A few years after the beginning of what has been labeled the "New Romanian Cinema" the aesthetic and moral agenda of filmmakers working under this banner threatened to become a mere cliché. Too often corruption was filmed with static long shots, too many colors vanished from the images and too much emphasis was placed on the same actors acting in similar roles. The director Radu Jude, who worked as an assistant for Cristi Puiu on the movement's seminal The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), made some strong short films like Shadow of a Cloud (2013), none of which insinuated that he would be the one taking the (not only social) realism of Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Mungiu and friends to a new level.
His latest documentary The Dead Nation shows a filmmaker who has discovered a special way of looking at and behind images. That alone does not qualify for a different approach in Romanian cinema, since offering a doubt in what one can see lies very much at the core of the great Romanian films of the last ten years. However, Jude combined this political motivation with an awareness for abstraction and a greater freedom in style, especially in his last three films, which I would consider a trilogy of buried history. In these films a gap opens between the formative beauty and idyll of images of the past and what they hide. An image with Jude always looks at itself. There is no reality his gaze takes for granted. Additionally, between his Aferim! (2015), Scarred Hearts (2016) and The Dead Nation ideas of racism are at stake: Ideas that feel as relevant today in Romania as elsewhere.
Whereas with Puiu, who undoubtedly is the most gifted and important Romanian filmmaker, a lot happens in the positioning of the camera, Jude uses the camera and even more the sensuality and look of his images to open a gap between what we can see and what we can’t see. With Jude the style becomes a form of deception until he slowly strips down the strategies of deception and we can see what lurks behind. I think, for example, about the stunning postcard-look of Scarred Hearts turning into a realism of banal indifference in the last shots of the film. Sometimes a character might hide in an image we have been looking at for quite some time, as in Aferim!, and sometimes an image hides something just because it exists. Such is the case with The Dead Nation, a documentary entirely consisting of photographs and a soundtrack composed in large parts from excerpts of the diary of Jewish doctor Emil Dorian living in the same time the images were taken. Most of the film takes place between 1937 and 1944, which makes The Dead Nation again a work where Jude digs out stories from before the Communist regime.
Immediately it becomes clear that what we can see in the photographs, which originate from the Costică Acsinte collection, differs a great deal from what we can hear on the voiceover. Emil Dorian’s literary output was banned by the anti-semitic regime that ruled in Romania at the beginning of the 1940s. After Max Blecher in Scarred Hearts, another Jewish writer gets an important voice by Jude. What we hear is brutal and hard to bear. It is the stories of anti-semitism in Romania. What we see is nice and reassuring. Images of family life, smiling winter faces. Jude makes a strong point in accepting the redundancy of his dramaturgy. As we move through the years the images don’t really change, only the reports of crimes against Jews become crueler and in their sheer amount, unbearable. It becomes apparent that The Dead Nation is not a film about showing something that was buried, it is about burying something that was shown. I was told that the photographs of Costică Acsinte are very popular in the perception of a rosy view of the Romanian past. Their aesthetic purity and innocence is radically questioned by the film.
Nevertheless, Jude resists a didactic approach. He leaves it to the viewer to decide whether to look at the images or listen to the voiceover. Some may want to enjoy the beauty of those romantic and beautiful images, others will not be able to see them at all, and others, such as myself, will find themselves in a gap where the act of seeing gets questioned as such. One really is looking at missing pictures.
This gap not only opens between seeing and hearing, it is also between the ordinary life of people and the weight of history. The attention to detail of the photographs mirrors the mise en scène Jude chose for his latest films. His style does not necessarily exist to stress moral or dramatic ideas. Instead, it works against those ideas as it offers a glimpse at the sensuality history books are not interested in. From these films by Radu Jude a conflicted view at a troubled history opens.