The Virus of Dissolution:

Yugoslavia in Goran Marković's Variola Vera (1982)

Miranda Jakiša
Goran Marković's Variola Vera (1982, Yugoslavia) is a film about a historic smallpox outbreak, which occurred in Yugoslavia in 1972. More importantly, it is a film about Yugoslav fear: a fear of the other, especially the oriental or Muslim other and thus of the ‘alien’ within. Variola Vera is also a film about the fear of society’s disintegration; on several levels it suggests that in 1982 (the idea of) Yugoslavia was more of a mirage produced for the international gaze than a Yugoslav reality. These collective fears are translated by the film into an epidemics narrative that works with topoi of the horror, disaster and science fiction genres. Furthermore, the film offers several ways out of the (not only medical) crisis which the epidemic brought to the fore: on the one hand, the crisis is fashioned as at least partially (re)awakening a self-sacrificial, revolutionary, partisan spirit of solidarity. On the other hand, humanist medical expertise returns in the guise of the uncanny to haunt the biopolitical measures introduced by the Yugoslav state apparatus. This article offers an in-depth analysis of the aforementioned neuralgic points brought forward by the variola epidemic, while inquiring into how in Marković’s rendering the disease itself became a complex symptom of the Yugoslav society of 1982.
Goran Marković; Yugoslavia; epidemics; smallpox; orientalism; horror; Variola Vera; public health policy

Introduction to Yugoslavia’s Disease

The Film Variola Vera

Nesting Orientalism: Attack from the East on the Body of the West

Societal Disintegration: Partizan (in) Spirit

The Role of Experts: Predictability as the Uncanny






Suggested Citation

Introduction to Yugoslavia’s Disease

It does not come as a surprise that the film Variola Vera and other more or less forgotten films about epidemics, like Skeleton on Horseback (Hugo Haas, 1937, Czechoslovakia), adapted from Karel Čapek’s play Bílá nemoc / The White Disease were rediscovered in locked-down Europe during the Covid pandemic. Shot in 1982, Marković’s film suddenly seemed prophetic. It addressed several topics that the world was facing at the time: quarantine, isolation, social distancing and its psychological effects, the grievances of medical staff in hospitals, scarcity of vaccines, governmental measures, the role of scientific advisers and experts, yes, even complaints about economic losses in international tourism – all these issues had been raised by an almost forty-year old film from Yugoslavia.1

Variola Vera tells the story of the last major outbreak of smallpox in Europe, which occurred in Yugoslavia in 1972. Variola Vera’s plot is thus backed by a real, historic event: the actual import of the smallpox virus to Yugoslavia by a pilgrim returning to Kosova after having visited Iraq. Until the 1972 outbreak Yugoslavia was considered smallpox-free: as the result of half a century of worldwide vaccinations, no cases had been recorded since 1930 (Trifunović 2017: 133). Still, in the 1970s sporadic outbreaks did happen all over the world, in South America, in Bangladesh, in Africa, in Sauerland/Germany and a few other European countries, mostly as a result of touristic travels. These outbreaks were always met by rigid isolation measures and mass vaccinations2; in this regard the Yugoslav 1972 outbreak was no exception. Finally, the smallpox virus could in all its variants – variola maior, variola vera, variola minor, variola haemorrhagica etc. – officially be declared extinct by the WHO in 1980, two years before the release of Marković’s film.

However, the film is evidently not reducible to the historic outbreak of the then extinct disease. As Marković informs us, it was inspired by his lasting wish to adapt Albert Camus’ La Peste / The Plague to the screen. Yet, “you do not need the plague any more, if you have variola”, Marković said in 2016 on a Serbian television show.3 The 1972 outbreak thus provided the backdrop and opportunity to realise a film not only on an infectious disease, but also on its consequences for the surrounding institutional, political and social order.

Marković is a highly acclaimed Yugoslav director, scriptwriter and playwright. Today, he might be best known internationally for his anti-Milošević documentaries and for his award-winning film Tito i ja / Tito and I (1992, Yugoslavia). Marković studied film at the FAMU film school in Prague, and soon became a well-known director in Yugoslavia. His feature films from the Yugoslav period largely focus on failing institutions and on a general critique of Yugoslavia’s self-management administration (Goulding 2002, Levi 2007). The film Specijalno vaspitanje / Special Education (1977), his first feature and a huge success, depicts the re-education of teenage delinquents, the popular comedy Nacionalna klasa / National Class Category Up to 785 Ccm (1979) dealt with Yugoslavia’s youth’s avoidance and disregard for the institution of military service and Majstori, majstori / All That Jack’s (1980) openly tackled the dysfunctionality of schools and the educational system. His last film addressing a Yugoslav institution’s failure, Variola Vera, depicts a Belgrade hospital, the lethal outcome of its inmates’ infection with smallpox and the government’s merciless sacrificing of patients, staff and visitors in order to tackle the epidemic.

