His last name means “Jew” in German, but Radu Jude, the gifted and controversial Romanian filmmaker whose newest work, “‘I Don’t Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,’” opens July 19, isn’t Jewish. One suspects that Jude takes a certain amused pride in the amount of anger the name causes in certain political circles, but the real issue isn’t nomenclature but the attitude his movies take towards the very active role of Romanian anti-Semites in the Shoah.
Simply put, in a country in which anti-Semitism has been rampant for centuries, a substantial part of the populace refuses to believe that the perpetrators of many massacres of Jews and Roma people in the 1940s weren’t exclusively Germans.
That’s a subject to which Jude has returned in several films, most notably “Scarred Hearts” (2016), the essay film “Dead Land” (2017) and the new work, which won first prize at the Karlovy Vary festival last summer.
“Jude is a name that is not very often met — apart from some regions in Transylvania,” the writer-director said in an e-mail interview last week. He grew up in Transylvania which he describes jokingly as “a region which is of course famous for the vampires,” a country boy who now lives in the capital, Bucharest, and produces highly sophisticated, intellectually challenging cinema.
Therein, he notes, lies the problem with his family name and his bold political challenges to historical mythomaniacs.
“Since I directed a few films which many people consider not to be patriotic enough and 2 or 3 of them deal with the Romanian Holocaust, of course [it] was the perfect piece for a small conspiracy theory among some extreme-right wing people: mainly that a dirty Jew got money from the occult Jewish societies or Israel or Mossad … or whatever to attack the historical foundations of our state and nation. And the anti-Semitic attacks went on, many (including a famous nationalistic politician) saying that I should go back to Israel when I came from.”
Despite the vehemence of his enemies, Jude is more bemused than frightened by such attacks.
“I don’t take them seriously, of course,” he wrote. “I am just amazed how easy it is to create a conspiracy theory, and how easy it is for some people to believe it especially when there is some elements that can connect the dots (‘“of course he’s Jewish, look at his name,’ etc.).”
Ironically, Jude says that he encountered no anti-Semitism in his youth. “I don’t have any Jews in my family and in the south of Romania where I always lived there were no Jews left. The first time I heard the word ‘Jew’ was when a teacher asked me if I was Jewish. I didn’t know what she meant.”
In the aftermath of the 1989 overthrow of the Ceaușescu dictatorship, there was a rebirth of anti-Semitism in the public sphere. Jude who was 12 at the time, said “I was already growing up, so I didn’t believe any of it.”
“Barbarians” takes its name from an infamous speech by the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu justifying his army’s mass murders of Jewish and Roma civilians. Antonescu would be executed for war crimes in 1946, but there are many “negationists” who refuse to believe in his culpability, preferring to place all the blame on the Nazis. The film examines the historical reality through the clever device of following Marina (Ioana Iacob), a talented stage director, as she re-enacts the 1941 Odessa massacre in which thousands of Jews were brutally murdered by Romanian soldiers.
As she begins to construct her public spectacle at a history museum in recognition of the anniversary of the event, we are brought into close contact with her balancing act of private and public spheres and, most importantly, her debates with a local arts minister (Alexandru Dabija, a prominent theater director who has acted for Jude before). She is earnest but wily, desperately trying to short-circuit attempts at censorship; he is wolfish but with a certain raffish charm, and their debates are witty and disturbing.
It is an inspired choice, allowing Jude to simultaneously offer documentation of the contemporary record with film clips, photographs and lengthy excerpts from texts from the period and its aftermath, while giving the film an incisive wit that throws our attention onto the attitudes of 21st-century Romanians.
Jude explained, “I watched with my older son … a re-enactment, and I had the idea that I can build a film around a show like that in order to approach obliquely the theme of the massacre, which I couldn’t approach in a straightforward manner.”
At the same time, he is able to invest the proceedings with the sort of gleeful banter that characterizes behind-the-scenes film and theater production. As he noted, “The nice part [of] working in film is that you meet people from all the classes and walks of life, because this is how a film crew is organized. … Despite [the diversity of backgrounds, class, education] we are all together as a team.”
“Barbarians” is a complex and dense work with hat-tips to Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, Hannah Arendt and Bertolt Brecht, but despite Jude’s commitment to a political and intellectual cinema, he is skeptical when asked about the potential of a film to alter a society’s attitudes. He admits that moviegoers occasionally come up to him and say his work sent them to printed sources and changed their understanding of history, but that, he insisted, is the exception.
“I don’t think a single film can make people change minds,” he wrote. “And thank God for that, it would be horrible! I guess a change (especially a change for the better) appears in society slowly, with efforts on multiple sides and the progress is small and very fragile, always. A film can be a small piece in a change process, no more than that.”
“‘I Don’t Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,’” written and directed by Radu Jude, opens Friday, July 19, at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.). For information go to www.ifccenter.com/.