Svetlozar Vassilev – Warden of the Dead

Psychoanalytic interpretation of film is based on emotions it stirs in audience and reflections of public on their experiences[1] (Gabbard, G., 1997). In this sense the beginning of „Warden of the Dead” immediately provokes contradicting feelings in me – it begins with a funeral, its raining heavily, the ground is muddy and the whole sensation is unpleasant and oppressive. The funeral was interrupted by an old man (Itzhak Finzi), who after giving a long gaze upon the dead man started to sing “The Ode to Joy” (Ode an die Freunde). The coffin is lifted to the grave and is swallowed in its hole full of muddy water. The prologue suggests that the film deals with painful feelings associated with pathological mourning and its consequences for the emotional life.

It soon becomes clear for the observer that all characters have experienced personal loss which they did not succeed to mourn and accept: the Little (played by 14 years old Vladimir Georgiev) lost his parents, the Painter (Samuel Finzi) lost his inspiration and the Old Man was former political prisoner who lost both his beloved and his freedom. They all live in a reality where the space and time are frozen. We are slowly invited to live in this frozen world, where outer and inner reality are mixed and can easily be confused. For example, it is not clear which is the town where the action takes place; it is not known where the cemetery is; you never know who is buried where, etc. The links of the film with current social context in Bulgaria are only implicitly drawn, for example, the Little, said to the rest of the graveyard’s servants: “Do not expect the same payment as before – people do not have money anymore!”

We soon understand that all social rituals related to mourning have lost their meaning – there is a mass production of coffins and the civil servant is repeating monotonously the same words for all who passed away. While watching the film we inevitably begin to wonder what the reason for the lack of vitality and stillness in this world is.

Gradually, I formulate a hypothesis that the roots of the cemetery world are in the denial of loses experienced by the film characters. It is a mourning complicated by persecutory guilt, envy and greed which deaden their inner objects and imprison them.

We gradually became part of the feeling of imprisonment. It begins by learning the story of the Little, who first lost his mother, and then his alcoholic father. The Little inherited “the business” from his father who was the previous “cemetery executive”. It is now his world and we starts to wonder is it why almost all film scenes happened at the graveyard. We are introduced to it and soon learn the story of the Little – he is living alone in a family house, which is situated at the centre of the graveyard. We feel that helplessness and dependency are dominating everything and everybody.

In order to cope with the requirements of reality and his inner impulses he is counting on magical beliefs and rituals only. He earned the status of warden of the dead – someone who is a keeper of their rights. He also can say when someone will die. From psychoanalytic point of view his behaviour is an example for omnipotent defense preventing mourning the loss of his parents and his childhood: he has the power to contact with the “other world” and to control the death. The Old Man, the Painter and cemetery personal are seduced to believe in his supernatural abilities and they all have their own personal reasons to do it.

However, the world the Little is ruling is not only a dead world, but it is also a false one. It is a world which proposes models for identification who are either corrupted (the scenes with the venal cemetery boss and the servant), or abusing basic ethical and social principles (scene with the military officers who put dead bodies into illegal graves). The rest of the adults are either envious (e.g. the carpenter who sabotaged creative work of the painter) or not able to symbolize (gravedigger who cut the painting of his daughter because she poses naked for it). The impotence of adults is expressed by their fixation to death, which is made visible in the endless production of cheap coffins, the selling of luxurious models with high-tech devices, etc. Even the name of the pub near the cemetery entrance is “Last stop”.

Watching the film, we begin to feel the pain realizing that practically nobody facilitates individual development of the Little, so his life is dictated by obsessive rituals and omnipotence. The Little desperately needs relationship and attachment in order to grow. In fact there are small examples of empathy shown in his relationships with his two friends – the Painter and the Old man. However, the Painter can not provide real emotional relationship. Despite he is honest and fights against the falsehood and banality, he is totally fixated on his narcissistic ideal for achievement of complete perfection. It is obvious from his striving to be a real artist, but he does not do it by communication and care to others (the scene when he started a meaningless fight with grave diggers about purity of art). The Painter himself is fragile and childish – he is confused who he really is, he is in overwhelming identification with Rubens (scene where he presented himself as Rubens to Maria). We learn that his inner drama is an old one when he shares that he tried to hang himself.

The second chance for the Little to be contained and understood is the Old man. Unfortunately, he dedicated his life to revenge. We saw him triumphant during his first appearance in the film, when his old enemy – the communist party leader – died. This person had ruined his life by stealing his beloved and put him into jail. However, after the Old man achieved his dream to win a victory over his enemy, he has soon found that he has no other reason to live.

In another parallel reality – that of the war shown on the TV screen – the loss can not be mourn and tolerated as well (the scene with the news, which announced that “the bodies of the dead may be exported behind the border” [symbol of evacuation’ phantasies described by Klein]).

