On Radu Jude’s „Barbarians”

The most recent issue of Close Up (UNATC’s journal of Film Studies) features an article by Veronica Lazăr and me, on Radu Jude’s bold and exciting 2018 film „I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”.  Below is an excerpt. The entire article can be read here. The entire issue of Close Up is here

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[…] One of these polemics, particularly well articulated by Jude, targets a certain understanding of ‘realism’, associated with Romanian director Sergiu Nicolaescu’s conception of the historical film. As mentioned earlier, Jude excerpts a scene from Nicolaescu’s World War II epic The Mirror. That excerpt makes perfectly clear both the negationist character of Nicolaescu’s project and the primitivism of his hagiographical rhetoric – at a certain point he gives Field Marshal Antonescu (played by the actor Ion Siminie) an ennobling low-angle profile shot, with an icon of the crucified Christ in the background and syruppy piano music on the soundtrack, as the Field Marshal, brought to trial in 1946 for his crimes, solemnly castigates the ungrateful Romanian people. On the other hand, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” includes a moment where Mariana, who is visiting a costumes storehouse in order to choose uniforms for her pageant, listens as the woman who’s managing the place talks reverently about “Mr. Sergiu”, whose name she seems to equate with the highest level of scruple and accuracy in the reconstruction of history. The point made here by Jude – a crucial one for Romanian audiences – is that Nicolaescu (1930-2013), much-despised as he is by some (including fellow directors like Mariana), is deeply respected by many others (including many fellow show-business professionals like the woman we see managing the storehouse). As Jude’s film shows, this partly comes down to conflicting understandings of concepts like “realism”, “authenticity”, “accuracy”, etc. A director of fiction films who for decades assumed the mantle of popular historian, Sergiu Nicolaescu was a believer in mythical history. His version of mythical Romanian history was always subordinated to the interests of political power – first Ceaușescu’s and then post-communist power. His work was all about consolidating and legitimizing power by consolidating myths; it was all about aestheticizing history, eliminating contradictions, smoothing out rough edges or unpleasant aspects. On the other hand, he could be meticulous in the pursuit of an ‘authenticity’ understood as pertaining to period costumes, weapons, military insignia, etc. (He could also treat such things with a hack director’s carelessness, but that was not the case in his Antonescu epic.) The fetishization of such details is also characteristic of those enthusiastic amateur collectors of facts about wars, strategies, tanks, planes, etc., prone to equating history with the history of military operations and, in some cases, to dispense completely with other dimensions – economic situation, social history, the consequences of war for the population beyond propaganda, marches, flags, etc. One of the reasons why the work of Sergiu Nicolaescu continues to be an object of respect in Romania is that, when historical films are evaluated at a popular level (and also within the filmmaking community), this ‘fetishistic’ understanding of authenticity tends to outweigh other criteria. In Jude’s “Barbarians”, Mariana fiercely debates matters of ‘authenticity’ with her cast of experienced reenactors: they implicitly define authenticity in this ‘fetishistic’ way and she eloquently denounces the arbitrariness of such a definition.

The fact that Mariana’s rehearsals take place at the Military Museum is splendidly adequate: such a museum is, by definition, a sort of temple dedicated to the Nicolaescu-style understanding of ‘historical truth’; it is paradise for any fetishist of historical weapons or uniforms, a place where military action stands as the official category for making sense of history. And this location also provides Radu Jude with something else: a ready-made illustration of a crisis of historicity, of an obstacle sprung in the path of knowledge, abundantly discussed in the 80s and 90s as definining a so-called “postmodern condition”. The museum may be historical, but it is also ahistorical in the way it collapses together different eras, placing next to each other a barrier from WWI, some tanks from WWII, uniforms from all over, and the armored vehicle in which lieutenant-colonel Trosca was accidentally shot during the bloody, chaotic, regime-changing days of December 1989. At one point, Mariana and her second-in-command (Alex Bodgan), who’s actually the leader of the reenactors group, ride a scooter through the courtyard of the museum, looking like kids at loose in a Romanian history theme park. The amalgamation effect chimes with an earlier exchange between Mariana and the lady in charge of the costumes: the latter talks about having provided uniforms not only for Sergiu Nicolaescu’s extras, but also, more recently, for the extras in an American picture called Zombies Vs. Wehrmacht. This repackaging of Nazism as theme park menace, and the consequent dilution of the reality of Nazi crimes, are part of the problematic of postmodernity. They constitute a difficulty that a modernist like Alain Resnais didn’t have to face at the time of his fundamental Holocaust documentary, Night and Fog (1955). […]