Updated: May 26
As someone who is always tuned into the developments occurring at and around the WWII commemorative sites of the former Yugoslavia through my Spomenik Database project and related social media accounts, I am always having people message and contact me about things they find at these locations (both good and bad). So, you can imagine my surprise when around November of 2019, I begin having numerous people reach out to me with information that the ruined and devastated site of the Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija at Petrova Gora, Croatia is being closed off to the public by a TV production crew filming at that location. At first, I just assume it is just some music video or commercial (both of which activities have been employing the Yugoslav monuments in increasing regularity as of late). However, I was even more surprised to discover that the production in question here at Petrova Gora was much more significant in scope.
After hearing about this filming going on at Petrova Gora in November of 2019, a bit of detective work quickly yields the answer I was looking for. I find that the monument site is being used by a German production crew as a filming location for a new Netflix series titled "Tribes of Europa", a science-fiction show based in a post-apocalyptic future Europe torn apart by disaster and broken into an array of warring tribes. The people who reached out to me told of private security guards preventing any sort of access in and around the structure for several months during late 2019 and early 2020 as the filming took place there. In an article by the Zagreb news outlet Jutarnji List, they quote academic art historian Sanja Horvatinčić, who exclaimed after she discovered this situation herself: "Is it even legally possible for a registered cultural property to be closed to the public and leased to a private production company?" This same news article also quotes spokesman Davor Žafran of the Blue Sky Adriatic production company that organized the local logistics of the "Tribes of Europa" Netflix production, with him asserting: "We received all the necessary permits for filming from the Ministry of Culture and the competent municipality. As for the ban on entry, there was already a padlock and it was not allowed to enter, and when we arrived at the location." However, despite such assertions, anyone who has visited the Petrova Gora monument site before this filming began knew that the interior of the monument was easily accessible through various points (despite the front entrance being locked), while the nearby municipality offices of Vojnić were always more than willing to unlock the front entrance and give tours to whomever inquired at the town offices.
With the success of the hugely popular HBO series "Game of Thrones" being filmed at locations across Croatia in recent years, such as the scenic Adriatic cities of Dubrovnik and Split, it makes sense that Croatian government officials would be keen on continuing utilizing the Croatian landscape for international filming productions, especially as the success of Game of Thrones has led to huge tourist draws to those two coastal cities. However, this was the first instance of a major Croatian memorial site related to the tragic and bloody events of WWII being utilized in such a commercial fashion for a western television series. Though, it does bear mentioning that just a few years ago in 2018, an Australian eyewear fashion company used the monument at Jasenovac, Croatia as part of a commercial marketing campaign, which led to widespread condemnation from around the world. Furthermore, the unavoidable symbolism of a German film crew employing private Croatian security services to prevent visitors from accessing a public monument dedicated to the massacre of what were largely ethnic-Serb civilians was quickly picked up on by many observers and social critics. Many individuals shared scathing opinions and perspectives on social media about the monument being used in such a way. But at the same time, other voices pointed out that the production employed vast amounts of local actors and could serve to spurn tourism to the region in the same way similar productions did for Split and Dubrovnik.
In the utilizing of the Petrova Gora monument as a set piece for the filming of this Netflix TV series, the production crew cleaned up much of the trash strewn about the complex and cleaned its interior walls of the decades of graffiti that had accumulated all across its concrete facade. Meanwhile, the production crew also constructed several set installations within the monument for the purposes of staging certain scenes, while also painting various markings of their own across the interior walls of the complex. However, as I pointed out in a Facebook post, available at THIS link, many of these stage installations within the monument were not removed after filming and still remain in place up to now.
In the lead up to the release of the show, what was completely unknown and unclear to the majority of observers was in what fashion the Petrova Gora site would fit into the filming and story of this TV show. Would the tragic history and grand monumental heritage of the structure somehow be integrated into the narrative of the series or would its devastated and decayed condition simply be used as a tawdry backdrop for the "ruin-porn" aesthetic of the post-apocalyptic world the Netflix's production crew was attempting to cultivate? I guess we would have to wait and see for ourselves when the show was released. When the teaser trailer for "Tribes of Europa" was released in December of 2020, we were only given a short single frame peak of the monument during a quick shot from some sweeping aerial drone footage, which by no means gave any indication about how the monument would be utilized within the TV series.
