The Enemy (Neprijatelj)

Serbia (2011) Dir. Dejan Zecevic

In 1996 a song called One Of Us by Joan Osbourne asked “What if God was one of us?” Flipping that idea on its head a little, Serbian director Dejan Zecevic wonders if we’d know if Satan himself was in our presence. And what better setting to explain this than during wartime.

Actually, the timeline is just days after peace has been brokered between the Bosnians and the Serbs in the Balkan War of 1995, where we find a small group of Serbian soldiers tasked with clearing up the remaining land mines they planted in unspecified rural Bosnia. Whilst on patrol, the soldiers find a civilian calling himself Daba (Tihomir Stanić) walled up in an abandoned factory.

Daba seems perfectly healthy, needs no food or drink, just cigarettes. The squad, led by commander Cole (Aleksandar Stojkovic), are preparing to return home when sniper Sivi (Vladimir Djordjević) goes missing. In searching for Sivi, the squad find a pile of dead soldiers and capture a Serbian soldier Faruk (Goran Jokic) who immediately recognises Daba and accuses him of being the Devil.

This isn’t a supernatural tale, nor is it a horror film as the synopsis may suggest but it is a taut psychological drama about the horrors of war, with the Daba character being an obvious metaphor. The script by Zecevic and Djordje Milosavljevic doesn’t play on the religious aspect of this, with only a brief discussion about God and the Devil, but there is no need to – war has its own way of making monsters out of men.

Which is where Daba comes in. He is an unremarkable looking chap – unshaven, shabbily dressed, average height and build, and smokes like a chimney – but his sharp features and piercing eyes only allude to half of what lurks behind this dishevelled appearance. Daba barely speaks but when he does, the cod philosophy behind his pithy statements and questions in response to a question irk Cole and his group.

At first they are a tight knit bunch, joking and easy going with one another but once Daba arrives, this camaraderie very quietly turns to distrust, intolerance, ennui and eventually violence. Pious Vesko (Slavko Stimac) is the easiest spooked in contrast to his comrades, Case (Dragan Marinković), Caki (Vuk Kostić), Sirovina (Ljubomir Bandovic) and the slovenly man nicknamed Ass (Stefan Bundalo).

Gradually more soldiers mysteriously disappear then wind up dead, and the impassioned testimony from Muslim Faruk about how his comrades all went mad and killed each other in Daba’s presence, hence them walling him up, finally makes the Serbs realise the danger they are in. Then, true to form, dissension arises, trust dissipates and paranoia increases when the radio suddenly dies and new land mines appear from where they were removed.

It’s not all testosterone though – enter young Bosnian woman Danica (Marija Pikic) returning to the farmhouse she and her father lived in before being evacuated. As the lone female presence, Danica’s addition to the story does reek of a little of tokenism and naturally/sadly she is a victim of a rape attempt when the men start to go mad. Pikic’s beguiling performance lifts the character beyond this, making Danica one of the more enigmatic mysteries of the film.

She isn’t fazed by the burly men with their guns and doesn’t play the lazy love interest act either. At one point she tells Daba straight up that his mind games won’t work on her, creating an aura about her that suggests she is equally as dangerous as Daba or possibly the antithesis of him – this is left for the for the audience to decide.

Daba is really a convenient conduit for the implosion of the squad, never once actively getting involved in anything but has a knack for saying the right thing to sow the seeds of doubt in one’s mind. Since wars are political, most soldiers fight for an ideal they barely understand thus don’t really know who their enemy is. If Daba genuinely is Satan, all he is doing is exposing the true dark side of man and the egotistical folly of war.

The circumstances of the eventual infighting are natural and *could* have happened whether Daba was there or not, a canny facet of the writing that stealthily reveals itself, and could have easily succumbed to over-thinking the main premise. The characters are picked off one by one and their fates are dictated by their personalities, making the leap from trusted friend to paranoid foe tragically inevitable.

By supplanting any strong religious exploration for genuine non-secular fear, the idea is that fate is universal and doesn’t discriminate regardless of what has been indoctrinated into our minds. And if Satan is real, he doesn’t discriminate either in his evil plans, but as demonstrated here, he doesn’t have to as it is apparently inherent in us all. And THAT is scary.

Zecevic doesn’t direct this a horror film yet the ominous cloud of doom hangs heavy over each frame, thanks in part to the washed out colour palette that only allows pertinent bursts of colour – red for blood, natch – into the borderline monochrome aesthetic. The atmosphere is relentlessly bleak and palpably cold, the odd creak and bang occasionally punctuating the otherwise pervasive deathly silence remains the main soundtrack.

It’s hard to single out any of the actors playing the soldiers for individual praise as they all submit themselves to the unpleasantness the roles demand of them, and bring their own personalities to the tortured souls embroiled in this dissolving relationship. Tihomir Stanić provides the requisite unease as the apparent Devil Incarnate, a mere grin or look proving enough to express his mischievous intent.

You won’t find any jump scares or gory shocks in The Enemy but you will find a tense, if slow moving psychological thriller that takes a potent and sadly relevant subject like war and uses it to intelligently explore what really turns people into monsters.

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