ROMANIA: Coupling aged photographic references to Romania in the 1930’s together with a diary from the time, this doc gives a chilling account of what awaited Romania’s Jews.
Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic.
Published date: June 1, 2018

Better known as a feature director (Aferim!, Scarred Hearts and, as an assistant director, on Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Radu Jude’s The Dead Nation is an evocative 83-minute course in pre-war Romanian history.

Countdown to death

For those unfamiliar with Romanian history, it is probably best just to sit back and let this flow over them, experiencing the eradication of Romanian Jewry through the collage of historic photographs, voices and the words of diarist Emil Dorian as a kind of meditation on the darkness of which the human mind is capable.More than 70 years after the end of the second world war, the Holocaust remains a subject to which filmmakers and writers return time after time; the fact that its enduring horror and power has not been dimmed by time is attested to by the strength of films – the Oscar-winning Son of Saul by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes is only one of the latest and most prominent.

«The byways of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, and the enthusiastic complicity by various Axis Power confederates, make documentaries such as Jude’s fascinating»

It is precisely the largely unexplored byways of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” – the enthusiastic complicity in Genocide by various Axis Power confederates – that make documentaries such as Jude’s fascinating. Starting with a soundtrack of a steam train that blends into photographic references to Romania in 1933, the film – and the inexorable journey of the symbolic train (drenched in associations of cattle trucks and doomed humanity) – picks up speed as the years begin to tick by in a countdown to death… 1937 merges into 1938 as war approaches.

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There is an awful premonition in the diarist Dorian’s references from the time of what awaits Romania’s Jews: “The collapse is general. People expect the same measures introduced by Hitler in Germany.” (Cue an image of cattle standing on a snowy field).

Swapping sides

If the animalistic imagery seems a little too obvious, it is perhaps worthwhile reflecting on both the view fascists of all stripes held of certain human beings and the stunned, herd-like manner in which so many at that time went to their deaths, unable (and perhaps subconsciously unwilling) to accept the enormity of departure from civilised norms of behaviour. For example, Dorian, who is a Jewish doctor, who writes after being fired from an insurance board that he wished so many friends would not “express sympathy”; or the reference to Jews being threatened with deprivation of citizenship as simply a “slap in the face” for a million people.

«The procession of images that have cracked and broken over the years, underlines the sense that this is ancient history, though we know it is just within living memory: the child king Michael»

The procession of images, many taken from glass or celluloid negatives that have cracked and broken over the years, underlines the sense that this is ancient history, though we know it is just within living memory: the child king Michael (from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1940 until his abdication on 30 December 1947) is still alive – though at 96 is in ill health now. A 1938 reference to “our king assuring us that there will not be a pogrom… but Jews could make it easier by leaving Romania” by the diarist probably refers to his uncle, Prince Nicholas, who was a member of the regency council.

The horrors mount, mirroring those in Germany: November 1938 a couple of weeks after Kristallnacht in the Nazi Reich, synagogues in Romania are burning; a university rector is assassinated. The litany of horrors continues: «Tragic experience has taught [the Jews] they must be scapegoats.»

With the arrival of a Fascist government in 1939, Romanians flocked to join the new order; Jude’s procession of photographs of uniformed men and children raising their arm in what his diarist refers to as “the Roman salute” attest to the spread of Nazi ideology. One cannot help but reflect on how soon such photos would become deadly liabilities when, a few short years later, the Red Army swept through Romania and the country swapped sides to join the Allies.

But for many of Romania’s Jews the Red Army would arrive too late. In September 1939 our diarist writes that «death is coming closer. People were fine with murders in China – it was all so far away.»

Lurking hatred

Staccato and relentless, words and images, images and words – war marches closer. The map of Europe is redrawn after Soviet demands for Romanian provinces elicit no reaction from Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. Jews become the scapegoats for national humiliation at the loss of the Bukovina and Bessarabia.

Our doctor stoically records the personal impact: the loss of his “last means of survival” his job as a physician at a national bank; the increasing rate of assaults and casual murders of Jews; the closure of Jewish colleges and institutions.

Archive sound footage plays – (fascist) Legionnaire rallies; political speeches – but Jude eschews moving images in favour of the slowly progressive time sequence of photographs: against an image so damaged by age that nothing is visible except a crazed Petri dish of virus-like pathways, the diarist’s words drum to the timbre of the times: «So much darkness in this hateful century.»

In an early 21st century Europe where neo-fascist and populist movements have fed off fears sparked by the massive influx of refugees from North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan in the last couple of years, that darkness and those hatreds as old as Satan himself, still lurk low beneath stones unturned. Jude’s film reminds us of the risks of populism: if it was so easy to switch from dubbing the Russians “Bolshevik poison” one year to “our great neighbour, the Soviet Union” the next, what makes people think Europe is truly any different today?Jude’s film reminds us that the lessons of the Holocaust bear repeating again and again.