One hundred years ago today, a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, ambushed and assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in the streets of Sarajevo, an event that triggered the beginning of the first world war.

The details of the killing read like farce: another attempt on the archduke had failed earlier in the day and his car had taken a wrong turning before encountering Princip, whose two shots also killed Franz Ferdinand’s wife Sophie. Princip himself twice tried to commit suicide but bungled it. He escaped the death penalty because of his tender years but died in prison in April 1918, a few months before the end of the war he had helped bring into being.

The anniversary will be commemorated on Saturday with due solemnity in Sarajevo, present-day capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A series of cultural events will be led by a concert from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, in a spirit of co-operation between two countries whose enmity led to the assassination, and to the war. A modest plaque on a street corner marks the spot where Princip took his deadly aim. On the day I visited, there were two burning candles in front of it. Apart from that, there will be little mention of the figure who has been routinely denounced as a terrorist.

A couple of hours east of Sarajevo, on the border between the Serbian part of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska, and Serbia itself, another commemoration is planned. This one, devised by the Serbian film director Emir Kusturica, in the town of Andricgrad, by contrast places the young assassin at the centre of events. For Serbs, Princip was a revolutionary hero whose actions constituted an act of rebellion against an empire that was suppressing his people. The commemoration will consist of a “dramatic reconstruction” of the day’s events, and Princip’s subsequent trial.

There will also be an unveiling of a mosaic of Princip and his colleagues from the Young Bosnia movement. The mosaic shows Princip with a soft, pacific expression. “Look,” says Kusturica, 59, pointing to his figure. “I never knew he had blue eyes!” The slogan at the bottom of the mosaic reproduces the less-than-pacific last words scrawled by Princip in his cell before his death: “Our shadows will be walking through Vienna, strolling through the court, frightening the lords”.

Kusturica, twice-garlanded with the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his highly acclaimed films When Father Was Away on Business (1985) and Underground (1995), says the assassination was first and foremost an act of political liberation against an illegal regime. “It is funny,” he says with combative sarcasm, “how the BBC and CNN showed us the fall of Saddam Hussein – a tyrant; Gaddafi – a tyrant. Apparently Franz Ferdinand wasn’t a tyrant. But he was.”

The contrast between the two views of Princip summarises the way in which history is politicised in this highly charged part of the world. The first world war was far from the end of the region’s problems, however; it was only a recycling of centuries-old inter-ethnic rivalries that continue to this day.

I am speaking to Kusturica in the Ivo Andric Institute, in the centre of Andricgrad. Both building and town have been named after the Serbian author (1892-1975), who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature. If both the building and its pristine surrounds have an oddly antiseptic look about them, it is because they are brand new. Today’s unveiling of the Princip mosaic is also the official opening of a town. The Republika Srpska’s tourist organisation, which has high hopes for Andricgrad as a visitor attraction, is hosting my trip.

The project began when Kusturica had the idea of revivifying a nondescript part of the town of Visegrad by putting up new buildings devoted to cultural and educational projects. He has made it happen in three years, at a cost of $17m, garnered from public and private sources. “That,” he says emphatically, “is much less than the cost of many movies.”

Built on a small peninsula between the rivers Drina and Rzav, with riverside views that would have estate agents salivating, Andricgrad is entered through an arch, where the visitor is confronted by a dizzying variety of architectural styles. On the left, an Islamic (non-practising) mosque and minaret, with a caravanserai in the adjacent square; on the right, a Byzantine-style edifice. A small Austro-Hungarian section of buildings confirms the route we are taking is a potted history of Visegrad. “I didn’t follow any architectural rules, I followed my instincts, like the ancient Greeks,” says Kusturica as he shows me around. It is a cross between a film set, a theme park and a folly. The high street is dominated by a cinema and opens out into a wide square containing a café called Goya, after Andric’s favourite painter. Opposite there is an ice-cream parlour, inside which there are giant portraits of the Apache leader Geronimo, Gandhi, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Vladimir Putin. When I tell Kusturica it is one of the most surreal locations I have ever seen, he laughs out loud. The portraits, he says, are “an exhibition by an artist based in New York. Imagine – Geronimo and Putin, put together by a New Yorker!” Kusturica, whose favourite film directors are Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick, is no stranger to surrealism.

“I think the city is the strongest social memory organ of humanity,” explains the film-maker when I ask him what prompted him to move from creating film sets to real places. He describes Andricgrad as his “biggest achievement”. “By making this time-machine city, we are respecting all the influences that have shaped this place over the centuries. Except that we have added the Renaissance form of wide public squares, which never happened here, because of the Ottoman occupation. Squares where people meet and talk about issues. Because in the Balkans, we use squares just to regroup, and then go to destroy something.”

Andricgrad is Kusturica’s personal homage to Andric, whose acclaimed novel, The Bridge on the Drina (1945) is a beautifully written historical account of the changing fortunes of Visegrad over four centuries, encompassing foreign occupation, religious conflict, war, revolution and love. Kusturica, and many others besides, describes it as a “masterpiece”, which has motivated “all my projects, and shaped my views of this country’s past”.

The eponymous bridge is an architectural tour de force, built in 1577 by Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic, grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, who had been born a Serb in a nearby village, taken to Turkey to become a janissary at the age of 15, and risen through the army ranks. The bridge was a token of remembrance towards his homeland and is the central character in Andric’s novel, both meeting place for the town’s inhabitants and witness to its fluctuating fortunes.

