The notion of innocence is mutable, and it receives a frisky deconstruction in Dušan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected, a film that to describe is probably to discourage many people from seeing.
It is not for everyone, as the stock disclaimer about subversive and/or arty movies goes. Yet having just experienced Innocence Unprotected—nearly 50 years after its initial release—in a theater with a surprisingly robust and diverse audience, I have a hard time imagining many people not laughing along with it, not marveling at its collage-like assemblage, not grasping its visual metaphors, not being swept up in its buoyant spirit. And therein is Makavejev’s great artistic trick: Innocence Unprotected is as provocative as it is crowd-pleasing.
Innocence Unprotected borrows its title and its central story from a 1942 film of the same name, which was Serbia’s first talkie and was produced during the Axis occupation of what was then Yugoslavia. The earlier Innocence Unprotected is an amateurish affair on par with an Ed Wood production and concerns the forbidden romance between a strongman/stunt performer (Dragolijub Aleksic, who also wrote, produced and directed the original) and a young woman whose wicked stepmother intends to set her up with a wealthy but cruel older man.
The film was never released, first censored by the fascists then condemned by the communists, each regime branding it sympathetic with the other. Aleksic was eventually reprimanded by the Yugoslav government, and though formal charges against him were dropped the movie was stricken from the nation’s official film record. The first Innocence Unprotected, incidentally, is utterly apolitical; its main crime is general ineptitude.
The film-obsessed Makavejev, who was born in Belgrade in 1932, heard tales as a youth of his homeland’s first sound movie in its native tongue and eventually tracked it down. He saw much more than an unintentionally funny cinematic artifact.
Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected builds on the framework of the original, intercutting sequences from the earlier film with snippets of war footage and interviews with surviving cast members. Among the questions Makavejev asks us to consider is, How could such a naïve melodrama be made as the Nazis tightened their grip on the world outside the movie’s frame?
“The persistent implication of Makavejev’s work,” writes David Thompson in his epic The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “is that man is still a wild, anxious species, all too ready to rest his instinctive energies in such misleading causes as hero worship, the shouting of slogans, and the repressive support of authoritarianism.”
In Innocence Unprotected, this connection is made through cuts from the original film’s oblivious characters to its main players two-plus decades later to wartime propaganda and newsreel clips, the black-and-white images often tinted or hand painted, which alters the tone and emotion in certain scenes, and accentuates visual details and ideas. That Makavejev’s (and Thompson’s) view remains relevant almost a half-century later is a sad (lowercase and untweeted) comment on how little we’ve learned from our not-so-distant history.
But Makavejev is no downer, and Innocence Unprotected finds him alternately mischievous, perplexed and bemused. One of the chief fascinations of the later Innocence Unprotected is the maker and star of the earlier movie, who proves a more interesting character in reality than as a fictional creation in his own film.
Short (in part from a stunt gone wrong that is discussed in detail), brawny and boisterous, Aleksic was a self-taught acrobat and gymnast with a great sense of self-regard but little self-awareness. In his film, Aleksic is prone to bursting into song, often in praise of his own strength and bravery.
Aleksic aspired to Houdini-an heights, and the footage of his stunts makes you wonder how he survived long enough to be interviewed by Makavejev. Even approaching 70 by the time Makavejev filmed him, Aleksic, who died in 1985, could still bend iron bars with his teeth (but don’t just take my word for it; Innocence Unprotected is available via the Criterion Collection).
Aleksic may be egocentric, but he could also be one the innocences referred to by the title. “Innocence,” asserts Phaedra in Jean Racine’s Phèdre, “has surely naught to fear.” But Makavejev, I think, also wants us to reflect on the cost of innocence. The movie prompted me to revisit Marianne Moore’s poem “What are Years,” in which she asks:
“What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe.”