Guest post: YU in the library

Sketches about libraries in ex-Yugoslavian movies

I hope you enjoy this guest post by Ljubomir (Ljuba) Branković. If that name feels familiar to you, it’s because I interviewed Ljubomir and his lovely wife, Valentina (Tina), for a post here on the Reel Librarians blog, back in August 2021. Ljuba and Tina are both real-life librarians in Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia (which was formerly part of the country known as Yugoslavia from 1918-1992). Ljubomir is another movie-loving librarian like myself and collects inserts from feature, short, and animated films as well as from TV series in which libraries and librarians appear. Below are Ljubomir’s insights into interesting library scenes in movies from his region. Enjoy!


YU in the library: Sketches about libraries in ex-Yugoslavian movies

by Ljubomir Branković

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (YU) was a state that once included several republics. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, today there are several independent countries, including Serbia. Today the most common term for this geographic area is “Western Balkans.” In the period 1945-1990, it was a Communist/Socialist country, the only one from the so-called “Eastern block” that did not belong to the group of pro-Soviet states formed after the end of World War II. Up to its traumatic breakup, it had received an interesting epithet “East in the West, West in the East,” due to the state’s historical past. Actually, the development of the social conditions in Yugoslavia is faithfully represented by this saying. The very social transformation of the second half of the 20th century had perhaps been best reflected by development of its cinematography. The significant number of awards and worldwide recognitions that Yugoslavian films have received reflect this artistic, cinematic focus.

So, as this wonderful blog, Reel Librarians, is primarily dedicated to the libraries and librarians in film, I will try to bring closer for your readers some of the most impressive examples of our little pearls of local cinema. [Editor’s note: All of the films below have been added to the Foreign-Language Films list, thanks to Ljubomir!] Although there were several titles before 1979 with library scenes, the next few examples are those that have remained in the collective memory of us all. 😊 Dialogs and quotes from these movies are still – even today – very fresh and catchy (primarily for their wit). These movies stay even in the memory amongst the young people from our region, who were not even born at the time of their premieres.

1. Nacionalna Klasa (aka National Class Category Up to 785 Ccm, directed by Goran Marković, 1979)

The local racing ace, Floyd (interpreted by Dragan Nikolić), in order to avoid joining the army, is preparing for the entrance exam for the Faculty of Dramatic Arts. One specific scene takes place in the reading room of the University Library “Svetozar Marković” in Belgrade (built back in 1926, a gift from the Carnegie Endowment). Here in the calm of the greenish lights of the library, we follow his consultations with another student, while he is actually flipping through a book on female anatomy because he had suddenly learned that his girlfriend is pregnant…

Screenshot of library scene in Nacionalna Klasa (aka National Class Category Up to 785 Ccm, directed by Goran Marković, 1979)
Screenshot of library scene in Nacionalna Klasa (aka National Class Category Up to 785 Ccm, directed by Goran Marković, 1979)

2. Poseban Tretman (aka Special Therapy, directed by Goran Paskaljević, 1980)

One of the scenes takes place in a local brewery factory’s library. A strange group of treated alcoholics (along with their doctor) are to give a lecture, followed by a stage play on the harmfulness of alcohol. 

In the middle of the movie, a fellow factory’s librarian, played by the great Yugoslav actress Milena Dravić; for this role she won the award for Best Supporting Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. Convinced she is really doing a good thing for the guests, she decides to remove from the library all the books associated with alcohol or by authors known for their inclination for alcoholism.

Screenshot of librarian and library scene in Poseban Tretman (aka Special Therapy, directed by Goran Paskaljević, 1980)
Screenshot of librarian and library scene in Poseban Tretman (aka Special Therapy, directed by Goran Paskaljević, 1980)

3. Variola Vera (directed by Goran Marković, 1982)

This film may best correspond to the current global moment because it is about the smallpox epidemic (the “Variola vera” virus) in Yugoslavia during 1972. The one library scene from this movie was filmed at the University Library in Belgrade, following a doctor (Rade Šerbedžija) who, at first uninterested in epidemic, looks over books on infections, unaware he himself had been already infected with Variola vera.

Screenshot of library scene in Variola Vera (directed by Goran Marković, 1982)
Screenshot of library scene in Variola Vera (directed by Goran Marković, 1982)

4. Varljivo Leto ’68 (aka The Elusive Summer of ’68, directed by Goran Paskaljević, 1984)

Probably the most impressive movie scenes among the library shelves of the ex-Yugoslavia are saved for this sweet movie. This film has several library scenes that are arguably the most well-known in Serbia. The movie follows the adventures of a high school graduate and his futile attempts to find his first great love during lively and turbulent days of the summer of 1968.

In fact, the world’s important socio-political events are only the basis for depicting his love woes. Among the women who capture his attention, we see: a professor of Marxism, a pharmacist, a baker, and a beautiful librarian from the local library (played by Neda Arnerić). The line that the main character Petar (Slavko Štimac) utters passionately looking out of her window while she was getting ready for bed, best evokes his impatient emotions:

That night I had firmly decided to obey my father. I will not pass by the pharmacy anymore, but I am definitely going to become a library member and read all about Marxism! 

In another famous scene, Petar’s parents perform a burlesque conversation:

Father: Where is this one? Was he in the library?

Mother: Three times.

Father: How’s that? Three times?

Mother: Well, the first time to register there, the second time to choose the book, and the third time to pay the membership fee.

