Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2019

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”

Filed under: Fascism,Film,genocide,Romania — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Unless you are an aficionado of foreign films, it is likely that you are not aware that Romania has become one of the leading centers of avant-garde cinema. Like France in the late 50s and early 60s, a nouvelle vague movement in Romania appears to have come out of nowhere. Among the best known Romanian directors is Cristi Puiu, whose 2005 “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” set the standard for the country’s great leap forward. Like every other Romanian film I have seen since 2005, Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” is both politically and artistically stunning. Using techniques that were pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s, Jude has confronted Romania’s blind spot, namely the widespread refusal of its citizens to acknowledge its military’s responsibility for murdering over 100,000 Jews in 1941 when it was allied with Nazi Germany. Known as the Odessa Massacre (Odessa was within Romania’s borders at the time), it was seen by some historians as the beginning of the holocaust.

Despite the gravity of the subject, Jude decided to make a black comedy and even more remarkably succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations—including mine. In my review of “Vice” in today’s CounterPunch, I dismissed Adam McKay’s film as a jokey biopic of Dick Cheney that undercut the film’s aim of showing that the architect of the invasion of Iraq was some kind of monster. I regarded the film as an unintentional repeat of Mel Brook’s “Springtime for Hitler”.

The film’s title comes from a speech by Ion Antonescu, the prime minister of Romania in 1941, who defended the bloodbath in a 1946 war crimes tribunal as a necessary defense against the Jews. After becoming obsessed with the Odessa massacre, a young and attractive theater director named Mariana (Iona Iacob) has assembled a large cast of amateurs to help reenact the event in the central plaza of a small town. Like the Civil War battle reenactments in the USA, her goal is authenticity even at the risk of offending those who watch it. Authenticity does not just entail using uniforms and guns from a local military museum. It entails a simulation of Jews being herded into a wooden building that is then set on fire.

To get an idea of Jude’s willingness to break with commercial filmmaking’s strictures, he has a scene that lasts for a good five minutes that is about as “uncinematic” as can be imagined. In a Facetime conversation with a male friend in Austria, who was working there because of the poor local economy, they start off making small talk, including Mariana’s invitation to show him her “cunt”. From there, the conversation begins to switch over to her new project that he has some doubts about—it seems like everybody in Romania except her questions the need for such a reenactment. To help him understand her motivation, she reads him an extended passage from Isaac Babel’s “The Odessa Tales” that is set in the final days of the Russian Empire. The passage is a graphic description of the misery of Jewish peasants and the utter contempt a Russian officer has for them.

In another break with commercial filmmaking, Jude has Mariana squaring off with a town official who is okay with the reenactment, just not the Jews being exterminated since it might upset the children. This evolves into a long debate about the morality of war in which the official resorts to “Whataboutism”, the casuistry associated with the Assadist left in which the killing of Syrians is counterbalanced by the Western slaughter of Vietnamese, et al. Since every country has blood on its hands, why make Romanians feel guilty?

In the press notes for this film, that has the inside track for my nomination of best foreign language film of 2019, the director made this statement:

Thinking about our dark history makes one look back with the horrified gaze of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, whose “face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” opens today at the IFC Center in NY and at the Laemmle next Friday in Los Angeles.

I should also mention that I reviewed Jude’s “Aferim!” in 2015, another outstanding film that I described as follows:

“Aferim” is a vernacular term meaning something like “Bravo” that is heard from its characters throughout the film. It is obviously related to the Turkish word “aferin” that is part of the term “aferin sana” that means “good for you” and that my wife often says to me after I tell her I have been published in some high-toned journal.

It is used with irony in Jude’s film since everything is marked by degradation of the most appalling nature. It is the story of a father and son who are seen riding across a desolate plain on horseback in their search for a runaway slave. The father, named Constandin (Teodor Corban), is a constable and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) an unpaid assistant. The story evokes a John Ford western except in this instance the posse is wicked and the runaway slave, a Roma named Carfin Pandolean (Toma Cuzin), is their better. In fact, the higher up you are on the social ladder in feudal Wallachia, the closer you are to savagery.

“Aferim!” can be rented on iTunes for $4.99. It is also available for free on Amazon if you take out a trial subscription to the Sundance cable channel. In either case, it is a memorable film and an excellent introduction to Romanian film.


