Review: The Dead Nation
by Stefan Dobroiu
- Radu Jude’s documentary explores a shameful and unacknowledged period in Romania’s history
In 2015, Radu Jude delved into a shady part of Romania’s history – gypsy slavery – in his Berlinale-awarded Aferim! [+see also:
interview: Radu Jude
film profile], and in his most recent fiction feature, Scarred Hearts [+see also:
interview: Radu Jude
film profile], there are veiled references to Romania’s growing antisemitism in the 1930s. Now Jude consolidates his reputation as a “whistleblower” (see below for a justification of the use of this word) with The Dead Nation [+see also:
film profile], an icy glare at Romania’s shameful position regarding the Jewish community, which was handed the Best Romanian Documentary Award last Saturday at the 24th Astra Film Festival (16-22 October, Sibiu – see the news).
It would be hard to find a more necessary and relevant film than The Dead Nation, as Romania’s history was severely redacted during communist times, several generations of Romanians being fed a more palatable version of the past. Many Romanians still think that there was no Holocaust in the country, and their ignorance was made even more obvious when, upon The Dead Nation’s domestic release, the film’s screenings triggered hysterical, incredulous and absurd reactions on various social media.
The Dead Nation, a hyper-minimalistic, but highly efficient, documentary, mixes three elements that create a canvas where the horrors suffered by the Romanian Jewish population are presented in minute detail. The visual element is created by a montage featuring pictures taken by a small-town photographer, Costică Acsinte, during the 1930s and 1940s, while a voice-over (with Jude himself as a rather dull narrator) uses fragments of the diary of Emil Dorian, a Jewish doctor who comments on the political decisions of the era, offering a very personal and deeply unnerving perspective of his oppressed community. Any suspicions that this view is actually too personal are soon put to rest by audio excerpts from the period’s radio broadcasts, showing how the Jewish community was publicly demonised, and laying bare the extensive array of injustices and persecution it suffered during the era.
Together, these elements form such a powerful mix that the incredulous audience cannot prise their eyes away from the screen. The documentary works in a similar fashion to the famous picture from the 2003 invasion of Iraq now used in journalism schools to teach media bias. An Iraqi soldier is flanked by two American soldiers, one seemingly pointing a gun to his head, the other helping him to drink water from a flask. Two different crops of the same picture tell wildly different stories about the same reality, and this eloquent juxtaposition is highly efficient in Jude’s documentary.
In Acsinte’s pictures, we see Romanians having fun at baptism celebrations or enjoying everyday rituals. Some studio pictures show them wearing fake beards and pointing guns at each other. But these benign images form a stark contrast with the voice-over information, which immediately triggers a haunting question: did these two very different Romanias coexist? How was this possible? Moreover, the documentary is a commentary on how the country’s history seems to have been as easily redacted as these pictures were staged, fake beards “magically” patching up the past’s unwelcoming, shameful scars.
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