The Meaning of The Yugoslavian Monuments – Spomeniks In Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men (2020)

Last and First Men (2020) concluded the beautiful career of an Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. This immersive experience takes its viewers on a unique journey into the world billions of years into the future, however, the images we see are relics of the past.

I’m a huge fan of Last and First Men (2020). Back in 2015, when I was only starting my writing career, I wrote to Jóhann to share an article in which I expressed my fascination over his work in Sicario (2015). Surprisingly, he did write me back, saying he liked the review and wished me good luck. As you may suspect, I was over the moon to see that response.

Years later, my fondness of his works didn’t lose the kick. But the untimely death of the composer was a huge blow. Nevertheless, Jóhann Jóhannsson left a lot of his compositions for us to cherish, leaving a rich legacy of music, moods, and images.

Nevertheless, let’s get back to the main topic.

Last and First Men (2020) is one of the most beautiful pieces of existential science fiction ever. Poetic, disturbing, and uncanny in equal measures, it’s clearly a passion project of the deceased composer.

While watching the film, I was amazed by its visceral beauty and how well the shots of Spomenik monuments matched Olaf Stapledon’s story. But, before I dig deeper…

What are Spomeniks?

beautiful shot of a Spomenik in last and first men (2020)

Spomenik monuments were built in post-Yugoslavia countries between 1950s-1980s.

Conceived in the mind of the Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz-Tito, these monuments were to honor the struggle of his people in WWII. Through sacrifice, blood and lament came to life a new, better, and united country. Tito’s vision of one Yugoslavia – an amalgamation of classes, religions, and nations all under one flag – had to be illustrated in as many ways as possible. Also, ways that would pinpoint the futuristic visions.

The better, new and futuristic country of Yugoslavia

To prove Yugoslavia’s drive for the new, and the better, Spomeniks were deliberately futuristic, weirdly-shaped, and gargantuan in size. Yet contrary to the standard way of building war memorials, Tito instructed the architects to reach for the stars and to think about the future in a manner unshackled by the mediocrity of the presence. The outcome was brutalist, almost extraterrestrial design seen in most of the Spomeniks.

spomenik in Popina

Frankly, if Spomeniks were built in the 21st century, they would constitute pieces of Avantgarde art; a part of a large-scale performance, and probably featuring paintings by Banksy.

Even more astounding is the fact that Spomeniks were built outside of cities such as Zagreb, Sarajevo, or Belgrade, meaning the biggest cultural hubs. As if Tito wasn’t entirely approving of these outer-worldly constructs – which he did not at the beginning – Yugoslavian architects were deployed to villages to pay tribute to their beloved country. However, their ghastly projects were far enough so that the loving eye of the supreme leader did not see them too often.

Spomenik in Ostra

The above caused the archaic relics of communism to become a true gem for history geeks and not your regular selfie background from the Balkan holidays. In fact, it’s the very setting – with cottages, sheep, and green fields – that highlights the absurdity of their size and design. What’s also curious is that Spomeniks wouldn’t enjoy any popularity if not for a Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers who spent years documenting them. Some of his works are now parts of exhibitions in the Balkan states.

Making the post-war dream come true

The design of Spomeniks was a result of the tightening bonds between the West and Yugoslavia. Tito wanted to steer away from fascism and Soviet patterns. Yugoslavian architects gained a lot from sharing experiences, including Western expressionism and modernism, both of which shaped some of the Spomeniks. Local artists and architects competed to make their visualizations come true, which – as some researchers point out – was indeed a collaborative process that Tito wanted to inject in the whole nation.

…competitions began to play the central role in generating a new theoretical discourse on war memorials, as well as on public art and the production of space in general.

Sanja Horvatinčić,Between Creativity and Pragmatism: A Structural Analysis and Quantitative Survey of Federal Competitions for Yugoslav Monuments and Memorial Complexes (1955–1980)
various Spomeniks in the Balkans

Spomeniks appeared like mushrooms on a rainy day during Tito’s rulership, but the fall of communism brought around their swift end. Thousands of monuments were destroyed in an act of washing off the terrors of communism in the 1990s. As found in a fantastic source of knowledge about Spomeniks:

Through the creation of these hyper-forward-looking forms, Yugoslavia hoped to embody and shape a national collective vision which aimed towards an optimistic and hopeful future defined by unity and symbolic universalism. After their WWII victory and political revolution, Yugoslavians began to see themselves as a pioneering, forward thinking nation of determined relentless people that were set and ready to pursue an idyllic dream of a collectivist utopian society organized through Worker’s Self-Management.

Spomeniks database

Why did Jóhann Jóhannsson use Spomeniks in Last and First Men (2020)?

dark shot from Last and First Men (2020)

Given the cultural and historical context of Spomeniks, their use in Last and First Men (2020) is significant to the film’s meaning.

As of today, Spomeniks are sad reminders of a country built on lies about a bright future and wealth. They heed a warning about communism, although many of them failed to stand the test of time and political turmoil following Josip Broz Tito’s reign.

In Last and First Men (2020) Jóhannsson reshaped their symbolism as monuments of a civilization on a brink of extinction. Their unparalleled design, as well as the contradicting the laws of physics and architecture, corresponded with the tone that the Icelandic artist sought. The camera’s oblique angles penetrate the desolate obelisks. In the bleak, black-and-white palette, Spomeniks do feel strangely inhuman – a work of a civilization strange to our ideas and concepts.

At the same time, there’s decent visual artistry in the cinematography seen in Last and First Men (2020) too. The light and shadow exposure creates a somehow hollow world, filled with never-ending landscapes, and

Spomeniks in Last and First Men (2020)


4 thoughts on “The Meaning of The Yugoslavian Monuments – Spomeniks In Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men (2020)

  1. Thank you, Gloria for the clarifications. I find the depiction of WWII victims’ monuments (a big bulk of them are located in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the site of the bloodiest WWII battles in Yugoslavia) in this dystopian film highly problematic, not the least because of the lack of proper crediting. As you pointed out, the monuments to antifascism were/ are neglected deliberately since the 1990s, for the sake of the new nation-building projects that revised/ distorted the history (of WWII), which is a very different doom agenda from what the Icelandic film portrays.

  2. The cinematography is gorgeous, but I got halfway through and could not stand any more. Not sure why, will have to think a bout that. It is so looming and joyless, like a men’s shed gone wrong?

  3. I just want to comment on your take on the monuments (spomenik means monument, literally). They are all monuments for the remembrance of the suffering of the people in Yugoslavia during the WWII and the fallen partisans, the biggest guerilla movement in the occupied Europe. One of them is a monument on the site of one of the worst Concentration camps in Europe where genocide and holocaust took place by Croatian collaborationist government, the flower like monument in Jasenovac appearing in the film. They were destroyed mainly in Croatia not because of the “communists terror” which is not an accurate statement, but because they wanted to destroy remembrance of the Yugoslavia as a country and the antifascist movement. During the war of ‘90 and post war the monuments were forgotten and neglected everywhere, to be again taken care of just relatively recently. Using them in this movie has so many underlying messages, given that the film is depicting the doom of mankind, I relate immensely to this, it is so appropriate.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for pointing out the “communist terror” issue. This might be due to the context I have read about when researching the subject, but I’ll happily read some more about it and then change the text.

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