When Radu Jude emerged on the film festival circuit in 2009 with his feature debut, Cea mal ferictã fatã din lume (The Happiest Girl in the World), he was closely associated with the second salvo of directors from the Romanian New Wave as spearheaded by Cristi Puiu (Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu /The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, 2005), Corneliu Porumboiu (A fost sau n-a fost? / 12:08 East of Bucharest, 2006) and Cristian Mungiu (4 luni, 3 saptamãni si 2 zile / 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007). Indeed, up until his second feature Everybody in Our Family (Toata lumea din familea noastra, 2012), all of Jude’s features and shorts fitted the common thematic traits shared by this cinematic movement of sorts. Professor Doru Pop described them in Romanian New Wave Cinema: An Introduction (2014) as: “the concern with marginal characters and anti-heroic figures; shared dark humor as a key motif; interest in the troubled relationships between fathers and sons; and awareness of feminine issues and questions, at a broader thematic level.”
As Jude’s filmography progresses, his focus has shifted from representing a contemporary Romania to examining what the concept (or construct) of Romania even consists of in the first place. His 2015 feature Aferim! was a clear tipping point; a black and white western movie that emphasizes how the foundations of modern day Romania rest on the Gypsy slave labor that was part of everyday life in in the early 19th century. Already here, we can locate the archival turn his oeuvre has taken: much of Aferim!’s dialogue has been lifted from historical sources and documents. Ever since, the films of Jude excavate history to resurface patterns of discrimination, violence and brutality that have been brushed away to construct a more favorable image of Romanian nationalism.
When Jude wanted to address the growing momentum of antisemitism in 1930s Romania through Inimi cicatrizate (Scarred Hearts, 2016), a loose adaptation of Max Blecher’s eponymous 1937 novel, the director was met with criticism. Blecher didn’t explicitly engage with antisemitism in his semi-autobiographical novel about his time in a sanatorium on the shores of the black sea, so purists of literary history were keen to dismiss Jude’s adaptation as a fabrication. Jude in his part emphasises how Blecher’s identity as a Jewish writer in the 1930s is undeniably connected with history at large: the concluding images of Inimi cicatrizate capture the Jewish cemetery where Blecher was buried.
The ending of Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, 2018) has been Jude’s most confrontational cinematic expressions so far. In the film, a young artist is planning to reconstruct a historical event from 1941, during which the Romanian Army carried out ethnic cleansing on the Eastern Front. One of contemporary Europe’s most distinctive creators has come out with an ingeniously conceived film. While it unfolds slowly and in detail, it hits the viewer with a singular emotional punch.
This years’ Forum section of the Berlinale included two films by Jude that operate in similar ways, while still yielding very different results. Uppercase Print is a cinematic translation of Gianina Cărbunariu’s archival theater play from 2013, which for its dialogues relied solely on transcribed material from the Securitate, the secret police authority of Ceausescu’s government. In the early 1980s, they amassed huge quantities of data – written out surveillance reports, testimonials and interrogations – on teenager Mugur Călinescu (Șerban Lazarovici), whose biggest offence was listening to Radio Free Europe and chalking protest slogans in uppercase print on the exteriors of the soviet architecture in Botoșani, Romania. Framed in Brechtian tableaux that effectively emphasize their own artificiality, Jude confines the equal parts anarchic and naïve teenage rebel to confrontations with various forms of authority, be it family, police or state officials. The performative, linear and oppressive mise-en-scène becomes an apt comment on the top-down narrative as constructed by the state officials themselves.
Jude expands on Cărbunariu’s theatrical set-up by adding his own juxtaposing elements. Archival footage of contemporary Romanian television broadcasts illustrate the official, mainstream narrative that Călinescu tried to counter with his defiant chalk graffiti. Jude’s use of the material leaves ample space to dissect its own form artificiality and ideological constructs, while also allowing for reality to intermittently bleed through: even the most trained media professional in 1980s Romania can’t completely filter out the political oppression and economic hardships of the era.
