WR: Mysteries of the Organism (WR: Misterije organizma)

WR: Mysteries of the Organism
(WR: Misterije organizma)
Director: Dusan Makavejev
Screenplay: Dusan Makavejev
Stars: Milena Dravic (Milena), Ivica Vidovic (Vladimir Ilyich), Jagoda Kaloper (Jagoda), Tuli Kupferberg (U.S. Soldier), Zoran Radmilovic (Radmilovic), Jackie Curtis (Herself), Miodrag Andric (Soldier), Zivka Matic (Landlady)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1971
Country: Yugoslavia / West Germany
WR: Mysteries of the Organism: Criterion Collection DVD
WR: Mysteries of the OrganismDusan Makavejev's infamous WR: Mysteries of the Organism (WR: Misterije organizma), a quasi-documentary that simultaneously mocks both communism and consumerism while advocating liberated sexuality as the ultimate force in the world, is fascinating primarily as a historical document and a significant experimental political work. Although shot partially in the United States, WR was a product of Yugoslavia when it was an independent socialist republic, thus it's not surprising that the film was immediately banned there and Makavejev was expelled from the communist party. One thing ideologues can't stand is criticism, and WR is brimming with it.

In his groundbreaking tome Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel praises WR as “unquestionably one of the most important subversive masterpieces of the 1970s,” and he quotes Makavejev's own description of the film: “a black comedy, a political circus, a fantasy on the fascism and communism of human bodies, the political life of human genitals, a proclamation of the pornographic essence of any system of authority and power over others.” That about sums up WR and its broad ambitions, which are sometimes admirable, sometimes perverse, and sometimes just silly.

Because Makavejev and just about every critic who has ever written about the film describes it as a satire, it's sometimes hard to know when Makavejev is being serious and when he's undercutting something. The film's insistence on the power of sex to liberate us both intimately and politically is a clear product of the post-1960s era in which it was made, and while some may find such a carefree, libidinous attitude toward sexuality morally offensive, it is primarily naïve (or, to be more positive, idealistic). This leaves us with an important question: Is this very stance part of the film's satire, a purposeful overstatement of the power of any one thing to overcome everything else?

Granted, this is not exactly satire on the level of obviousness occupied by Jonathan Swift's admonition that the Irish eat their children to avoid starvation. However, proposing sex--and sex only--as the answer to political problems is so patently absurd that it is best read it as satirical. The reification of anything worldly as the absolute answer to everything will invariably lead to ridiculousness of some form or another, sex included. Just look at Hugh Hefner: While his dapper, liberated lifestyle was a true shock to the middle-class complacency of the 1950s, now he has been reduced to a parody of himself, an octogenarian sharing a palatial mansion with bimbo triplets for the viewing pleasure of VH-1 reality TV addicts.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism begins as a playful and thoroughly engaging documentary about Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who claimed to have discovered a “universal life energy” he called “orgone.” Reich, who fled Austria after the Nazis annexed the country and moved to the United States, was a follower of Sigmund Freud and a pioneer in linking sexuality, neuroses, and politics (in a sense, he was trying to bring together Freud and Marx, a continuing project in leftist cultural studies). After designing and constructing so-called “orgone accumulators,” which he claimed could harness orgone and help in the healing of everything from cancer to impotence, Reich was investigated by the FDA and was eventually sent to prison.

It is not surprising that Makavejev finds Reich to be such an important figure: Not only do Reich's theories regarding sexuality resonate with Makavejev's own (although some claim that Makavejev has distorted the good doctor's views, especially in the way the director completely disassociates sex from love), but he was ultimately punished for them. Whether you consider Reich a quack or a misunderstood genius, the very fact that a U.S. judge ordered that all of his published works mentioning orgone be burned will send chills down your spine.

