Croatia / Travel / Film / History

Awesome Orson

So why is there a statue of Orson Welles in the Croatian City of Split? 

“Welles spent hours roaming around Split soaking up the atmosphere.  He used to enjoy watching attractive Split women at the market and on the Riva.“

Visitors to Split rarely make it as far as the Joker Centre, the bustling shopping mall located some twenty minutes’ walk north of the Old Town. Which is a bit of a shame when one considers that they stand to miss one of the city’s most compelling sights - a cigar-toting sculpture of erstwhile Adriatic holiday-home owner Orson Welles. Completed in 2007 by Welles’ long-time companion, Croatian-born sculptor Oja Kodar, the statue presides somewhat surreally over a sea of outdoor café tables at the mall’s western entrance.

Welles was a regular sight on the streets of Split between 1967-69, a period when he was working on a variety of Croatia-based projects – most famously The Deep, his never-finished adaptation of Charles Williams’ yacht-based thriller Dead Calm (subsequently filmed with great success by Phillip Noyce in 1989). Welles’ association with Dalmatia didn’t end there – he and Kodar bought a villa at Primošten just up the coast, which served them as both holiday home and writing retreat throughout the Seventies.

Welles’ long-running Croatian affair was kindled in 1962, when he was drawn to the stark modernist landscapes of suburban Zagreb when filming his (initially opinion-dividing, but nowadays highly rated) version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Shooting in Kafka’s home city of Prague was never on option for Welles, largely because Czechoslovakia’s communist regime didn’t look kindly on the unsettling, anti-establishment implications of Kafka’s books. Titoist, non-aligned Zagreb on the other hand offered a much more liberal environment in which to work. It also possessed the mixture of concrete modernity and faded Central European elegance that Welles was looking for. The cavernous halls of the Zagreb Fair Grounds were used as an indoor stage, yielding one particularly famous shot of a forbiddingly huge office filled with 1500 desk workers. As Welles later told Huw Weldon of the BBC, the Croatian capital evoked an atmosphere of “rather sleazy modern, which is part of the style of the film, and these curious decayed roots that ran right down into the dark heart of the 19th century.” 

It was while shooting The Trial that Welles met Oja Kodar (born Olga Palinkaš), then studying sculpture at Zagreb’s Academy of Fine Arts. Kodar’s parents were friends of Welles’ cameraman Edmond Richard, and there was talk of Kodar landing a small part in the film. The crew invited Kodar to a party at the Hotel Esplanade, where she caught the director’s roving eye.

Kodar was to remain partner of the thrice-married Welles until his death in 1985. She was also a key artistic collaborator, working on almost all of Welles’ subsequent scripts as well as appearing in several of the big man’s films. One of Kodar’s first contributions to a Welles’ movie was overdubbing the sounds of sex on a Jeanne Moreau’s performance in 1968’s The Immortal Story. She also had a part in F for Fake, and was co-writer and co-star (along with Welles, John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich) on The Other Side of the Wind, another would-be masterpiece left tantalizingly unfinished. 

Welles himself was very much taken with Yugoslavia and the opportunities it offered for filming. He took a lead role in Veljko Bulajić’s 1969 war film Battle of the Neretva (alongside Yul Brynner, Curt Jürgens, Hardy Kruger and Franco Nero), bartering his performance against the production costs of a project of his own. The Deep, set on a boat off the coast of Hvar, was the result. 

Filmed at sea with hand-held cameras, The Deep was always going to be something of an experiment – the efforts required to produce sufficient quality footage may be one reason why this film, like so many of Welles’ projects, never reached completion. It is said that lead actress Jeanne Moreau never got round to dubbing her voice onto the rushes because of suspicions that Welles didn’t have the money to pay the cast. There’s also a suggestion that Moreau didn’t get on with her co-star Kodar and became increasingly disillusioned with the shoot, a situation not helped by Welles’ s tendency to withdraw into gloom whenever things didn’t go his way. Photographs documenting the shoot recently re-surfaced thanks to the website Total Hvar, providing a tantalizing look back at one of the many might-have-beens of Welles’ notoriously incomplete career.

As revealed by Total Hvar, Welles used the Kod Kapetana restaurant in Hvar harbour as his base during the filming. Back in Split, the director hung out at the Hotel Marjan, where he befriended hotel receptionist and former Hajduk Split winger Geza Šenauer, a key member of the three-times championship-winning side of the 1950s. In an interview with Split newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija in 2010 Šenauer revealed that Welles spent hours roaming around Split soaking up the atmosphere. “He kept on saying ‘why waste time sitting around in cafes when we should be looking at everything that the city has to offer!’ He used to enjoy watching attractive Split women at the market and on the Riva.“  Now poised above the shoppers, loafers and café-drifters of the Joker centre, his statue couldn’t have hoped for a better vantage point.

© Jonathan Bousfield