Father: And where is he now?

Mother: Gone for the fourth time.

Father: Why?

Mother: To help Jova and Djoka [his schoolmates] to register themselves!

All the hard work and effort of the young Don Juan ended with him breathing over the neck of the charming librarian and her “concrete answer” in the form of a juicy slap! 😊

Screenshot of the library scene in Varljivo Leto ’68 (aka The Elusive Summer of '68, directed by Goran Paskaljević, 1984)
Screenshot of library scene in Varljivo Leto ’68 (aka The Elusive Summer of ’68, directed by Goran Paskaljević, 1984)

5. Krvopijci (aka Bloodsuckers, directed by Dejan Šorak, 1989)

A parody of the vampire movies, this movie is set in Zagreb, the capital of the Republic of Croatia. It’s like this movie foreshadows the upcoming painful years of disagreement and war between former compatriots.  The library scene, in an extremely sarcastic way, indicates its social and material status of the cultural institution – always neglected. It turns out, when it comes to the library in the Balkans – to a greater or lesser extent – it is always a “negative traditional trend.” 

The librarian (played by Vitomira Lončar) agrees to be bribed in order to allow access to materials from the 16th century to a psychiatrist who was investigating the case of an alleged Zagreb vampire of the period. At his request for helping him in dealing with the old, baroque books, she clumsily and sympathetically replied to the client’s astonishment:

You have paid $100 just to see a book?

The scene was filmed in the old building of the National and University Library in Zagreb, where the Croatian State Archives is now located. 

Screenshot of library scene in Krvopijci (aka Bloodsuckers, directed by Dejan Šorak, 1989)
Screenshot of library scene in Krvopijci (aka Bloodsuckers, directed by Dejan Šorak, 1989)

6. Mi Nismo Anđeli (aka We Are Not Angels, directed by Srđan Dragojević, 1992)

This teenage comedy took place in the early 1990s, in the YU region that was at the same time spreading armed conflicts and dismantling of a state – and brings a completely new and fresh form of film expression. The main character Nikola is a promiscuous, troublesome young, good-looking man (secretly infatuated by all the city girls!). Guided by the old saying, “he who dares wins,” we follow a series of attempts by the two naive, unversed young girls to win him over by studying in the library all that would be “sufficient” for catching this good-looking boy! Their attempts take a good deal of effort, but they somehow always fail to come closer to Nikola! The “mysterious interference” which doesn’t allow girls to meet Nikola is his alter ego reflected into two characters: a devil and an angel. Two of them are having a constant argument and they lead the plot on crazy roads; there are turns, stumbles, ups and downs all the way. The whole movie has been made in a humorous, amusing, and insightful way. 

There is a line from the reading room of the University Library (which is definitely the most filmed interior of any library in Serbia) that is still an example of “fake speed learning.” 

How can I go through the whole philosophy in one afternoon?! 

Why? Well, it took you all the morning to go through the literature!

Screenshot of library scene in Mi Nismo Anđeli (aka We Are Not Angels, directed by Srđan Dragojević, 1992)
Screenshot of library scene in Mi Nismo Anđeli (aka We Are Not Angels, directed by Srđan Dragojević, 1992)

Ex-YU cinematography has not had a movie with the entire content focused on the library (or librarian) by itself. Mostly, librarians appear as supporting characters, but their roles have been interpreted by such great, unique actors, such as Milena Dravić, Dušica Žegarac, Neda Arnerić, Ivica Vidović, and Bogdan Diklić… The very interpretation of these roles is mostly reduced to stereotypical characterizations, similar to librarian characters in other world cinemas, larger or smaller. 

Until the time of a truly dedicated feature film project – that one which would give the library a more concrete screenwriting significance – the only thing we can comfort ourselves with is a particular line from a famous Serbian theater play, “Radovan III,” by Dušan Kovačević. In one scene, the main character, Radovan, answers when asked if he had ever read anything:

He asks me what I’ve read?! He asks me what I’ve read? I had a library membership card! I used to carry it in the top shirt pocket, sticking out for 2 cm! I was allowed to enter the library in broad daylight!

With my wish that the Balkans, pejoratively called “a barrel of gunpowder,” will become an empire of modern libraries and films about them, I salute you! Živeli! (Cheers!) 😊

A brief sketch about Ljubomir Branković

It is true: “Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are,” once said the French novelist Francois Mauriac. Put in my own words, the quote could sound like this: “Tell me what you love, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Briefly, Ljubomir (Ljuba) Branković, is an enthusiast in love with three things: the library, the movies, and Belgrade, Serbia.

  • With Belgrade, because it’s the city where he was born in 1967, never having wanted to leave his hometown (even when there have been justified reasons for it).
  • With the movies, because he has been spending most of his adult life in the “motion picture world” (rather than in his real environment).
  • With the library, because since 1988, he has been working in the National Library of Serbia, never wanting to leave too (again, even when there have been justified reasons for it).

Ljuba likes to say that he is a “librarian-craftsman,” not a “scientist” because he sees librarianship and libraries as an informal, cozy and warm place “somewhere over the rainbow” – not as a rigid, half-closed academic institution. 

He is a big supporter and activist of all the forms of popular culture, especially comics.

Ljuba’s hobbies include collecting inserts from feature and short feature movies, animated films, and TV movies and mini-series that feature libraries and librarians.

Related post: Reel Librarians interview with two real librarians in Serbia

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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