Atrocity Inhibition: The (New) Films of Radu Jude
After a year without any premieres, Romanian auteur Radu Jude returns to the festival circuit with not one but two new films, which screened in the prestigious Berlinale Forum: Uppercase Print and The Exit of the Trains. The former is a biographical fiction that blends together archival footage and a Brechtian treatment of a local case of dissidence, while the latter is a formalist, experimental documentary exploring one of the worst atrocities of the Romanian Holocaust, which is co-helmed by local historian Adrian Cioflâncă (director at the Centre for the Study of Jewish History in Romania). What’s striking when attempting to situate these two works within an auteurist framework is that they appear as both an organic and clearly traceable continuation of his former explorations (in terms of theme and use of found footage) and as a radical new direction. Even so, the main unifying feature of the two is their use of local photographic and videographic archives, which also reflects the ever-increasing interest in visual archives that has captivated the imagination of the Romanian film scene — in this sense, one only needs to look at the artistic direction of the One World Romania documentary film festival, or at recent offerings such as Nora Agapi’s Timebox (2018) or The Distance Between Me and Me (2019), co-helmed by Mona Nicoară and Dana Bunescu.
Thinly fictionalized, Uppercase Print draws upon the eponymous theater production of Romanian director Gianina Cărbunariu, a documentary piece that utilizes the secret police (Securitate) files concerning the case of anti-communist dissident Mugur Călinescu as the backbone of the narration and dialogue. In the play, the actors (who resume cameo roles in the film, along with Cărbunariu) use a type of interpretation that is at times reliant on emotion; in the film, however, the lines are delivered dry and matter-of-factly, with the performers staring directly into the camera and mostly in the form of soliloquies — a manner that is both Brechtian and faithful to the highly bureaucratic language of the documents. Brecht’s influence is evident not only in the political subject matter — the story of a 16-year-old who was caught scrawling pro-freedom manifestos on the walls of the local Communist Party building — but also in its scenographic treatment. The film begins with a long shot that reveals the construction of the film set (which slightly resembles modern theater decors), a circle split into six sparse backgrounds meant to symbolize various spaces: the streets, the secret police’s office, Călinescu’s home, etc. By baring the structure of the film from the very beginning, and utilizing a minimalistic set design, while also considering the flat delivery of the actors — Brecht is evoked almost instantaneously. The means achieve the underlying premises of these methods: to bring the factual contents of the narrative to the fore and to provoke reflections, reactions within the audience.
The film should, to a certain extent, quell some of the incessant and unjust critiques local right-wing figures use against Jude: his explorations on the darkest and most obscure corners of Romanian history have not (up until now) addressed the human rights abuses that were played out during the Communist regime. Theme notwithstanding, they may find it harder to engage with the film’s formal approach, as this is the director’s most structuralist offering to date — the fictionalized plotline is interspaced with various clips from the Romanian Television Corporation’s (TVR) 1981–82 archive, which assumedly played across Romanian TVs as the real-life drama of Călinescu was unfolding. The media was conceived of as a way to manufacture consent and reinforce rigorous ideologies within the general populace, completely drowning out voices such as Călinescu’s. By painting the distorted image of a harmonious society whose problems are as menial as beating a dusty rug, TVR covered up the era’s rampant human rights violations and was the Party’s mouthpiece. From musicals, comedy sketches, and, in one instance, an extract of what is probably the most unintentionally depressing and funny cooking show in recorded history, to moralistic reportages aiming to regulate behavior (exposing people who failed to buy bus tickets, who are honking for no reason, and so on), the use of early ‘80s Romanian TV footage resembles the methods found in Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010): both calibrate the material precisely as to underline (and induce) the innate cognitive dissonance of communist-era propaganda — an everything-is-fine mantra repeated ad nauseam, when in fact, everything was anything but fine. Still, one penultimate sequence shot in contemporary Bucharest — containing some of the most easily recognizable architectural edifices of the city, equating them with predominant ideologies — hints that this mantra has survived the Revolution, and that certain social wounds continue to bleed in the age of neoliberal capitalism.
