In I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (originally Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari), Romanian auteur Radu Jude takes on the his country’s treatment of the Jews in the Second World War, as part of Hitler’s Final Solution. The title comes from a speech made by Romanian leader Ion Antonescu in 1941, which effectively initiated the campaign of mass murder on the Eastern Front. Romania was allied with the Nazis at the time.
Ioana Iacob stars as a stand-in for Jude, playing Mariana, a Romanian director attempting to put on a show about Romanian wartime atrocities and getting pushback at every turn.
Researching the uniforms worn, the people involved and how events played out, Mariana digs through the archive, unearthing unpleasantness at every turn. When Mariana happens across a picture of dead Jews hanging from nooses or piled up in the street, Jude keeps the camera locked on it so we can fully take in what it represents, and then keeps the camera there for a discomfiting while longer.
Jude’s movie has these shock moments but it’s also an intensely verbal experience, a long wrangle about whether some things should just be left to vanish into history, or whether good can come from opening old wounds. This is most explicit in its central section – the visit from the money man Movila (Alexandru Dabija) to rehearsals, and his long, long conversation/argument with Mariana in which he runs through all the reasons why Mariana should abandon the project or at least tone it down.
It needs to be said, argues Mariana, because it’s the truth. Ah, but whose truth, and what is truth anyway, counters Movila. Anyway, it’s too violent, he objects. It’s a representation of violence, she says, real violence is something else entirely. Switching into whataboutery, he asks why this subject and not, say, the suffering Romanians endured under communism. Because everyone already knows about that, Mariana answers. Don’t people need a bit of joy in their lives? Didn’t other countries also perpetrate terrible massacres – Dresden, Hiroshima etc? And on he goes.
Jude does it all Aaron Sorkin-style – walkie-talkie West Wing-ish with the tone light and bantering – and both Iacob and Dabija play it with a light touch, beneath the veneer Movila’s veiled threat, Mariana’s steely resolve.
Movila’s concerns, his questions and his objections are all answered by the rest of the film. Romanian peasant extras won’t work with the gypsies. There’s a discussion between Mariana and her crew as to which of the people playing Romanian soldiers look “evil” – because normal Romanians would never have committed these atrocities, right? – leading up to the performance itself, in front of the Royal Palace of Bucharest, where Mariana’s re-enactment includes some severe Jew-baiting by the church, the army and the Romanian establishment followed by scenes of Jews being burned alive in a re-enactment of one particular atrocity.
Jude stages this re-enactment for real, in front of an actual 21st-century crowd, and it’s the crowd’s reaction that actually is the most memorable thing about the film. What Mariana was expecting (but Jude clearly wasn’t) was for the crowd to be shocked and for the scales to fall from their eyes as the scale of Romanian complicity in wartime Nazi crimes becomes clear. What she gets is something else entirely. Her entire project has failed, spectacularly, but Jude’s film, in the same remarkable (if grim) moment, triumphs.
At 2 hours 20 minutes, I Do Not Care… seems a bit long until it hits its home straight. But everything clicks into place as the final act plays out. To all the questions raised by Movila, it’s Mariana who turns out to be right. And as to his suggestion that she make a show about the bad times of the Ceausescu era, that’s exactly what Jude did in his next feature, Uppercase Print.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021