It’s not long into Death in Sarajevo, Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanović’s seventh feature, before it becomes clear we’re navigating allegorical territory. On the roof of the large Sarajevo hotel where the entire film takes place, a reporter and a historian discuss the legacy of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination on the occasion of its centenary. Simultaneously, the hotel’s manager is trying to prevent his workers from striking, which would hammer the final nail into the debt-ridden company’s coffin. The impending arrival of a large EU delegation, all staying at the hotel, could be its salvation, so the gangsters who run the strip club in the basement are hired to intimidate strikers. All the while, the EU’s celebrity keynote speaker, a Frenchman, is locked up in the presidential suite, rehearsing a pontificating speech about the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its essential place within Europe.
These are just a few of the many threads that make up the intertwined narrative of Death in Sarajevo, each representative of a different strand of Bosnian contemporary society (plus the EU), with the hotel serving as a manic microcosm. These different stories are most often captured in lengthy traveling shots that follow the characters around as they pass through corridors, rooms, offices, elevators, the lobby, the laundry room, and so forth, rushing to attend to their respective tasks and continuously talking along the way. It’s an ingenious approach to what could have otherwise resulted in a stodgy rhetorical exercise. The intricate narrative web is expertly constructed and the film cycles through its different threads seamlessly, never staying with one very long. And so even when characters discuss history and politics at length and in detail (a preparatory brush-up on the 20th-century history of the Balkans is advisable), the film maintains a dynamic and engaging pace, speeding along without a lull for its entire running time, which is judiciously kept at a svelte 85 minutes.
In terms of the actual narrative content, Death in Sarajevo is less successful. The film was inspired by Bernard-Henri Levy’s 2014 play Hotel Europe, which consists of a single monologue delivered by an actor alone on a stage; this monologue is the same speech that the VIP guest is practicing in his suite, and the actor, Jacques Weber, is the same one who performed it in Levy’s play. Tanović expanded Levy’s premise with the intention of painting a more encompassing societal portrait. That the concept for Death in Sarajevo came first and the narrative was then contrived to support it becomes evident as the film progresses and plot developments become increasingly overdetermined. No truly compelling characters emerge from any of the stories, and they all wind their way to variously feeble climaxes — though, to his credit, Tanović doesn’t attempt to bring every strand together in a strained collective culmination.
Nevertheless, what does emerge, and forcefully, is the impression of a nation with an intensely conflicted psyche haunted by the many traumas of the past, drifting in a seething present without the anchor of social cohesion and looking towards Europe with a mixture of hope and deep-seated skepticism.
Death in Sarajevo premiered at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival and is currently without U.S. distribution.