Foreign Film Week: The Disturbing, Terrorizing Feminism of Dušan Makavejev’s ‘WR: Mysteries of the Organism’ and ‘Sweet Movie’

Written by Leigh Kolb

[Trigger warning: references to graphic content.]

Sometimes feminist films succeed by showing just how awful a world without feminism is. Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974) provide that kind of jarring commentary. 
Both of these films critique fascism, communism, capitalism and sexual repression. His films are part of the Yugoslav Black Wave film era, which featured films that employed “antitraditional form, polemical approaches, socio-critical concerns, oppositional ideology and, a fatalistic conclusion.”
WR and Sweet Movie are difficult for audiences to handle due to some graphic scenes and political commentaries. However, the fatalism of the films–the disturbing, unpleasant endings with an overall bleak outlook on modern society–is perhaps the most unsettling, and the most important aspect of the films. While we could talk at length about the politics of the films (indeed many have, better than I could), looking at the films through a feminist lens provides a deeper understanding of Makavejev’s messages about the tragedy of sexual repression (especially for women). 
The Criterion Current‘s essay on Sweet Movie provides a backdrop for both films:

“Makavejev began his career by earning a psychology degree at a leading Serbian university, studying at Yugoslavia’s national film school, and making numerous shorts and documentaries… he set to work on the 1971 genre bender WR: Mysteries of the Organism, which anticipated Sweet Movie with its collagelike meditation on maverick psychologist Wilhelm Reich and his theories of sexual liberation.
“By this time, Makavejev was a leader of the so-called Black Cinema film­makers, as they were dubbed by Yugoslav officials who didn’t like their negative view of official ideologies. The sexual politics of WR was more than those officials could take: the film was banned, and Makavejev fled the country, not working there again until 1988. He made Sweet Movie in Canada, the Netherlands, and France, with additional Swedish and West German funding. It is banned in various countries to this day.”

WR: Mysteries of the Organism is somewhat a documentary, somewhat a work of fiction. The documentary footage that provides the context for the film examines Wilhelm Reich, an anti-fascist  Freud-trained psychoanalyst whose work–which focused on anti-fascism, sexual liberation and orgasmic energy–was censored and burned by the US government and he was imprisoned. Other documentary segments include interviews with sex-positive feminist Betty Dodson, a look into Screw magazine and how dildos are created and ideas of femininity and masculinity from the perspective of Jackie Curtis, who cross-dresses and challenges ideas of gender.
The fictional story cut into this documentary footage focuses on Milena, a young Yugoslav woman who is a radical feminist and revolutionary, focusing mainly on the importance of sexual liberation (and the fact that communism would fail because free love was repressed). She lectures the crowd of frustrated workers below her apartment balcony:

Milena lectures workers about the failure of communism.
“… Our road to the future must be life-positive. Comrades! Between socialism and physical love there can be no conflict. Socialism must not exclude human pleasure from its program. The October Revolution was ruined when it rejected free love. Frustrate the young sexually and they’ll recklessly take to other illicit thrills: Pilfering, burglary and assorted crimes, knifings, alcoholism, political riots with flags flying, battling the police like prewar communists! What we need is free youth in a crime-free world! If we are to achieve this, we must allow free love!…
“No excitement can ever equal the elemental force of the orgasm… Sweet oblivion is the masses’ demand! Deprive them of free love, and they’ll seize everything else! That led to revolution. It led to fascism and doomsday. How Man Became a Giant. Deutschland uber alles!… Deprive youth of their right to the sweet electricity of sex and you rob them of their mental health!… Restore to every individual the right to love!”

Milena’s fight for free love and the perfect orgasm leads her to a Soviet ice skater, Vladimir. He represents complete allegiance to Soviet rule and Stalin-esque communism. He speaks highly of his travels to the West, highlighting to the audience America’s class divide and sexual repression. Milena seduces him, encouraging him to accept his own freedom and sexuality. He succumbs, but his repressed lust and orgasm prove so overwhelming for him that he murders her (beheading her with his ice skate). Her decapitated head narrates the rest of the story as coroners discuss the huge amount of semen that was in her vagina.