Finally, on February 19th, 2021, "Tribes of Europa" was released on the Netflix video streaming platform. To my surprise, upon starting the program, I find that among the very first images of the first scene of the show is a dramatic pan-out shot of one of the show's main protagonists, named "Liv", looking out from high within the Petrova Gora monument as the camera quickly speeds away backwards (very similar to the brief snippet that we saw in the trailer). Clearly, the show's producers included this view of the ruined Petrova Gora monument in the opening scene of the show as a means of setting the apocalyptic and dystopian "tone" of the series. However, even in this introductory shot, we are not yet given any hints about what is the nature of monument's role within the show. The show "Tribes of Europa" is set within the year 2074, several generations after some nature of global apocalypse destroyed and dismantled all civilization on earth. In the aftermath of this apocalypse, the people of Europe are split up into various tribes, each following various survival strategies and philosophies. The show revolves around conflicts between these tribes and the main story follows three siblings of the "Originies" tribe, which is a forest-dwelling tribe who has shunned all technology. Among these siblings is the protagonist "Liv", who is seen within Petrova Gora in the series opening shot.
It takes us until the second episode of the show for us to discover that within this world of the "Tribes of Europa", the Petrova Gora monument is being used by one of these tribes which is named "The Crimson Republic" as some sort of makeshift military base. Fashioned to be a 'tribe' in the vein of the United Nations (as a UN-esque logo appears within the tribe's symbol), the reason this Crimson Republic tribe is using the Petrova Gora monument as a military base is not clear and is never really explained within the context of the show. However, what is clear is that from contextual clues given within the show (as well as fictional maps depicting the world within which the show operates), this Crimson Republic military base within the world of the "Tribes of Europa" show is definitely meant to be situated in Germany, not its actual location in Croatia. As such, all of the actual history and heritage related to the Petrova Gora monument is lost within this fictional utilization of the complex. So, the now geographically decontextualized stainless steel tower is further reduced to a sci-fi backdrop within an post-apocalyptic landscape. Furthermore, recent internet posts made by Leif Heanzo, a freelance concept artist who worked on the visual development of the Tribes of Europa show, reveal that the Petrova Gora monument was employed from the very beginning of production as the template around which the atmosphere of the show would be crafted. Heanzo writes in a post found at THIS link: "We often used this [the Petrova Gora monument] as a reference for the visual tone of the post-apocalyptic Europe we wanted to set."
Within this contention surrounding the usage of the Petrova Gora monument site in the "Tribes of Europa" Netflix series, an inescapable discussion confronts us about the usage of sensitive memorial spaces being employed and decontextualized in the process of creating art and film. To what degree is it appropriate and acceptable to take a site or space dedicated to commemorating tragedy and transform its visual meaning into something entirely divorced from the original memorial or symbolic intention? In such a pursuit, how far can "artistic license" get you before you stray into unsettling waters? Firstly, a compelling example to cite in kicking off this discussion is the 2019 film reboot of the "Hellboy" franchise. During the production of this film, the Fraternal Barrow Memorial Complex in Plovdiv, Bulgaria was used as a set piece during the filming of this production. The monument commemorates that country's Partisan fighters who battled against the Nazis during WWII, however, in the Hellboy film, the monument was transformed into a Nazi occult temple, bedecked with actors in SS uniforms and decorated with swastika banners. Then, during the scene filmed there, from the monument's commemorative eternal flame emerges the "Hellboy" demon as the Nazis preform a satanic ritual. Furthermore, similar to "Tribes of Europa", the monument was geographically decontextualized for the purposes of the film and placed instead among the islands of Scotland. This situation was first brought to widespread attention by writer Darmon Richter (of the Ex Utopia and Monumentalism websites), who remarked in an article that when Hollywood came to Plovdiv: "..actual swastikas were scrubbed off the concrete for some temporary ones to replace them".
I bring up this example of "Hellboy" to point out a seemingly clear-cut situation where it could be justifiably understood for a reasonable person to interpret as inappropriate or offensive the utilization of a monument dedicated to the victims of Nazi crimes as a cinematic set piece for the performance of Nazi rituals. However, in the case of Petrova Gora and the "Tribes of Europa" Netflix series, to what degree is it similar or different to the Hellboy instance? How much latitude and artistic license should Hollywood and international film producers be afforded in reinterpreting the monumental heritage of a place for commercial entertainment purposes? In this discussion, many voices in Croatian media note that the Petrova Gora monument has been in a state of ruin for quite awhile after years of neglect... and if some German/Netflix film producers are willing to clean up the site a bit, employ local actors and businesses, while bringing in money and tourists into the Vojnić region (which is already classified as an under-developed municipality), then, how bad can it really be?... one might ask.
