A purveyor of communal introspection and historical accountability, Romanian visionary Radu Jude makes movies about specific events, defining time periods, and relevant figures in his country’s past, both to comment on the present and preemptively understand where the future may lead.
The director’s two previous fiction features, Aferim! and Scarred Heats (both distributed by Big World Pictures in the US) were period pieces with a powerful intellectual edge about mankind’s propensity to commit atrocities driven by xenophobia. The former is set in the 19th century Wallachia when gypsies were enslaved, while the other hones in on a sanatorium patient as Hitler rose to power in 1930s Europe. Elegant mise-en-scène serves as a backdrop for the larger observations the two films are respectively making.
For I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, the auteur’s amply titled new politically minded work, Jude sticks to the present to poke holes at the denialist narrative many of his fellow countrymen believe about the 1941 Odessa massacre, a tragic event where Romanian forces working with Nazi Germany were ordered to murder the Jewish population. To address this, the filmmaker tells the story of Mariana (Ioana Iacob), a theatre director in today’s Bucharest attempting to put together a reenactment of the savagery that took place. She faces pushback from officials, regular citizens, and even those cast in the production.
Responding via email, the director, who won the top prize at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for Barbarians this year, told MovieMaker about manipulated history, the movie’s potent title, and the aesthetic decision to create a key sequence as live TV.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You’ve made historical films in the past, Aferim! and Scarred Hearts, why did you decide to approach the Odessa Massacre from a modern standpoint rather than a traditional period piece?
Radu Jude (RJ): There are many reasons for that. First of all, the films you mention already had some elements of distancing in them and here I needed more, especially because a film about such a tragic event cannot be done but only obliquely, in my opinion. How can one represent a massacre in a realistic manner and why? I believe it is impossible and, even if it would be possible, it would be very questionable to do it.
MM: The famous phrase, “History repeats… first as tragedy then as farce,” seems very fitting for the film. What are your thoughts on this cyclical truth that perhaps shows we don’t learn from our mistakes?
RJ: I am not sure history repeats itself. I guess there may be similar behaviors, ideas, power structures, etc., that give rise to similar events. When I am optimistic, I have the feeling that showing these things can be useful. When I am pessimistic – and can one be optimistic nowadays? – I doubt.
MM: What was the intention behind having a female director being in charge of a show that’s controversial? We see Mariana’s fight against masculine forces that are trying to control her actions.
RJ: Two reasons. First of all, to block any possible identification between me—as the director of the film—and the director of the show in the film. It didn’t work out, apparently. Secondly, to create a contrast between the very masculine, even macho activity, that is the historical reenactment and the main character. It was to create tension, to have another layer of conflict.
MM: We witness the live performance in the last segment of the film. What were the logistical complications of putting on the show in a main square and shooting it cinematically?
RJ: Well, we couldn’t rehearse in that space – which normally is a parking lot, right in the middle of the historical Bucharest – so we rehearsed in a kind of a football playground in a park. Then, when we got to the real space, some things didn’t fit, but we adjusted. Otherwise, it was exhilarating to film that scene. A lot of people walked by. We didn’t block anything. I kind of like the mixture of documentary, live TV recording style and fiction. Oh, and it was extremely hot. This was a problem as well.
MM: How big was your crew and what kind of instructions did you give to your cinematographer in order to capture this final sequence, which is visually different from the rest of the film?
RJ: Since the film is also about the representation and its limits, we decided to film the show in another style. It was meant to point out to the viewers the representational nature of cinema, so we chose to do it in a style similar to live TV recordings. What we did was exactly that and collaborated with the crew of the National Television, which does this kind of thing, and our collaboration was perfect. They did what they are used to and that was exactly what we needed. And they were many, 20 people or so.
MM: Did you shoot at the actual museum and was it difficult to get permission?
RJ: Yes, we managed to film in the Military Museum and I am very pleased that it really happened. This museum is organized in a very patriotic and nationalistic way, so I liked the fact that always in the foreground is this secret history of the massacre and in the background is the official, nationalistic history. It creates, I hope, an interesting tension.
MM: What was the process to cast all the supporting cast and actors that were acting as actors in this fictional performance for the film?
RJ: I knew some of them from my previous films. For the rest, we worked with a very good casting agency. I chose the people from their database with the idea of having a kind of a small-scale representation of Romania there.
MM: Was there any pushback from government officials because of the topics in the films and the public display that you wanted to shoot as part of it?
RJ: Not really. There was some tension here and there, but nothing official. The reason is that, in order to join EU and NATO, Romania had to form an official commission of historians who made a report acknowledging the war crimes from that time. The information in our film exists in that official report, so we were safe from this point of view. The report is here, in English.
MM: Tell me about the decision to use such a powerful phrase as the title of the film. Was that always the title or did it change throughout the process?
RJ: These words, spoken in the Council of Ministers of the summer of 1941, started the ethnic cleansing on the Eastern Front. The film is an answer to that phrase. When mentioning about “going down in history,” they were thinking of the future and we are now in that future. So we can answer. I had another title at some point, taken from a Goya engraving from the Disasters of War series.
MM: On that note, the film’s poster is a white background with the titles and credits. What’s the significance of this?
RJ: It is an open work, as Umberto Eco defined it. I wouldn’t offer my interpretation – I have one, but I’ve heard better ones than mine.
MM: In the film we see Mariana watching older films and footage regarding men considered heroes by many. In many cases, what she is watching is propaganda. How difficult is it to open people’s mind to the truth when the narrative has been so manipulated by those in power?
RJ: And is still manipulated, actually. It is a difficult process; my film is just a drop in the ocean. It takes some time, it seems. It is like colonialism, I have the feeling that many people in UK or Belgium still do not talk about the colonialist crimes. By the way, is there any prominent Belgium film about colonialism Congo? I do not know any, but maybe there are.
MM: To your knowledge, is the Odessa Massacre still a taboo subject and is anti-Semitism still ingrained in some segments of Romanian society?
RJ: I wouldn’t say taboo, but it’s still negated by many. I think some progress has been made, but it is very fragile. For instance, when I was in high school at the beginning of the 90’s, nobody mentioned the Romanian participation in the mass murders of WW2, but there is some information on this now. On the other hand, in the last few years, one can notice a revival of nationalism that’s been put to use in many different ways. It happens in many places, not only in Romania. For instance, we just had a terribly shameful referendum organized by the state hand-in-hand with the Romanian Orthodox Church. The referendum was about “the definition of the family,” but in actuality, it was a hate referendum to prevent the possibility of equal rights for LGBTQ people. And not only that, the whole campaign in favor of that referendum was filled with nationalism and conservatism in its most dubious forms (“let’s get back to our old Christian traditions,” “let’s not accept the fake values of Europe” etc.) and all that in a frightening quantity. The fact that many people boycotted the referendum, which in the end was not successful, shows there’s some hope left. MM
I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians is Romania’s Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film, courtesy of Hi Film. All images courtesy of Hi Film.