The Exit of the Trains, his other film at this years’ Berlinale, a collaboration with historian Adrian Cioflâncã, recalls The Dead Nation (2017). A series of still photographs show traces of the past, while a voice-over track frames the material in a narrative context. Again, Jude examines Romania’s holocaust, in this case the pogroms of the 29th of June, 1941, which resulted in the murder of more than 10.000 Jewish people. The first part of the film, which lasts for most of the three hour runtime, presents the official documents and photographs of some of the holocaust victims. The voice-over shares the written accounts of the victims’ relatives, through which we learn about the textures of their everyday life in extraordinary times. Jude described this part as an “encyclopedia of the dead”. The second part is a reckoning with our own image of what this form of death looks like. The short segment consists of visual proof of the actual genocide, some of the surviving traces of a history that Romania likes to conveniently forget or misremember.
Following the screenings of his new films, Jude sat down with me in the vast Berlinale Palast in Potsdamer Platz during the 70th edition of the Berlinale.
In their own ways Uppercase Print and The Exit of the Trains make use of archival documents, as some of your previous films have also done. I want to ask what interests you in combining the archive with cinema? Specifically: you employ various cinematic techniques to approach the archive, so how do you consider the film form that best fits the archival material?
First of all, I think there is a growing interest in the last, let’s say, eight years of my professional life to discover as a viewer and to use as a filmmaker things which are not your conventional and traditional cinema elements. I’ve now made two films that only consist of photographs, which are, of course, not considered cinema. For the screenplay of Aferim! I used texts from 19th century popular literature, which is of course, also not cinematic. For I I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians I have used some forms of theatre staging, which is also not cinema, you know? So I’m interested to somehow expand, if you want, or to integrate the elements that are from a traditional point of view not cinematic, and create cinema with that.
This is obviously not a new thing. Many people did it in the past and especially in other arts. If you were to go to a painting gallery right now, it’s not uncommon to see work of art made with textiles or with leaves from the trees or other kinds of found materials. But it was a desire, and still is, to create cinema using elements which do not belong there normally. I think that’s the most important thing. And regarding the use of audiovisual archives, it also has to do with this idea of reaching into history, of creating a history, using the materials which preexist, not to make a synthesis or to make a narration, but to use montage as a construction device.
And this desire to reach into history, does it also come from a desire to confront? The Exit of the Trains, for instance, feels very much like a confrontation with the still prevalent Holocaust deniers. The Brechtian mise en scène of Uppercase Print also feels like a confrontational technique. The ending of I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians is probably your best example of confrontational cinema. Do these concerns motivate your work?
I don’t necessarily see it in this way, but it might as well be the case, because it’s true that if they would have already made twenty films about the slavery of the Roma population, I wouldn’t have made Aferim!. If they had made twenty films about the Holocaust in Romania, I probably wouldn’t have made mine. So yeah, I think it’s this desire to speak about things that people do not want to hear about, or the things other filmmakers from Romania don’t want to talk about.
Things left unspoken.
Exactly. It’s something that I find interesting, because these things are not closed. It seems that their traces still come to our age, to our time and more or less influence our contemporary life, at least in Romania. So if the situation would have been clear, there would be no need to make a film about it.
So do you think your historical work comments on the present?
Well, my last three of four films deal with the past, and the relation of this past with the present. But it’s not my program, or something like that. Above all, I’m interested in history, and I’m seeing that this history is used and abused all the time in order to create ideas for the present, to create identities, narratives, ideologies. I mean, when people say to you, “I am Romanian”, what does it mean to be a Romanian? It means you belong to a history of a community. Then they’ll maybe say: “well, maybe this is just our identity”. But if we create our identity throughout history, we have to be honest: it wasn’t like that all the time. This is what pisses people off about my films, because they feel like they are being attacked. I wonder, why do they feel attacked? I’m speaking about something that happened maybe a hundred years ago! But they still feel that way.
Uppercase Print seems like a continuation of I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians in the sense that it incorporates theatre in cinema. What was the motivation behind that process?
It started with a play of Gianina Cărbunariu, which was very interestingly made, by only using Securitate files. So she didn’t write a play, she basically made a collage. While thinking how to stage that, I had this idea that maybe this is only one layer of history, a secret history of the police. I would like to clash this history with another type of history, which is the audiovisual history of Romania from that time. You could choose films or photographs or whatever, but we went for television materials, because they were reaching the most people. It was the most official material, so to speak.