The Exit of the Trains can also be seen as a companion piece to Jude’s 2017 The Dead Nation, though there are superficial similarities. Both are a montage of still images, which grapple with the Romanian Holocaust; however, the underlying paradigms of the films seem to be inverted in relation to one another. The Dead Nation explored the chasm between the experiences of a small provincial town untouched by war, as encapsulated in Costică Acsinte’s photographs, with the tribulations of Jewish doctor Emil Dorian. The Exit of the Trains, on the other hand, painstakingly reconstructs whatever traces remain of the hundreds of people that were killed in the Iași pogrom of 1941, which was, arguably, the most horrific incident in the history of the Romanian Holocaust. Commanded by Marshal Ion Antonescu (who was prominently discussed in 2018’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians), the pogrom claimed the lives of some 13,000 people, most of them men, who were either crammed into death trains or killed in the streets of Romania’s second most important city, Iași, at the time — out of which Jude and Cioflanca retrace more than 200 individual histories.
Over three hours, making it Jude’s longest film to date, The Exit of the Trains lists those who were killed in the pogrom in alphabetical order, while a myriad of people from within the Romanian film community (actors, producers, and other directors) recite the documents that detail the gruesome fates of those seen in the photographs. For some victims, the only fragments that remain are short, dry bureaucratic statements from their surviving relatives, oftentimes women, who were briefly detailing their loved ones’ circumstances of death in order to claim state reparations. Others include intricate testimonies obtained from their families or elsewhere, which reveal not only the role of the government and army in the massacre, but also the profound implication of Romanian Orthodox Christians in the killings — from local police officers to opportunistic neighbors ready to prey on the belongings of the Jewish families next door. In effect, the polyphonic voices of women describing the harrowing demises of their husbands, fathers, and sons become a collective wail of mourning, implicitly offering female experiences of war (which Virginia Woolf once called “a preposterous male fiction” — considering Barbarians, this citation ties in with both films’ treatment of war and gender).
At times, the screen goes black between portraits, as testimonies of the conditions within the trains are read from the memoirs of the few survivors. The blank screen is not just a means of permitting the spectator his or her own agency in picturing the horrid conditions that are described by textual means, but it’s also a nod to a strain of cinematic thought that traces back to Alain Resnais — where, or how, does one even begin to represent such atrocity? — and echoes throughout Jude’s recent filmography, most notably in The Dead Nation and Barbarians. As with “Nuit et brouillard” (1955), The Exit of the Trains uses photographs of the massacres that ocurred on the streets of Iași and in the fields — the sites where bodies from the death trains were discarded. But instead of interspacing them or employing them as an illustration in the above-mentioned interludes, the photos appear at the very end of the film, without any accompanying commentary, as a crystallization of the images that the audience has imagined throughout — or, maybe, couldn’t even possibly imagine. However, The Exit of the Trains enters a dialogue not just with the long history of films that have grappled with representing the Holocaust, but also with the very genesis of cinema: the film’s title in itself is a ghastly, lopsided reference to the Lumière brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1896). It’s a reference that harkens back to the innocent days of cinema and to a pre-Holocaust era. Thus, one of the most perennial and peaceful shots in the history of film is imbued with its atrocious, sinister doppelgänger, the Nazi death trains; thus tying in midway with Jean-Luc Godard’s extrapolations-associations on the representation of locomotives in Le livre d’image (2018). If one is to consider that the audience watching “Arrival” was, according to the famous anecdote, scared witless upon seeing the train approach — it is the train’s departure that should, in fact, terrify beyond any measure.
Both Uppercase Print and The Exit of the Trains are testaments to the fact that Radu Jude’s historical exploration phase has reached its complete maturity and conceptual stability, as former explorations lead to engrossing experiences that go into the darkest corners of Romanian history — a portrait of brutal state-led oppression and of social complicitness surrounding the regime’s abuses, daubed with antisemitism, racism, and other forms of prejudice. In a Foucauldian key, they reveal both a panoptic society eager to re-educate divergent elements (the late ‘80s) while also being at least tacitly complicit, if not outright indulgent, in the torture and execution of citizens perceived as threats (the ‘40s); both a modern and a primitive/reactionary means of social regulation split by mere decades. (After all, such conclusions aren’t far-fetched: the director’s most recent short film is titled “To Punish, to Surveil” (2019), an inversion of Surveiller et punir.) It remains to be seen where Jude will decide to focus his conceptual and technical apparatus next.
Top image: Uppercase Print