europe. As he himself put it in 1919:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island controls the world.

Given the influence of Mackinder’s geopolitical theories on the thinking of both Hitler and Stalin, this three-line poem may well stand as the single most deadly piece of writing ever committed to paper. Each of its 21 words resulted in the death of nearly three quarters of a million people. I doubt even Mao’s Little Red Book or the Christian Bible could boast such awesome efficiency. But what if there was another answer to the question of why so much blood has been spilled over so little land?

What if certain parts of the world are just… bad? Tainted by the blood of generations past, these places would cry out to the children of the future with such hideous volume that any price in human lives would seem reasonable for just a few moments silence. This idea that places can have a particular character, a character that influences and shapes the cultures built upon them, is central to the work of the great British TV dramatist Nigel Kneale whose The Stone Tape (1972), and Quatermass And The Pit (1948) both feature places that are just plain bad.

Croatian director Kristijan Milic has chosen, for his first feature film The Living And The Dead (aka: Zivi i mrtvi), to explore this psycho-geographical idea as a possible explanation for the continued unrest of the Baltic states. Set during the break-up of former Yugoslavia, the film is set in one place but in two separate times. The first strand sees a group of listless Croatian soldiers being dragged through the countryside of the blood-soaked 1990s by a fanatical former boxer who returned home in order to exact a bloody vengeance on the Muslim population he blames for curtailing his boxing career.

The second strand sees a group of slightly more disciplined Croatian soldiers being dragged through the countryside of the blood-soaked 1940s by a fanatical Croatian nationalist. Despite the many differences between the time-frames (most noticeably the fact that ethnic Turks fought to free the Croats in the 1940s only for them to become the so-called enemy of the Croats in the 1990s), there are also numerous similarities, some more eerie than others.

For example, why do both sets of soldiers encounter the same fires burning in the night 50 years apart? Why do both sets of soldiers wind up fighting for control of the same broken-down wooden shack? Why do both sets of soldiers engage in terrifying gun-battles with invisible opponents who could well be other members of their own squads?

The answer is the existence of a place called the Graveyard Field. This field is nothing much to look at, it is barely even a field in the farming sense of the word, and yet the people of the Balkans have been fighting and dying for it for generations. Nobody in their right mind would want this field and yet hundreds have died for it. Is this some quirk of human nature? Is this the result of the iron laws of geopolitics? Is this the result of some deep stain upon the fabric of the world? Milic is intriguingly ambivalent in his answer.

The Living And The Dead is a film that is completely wedded to social realism. Indeed, the bulk of the film is devoted to making clear the context of both conflicts and the personalities and beliefs of the characters in each of the squads. That these characters and relationships are so well rounded and fleshed-out is perhaps unsurprising given that Milic’s film is based upon a novel by Josip Mlakic (which he himself adapted for the screen with help from Ivan Pavlicic) but, as 7 Days (2010) – Daniel Grou’s wasteful adaptation of Patrick SenĂ©cal’s Les Sept Jours du Talion – demonstrated, it still takes some skill to not fuck up a novel adaptation even when the author himself writes the screenplay.

That The Living And The Dead devotes so much care and attention to its human characters rather than its fantastical themes and subtexts only serves to make those themes more evocative. This is not a film that takes a genre idea and explores it using the traditional literary cannon fodder of character, it is a film that presents us with characters, breaks them on the rack of the world and then turns to the fantastical as a possible answer to the question ‘why?’

Why would so many people kill and die for such a worthless tract of land? Why would generation upon generation return to fight the same battles that killed their fathers and their grandfathers? Such violence does not make sense, it does not fit into a rational and comprehensible world and, if it does not fit into a rational world then it must be the product of an irrational one. A world in which fields can kill and where generations of dead people welcome their children with open arms and a faint smile of expectation and grim homecoming as though to say ‘at last… here you are!’

Well-written, atmospherically directed and dripping with raw humanity, The Living And The Dead is something of an overlooked gem, and well worth tracking down.