As it turns out, Reich is just a jumping-off point for WR, the majority of which is a collage of images and scenes, both documentary and fictional, that do more to rattle the senses than construct any genuinely meaningful argument. If you know what to look for, then Makavejev's mélange has a subversive impact, particularly in the fictional story of Milena (Milena Dravic), a female revolutionary in Yugoslavia who rejects Radmilovic (Zoran Radmilovic), her proletariat lover, in favor of Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic), a model-beautiful Soviet ice skater who is constantly referred to as “The People's Artist.” There is little emotional impact in this story because the characters are not people, but rather symbolic stand-ins: Milena is the face of the true revolutionary spirit, Radmilovic is the manipulated worker class, and Vladimir Ilyich (note the name allusion to Lenin) is the surface-attractive, but ultimately repressive and sick face of Soviet communism. These sections of the film consist primarily of the characters espousing various platitudes, some of which are meant to represent Makavejev's political views and others of which are amusing parodies of perfectly formed “communist speak.” However, there are some amusing screwball moments, such as Milena trying to seduce Vladimir Ilyich while the frustrated horndog Radmilovic literally bursts through the wall in an attempt to claim her.

The rest of the film is interspersed with various bits that are meant to underscore the possibility of sexual liberation and to criticize the moral bankruptcy of a consumer culture (the soundtrack is littered with advertising jingles for products like Coca-Cola, which interestingly presages Makavejev's one foray into commercial filmmaking, 1985's The Coca-Cola Kid). Thus, we get scenes of Jackie Curtis, a transsexual member of Andy Warhol's Factory, talking about her first sexual experience with a man and later decision to become a woman; counterculture poet Tuli Kupferberg, dressed up in a parody costume of a U.S. soldier, freaking people out on the streets of New York City while he reads his poetry on the soundtrack; and artist Nancy Godfrey making a plaster cast of Screw editor Jim Buckley's erection. Sprinkled throughout are clips from The Vow, a 1940 Soviet propaganda film lionizing Josef Stalin, which Makavejev juxtaposes ironically with the corruption of Stalinism.

As a whole, WR: Mysteries of the Organism doesn't really hold together. It requires the glue of one's own subversive ideologies to make it stick, and if you're in any way wary of Makavejev's agenda, much of it will play as more ridiculous than meaningful. However, even if you don't fully appreciate WR's message of free sex as political freedom, it is impossible to deny the film's cultural impact. Makavejev's bravery in making such an explicitly anti-Soviet film in the shadow of the Iron Curtain is enough to validate his efforts, even if they aren't as successful as he would like them to be.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish / Serbo-Croatian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary read from Raymond Durgnat's 1999 book on the film
  • Hole in the Soul, Makavejev's 1994 autobiographical short film
  • New video interview with Makavejev
  • Archival interview with Makavejev
  • “The Improved Version” featurette
  • Essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 12, 2007

    Having never seen WR: Mysteries of the Organism before, I cannot compare it to previously available video versions, but I can't imagine any of them looking better than Criterion's new high-definition transfer of the film's uncut version, which was made under Makavejev's supervision from a 35mm internegative. The film's visual quality varies inherently, not only because of the extensive use of stock footage, but because the fictional scenes were clearly shot on 35mm while the documentary sections were shot on 16mm, which gives them a much grainier appearance. The overall image, which is slightly windowboxed, is extremely clean, having been restored by the MTI Digital Restoration System. Colors look good throughout, as do flesh tones. The digitally restored monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and a 35mm optical track print, sounds clean and clear.
    The infinitely interesting, free-flowing audio commentary was adapted from Raymond Durgnat's 1999 book on the film (part of the BFI's Modern Classics series) and is read by Daniel Stewart. For those seeing the film for the first time, the commentary offers a wealth of ideas and interpretations, as well as political and historical background. Fans of Makavejev's work will be thrilled that his 1994 autobiographical short film Hole in the Soul (52 min.), which he made for the BBC, is included in its entirety. There is more Makavejev in two half-hour video interviews, one old and one new. In the first interview, which was recorded for Danish television in 1972, Makavejev spends much of the time discussing his political views, rather than the film itself. In the second interview, which was recorded with film historian Peter Cowie in 2006, Makavejev looks back on the film, discussing how it affected his life and career. The two interviews together make for fascinating viewing and real insight into the mind of a radical filmmaker-how he has both changed and stayed the same over the years. Finally, there is four-minute featurette titled “The Improved Version,” in which Makavejev discusses how he made slight changes to the film (digitally adding goldfish over a sex scene, using pulsing, psychedelic colors to obscure Jim Buckley's penis) so that the film could be shown on the BBC's Channel 4 in the early 1990s.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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