«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 …
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