The Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade was once the talk of the town, regularly hosting international heads of state in its heyday of the 70s and 80s. Eventually taken over by criminals and brutally bombed by NATO in 1999, it has lost most of its former glory. Nevertheless, you can still make a booking for just over €30 a night.
The hotel looks like a typical example of communist architecture. Forbidding, brutalist blocks, with square writing designating the name of the hotel. But when it was finally erected in the late 60s, it must have represented an ideal of the country under communism. It is representative of an earlier time when the country was united under one leader: Josip Broz Tito. He may have been a brutal authoritarian but he had a knack of (mostly) making different ethnicities unite under him in peace.
Likewise the hotel employed workers all the way from Slovenia to Montenegro and they all got along. When he was gone, and the USSR eventually collapsed, Yugoslavia splintered into many small countries over the course of the nineties and dreadful civil war followed.
The director Nicolas Wagnières takes a personal approach to the material, explaining early on that he is a second generation immigrant who has spent most of his life in Switzerland. For him the former country is more of a memory of a reality, and he returns to the hotel to try and understand the past.
The idea of Yugoslavia, as he understands it from his repeated childhood visits to Belgrade, persists, and while visiting the hotel he tries to understand the ideal of a country that is long gone. Most pressingly, he wonders, why is the hotel still named after Yugoslavia?
The film is a curious mix of the art- — replete with suggestive voiceover and cinematography of empty hallways, taken when the hotel was under renovation — and the traditional talking-heads documentary, asking former workers about their memories of the hotel. This approach blends together rather well, showing that understanding the past is always going to be a strange mixture of fact and subjective fabulation.
It understands that history is not something that you read in books, but rather a living document that can be perceived through architecture. It uses the hotel as a stand-in to talk about the country at large, and the changes that it went through, in itself commenting on the act of nostalgia. Just as the building is nostalgic for life under socialism, the film is itself nostalgic for a previous time— although at a notable remove.
Although populism is rearing its head once again, this communist ideal is a way of life that will probably never be seen in Serbia again. Similar to German Ostalgie, nobody really wants that life to come back — simply that some of the signifiers, evocative of the past, can still feel bittersweet.
Coming in at just under 80 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome, acting as a welcome opportunity to explore the nation of Serbia. It doesn’t delve too deeply knottier parts of the civil war, knowing that such a subject requires a far longer running time. Instead it maintains a thoughtful vibe, prompting the viewer himself to reflect on how buildings that persist in the present can still make interesting comments on the past.
Most interestingly, the film ends with a clip of a modern action movie, with a shoot-out taking place in a hotel. It speaks to popular culture’s representation of Serbians as petty gangsters — most recently seen by Christoph Waltz in Downsizing — and wonders if they can rebrand themselves better in the future.
Still in a state of flux — lacking Croatia’s beaches to rebrand itself fully as a tourist nation, and still not a member of the EU — Serbia has a long way to go before it becomes a major player in the world once again.
It is only natural for some of its people to have positive memories of the past. Hotel Jugoslavija, in asking more questions than delivering answers, delivers a fascinating rumination on how the past is both literally and figuratively a different country.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Redmond Bacon is a professional film writer and amateur musician from London. Currently based in Berlin (Brexit), most of his waking hours are spent around either watching, discussing, or thinking about movies. Sometimes he reads a book.