One does not have to reach far into history to find examples of the terrors that the bridge has seen unravel before it. During the Bosnian war of the 1990s, Visegrad was a notorious example of the ethnic cleansing policy pursued by Bosnian Serbs towards the Bosnian Muslim population. Hundreds were massacred. Before the war, the town’s population was about two-thirds Muslim; today there are virtually none left.

There is no mention of any of this in Andricgrad or Visegrad. Of the people I spoke to involved in Kusturica’s project, including the director himself, none referred to the events of 20 years ago, delving far more comfortably into more distant history. It is not uncommon here for any conversation on religious conflict to begin in the medieval period and dribble away somewhere after the second world war. Kusturica, who was born into a Muslim family in Sarajevo but converted to the Orthodox church in 2005, was a controversial figure during the war in Yugoslavia. He filmed Underground, a rambunctious wartime fable centring on the fate of two best friends from the 1940s to the 1990s, during the course of the conflict, and was widely condemned for his refusal to condemn Serbian atrocities. (One of his most vociferous critics, the French academic Alain Finkielkraut, confessed after his attack on Underground to not even having seen the film, arguing that “that offensive and stupid falsification of the traitor taking the palm of martyrdom had to be denounced immediately”.)

Kusturica says shooting the film was “suicidal. I was struggling to survive. It was not easy for me. But I knew what I was doing. It was a testament to a country that vanished. Yugoslavia was the best solution for all of us.” The most widely-held criticism of Kusturica is that he refuses in his work to provide any political context to the events in his homeland, preferring, instead, to portray a savagery among its people that appears almost innate. In this, he is not so dissimilar from his hero, Ivo Andric. In Andric’s short story “Letter from 1920”, published in 1946, a young Jewish doctor from Sarajevo writes a letter to explain to a childhood friend why he had left Bosnia. “Bosnia is a country of hatred,” he begins. “Lack of understanding, periodically spilling over into open hatred, is the general characteristic of its people. The rifts between the different faiths are so deep that hatred alone can sometimes succeed in crossing them . . . You are condemned to live on deep layers of explosive which are lit from time to time by the very sparks of your loves and your fiery and violent emotion.” At one point during the writing of the story, Andric considered setting it in the future rather than the past. He nearly called it “Letter from 1992”.

Can Andricgrad change any of this? Kusturica, who is resolutely unsentimental in conversation, declares himself an optimist, though he shares some of Andric’s cynicism. In “Letter from 1920”, he says, Andric was trying “to explore the roots of our atavistic nature, trying to touch the button from which we go so wild.” The same could be said of Underground. He is dismissive of those who talk too glibly of multicultural crossroads, which is achievable, he says, in “the stable world of empires but not so easily when you are living on the outskirts”.

The creation of Andricgrad, with its commitment to cultural activities and to providing a multinational platform for debate, is a shamelessly idealistic project. The town, says Kusturica, should be “a symbol of pacifism . . . the heart that has to beat a great idea, to encourage eastern Bosnia as a symbol of peace”. But for every benign intention, he adds a bracing note of realism. “I am a man with a lot of passion,” he says. “I will always fight for peace. But, unfortunately, it is war that drives us forward. It is war that makes the major turns. It makes Wall Street function, it makes all the bastards in the Balkans function. What would happen if an angel appeared before the American president and told him there was no more need for war? Everything would collapse.”

We walk around the town for a little while. Kusturica is often stopped by visitors who ask for their children to be photographed next to him. I ask a local journalist what he makes of Andricgrad and he describes it as a “miracle”. I tell Kusturica that I visited the cinema the night before and had seen a film that hadn’t yet opened in London. He looks the happiest he has been all day. “Make sure you write that down!” he says.

The finishing touches are being applied to the mural of Princip and the Young Bosnians, which Kusturica says is meant to be “in the spirit of Delacroix”. Next to it there is another mural, more in the spirit of a mock-heroic cartoon: it shows Kusturica and Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska, pulling on a rope, hauling the bricks that will build Andricgrad. Any pretensions of grandeur are subverted by the figure of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, a friend of Kusturica, observing the scene quizzically in the background.

Andricgrad is built for the future, and for culture. Kusturica hopes to build a new university there, in addition to the Andric Institute for Slavic languages, an academy of fine arts, and a theatre. But for every move forward, there seems to be more than a selective backward glance. Today’s commemoration of Sarajevo’s assassination is loaded with political resonance. Kusturica is determined the event should not be hijacked by “revisionist historians” who would shift blame for the first world war towards Serbian aggression. Remembrance is everything but can it, in this febrile corner of Europe, ever be prevented from spilling into recrimination?

We take a boat ride down the river Drina. Kusturica points to the poverty of the urban mise en scène on the banks, next to which Andricgrad seems to glow with prestige. His pride is palpable. About an hour into our journey, he points to a small church, built, he explains, to commemorate the massacre of 6,000 Serbs by the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasha during the second world war. He says he wants to open a restaurant on the other side of the bank. During our return to Andricgrad, he informs me the river is “very dangerous”. Because of its currents, I ask him? “No. Because of everything that has happened here.”

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

Additional research by Tatjana Mitevska


Letter in response to this article:

Andric’s ethnically inclusive message / From Dr Michael Taylor

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