There’s this very interesting clash between the omnipresence of the television footage, that show these very innocent kind of images and ideas, and the omnipresence of the surveillance state that documents the life of this poor teenager. It seems to indicate that both strands of material are actually coming from the same source of top-down oppression. I’m wondering if that was the kind of clash that you were looking for and why you wanted to explore that.
Indeed, the relationship between the television footage and surveillance material is exactly how you describe it. And one can add that maybe in some of the archival images you can see what Walter Benjamin calls “the optical unconscious”: revealing information in the images they were not aware of capturing, but that you can see through, like some cracks through which you can see the propaganda at work. Some details give away the poverty or other things that normally would be hidden. They are impossible to hide completely.
Real life bleeds through the construct, which reminds me of the recent archival films of Sergei Loznitsa? Have you seen those?
I’ve seen all of them!
This is maybe your biggest shared trait: revealing the optical unconsciousness.
Yes. Yes, it’s true. But I think he’s making more of a collage, and I make more a montage out of the material. But what you say is true and I admire him very much.
At least you seem somewhat more closely related to him now, than to your Romanian colleagues who were once piled together as the Romanian New Wave.
I don’t know if that still exists. If it does, I’m at the bottom of that sea.
It feels like Everybody in the Family was your last feature film that truly resembles a typical film of the Romanian New Wave. Can you try to explain why you had the desire to depart from the shared traits of that cinematic moment in Romania? Why did you want to make this archival turn?
That’s a good question. How can I answer? Why, why, why, why? How should I say it? I’m moved and inspired not only by life around me, but by intellectual products like books. I’m reading a lot and I discover some books that change my perspective on things. And then the practice of making some films regarding history forces you to rethink. For instance, my first film that directly relates to history is Aferim!. My first desire was to make the film like a conventional period drama, a conventional narrative. And all of the sudden while preparing the film, when you put period clothes on the actors, it felt so stupid to try make it like a realistic thing. So what I was able to do was to make the image black and white and to use the visuals of a Western, basically to create this layer of distance. And then the dialogues were a collage from historical texts. This was my first step in thinking that you cannot show the past in the same way that you can show the present time. I think this is a really stupid thing to do it. But, of course, all conventional historical films are doing that. They put people in costumes and they create so-called realistic sets. I think it’s ridiculous to shoot a historical film like a piece of documentary reality. I think this is totally intellectually ridiculous. So starting from these experiences and forcing myself to think about this, I changed the cinematic form for every film that followed.
Barbarians seems like the perfect solution for this problem, that it is ridiculous to put on historical clothes and play make belief. More so, I think that film addresses the underlying and often problematic penchant for nostalgia that’s part of this mode of storytelling.
It’s true. Nostalgia is a very tricky feeling, even in everyday life. And historical nostalgia is even worse. People sometimes tend to reject that, because they want to be moved. But I really believe that cinema is for thinking and not only for being emotionally moved. People tend to reject films that are pieces to think about, and not emotional pieces of material. They want emotion and I’m not against that, but I think that it’s too little. I mean, cinema was invented to show things, to see how they work, to study them. It was for study and for thinking. You remember that Eadweard Muybridge filmed The Horse in Motion to examine the movement of a horse? It was a scientific tool. And Auguste and Louis Lumière wanted to show how a train enters the station or how a boat is leaving the port.
This is interesting, though, because the narrative around the Lumières is, of course, also steeped in sensationalism. You have the fable of people ducking away from the train during its early screenings, which is proven to not be true. So, even the Lumière approach to filmmaking is hijacked by a narrative of emotion and spectacle.
That’s true, but I’m not against spectacle. I think it should be both, spectacle and thinking.
Is this why you turned to theatrical influences now?
Well, I think this is something to think about as well, because the worst thing that you can say to a Romanian filmmaker is that his film is not a film, but filmed theatre. So I wanted to make filmed theatre and to show that if you shoot a play, it becomes a film.
