«Mr. Dirty Jew, you Dirty Jew, and fuck off Dirty Jew are the 3 different ways to address a Jew», notes Dr. Emil Dorian, a Romanian Jewish poet, and medical doctor. It is the spring of 1940 and Dorian, writing in his diary, is recounting a caustic joke making the rounds in Bucharest reflecting the plight of Romania’s Jews.
Dorian’s diary serves as the basis for Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude’s documentary Dead Nation, a thought-provoking film produced in a minimalistic visual style. The entire film is based on static photos taken by a Romanian photo studio during the 1930s and 40s. These visuals almost never serve as illustrations of the text but rather are used as ironic counterpoint.
The photos, comprising smiling portraits of Romanians in traditional folk costumes, family events, church leaders, soldiers, and community celebrations are juxtaposed with voiceover, describing Romania’s exacerbating persecution of the country’s Jews provided by Dorian’s writings, radio newscasts, and patriotic Romanian songs. The photos and excerpts span a ten-year period, from 1937 to 1946.
It is remarkable nowadays to come across a film made by an Eastern European filmmaker that is so unabashed in its criticism of his native country
The biting implication of Jude’s juxtapositions, though never directly stated, is that Romanians of every stripe had a hand in tormenting the country’s Jews during the Holocaust. It is remarkable nowadays to come across a film made by an Eastern European filmmaker that is so unabashed in its criticism of his native country, coming at a time when many regional governments, riding a tide of rightwing nationalism, attempt to whitewash their countries’ complicity in the Holocaust. Recent legislation in Poland making it a criminal offense to imply Poland was responsible for Holocaust-related war crimes, along with similar laws passed by the Ukrainian government in 2015, has been widely criticized as an attempt to obfuscate the collaboration of citizens from those countries with the Nazis. Lithuania, Latvia, and Hungary have also enacted policies aimed at denying their involvement. In the case of Romania, a country which has the dubious claim of having killed more Jews than any other of the Nazi allies (an estimated 300,000), it is to their credit that Jude was able to make this film seemingly without interference.
That legacy, as documented in real-time by Dorian, includes a year-by-year tabulation of increasing Romanian anti-Semitism that becomes toxic long before the country joins forces with the Nazis. In 1938, Dorian himself is fired from his job as a doctor when the government disallows Jews from working for state organizations; Jewish patients are expelled from hospitals, the state radio plays songs about Jews «sucking our blood», and synagogues are burned. In 1939 Jewish medical students were not allowed to take their exams. In 1940 Jewish soldiers were thrown off trains and killed by their comrades, while Jewish doctors were not allowed to treat Christian patients. In 1941 women participated in a program where the tongues and eyes of Jews were cut out. In 1942 lethal gas was tested on Jews and Romanian soldiers participate in the liquidation of Jewish communities in Odesa and other parts of Ukraine.
Romania, at first, claimed to be neutral, then sided with Hitler and helped invade Ukraine, then switched to the Allies, before finally aligning with the USSR
A byproduct of the film is that information imparted in Dorian’s diary sheds significant light on some of the ongoing controversies about who in the West knew what was happening during the Holocaust and when did they know about it – and, therefore, why wasn’t more done to stop the killing?
A known fate
If an isolated doctor in Bucharest knew that Jews were being gassed in 1942, or that in 1943 a train carrying Jews from Thessaloniki passing through Romania on its way to Poland was headed for a «known fate», as Dorian states, is it possible the Allies did not know about the gas chambers that awaited the them?
Jude’s decision to stick with a radical, minimalistic, non-narrated style creates a significant emotional impact yet does create several problems. Viewers without any background knowledge surrounding Romania’s involvement in World War II may find it hard to follow the sequence of historical events alluded to but never explained (Romania, at first, claimed to be neutral, then sided with Hitler and helped invade Ukraine, then switched to the Allies, before finally aligning with the USSR).
Dead Nation is an important film that illustrates how the scapegoating of a minority group can grow rapidly and unabatedly with disastrous results. It will hopefully be widely shown, especially throughout Romania and Eastern Europe.