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'Walter' Defended Sarajevo, Now He's Bringing Tourists

A screen grab from the cult Yugoslav movie Walter Defends Sarajevo, starring Bata Zivojinovic as the eponymous anti-Nazi resistance hero.

August in Sarajevo is dominated by that city's now-famous film festival -- a defiant child of the Bosnian war and since then arguably the most important cultural event in the country.

But while the festival showcases new movies and talent, at least some of the limelight this year has been stolen by a tribute to a film made nearly half a century ago, in a country that no longer exists.

A new multimedia museum dedicated to the cult movie Walter Defends Sarajevo is due to open later this year, and organizers hope it draws a good number of tourists -- especially from China.

The movie, released in 1972, paid homage to the Yugoslav partisan resistance to the Nazi occupation of the city during World War II, coordinated by the eponymous Walter, the code name of Vladimir Peric.

Inspired by real events -- the historical Walter (Peric) was killed during the liberation of the city on April 6, 1945 -- the film has a "mythic power," according to filmmaker Jasmin Durakovic, director of the Sarajevo film center. It was a triumph of Yugoslav and Bosnian filmmaking, Durakovic told RFE/RL.

'Das Ist Walter!'

The promotional event for the new museum took place in Park Princeva (Princes' Park), an elevated spot on the outskirts that affords a spectacular view of the city. Durakovic said it was chosen because it was the setting for the movie's iconic final scene.

The Germans had been unable to destroy the underground resistance in Sarajevo, or to identify and capture its leader, the elusive Walter. As the movie closes, it is spring 1945 and the commanding Nazi officer is taking his leave. He meets his successor at what is now Park Princeva and announces that he has finally solved the mystery of Walter's identity: "I have spent the war hunting Walter, but it is only now, as I depart, that I finally know who he is." The other man impatiently demands to be told, but the officer says he can do better: "I will show him to you!" He then points at the cityscape spread out before them and explains: "Do you see this city? Das ist Walter! (That is Walter!)"

"[Park Princeva] is a legendary place, and we have already designated it as the 'Das ist Walter' location," said Durakovic.

The promotional event was well attended, and it was announced that the museum dedicated to the movie will be open to the public by the end of the year. Near the end of the event, recounted Durakovic, a Chinese woman ran up to him and asked breathlessly if she could bring her husband and children. She had been passing by and recognized the face of the movie's protagonist, actor Bata Zivojinovic (Walter), on one of the original posters (which will be among the exhibits in the new museum) and wanted her family -- tourists in the city -- to see the promotion.

A poster for the Walter Defends Sarajevo film with both the original title and its Chinese translation. (file photo)
A poster for the Walter Defends Sarajevo film with both the original title and its Chinese translation. (file photo)

The film's apparent popularity in China has undoubtedly contributed to its cult status. It is thanks to its Chinese audience since its release in the 1970s that Walter Defends Sarajevo is the most-watched Yugoslav movie of all time.

Pioneering Foreign Film

In the late 1970s the movie was screened not only in Chinese movie theaters but also appeared frequently on Chinese television. Walter was first screened in China in 1976, as the country emerged from the Cultural Revolution and its resultant social and cultural desolation.

Bosnian director Hajrudin Krvavac's war movie was a pioneering foreign film in China at that time, so for millions of Chinese it represented a rare glimpse into an unfamiliar world.

Now, decades later, Chinese visitors to Europe are signing up for guided tours of Belgrade and Sarajevo that include locations where Walter Defends Sarajevo was filmed in the Bosnian capital, the Belgrade house in which actor Zivojinovic lived, and museums in both Serbia and Bosnia linked to World War II and the partisan struggle.

A model of the planned multimedia museum dedicated to Walter Defends Sarajevo, which was presented at this year's annual film festival in the Bosnian capital.
A model of the planned multimedia museum dedicated to Walter Defends Sarajevo, which was presented at this year's annual film festival in the Bosnian capital.

Apart from Walter, there is a recent agreement of a mutual visa-free regime between China and Bosnia.

By at least one estimate, more than 50,000 Chinese tourists are expected to visit Bosnia in 2018, and next year that number could rise to 70,000.

So Belgrade and Sarajevo, on opposite sides of a conflict in the 1990s, are seemingly brought together again thanks to their shared historical and artistic legacy -- preserved in Chinese popular culture.

A Chinese beer brand called "Walter" featured the face of Zivojinovic, who passed away two years ago and whose widow was a guest of honor during the Chinese president's visit to Belgrade in 2016.

Lu Fei, the actor who dubbed Walter's voice in Chinese, touted his "love for this story," according to the China Daily a few years ago. "Every time I was introduced to others, I was called 'Walter,' and people were always amazed," he added.

Potent Myth

Krvavac died during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, although he lived to see the slogan "We are all Walter!" chanted by peace protesters on the eve of another war in Bosnia: The first shots were fired just as the city was about to mark the 47th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi occupation on April 6, also the day of the real Walter's death.

Citizens were gathering that April in defense of the multiethnic makeup of the city. But more than banners and slogans were required to defeat the mostly Serb forces encircling the city.

Walter, as embodied by the city's population -- as the German officer in the movie implied -- could not triumph again, and Bosnia is today a country ethnically divided for the first time in its history.

But the myth of Walter remains potent, not least among the Chinese. There is speculation that a remake of Walter Defends Sarajevo is in the works, with a Chinese director and a Bosnian and Serbian cast; but the original film's appeal endures.

With Chinese tourists arriving by the tens of thousands, Walter (both real and fictional) is once again doing his bit for Sarajevo -- this time by boosting tourism in a country whose economy has yet to recover fully from conflict.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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