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Croatia’s war runs like a dark thread through the excellent series ‘The Paper’

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Every war has its reporters’ hotel. In Beirut the foreign press gathered at the Commodore, in Saigon at the Continental Palace. In Zagreb in the early 1990s we favoured the Esplanade, a stunningly beautiful, atmospheric art-deco building originally built for passengers on the Orient Express.

The hotel opened in 1925 and very quickly became the centre of the city’s social life until it was taken over by the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo. Even during Tito-era communism it retained its air of faded glamour.

The storytelling is superb with complex, contradictory and deeply engaging characters

For a while the Esplanade became my second home, its urbane staff always welcoming. Sirens wailed occasionally and we rushed down to the basement. The streets outside were crowded with armed soldiers but inside the walls were bedecked with photos of famous guests. Going down to breakfast each morning I would be greeted by the cheery visage of Louis Armstrong.

We would fill up from the luxurious buffet, don our flak jackets and head off to the front. Once I went to Banja Luka. We passed through the Croatian checkpoints, crossed the line into Bosnian Serb territory, drove by burnt-out villages and tanks, reported on the ethnic cleansing, then drove back to Zagreb to enjoy a fine dinner in the Esplanade’s gourmet restaurant.

I once asked the waiter what kind of sea fish they had. He gave me a stony look. “Croatian fish,” he replied. How ridiculous, I thought. How can a fish have a nationality? When I look back now, I think differently. I wonder what that waiter’s story was? Did he fight himself? Perhaps he had relatives in Vukovar or Osijek, one of the cities being pounded into rubble by Serb shellfire. Croatia’s independence war runs like a dark thread through The Paper, the outstanding series set in a newspaper in the port of Rijeka, now available on Netflix.

The Paper (Novine in Croatian) is set in the country’s last serious, independent newspaper, a title that has been bought by a construction magnate, Mario Kardum. He has no interest in journalism, only in using the newspaper’s reach to advance his business and political interests. It’s a very familiar story across the region.

The Paper succeeds on multiple levels. Firstly, and most importantly, the storytelling is superb with complex, contradictory and deeply engaging characters, most of all Dijana Mitrovic, the Serbian journalist brilliantly played by Branka Katic.

At the same time The Paper vividly dramatises the high stakes power plays of Croatia’s ruling elite. Corruption is endemic. A sniper kills someone obstructive, there is a mysterious fatal car crash, a rape is covered up. One day Kardum is a master of the universe, the next he is in prison sniffing smuggled cocaine off a rickety table. Meanwhile, his journalists manage to make do with gargantuan amounts of alcohol and cigarettes.

But beyond the violence and murders, one of the most chilling scenes unfolds in a high-end restaurant. There Blago Antic, a sinister former state security operative, approaches Kardum in the dining room, jams a pistol into his midriff and delivers a message, reminding him that many died so he could become rich. Kardum turns pale, then walks away to have lunch with his mistress, while Antic returns to his table to carry on eating.

The Paper is also notable for its highly critical portrayal, not just of Croatia’s political class, but the local Catholic church. In a country where Catholicism is deeply woven into national identity, this is edgy. One reason the series feels so real is that it is written by Ivica Djikic, a former editor of Rijeka’s Novi List newspaper. “This is our reality,” said director Dalibor Matanic in an interview, “and some of the motives and characters remind the audience of real events and people.”

The Paper is also notable for its highly critical portrayal, not just of Croatia’s political class, but the local Catholic church

Many of The Paper’s themes run through other post-Communist states, although without the violence and murders. Now that membership of the European Union and NATO has been secured, older, more authoritarian reflexes are asserting themselves.

Across the region a new ruling elite is centralising political and economic power, as the independent media landscape shrinks (Pakt, available on Channel Four’s Walter Presents, explores similar storylines in contemporary Poland.)

But it is the war that defines The Paper. Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991. The fighting ended in 1995, but left a legacy of violence, corruption and national trauma that still spills through the generations.

Season three, which is yet to reach Netflix, focuses on the characters themselves, probing deeper into their motivations and what Matanic calls their “inner, hidden worlds”.

I will be binge-watching. Meanwhile do catch up with seasons one and two.

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