However, as the Yugoslav-era anti-fascist monument heritage of Croatia has been heavily hit over the decades since the 1990s (with sources relating that upwards of 3,000 have been destroyed), responding voices might contend that using a castle in Split or Dubrovnik as a filming location for a fantasy kingdom in "Game of Thrones" is one thing, but using monuments commemorating human tragedies as decontextualized sci-fi television props is another thing entirely. Determining what is an appropriate level of creative interface between filmmakers and a monument is not always an easy task or something that is clear cut. What is acceptable to one person might be completely unacceptable to someone else. Only through dialog with a community can filmmakers hope to understand how their use of a monument in their filming process and story telling might impact those people who have deep emotional connections to it.
So, are there indications that the usage of the Petrova Gora monument for the purposes of the "Tribes of Europa" Netflix show negatively impact those in the community?... or the descendants of those who the monument is dedicated to? While I found a small number of social media comments bemoaning the use of Petrova Gora in this way, at the same time, I found no articles or opinion pieces in the news outlets from the community of Vojnić, from Croatia or from Serbia expressing any level of condemnation or outcry towards the filming which took place there by the Netflix production. In fact, the most significant reactions I found in Croatian news media towards the filming of the "Tribes of Europa" show was not in reference to Petrova Gora, but instead in reference to the show's filming which took place at the nearby towns of Glina and Petrinja. During the show's filming, these formerly sleepy rural towns, populated with romantic Austo-Hungarian architecture, were depicted in the series as ruined wastelands as part of the story's post-apocalyptic world. Tragically, just a few months after filming, a severe earthquake struck these communities, leaving them both devastated. Croatian media was quick to pick up on the grim parallels between the way the towns looked during the show's filming and after the 2020 earthquake.
With the popularity of and interest towards the monuments created during the era of Yugoslavia steadily growing around the world, it seems inevitable that the producers of film and TV series will continue to seek them out, particularly the ones which provide stunning visuals. However, for the cinematic usage of Yugoslavia's socialist-era monuments to transcend the trope of being "a mute backdrop for a sci-fi movie", as Vladimir Kulić writes in his 2018 paper of the exotification and orientalization of Yugoslav architecture, perhaps Hollywood and Netflix filmmakers should take greater efforts when filming in that region to write stories based WITHIN the culture and heritage of that landscape instead of using it as an analog for some far-off unknown world. Already the monuments have been appearing in numerous domestic contemporary films produced across the former-Yugoslav region, such as the 2018 Serbian film "The Load" and the 2016 Croatian film "Ministry of Love", yet, in contrast to "Tribes of Europa", these films portray the monuments in a real-world context as they are and as they stand.
However, at the same time, it should be noted that not all academic voices in the former Yugoslav region see these "exotic" usages of the monuments by foreign filmmakers as "inappropriate" or "offensive". Perspectives in the region's academic world on this topic are nuanced and varied, encompassing a wide variety of attitudes towards the idea of cinema and its utilization of historical heritage and cultural goods. In relation to the topic of the "Tribes of Europa" show, Sarajevo-based architectural historian Boris Trapara shared the following views with me during a discussion:
"Every time I see monuments from the former Yugoslavia in foreign popular media such as movies, series, music videos, and articles, I am always happy. I was born in Yugoslavia and as someone who grew up with the values that these monuments represent, I am extremely happy that they are the subject of interest of foreigners and that they are part of popular culture... one can discuss the significance of these monuments in the popular culture of a Netflix series such as "Tribes of Europa", but the very fact that they have been given space... that is a positive thing."
So, in this discussion about Petrova Gora and Netflix's "Tribes of Europa" show, the most important thing to establish first before any dialog can begin is determining where exactly we are approaching the discussion from. One thing I have learned in exploring and examining the monumental heritage of Yugoslavia over the last five years is that it behooves one before trying to establish any sort of understanding about a place, one must first take in all of the various perspectives regarding any given site. Was the usage of Petrova Gora as a futuristic ruined military base in a post-apocalyptic world an inappropriate exotifying misappropriation of a culturally important monument or was it a unique and clever artistic re-imagining that will breathe new life and renew interest in a long neglected treasure? Or was it neither, or somewhere in between, or something else entirely? Examination on such questions is only just beginning and will no doubt continue into the future.