Those Crazy Serbian Pornographers: Reviews of The Life and Death of A Porno Gang and A Serbian Film

Mr. Kotwicki reviews two of the most disturbing movies of the last decade.

In the new millennia of exploitation horror films and the built-in audience with it, two films would emerge from the Balkans which would shake the genre to its very foundations and violently divide audiences forever.  You can meet any gore-hound, any exploitation cinema fan of movies that freely mix porn and grindhouse sleaze, and the moment you mention Serbia, you are judged for crossing an unspoken line. What is it that makes a film like Cannibal Holocaust a classic in the genre and something like A Serbian Film intolerable and completely unworthy of consideration?  

As an open minded film buff who will try anything and attempt to find validity in the most corrosive annals of celluloid, I would like to think there’s more going on upstairs in both A Serbian Film and its loosely connected kid-cousin The Life and Death of a Porno Gang.  While art is in the eye of the beholder, I think it’s unfair to simply write them off as puerile and nothing more.  In this short article, I’ll attempt to purvey both movies and analyze, more or less, their mutual artistic successes and overall commentary on the nature of Serbian poverty.

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009 – written and directed by Mladen Djordjevic) 8/10
The first of two nuclear bombs to good taste and a work of pure transgression, The Life and Death of a Porno Gang follows Marko, a young art filmmaker who finds his voice in sexual politics against Serbia’s state of affairs through satirical porn.  After a row with his producer, Marko forms a porno cabaret and hits the stage theater.  When that fails, he begins a new sojourn through Serbia on what looks very like a dirty Mystery Bus from Scooby Doo.  Struggling to survive as the band leaves Belgrade and purveys the Serbian countryside they find themselves at the mercy of irate villagers, hallucinogens and a German journalist who offers a job of making snuff films of violent, bloody deaths.  

Shot on low grade handheld DV with a guerilla sensibility, Porno Gang is a curious black comedy that commits several real transgressions on camera (unsimulated sex including bestiality) while maintaining a sharp sense of narrative storytelling.  It’s the gross-out exploitation shocker you can show to fans of highbrow cinema and get more laughs than you’d anticipate.  Compared by some to John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, it’s an omnisexual art porn flick with real characters that are fully realized and a genuine story people can relate to.  No one wants destitution, and amid the orgiastic spectacles enacted by the group, there’s a real sense of family among these misfits.  

"Hi. We're the leftovers from
the '90s music video shoot.
Wanna screw?"
Porno Gang also makes great use of location, with many long shots of the Serbian countryside seen through rain covered windows of the porno bus.  Depicting something of a wasteland, there’s a startling degree of poverty of the Balkan landscape never seen before.  Porno Gang more or less successfully conveys a sense of desperation with people resorting to any means necessary to put food on the table.  Though it breaks many boundaries which some will attest should have been faked, it’s a brilliant dark comedy of survival in a desolate wasteland and a sympathetic look at the lives swept up in the wake.  Not for everyone, those reading this review should know full well to proceed with caution before subjecting themselves to an onslaught of shock and awe.  It is also one of the funniest gross-out comedies in recent memory with a poignant take on the disintegration of the Serbian family. 

A Serbian Film (2010 – written and directed by Srdjan Spasojevic) 7/10

World famous porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is at the end of his rope.  After retiring from the porn industry to settle down with his wife and 6 year old son, he finds his pension funds drying up for his son’s education.  An offers arises from Lejla, a former porn co-star, to make one more adult film for a price.  Introduced to Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), an eccentric entrepreneur planning the ultimate artistic adult film, Milos is told the role will secure his assets for life.  With the job comes one small provision: Milos is not to read the screenplay prior to filming.  Reluctantly accepting the offer, A Serbian Film shifts gears and wilfully proceeds to forever change the way Milos (and we) look at the movies.  It’s all downhill from there. 

Understandably, A Serbian Film was immediately lambasted as nothing more than child pornography for its two scenes of graphic child rape.  That’s not excluding its tidal wave of taboo imagery and endless sexual violence exploding in the viewer’s face as Milos’ world descends deeper into the pit.  A lightning rod of controversy, it was banned and censored across the world over.  After a screening at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain, the festival’s exhibitor was charged (and eventually acquitted) with screening child pornography, resulting in several censored versions before becoming an internet sensation with free access to the uncut version by downloading it illegally.  Comparisons between itself and The Human Centipede were instantly drawn for being a penultimate gross-out movie.  The immediate impact upon viewers also has the tendency to overshadow its virtues.

For all intents and purposes, A Serbian Film is a truly devilish dark comedy which follows through to its logical end while satirizing its own unbridled sensationalism.  It’s most telling scene involves the hapless Milos leaping through a glass window, and Vukmir remarks ‘Our film just jumped out the window!’  No kidding.  Even before Hell breaks loose, there’s a morbid sense of humor about the negative effects of film on children, and how it can age them faster than we know how to deal with.  To say the film is poorly made simply isn’t true.  For a cinematic parade of unthinkable atrocities, it’s lensed with the cold precision of David Cronenberg with stellar performances by some of Serbia’s top actors.  Todorovic himself was a former drummer in a band, and there’s a clever aside where he enters his basement and a full drum set can be seen.  Let’s not forget its Fight Club electronic score of dubstep and hard industrial noise. 

"How many times do I have
to tell you?!!! No onions on
my salad!!!"
More or less, A Serbian Film essentially retells the same story as its lower budget counterpart, The Life and Death of a Porno Gang.  While the argument could be made Milos is a victimizer, Ultimately he is a victim of circumstance.  The problem is A Serbian Film tends to lose itself in its relentless pursuit of transcendent transgression.  Not a film one can easily recommend (if at all), other than fulfilling viewer desire in seeing where the invisible line is drawn.  While its writer-director Srdjan Spasojevic showcases all the wit and brilliance of Cronenberg both here and in his contribution to The ABCs of Death, beyond the immediate shock its ultimate aim to point a spotlight on Serbian poverty is mildly successful.  Mostly it’s remembered as a real serious kick in the crotch that will hurt for days.

-Andrew Kotwicki