'Death in Sarajevo' ('Smrt u Sarajevu'): Berlin Review

Death in Sarajevo Still 2 -Snezana Vidovic - H 2016
Courtesy of Margo Cinema & SCCA/pro.ba
Hotel-based drama has nice rooms but the mini-bar is empty.

Oscar-winner Danis Tanovic's latest Berlinale competition contender probes the lingering wounds of Bosnia's war-torn past.

History is a hotel that you can check out of any time, but you can never leave, in Bosnian Oscar-winner Danis Tanovic's compact contemporary thriller. Death in Sarajevo takes place on June 28, 2014, the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the trigger event that plunged Europe into World War I. Throwing together multiple characters in a single luxury hotel, this Altman-esque ensemble drama has lofty aims, but misses the target.

Tanovic was last in Berlin three years ago with his impassioned polemical docudrama An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, which won multiple prizes and an Academy Award nomination. By comparison, Death in Sarajevo feels smaller and more conventional, revisiting events that have been covered on screen many times before without throwing much light on what they mean today. The director admits he conceived his Bosnian-French co-production with his fellow countrymen in mind, and its commercial impact is unlikely to stretch far beyond domestic audiences and connoisseurs with special interest in Balkan cinema.

The script is freely adapted from Hotel Europe, a stage play by the flamboyant intellectual and political activist Bernard-Henri Levy, which his fellow Frenchman Jacques Weber performed in Sarajevo in 2014. Weber returns to co-star as a version of himself here, but Tanovic also expands and extensively rewrites the text, opening it up into a multi-character story featuring a range of Balkan voices and perspectives.  

The single setting is the fictional Hotel Europa, although locals and keen-eyed tourists will instantly recognize it as Sarajevo's Holiday Inn, a modernist landmark built for the 1984 winter Olympics and heavily shelled during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. Making full use of the building, from rooftop terrace to basement strip club, Tanovic's restless cameras follow his characters as they stride from room to room, scene to scene. Boasting starry former guests including Bill Clinton, Angelina Jolie and U2, the Europa seems designed to symbolize all of Bosnia, with its colorful cast of crooked bosses and fractious workers, shifty gangsters and visiting European Union dignitaries.

Behind his suave mask of surface calm, hotel manager Omer (Izudin Bajrovic) seethes in quiet desperation as his debts mount and bankruptcy looks inevitable. With a grand VIP dinner looming to mark the centenary of Franz Ferdinand's death, he resorts to increasingly desperate measures to pressure his receptionist Lamija (Jennifer Lopez-a-like Snezana Vidovic) into stopping her militant mother Hatidza (Faketa Salihbegovic-Avdagic) from leading her co-workers into a flash strike over unpaid wages. Threats turns to violence, then take a creepy sexual turn.

Meanwhile, on the hotel's roof, TV news reporter Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan) debates Sarajevo's war-torn history with various guests, including a handsome Serb nationalist (Muhamed Hadzovic) who shares his name with Gavrilo Princip, the young firebrand who shot Franz Ferdinand. Once a national hero in Bosnia, Princip is now a hugely divisive figure. The teasing magical-realist option of bringing him back from the dead to defend his own troubled legacy is quickly dropped, as this Princip proves to be merely a namesake and distant relative. Embittered and angry, he initially seems bent on murder too, only to glumly conclude "no assassination could change anything today."

Despite its heavily hand-held energy and zippy real-time pacing, Death in Sarajevo lacks the urgency and friction required to function as a coherent thriller. Tanovic peppers the action with potentially explosive ingredients — drugs, guns, thuggish mobsters, vengeful fascists — but his freewheeling plot is simply too loose and diffuse to make them dramatically interesting.

There is food for thought here, in fairness, but not much. The take-home message that historical narratives are always complex and contentious, especially in the Balkans, is unquestionably true but hardly a profound insight. Not quite a political thriller, not quite a provocative drama, not quite an inspired stage adaptation, Death in Sarajevo is a minor addition to Tanovic's illustrious body of work.

Production companies: Margo Cinema, SCCA/pro.ba
Cast: Jacques Weber, Snezana Vidovic, Izudin Bajrovic, Vedrana Seksan
Muhamed Hadzovic
Director, screenwriter: Danis Tanovic
Cinematographer: Erol Zubcevic
Editor: Redzinald Simek
Music: Mirza Tahirovic
Producers: Francois Margolin, Amra Baksic Camo
Sales company: The Match Factory

No rating, 85 minutes