The change for the Little comes trough Maria (played by Diana Dobreva). She is coming  from abroad and the fact that she is an external figure represents that the Little is in a helpless state of the baby who believes that help only can come from outside. Maria is the character who is not susceptible to beliefs and control of the Little. She sees beyond his mask of premature maturity and manages to link with the little child inside himself. Maria gradually introduces him to reality and helps him to build a consistent life history, by assisting him to farewell his illusion for self-sufficiency.

However, it is not at all easy to grow up in a context of the cemetery world. Here, the feeling of imprisonment is dominant and the death is idealized, instead of mourned. We are shocked by the different occasions when we face how the death and dying are not emotionally experienced, but are practiced as a cult to death resembling ancient cultures and tribal rites. For example, there are different types of coffins and there are special efforts to make death beautiful (scene with make up of the dead man). The film characters believe in the possibility to predict death and they highly admire the prophet. The three friends are ready to plan and assist the suicide of the Old Man, he even receives a grave as a birthday present. The Little is in the centre of this cult, because his life is dedicated to the dead. It is terrifying to enter his room, which looks like a home of a serial killer – there are photographs of dead people on all walls; his personal bible contains parts of obituaries (like in the East Asian rituals about life after death, or in book of the dead, etc.).

While we continue to watch the film we start asking ourselves how psychoanalysis can understand these attitudes. I personally thought they are related to primitive anxieties and fears of dying. The behavior of the Little is his childish attempt to control the fact of his parents’ death. On a deeper unconscious level the cemetery can be seen as his inner world inhabited by dead objects. On most archaic level – it is his mother (the scene with the crypt as mother’s inside) and cemetery bushes [which represent the vagina]). Her early death evoked his guilt phantasies which together with his hatred deadened his mother and the whole world.

Through out the relationship with Maria he succeeds to connect with his inner good mother and was able to rebuild it is a live and human figure.

It is very moving to watch how she played the role of a mother to him. At the beginning she was not fully accepted and it takes long way to overcome resistance of the Little. Step by step she showed him the world outside the graveyard – first she invites him to her home, then they made a trip to the mountain and finally to the sea side (Aiwasovski painting “Napoleon on St. Helena”). His emancipation comes in steps. At the beginning he is terrified (scene with the black sunglasses in the car). Then he is relaxed, but angrily rejecting demystification of his magical beliefs in life after death (the scene when Maria showed him the subway station).

Maria opposes to his rejection and confronts existing collusion with other adults – she is asking: “Why are you all listening to this child? Nothing gives him the right to arrange life of the people as if they are puppets!” In the same time she is not only strong, but accepting and containing – she is acting with devotion to him – he can hug her, fall asleep in her presence and has various kind of body and emotional contact.

Maria is not only a mother figure. She is “the Woman“, who is at the core of all desires of the characters – she is the mother, the muse, the lover and the daughter. Maria brings the culmination and solution of the drama.

Only relating to her makes it possible for the Little to overcome his loss. He finally was able to work trough his primary anxieties about his inner mother. At the end of the film he generously let Maria and the Old Man to recognize themselves as father and daughter and to have life independent of him. The result of overcoming deadness in his relationships to others is that various productive couples are born – Maria can be a daughter of her father and Maria and Rubens can have intercourse which enabled him to paint his masterpiece. The natural order of the world is reached by division of libidinal of destructive impulses and as a result the death becomes unpredictable and painful, but still tolerable experience (the scene when the Painter, but not the Old Man died).

The Little accomplishes this task because for the first time he is able to be angry (scene with founding dead men who are not buried) and then sad. This process ends with feeling of humbleness. It is trough this process that he symbolically buries his dead parents, which till now are recognized as buried, but not dead (the scene when all death soldiers were given proper funeral).

Horizons of successful psychological development are now open to him. In the final scene he is on the sea side at the sun raise. The experience of oneness and separateness with the mother-nature is reached – he can be himself and has his mother as an object inside himself. It is an enormous step forward because up to that moment this experience was only known from the reproduction of painting (Aiwasovski’s “Napoleon on St. Helena”). Now it is not just a reproduction, but real experience of freedom and hope.

On another level of interpretation the cemetery world depicted in the film leads associations to Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, where most of manifestations of creativity fade away because adults abdicate from maturity and regress to primitive mental functioning. This film shows the failure of several consecutive generations to make commitments in their life – just as pre-adolescent character of the Little. These generations failed because they can not overcome the loss of their external enemy (embodied by the communist regime) and then to cope with their own conflicts between destructive and libidinal impulses. The film is giving example what the consequences are and how solution can be achieved – by full commitment to a libidinal relationship.

[1] This essay is an attempt to apply the method “analysis of spectatorship” described by Gabbard, 1997, p.4. to the movie “Warden of the Dead”. 


Gabbard, G. (1997). The psychoanalyst at movies. Int. J. Psychoanal., 78: 1-6.

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