Do you mean that the main criticism against some of the Romanian New Wave cinema has been that it’s so naturalistic that it becomes nothing more than a filmed play?
I’ve heard that. That the actors maybe have too much dialogue. For instance, when I did Everybody In the Family I heard this often, that this is not a film. That it’s just some people in a room or an apartment arguing, and so on. So now, I wanted to make it visibly a piece of filmed theatre, to make you think: does it remain theatre? That’s a question, because I think it’s cinema, but of course if it has a relation to theatre.
So did the ideas of Berthold Brecht about distancing come into play here? Did you even explicitly incorporate his ideas or is this association an unintentional side effect of the way you incorporate theatre into cinema?
Well, of course I know Brecht. I admire him, not everything though, but many of the things he wrote on theatre. I also like his poetry. Regarding the distancing effects, of course there’s a Brechtian side to that. Even if it’s coincidental, it comes from Brecht. So I’m conscious about. I know his theories and I think he’s right. He said you must show the fact that the work of art is work, but you shouldn’t show so much that the people don’t see the play anymore. It has to be a kind of balance between how much you show from the construction and how much you hide.
Speaking about balance, you said you work against a simple cinema that moves you. How do you strike a balance between thoughts and feelings in your films?
It’s something to be nuanced, to have some more complex things to convey. What I mean by that is that I’m against, if you will, these very simple emotional triggers, you know? To show a scene of murder and make people afraid.
To kill a puppy to make everybody cry.
Exactly. This kind of stuff. Apart from that, I think that emotion can appear in different ways. The more complex this emotion is, the more valuable it becomes, at least in my opinion. So I don’t think, for instance, that a book like Ulysses by James Joyce is not emotional. I think it’s a very funny book and I think it’s very intelligent and very moving. But you have to make an effort to get to the emotion. This is what I mean with regards to cinema as well. I’m not saying that watching a film should be like watching the weather forecast or something like that. But I’m for more complex emotions and more, I don’t know how I should say it, of an addition, a sum of thinking. Eventually emotion will come.
This really struck me with The Exit of the Trains, because, generally speaking, you work with all these very dry historical documents, but ultimately it’s a very moving film. I’m wondering, first of all, what was your approach to that and also how did you collaborate with historian Adrian Cioflâncã on this project?
It all started with him. He’s a historian and he researched the Holocaust for ten years and amassed these huge archives consisting of photographs, texts and so on. When we decided to make the film, it was to somehow take out of the abstraction this idea that 10,000 people died in a massacre. It doesn’t mean anything if it’s just a number. So, we said that we could offer them a face, an identity, a name, a trace of what is left from their life. We combined this with information about their death, which makes it like something of an encyclopedia of the dead. It’s like a catalogue of all of these people. You cannot do anything for somebody who was killed, of course, but we intended to keep their memory alive.
In some ways, this doesn’t really feel like traditional cinema though, but more like a projected memorial.
It’s true. Although the last part of the film changes that.
This is what I wanted to get at. How do you strike a balance between what is in the first part, the photographs and the stories, and the second part, the visual proof of the massacre? And what was it like to find the timing and the rhythm of the second part?
Apart from the moral problem if we should even use these atrocious photographs in the first place, which is a question I cannot answer, we had to puzzle a lot with the editing. The second part was much longer, maybe forty minutes or something, which we had to down to less than twenty.
Because I didn’t want these photographs to be contemplated like works of art.
When you keep the photograph on the screen for a little while you see the information you need, but after that, you’re going to start to see the composition. You can start to look at it like a work of art. So I make them as short as possible to only give the information, which is followed by a cut to another photograph.
I presume you had to puzzle with the first part as well, to achieve the opposite effect: to not perceive these people as pieces of data, but as actual human lives.
Exactly. I was wondering if you could keep that longer in frame, so that you have more time to realise it’s an actual person. I want you to look at that person, to look at the trace of that person. Only the photograph has remained. You have to imagine the rest. The first part is about imagination. It forces you to imagine the stories of the people that die. Then you can see them with your mind’s eye. And in the second part I show the traces of the actual thing, so you can compare your imagination with the real event.