The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in 1914 is one of those historical events that fascinate people. The idea that an event that was the product of so many chance factors could have such a deadly global impact is a deeply unsettling one; like other assassinations, this is one of those historical events that historians and writers keep probing at like a loose tooth.
Sarajevo is a 2014 German TV film which takes an … unorthodox approach to the story of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The actual assassination takes place relatively early in the story, and for the rest of it we follow magistrate Leo Pfeffer as he conducts an investigation into the conspiracy. His investigation is hampered by the fact that his bosses have already come to the conclusion that this was a Serbian plot and the ideal pretext for war with Serbia. As a further complication he’s in love (or something; he’s not very demonstrative) with a Serbian woman in an increasingly anti-Serb atmosphere.
OK, so far, so good, right? The ethnic patchwork of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a principled official trying to do his job in the face of official indifference, a doomed love in a fractured society; that’s all good drama material. But Sarajevo goes to some weird places with it.
See, more than just the idea that the German and Austrian military establishments were spoiling for a fight and took the assassination as a ready-made casus belli, Sarajevo takes the position that the killing of Franz Ferdinand was itself a conspiracy orchestrated by German intelligence and corrupt Austrian government officials. The establishment shuts down the investigation, not out of bureaucratic inertia and war fever, but as a way to cover up actual wrongdoing, which is paradoxically a less terrifying idea than the more complex actual history, don’t you think? Mind you, I tend to think that way about conspiracy theories in general.
It’s well-made enough, and to the best of my limited ability it seems like it does a good job depicting the society and environment of pre-war Austria-Hungary. The decision to make the hero look small and scruffy in comparison to the better-dressed, more old-timey villains is a good one in particular. But the actual plot is weird enough that it serves as a distraction.
Part of the weirdness is … hmm. I’ve spoken before about the kind of visual language of historical filmmaking. From its slow pace to its wistful music, this film has all the signifiers we would normally associate with a character-focused historical costume drama, the kind of thing that would be about, I dunno, a Jewish-Croat civil servant in love with a Serb heiress in Sarajevo on the eve of WWI. This might tend to give the conspiracy plot some spurious credibility, but if you’re not prepared to lend it that credibility it winds up feeling really weird.