Milena sees fascism as a masculine force that represses freedom and sexuality.
Milena’s fate exemplifies the passionate pro-love speech she gave to the workers. Sexual repression leads to violence. To further prove this point, Makavejev shows a man (performer Tuli Kupferberg, member of The Fugs) dressed in military regalia walking around Manhattan with a toy M-16 gun, stroking it as if masturbating, to The Fugs’ “Kill for Peace.” This idea that violence and sexual repression are connected leads to men glorifying guns and killing, and women being punished.

“Kill for Peace” excerpt from WR: Mysteries of the Organism. 
Milena is not punished for her own sexuality, she’s punished because of the sexually repressive world she lives in. She would argue that the men suffer from this repression, clearly, and turn to violence when they don’t know what to do with the frustration.

In Sweet Movie, two women’s stories are featured. The only documentary footage Makavejev uses in this feature film are some shots of mass graves in the Katyn Forest massacre (where Stalin had authorized the killing of 4,000 Polish prisoners). For the censorship authorities in many countries, however, that’s not what made the film ban-worthy (the official “rejection” status explanation from the British Board of Film Classification doesn’t even mention it). Instead, the scenes at a commune that feature all manners of human excretory byproducts and one scene where Anna Planeta seduces young boys made the film censored and banned in many countries. The film was almost impossible to find until Criterion released the DVD in 2007. 
In an excellent excerpt from the book Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev, Lorraine Mortimer analyzes Sweet Movie in depth and makes some of those most uncomfortable scenes much more understandable and meaningful. The vulgarity of the commune scenes remind us of how terrorized and sickened we are by bodily functions (and they are politically subversive, in that the people are not doing what they are supposed to), and the seduction scene reminds us–or should–how much “seduction” young people, especially boys, are subject to every day. This scene is also reminiscent of Reich’s ideas about sexual expression, even in youth. Anna Planeta’s scenes are important in their deadly intersections of politics, supposed sweetness and death after love. The giant Karl Marx head on her boat, and her lover (from a failed revolution) are symbolic of Makavejev’s recurrent themes of the tragic failing of Soviet communism and the anti-human, fascist results of such authoritarian systems. 
In Roger Ebert’s 1975 review, he asserts: 
“Makavejev doesn’t exploit this material — Sweet Movie is anything but a sex film — but uses it to confront us in a very unsettling way. The unasked questions behind his film seem to be: Well, we’re all human, aren’t we? This is what we are and what we do. What do you think of these people? You go to the movies to be entertained by scenes of people killing each other, you watch wars on TV — do the basic bodily processes of these people offend you?”

Most obvious–and still timely–to Western audiences, capitalism, commercialization and sexual repression are criticized in this film, especially through the story of Miss World 1984 (Miss Canada).
The film opens with a bright and cheery game show, and Martha, an older woman (the chairman of the Chastity Belt Foundation), accompanied by men dressed as priests, is standing by and helping judge while a gynecologist checks the virginity of various contenders for the grand prize–marrying her son, milk tycoon Mr. Kapital (a.k.a. Mr. Dollars), who is a wealthy bachelor.

The gynecologist examines the female contestants’ virginity.

Martha explains that at the Chastity Belt Foundation:
“Through the guidance of our sensational method, your own body kills the animal. We advocate simple triumph of the will. It is painless and ever so rewarding. No wild dreams. No – no peculiar behavior. Solid health and purposeful direction! … If not controlled and kept at bay, wild impulses will turn everyone into beastly animals, chaotic natural beings.”

We know from WR that this is the opposite of what Reich believed and what Makavejev reveals in his films.
The scene is wildly sexist, but clearly satirizes the value that society places on female virginity. When Miss Canada crawls into the examination chair and parts her legs, a light shines from her vagina, and she is declared the most virgin, the winner. And thus she is sold to the highest bidder.
She is an object, not a subject, and what she can offer to a man as a “prize” has nothing to do with her own sexuality. As they travel to their honeymoon location and fly over Niagara Falls, Mr. Kapital talks about how he is going to buy up Niagara Falls:
“I’m gonna buy it from the Canadian Government. I will renovate it, redecorate it. Get rid of the water, turn off the falls. … I’m gonna install an electric, synthetic, laser moving image in livin’ color. In livin’ color, honey! Yeah. And we’re gonna have a huge quadraphonic sound system. Yeah!”