In one of Variola Vera’s last scenes, an award letter by the WHO is being read out loud during a press conference, which congratulates the Belgrade authorities for their excellent management of the outbreak with the following words: “Selflessly you have stopped the spread of a lethal disease on the very outskirts of Europe and have thus prevented a catastrophe of immense dimensions”. While the task force and government representatives receive this praise, reporters are filming and photographing them.

Press conference in Belgrade after the outbreak’s end (from the film Variola Vera)

Though the situation is being fashioned for the observing gaze of a global audience, for the film’s viewer in 1982, its irony shines through clearly: while the WHO might with good right celebrate its biggest vaccination success in history – the elimination of smallpox from Earth – the Yugoslav authorities in the film have no reason to be as proud. They sacrificed citizens, they had abandoned them and ruthlessly cut off from society. Clearly, the Yugoslav state, officially based in self-management, and its lack of internal solidarity is in this way exposed by Marković to the critical inspection of his film’s audience. Even more so, since in 1982, when the film was released, the shock-wave of the large 1981 protests in Kosovo, then an autonomous province of Yugoslavia, and which loomed in the film’s narrative’s background, could still be strongly felt in Yugoslav society.

The Film Variola Vera

The film’s fictional rendering of the 1972 outbreak runs as follows: a Yugoslav Muslim citizen, Halil Redžepi, travels to an unnamed country in the Middle East. As his hadj is mentioned we can assume he is returning from Mecca. In an oriental market this patient zero buys a flute from a smallpox-infected musician. Halil shows symptoms of an infection already when landing in Yugoslavia. But the symptoms are atypical and are not recognised for what they are, therefore he spreads the disease to a large number of contacts after his transfer to a Belgrade hospital.

Knowledge about smallpox hardly existed anymore at the time of the outbreak in 1972. When, finally, variola is diagnosed, those in charge still fail to immediately follow the medical experts’ advice. Later, they have to take drastic measures to get the infection under control. The authorities decide to completely isolate the hospital from the outside world and leave all people within it exposed to the virus in a full infection cycle. To help them survive these three weeks, the inmates get nothing but an insufficient amount of smallpox vaccine shots which the crisis committee, with some difficulty, obtained from Zagreb. Marković’s general ironic take on Yugoslavia can be recognised in many subtle, but at times also quite direct comments throughout the film: here for instance, general shortages are being addressed, plus the differences between republics, with Zagreb sending help to Belgrade.

Cut off from the outside world, those isolated in the hospital soon find themselves in a psychological state of emergency, each of them coping very differently with the situation. The locked-down hospital turns into a society within society in which the collective falls apart in front of the viewers’ eyes, and transforms into helpless and singled-out individuals. The director of the hospital, played by Marković’s father Rade Marković, barricades himself in his office and tries to keep the scarce vaccine to himself. While this head physician tries not to get infected in a drastically selfish and egoistic manner, other doctors refuse vaccination so that the precious vaccine can be used on patients. The painful separation from friends and family and the rigid border between the inside and the outside of the smallpox-infected hospital finds a melodramatic expression in a young man, the librarian Duško, who, in love with doctor Danka, steals into the locked-down hospital just to be with her. As a consequence, he will later die. The young son of one of the nurses spends night and day in front of the hospital, heartbreakingly calling for his mother: “Mama! Mama!”. His mother, nurse Zaga, will later hang herself in the hospital toilet, when her secret pill addiction and her theft of medication from the patients are discovered by Dr. Grujić. The gonorrhea infected patient Bora (nicknamed “Triperaš”, from Tripper, the German word for the disease) who will without fail assist even very sick patients throughout the film, only once loses his nerve: when the receptionist refuses him a telephone call to his relatives. This panorama of characters living through diverse ‘states of emergency’ allow Marković to criticise the Yugoslav context en passant with remarkable inventiveness.

Through the film, some variola vera infected patients die a horrible death, disfigured and helplessly exposed to the disease’s painful symptoms. As noted by several critics, these symptoms are represented in a radically visceral way, thus adding to the film’s horror dimension (Ognjanović 2007, Mandić 2019). The make-up artist Saveta Kovač was awarded the Golden Arena prize for makeup at the national Pula film festival for her work on Variola Vera.