When I meet director Radu Jude in Karlovy Vary on the day his new feature I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians is having its festival world premiere, he pulls out his phone to show me a document his Director of Photography has sent him. It sets out a new law going through the Romanian parliament that would make “anti-Romanian” acts punishable with prison. “I refuse to live in fear,” he says defiantly — but you can see he’s concerned. After all, how the law will be interpreted is unclear, and his latest film is an incendiary challenge to those who deny his country’s hand in Holocaust atrocities. Between 25,000 to 34,000 Jews were killed in Transnistria during the Second World War while it was under Romanian control: a shameful truth buried by a state that to this day would rather see itself as a victim of Nazi Germany, not a collaborator, despite the fact that dictator Ion Antonescu’s anti-Semitic zeal was declared extreme even by Hitler. Set in the present day, Jude’s film — which went on to win the festival’s Crystal Globe for Best Feature — follows a woman (spiritedly played by Ioana Iacob) as she prepares to stage a reconstruction in a Bucharest public square of the 1941 Odessa massacre, to the chagrin of local officials.
It’s not the first time the wide-ranging Romanian director, who first came to prominence with New Wave social satires such as The Happiest Girl in the World (2009), has turned an eye to Europe’s dark past; his acclaimed Aferim! (2015) dealt with a runaway Roma slave in 19th-century Wallachia, while Scarred Hearts (2016) was set in a 1930s sanatorium during the rise of fascism in the country. “I am only interested in history in which I can find a relationship with today,” he says. “If you look in the past it’s like a mirror — and the fact this massacre was hidden from us for so many years means there must be something there.” He condemns the strong resurgence of nationalism now taking place in Romania, which involves racism (“mostly against Roma people — we don’t really have any Jews left”) and a very conservative Orthodox church increasingly setting the political agenda. Barbarians will not premiere in Romania until September, but he is already being bombarded with hate mail and online anti-Semitic abuse (his surname means he is often mistaken for being Jewish).
While official steps were taken by the state more recently to denounce Antonescu, who was convicted of war crimes, this was largely a performative gesture to help Romania gain EU entry, Jude suggests. “If you look on Google Maps there are still so many streets named after him. He’s still admired by the people like a hero. I cannot blame them, because it comes out of ignorance and the fact that after the Communist dictatorship — which was terrible — ended, somehow automatically everything that came before was considered very good, including the fact that Antonescu fought against communists, regardless of him being on the side of Hitler. In Romania the transition to capitalism was terribly done with no social protection for people, so now they have this utopian idea that we need somebody like Antonescu, a tough, military man, to put things in order.”
The film is a lament for the limitations of thinkers and historians, the way their warnings are so often blatantly disregarded
Jude recalls first learning of the Odessa massacre as a teenager. “I stumbled across it in one or two books. My mother argued with me, telling me not to read all these stupid things because [the massacre] never happened. But the shock was so big I became interested.” Books are read from and quoted prodigiously in the long, talky and philosophical film, transmitting a real sense of their indispensability as the guardians of human memory. Hannah Arendt, who analysed the degrees to which nations were complicit in or resisted the Holocaust in Eichmann in Jerusalem, and deemed Romania the most anti-Semitic country in Europe at that time, is prominently referenced. So is Mihail Sebastian, who drew on his own experience to detail what it meant to be a Jew in Romania in his 1934 novel For Two Thousand Years.
“Hannah Arendt got it right I think, when in The Origins of Totalitarianism she speaks about how Hitler came to power,” Jude says. “It started with a weird alliance between intellectual and political elites and the real rabble of society, and it was this that prompted the masses to follow. I’m afraid, because this is exactly what I saw when [Romanian director] Adina Pintilie won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival this year. When people found out her film [Touch Me Not] involves transsexuals and gays it wasn’t only the rabble on the internet that attacked her, but also top conservative intellectuals. They used another kind of language, but it was the same thing.”
“History is basically imagined, so that’s frightening in a way”
While great respect for the work of thinkers and historians underpins Barbarians, the film is also, in a way, a lament for their limitations, the way their warnings are so often blatantly disregarded. “When you think of what history consists of, you just have some elements that remain from an era. Some vapours, photographs and objects, and maybe witnesses — then after a few years you don’t even have them — and you glue all these together to reconstruct things using storytelling,” Jude says. “History is basically imagined, so that’s frightening in a way. I wonder how it will be in 50 years, because increasingly you can not be so sure of the authenticity of anything.”
His film acts as a call to actively imagine the past, the camera lingering high up on a gallows and prompting us to visualise the bodies that once hanged from it. The reconstruction of the deportation and massacre functions as a form of activist theatre, bringing the words from pages back to raw, urgent life in a finale of electrifying ferocity. “The crowd was half directed, but half reportage. We didn’t block the many passersby from coming [into frame],” explains the director. “We would sometimes hear someone saying ‘it’s good that they’re killing some Jews’. But others asked how it was possible to do something like that. So there is hope.” The awarding of the film at Karlovy Vary also signalled solidarity. The film’s producer Ada Solomon said it all when, accepting the Crystal Globe alongside Jude on stage, she declared: “We did what any real patriot does: tell the truth about the country they love.”