A Chinese theater reboot of a wartime classic
The 1972 film Walter Defends Sarajevo was a major blockbuster during its time, viewed by 300 million people all over the world. While it was well received in Bosnia and Sarajevo, it actually owed much of its success to, oddly enough, movie-goers in China.
The film was introduced in China in 1977 and became immensely well received because of a combination of factors — only a few foreign films were allowed to be screened during that time and the Chinese audiences loved the nonstop action sequences.
“It was like a James Bond film at the time,” said Nick Yu Rongjun, playwright and artistic director at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center (SDAC).
Set in World War II, the plot centers around a mysterious man known as Walter who poses a serious threat against German operations in Sarajevo, which was at that time part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, a socialist state comprising countries such as Serbia, Macedonia and Croatia. The Germans then send an operative to infiltrate the resistance forces in an attempt to identify the real Walter. What makes the story even more interesting is that this operative from the notorious Secret Service pretends to be Walter himself, resulting in an intriguing tale of betrayal and mystery.
This legendary vintage film about the resistance efforts during World War II will now get a Chinese adaptation by the SDAC as part of the center’s efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the war. In order to create an authentic production, SDAC hired Bosnian theater director Haris Pasovic.
“Many theater and artistic institutions in China are creating projects to mark the celebration of the victory against Fascism. We want to be part of this and at the same time create a play of enduring artistic value,” said Yu.
This is the first time Pasovic is working in China. A well respected figure in the theater and film scene in Southeast Europe, the 54-year-old had worked in some important theaters in the former Yugoslavia. When the Bosnian War broke out and Sarajevo fell under siege from 1992 to 1995, Pasovic had also organized international theater and film festivals and shot documentaries that called for peace and humanity which were shown all over the world.
“People in Sarajevo feel like it is something very close to them. It’s kind of a diplomatic movie about the city,” Pasovic said. “We are all proud to have this movie become so popular in China in the past several decades. It is unusual that a movie from a small country becomes so popular in such a big country like China.”
Pasovic believes the main topic of the film has not changed and is still highly relevant in today’s world, saying that the resistance efforts still resonate with many people today.
“In this modern day and age, I think we still face lots of challenges coming from Fascism in different forms,” Pasovic said. “I believe my colleagues here at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center agree that the spirit of resistance is important for all of us.”
As Yu did not want to produce a direct theater adaptation of the film, he decided to bring the subject to the context of modern China instead, creating a new story that takes place at the press conference for a theater production of Walter Defends Sarajevo. In his design of this unique “play within a play”, the original story will take no more than one third of the new production.
Yu also wants to take the topic of war and oppression to a broader context, incorporating them into modern day life. He said: “There is war between art and money, between audience and the actors, even newspaper journalists and new self-media people are fighting.”
“People are fighting time. Wars take place time,” Yu added.
Pasovic has heaped praise on his Chinese counterpart, calling Yu a subtle and deep playwright who has opened a discussion about war and resistance “in a very smart, very complex, but very interesting way” in today’s world.
“I think the play that Nick Yu wrote is not only relevant to China — it is relevant internationally. It talks about how the contemporary world reacts to the issues of freedom and resistance and the struggle against dark forces like Fascism,” said Pasovic. all the all the
Bosnian director Haris Pasovic will be working with Chinese actors in this big production.