January 3, 2011

When I want to whistle, I whistle

Filed under: Film,Romania — louisproyect @ 10:55 pm

The latest film out of Romania opens on Wednesday at the IFC in New York. Directed by Florin Şerban, a 35-year-old Columbia University graduate, “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” shares many of the aspects of his country’s leading-edge film movement. American and Western European auteurs are strong influences on the movement despite its distinctly Romanian character. In an interview with Manhattan Chronicles, Şerban stated that “New York is the best place to be if you want to watch movies, films from all over the world, from different periods and tendencies, etc. ” Asked who he counts as major influences, he included Ken Loach. Indeed, one of the strongest recommendations for “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” is how much it reflects the best work of the British leftist director. Now that Romania’s romance with post-Stalinism is long forgotten, it is no surprise that the country’s filmmakers seek inspiration from artists well schooled in the class struggle.

Based on a play, “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” is a classic prison breakout movie that hearkens back to James Cagney’s “White Heat”. Filmed apparently on location at a Romanian juvenile prison and using actual convicts in supporting roles, the film has a gritty realism that departs from most prison melodramas past and present. The film has no musical score but there are key moments when a boom box or a chorus of prisoners supplies powerful dramatic accompaniment. Mostly, the accompaniment is the whistling of wind in the trees and the sounds of birds, sounding all the more plaintive in contrast to the draconian conditions of the prison.

The main character is Silviu, a tight-lipped and seemingly passive youth who has 15 days left on a 4-year robbery sentence. George Pistereanu, a non-professional but someone who has never been in prison, plays Silviu. Pistereanu delivers a memorable performance, starting off as a taut and mute ticking time bomb and finally exploding in the stunning climax of a very, very good film. At this point, I am obligated to supply a spoiler alert. Read no further, if you want to avoid learning about the stunning conclusion but certainly go see the movie at the IFC based on what you have read so far.

We learn that Silviu’s mother is a prostitute who plans to take his younger brother off to Italy with her. When she took Silviu on one of these trips when he was his brother’s age, she abandoned him as soon as she found a lover. He blames his misfortunes, including a life as a criminal, on her abuses and tells her that he will do anything to prevent his brother from suffering the same fate.

If Silviu’s family is a symbol of Romania’s economic distress, we meet some characters who appear to be enjoying a middle-class existence. The prisoners are being “studied” by a team of social workers who are determining their ability to function in post-prison life. One of them is Ana (Ada Condeescu), a beautiful young woman that Silviu develops a crush on. In the course of her interview with him, he says that there is not much difference between them and that if she met him outside of prison, she would enjoy drinking coffee with him on a date.

Desperate to thwart his mother from taking his younger brother to Italy, Silviu erupts at an interview session with Ana and takes her hostage. Unless his mother is brought to the prison to vow that the brother will be left at home, he will slash her throat with a shard of broken window glass. Despite his brutality toward Ana, it is clear that he still is attracted to her and would count a coffee date with her as fulfilling his fondest dreams, on a par with getting his mother out of his and his brother’s life.

For the longest time, Romania has been a poster child for the “what’s wrong with communism” contingent led by the insufferable Andrei Codrescu, an émigré who made a good living on NPR telling Americans how lucky they are not to live under Ceausescu. Times seem to be changing, no doubt hurried along by the failure of capitalism to deliver the goods.

For a report on current-day Romania that is gestating the conditions that inspired someone like Florin Şerban to consider the work of Ken Loach as an influence, I recommend Class struggle on the rise in Romania from the In Defense of Marxism website. Fred Weston writes:

In January 2007 Romania became a member of the EU. This was the final confirmation that western capitalists considered the country a fully-fledged market economy. Since the fall of the Ceauşescu regime in 1989 the country had adopted a series of measures, with large-scale privatisation and cuts in state subsidies, geared to transforming Romania into a capitalist country. Within five years the legal structures were in place and the country began a process of integration into world capitalism, and until 2008 foreign investment in the country had been increasing. That is when the trouble really started. The 2008 global financial crisis seriously affected the economy, pushing it into recession in 2009.

So long as the economy was booming, and with the added relief of emigration to other parts of the EU during the boom of the past decade, illusions in capitalism among some layers no doubt had increased. This also explained a reactionary political situation in the country. “Communism” seemed a thing of the past. This is not difficult to understand especially when one recalls the monstrous regime that governed the country under Ceauşescu.

And yet now that people in Romania have had a real taste of capitalism, not just in boom times, but in times of recession, opinions are changing. According to an opinion poll carried out by the “Institute Investigating the Crimes of Communism and the Memory of the Romanian Exile” – not exactly a Communist-friendly institution almost half of Romanians today, 49%, believe life was actually better under Ceauşescu! A higher standard of living and job security were given as the main arguments to sustain this opinion. Barely a quarter of the population believes conditions have improved since 1989.

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