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BERLINALE 2024 Forum

Andrei Cohn • Director of Holy Week

“My main character is pushed into a place where he becomes unable to distinguish between real and imaginary threats”


- BERLINALE 2024: The director’s third picture, a loose adaptation of a novella by Ion Luca Caragiale, explores antisemitism in a Romanian village circa 1900

Andrei Cohn • Director of Holy Week

In the Berlinale Forum title Holy Week [+see also:
film review
interview: Andrei Cohn
film profile
, Romanian director Andrei Cohn loosely adapts a novella by Romania’s most famous playwright, Ion Luca Caragiale. Here is what the director has to say about antisemitism, the perils of generalisation, the Gaza conflict and the difficulties of recreating a Romanian village in the 1900s.

Cineuropa: When we first wrote about Holy Week, formerly known as Gefilte Fish [see the news], you said one of the aims of the film was to find out if a discussion on antisemitism was still relevant today. Is it?
Andrei Cohn:
Today, unfortunately, there are so many events unrelated to cinema that prove this is still a relevant topic. I think antisemitism has been a constant for the last 2,000 years. It has become the symbolic expression of group hostility against the stranger, the other. In what way this story, which is set at the beginning of the 20th century, has something to say in today's context I will leave to others to decide, but I personally hope it goes beyond the strict spectrum of antisemitism. We live surrounded by strangers, and we are all likely to become a stranger in turn, in one context or another, at some point.

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You wrote the script and shot the film long before the Israel-Hamas war broke out. How do you see this war from the point of view of your film? Did you make any changes after the conflict started?
The screenplay was written in 2018 and 2019, and the shoot wrapped in June 2022. I didn't change or add anything after the Israel-Hamas war started. It is inevitable that reading the film will lead to connections with the current context, but I had no intention of doing so. Moreover, I avoid any generalising discourse, as my film focuses on a very particular case. Any reading beyond the story is only an afterthought, which, as we know, is determined by one's perspective. I am much more interested in questioning general views through the poignancy of this particular case. My film focuses on how an individual, in all his subjectivity, handles a hostile environment, and I hope, if his reactions are credible in the context of the story, to raise doubts about views that are too firm or too general, no matter whose side they favour.

Despite various efforts, there is still a negationist trend in Romania. Would you like your film to generate a debate in this context?
The discussions that a film opens up are largely independent of the intentions of the filmmaker, but I can say that my intentions are not along those lines. I'm not trying to correct history; my film is just talking about possible reactions in a possible context. I have avoided narratives of extreme antisemitism precisely to prevent denialism and the orientation of the film in that direction.

I tried to stage things in a setting that is potentially possible from anyone's point of view. We're used to building stories with extreme, shocking endings based on an exceptional premise, but my film is built around events that don't seem like a big deal to outsiders, even though they carry a whole different weight for the person facing them. This, too, can lead to a tragic ending. The evil in my film doesn't fit the “banality of evil” narrative, but rather speaks about the gradual pressure that the main character is constantly subjected to that pushes him into a place where he becomes unable to distinguish between real and imaginary threats.

Your protagonist says at one point that the great conflict of the film is “between the haves and the have-nots”.
The class struggle is in no way the main conflict of the film. This expression is used as a mere detail when the innkeeper, Leiba, mentions that the villagers would rather believe [his Romanian help] Gheorghe than him. Along with other arguments, he asks his wife who the villagers will believe: the one who has something, or the one who has nothing. We don’t have the cliché of the wealthy Jew here: the general appearance of the inn does not indicate wealth, and Leiba says at one point that he has always dressed in his older sibling’s clothes. I have purposefully tried to mitigate the differences between the Jewish family and the community in which they live, and have focused on what makes them similar, rather than different.

I have nothing but praise for the set design. How difficult was it to create the universe you wanted for the film?
Thank you. For the limited resources of this movie, the effort was extraordinary, and things wouldn't have looked this way without so many people showing their love for the project, and I thank them for it. Aside from the set design and construction, even reaching the main shooting location was a challenge. Looking back, it's incredible that we were able to build the set the way we wanted, in the location we wanted.

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