(Mortimer notes that “…years later, it would be comforting if this wild caricature of acquisition and ignorance were further from our own reality.”)

Miss World and Mr. Kapital.

Miss World is an acquisition to Mr. Kapital, nothing more. He preaches on purity, money, sex and waste (marriage and business seem interchangeable, all driven by deeply capitalistic and puritanical ideologies). Martha and her brigade of priests stand outside a glass plate window as the marriage is about to be consummated. Mr. Kapital disinfects himself, and rubs Miss World down with alcohol–there is nothing sexual or sensual about the scene; it’s sterile and lifeless. When he takes out his penis, it’s covered in gold, and he procedes to urinate on Miss World as she screams.

When Miss World attempts to get out of the marriage, her mother-in-law attempts to drown her and they send her away.  She speaks out and tries to have some independence, only to be punished harshly. She represents this world where girls are prized for their virginity and derided for the outcomes of this anti-woman socialization. (“This is my only property, it’s my diamond!” she exclaims of her virginity when the tycoon’s bodyguard attempts to sexually assault her.)

She is now shipped off, just one of Mr. Kapital’s failed business ventures.

She’s damaged and broken–she attempts sex with a Latin pop star only to be confronted by nuns and stuck in “penis captivus.” She’s sent to the aforementioned Otto Muehl commune to “heal.”

Religious imagery surrounds Miss World when she attempts to have sex–another symbol of sexual oppression.

By the end of the film, she’s shown writhing around in a pool full of melted chocolate for a commercial.

The camera man directs her:

“Darling, this is going to be the highlight of your career. From now on, when people eat chocolate – I mean, the brand we advertise – they will not feel the same. I want them to feel as if they’re eating you!” 

Miss World, now just using her body to sell chocolate.

And here we are: the ultimate sexual objectification (she is naked, and attempting to seduce the camera) combined with commercialism–the indulgence of sweet chocolate (reminiscent of the toxic sugar on Anna Planeta’s boat) is confused with a kind of female sexuality that is supposed to be passive and proactive all at once, but certainly not for her. It’s supposed to be for the gold-encrusted penises, or the viewers, the consumers.

Miss World looks dead behind the eyes in this final scene. Her life was decided for her in a culture that prized her virginity and beauty above all else, and she couldn’t function when she attempts to be in another world.

She is punished, much like Milena is. However, Makavejev does not want us to think that they are at fault; instead, a society that represses and commodifies sexuality is the perpetrator of violence, masculine force and female suffering.

Makavejev’s films are representative of Black Wave sensibilities, especially in the critique of current society and the nihilism of the films’ endings. There are no clear answers here, just the reassertion that oppressive societies hurt everyone. In WR and Sweet Movie both, however, women are shown to suffer greatly at the hands of authoritarian, sexually repressive societies. 

At the end of WR and Sweet Movie, all of our main characters suffer. Milena dies; her killer is still repressed, and now a murderer; Reich dies in prison; Planeta is arrested, her victims lined up by the river; Miss World is broken and no longer has her “diamond,” so she has no self-worth. The characters have been created and persecuted by their societies. And we still haven’t seemed to move past the cult of masculinity and gun violence or puritanical views about sexuality.

However, if we are to find any bleak hope here, it’s this: at the end of WR, Milena’s head is speaking to the audience, as if her life isn’t really over. At the end of Sweet Movie, Planeta’s victims are resurrected and brought back to life. Maybe–just maybe–Makavejev is showing that it’s not too late to find life in repressive societies and giving us the answer to Sweet Movie‘s lyrical refrain, “Is there life on the earth?

Is there life after birth?” Makavejev would say yes, but only if we can break free from authoritarian  and repressive social ideals that have led to a cycle of repression, seduction and destruction.


Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri.