Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2019

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”

Filed under: Fascism,Film,genocide,Romania — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Unless you are an aficionado of foreign films, it is likely that you are not aware that Romania has become one of the leading centers of avant-garde cinema. Like France in the late 50s and early 60s, a nouvelle vague movement in Romania appears to have come out of nowhere. Among the best known Romanian directors is Cristi Puiu, whose 2005 “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” set the standard for the country’s great leap forward. Like every other Romanian film I have seen since 2005, Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” is both politically and artistically stunning. Using techniques that were pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s, Jude has confronted Romania’s blind spot, namely the widespread refusal of its citizens to acknowledge its military’s responsibility for murdering over 100,000 Jews in 1941 when it was allied with Nazi Germany. Known as the Odessa Massacre (Odessa was within Romania’s borders at the time), it was seen by some historians as the beginning of the holocaust.

Despite the gravity of the subject, Jude decided to make a black comedy and even more remarkably succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations—including mine. In my review of “Vice” in today’s CounterPunch, I dismissed Adam McKay’s film as a jokey biopic of Dick Cheney that undercut the film’s aim of showing that the architect of the invasion of Iraq was some kind of monster. I regarded the film as an unintentional repeat of Mel Brook’s “Springtime for Hitler”.

The film’s title comes from a speech by Ion Antonescu, the prime minister of Romania in 1941, who defended the bloodbath in a 1946 war crimes tribunal as a necessary defense against the Jews. After becoming obsessed with the Odessa massacre, a young and attractive theater director named Mariana (Iona Iacob) has assembled a large cast of amateurs to help reenact the event in the central plaza of a small town. Like the Civil War battle reenactments in the USA, her goal is authenticity even at the risk of offending those who watch it. Authenticity does not just entail using uniforms and guns from a local military museum. It entails a simulation of Jews being herded into a wooden building that is then set on fire.

To get an idea of Jude’s willingness to break with commercial filmmaking’s strictures, he has a scene that lasts for a good five minutes that is about as “uncinematic” as can be imagined. In a Facetime conversation with a male friend in Austria, who was working there because of the poor local economy, they start off making small talk, including Mariana’s invitation to show him her “cunt”. From there, the conversation begins to switch over to her new project that he has some doubts about—it seems like everybody in Romania except her questions the need for such a reenactment. To help him understand her motivation, she reads him an extended passage from Isaac Babel’s “The Odessa Tales” that is set in the final days of the Russian Empire. The passage is a graphic description of the misery of Jewish peasants and the utter contempt a Russian officer has for them.

In another break with commercial filmmaking, Jude has Mariana squaring off with a town official who is okay with the reenactment, just not the Jews being exterminated since it might upset the children. This evolves into a long debate about the morality of war in which the official resorts to “Whataboutism”, the casuistry associated with the Assadist left in which the killing of Syrians is counterbalanced by the Western slaughter of Vietnamese, et al. Since every country has blood on its hands, why make Romanians feel guilty?

In the press notes for this film, that has the inside track for my nomination of best foreign language film of 2019, the director made this statement:

Thinking about our dark history makes one look back with the horrified gaze of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, whose “face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” opens today at the IFC Center in NY and at the Laemmle next Friday in Los Angeles.

I should also mention that I reviewed Jude’s “Aferim!” in 2015, another outstanding film that I described as follows:

“Aferim” is a vernacular term meaning something like “Bravo” that is heard from its characters throughout the film. It is obviously related to the Turkish word “aferin” that is part of the term “aferin sana” that means “good for you” and that my wife often says to me after I tell her I have been published in some high-toned journal.

It is used with irony in Jude’s film since everything is marked by degradation of the most appalling nature. It is the story of a father and son who are seen riding across a desolate plain on horseback in their search for a runaway slave. The father, named Constandin (Teodor Corban), is a constable and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) an unpaid assistant. The story evokes a John Ford western except in this instance the posse is wicked and the runaway slave, a Roma named Carfin Pandolean (Toma Cuzin), is their better. In fact, the higher up you are on the social ladder in feudal Wallachia, the closer you are to savagery.

“Aferim!” can be rented on iTunes for $4.99. It is also available for free on Amazon if you take out a trial subscription to the Sundance cable channel. In either case, it is a memorable film and an excellent introduction to Romanian film.

 

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