Danis Tanovi?’s Death in Sarajevo is a meditation on many things, including the status of the European project, the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the current legacy of Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event which ignited the First World War. It is an ensemble chamber piece that serves as a launching pad to consider the past, present, and future of Europe and Bosnia-Herzegovina, while also illustrating the cycle of history in both places. Adapted from Bernard-Henri Lévy’s play “Hotel Europe,” the film is built on ideas, raises questions, and spurs debate, which is to say that it plays out as more of a philosophical treatise than an actual film.
Death in Sarajevo is set entirely within Hotel Europe, where the manager Omer (Izudin Bajrovic) is contending with a strike by the hotel staff for not having paid them for two months. The strike comes at the worst possible moment for Omer: the day when the hotel is hosting 200 dignitaries for a pan-European celebration of the 100th anniversary of Princip’s assassination of Ferdinand. He asks one of the strikers why they can’t hold off for a couple of days while he collects their payment from the EU for the conference. The striker responds, “The TV cameras will be here.”
Omer enlists Lamija (Snezana Markovi?), one of the hotel concierges, to find out what the staff plans to do and encourage them to abandon the strike, but it turns out that Lamija’s mother Hatidza (Faketa Salihbegovic) is leading the charge after their leader Alija is beaten to a pulp by the hotel’s nightclub boss, Enco (Aleksandar Seksan), on Omer’s orders. This is the more dynamic narrative of the film, and Tanovi? keeps his characters (and us for that matter) on their toes as they move through different parts of the hotel – bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, security chambers – and negotiate their sides of this workplace conflict. While he doesn’t reach the audacious heights of Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson in how he moves across the different characters in the narrative, he always keeps us oriented in every scene and ensures that we know exactly what’s going on.
Meanwhile, on the hotel’s terrace a news crew films interviews with different experts who weigh in on the significance of Princip’s role in history. The news caster Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan) interviews a man who shares the name of Gavrilo Princip (Muhamed Hadzovic) and they wrestle with the ethnic issues that have plagued Bosnia for decades. Vedrana and Princip’s scenes are powerful two-handers that Tanovi? shoots quite simply, which is ironic considering the fact that they are the most head-spinning scenes in the film, with frequent allusions and references to different periods of the Bosnian conflict, different atrocities, and different individuals involved in it. One particular such (use either “particular” or “such”—having both is repetitive) exchange features the two of them running through 100 years of history in five minutes.
What indirectly links the two stories of Omer and Lamidja, and Vedrana and Princip, are the monologues delivered by the actor Jacques Weber, who is in the hotel practicing a speech he is about to deliver that evening at a performance of “Hotel Europe.” It’s an interesting meta-twist in the story, because Jacques Weber did actually act in the first run of Lévy’s play. As he practices in his room, to the one-man audience of the security guard who accidentally installed a concealed camera in his room, we are privy to the potent power of Lévy’s ideas. “Why remember the Shoah if it can’t prevent Srebenica?” bellows Weber, and he runs through his own particular timeline of history’s atrocities, making a statement about how even a region as tightly-knit as the EU cannot prevent them from taking place.
Despite this all sounding like dry, bleak, and heady stuff, Death in Sarajevo ends up being surprisingly funny as well. Tanovi? inserts a variety of humorous moments in the film: ranging from absurdist humor, for example, when Omer tries to tell Weber about the hotel’s many past achievements, only to be interrupted by another guest who tries to have a phone conversation but can’t get a signal; to situational comedy, with the subplot of the security guard Edo (Edin Avdagic Koja) trying to stop his wife from buying a new couch for their apartment.
But no matter how much Tanovi? tries to keep us engaged, the plot never reaches a boiling point, and the ideas it presents dominate the story it tries to tell. An audience member muttered to her friend at the screening I attended that the film runs too long, which shouldn’t be the case for any 85-minute film. Death in Sarajevo might not entirely succeed as a film, but it’s an excellent think piece for the subject of the European Union.