'I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians': Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2018

Courtesy of HI Film
All is not quiet on the Eastern Front.

Romanian director Radu Jude's ambitious meta-drama puts a bold modern twist on an infamous wartime massacre.

Tragic history repeats itself as farce in this darkly comic, politically timely meta-drama from Romanian director and film-festival favorite Radu Jude. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians borrows its title from an infamous political speech that sanctioned a brutal large-scale massacre on Europe’s Eastern Front during World War II, an event that some historians later signposted as a precursor to the Holocaust. But the setting here is present-day Romania and the tone typically playful for Jude, who approaches a potentially prickly subject with his usual ironic humor and keen eye for flawed, fallible humanity.

World premiered today in the main competition at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Jude’s tricksy conversation between past and present is a Romanian-Czech-French-Bulgarian-German co-production with the texture of an experimental theater piece. Its juicy, verbose sprawl incorporates archive newsreel footage, extended literary quotations and hefty chunks of critical theory, plus a lead actor who breaks the fourth wall to introduce herself and her character.

There are nods to Brecht and Godard here, alongside Jude’s signature salty dialogue and punky irreverence. The locally specific theme, baggy 140-minute running time and occasional interludes of hectoring polemic may limit post-festival prospects to niche art house circles. All the same, I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians is a mature, ambitious work from a spirited auteur who has mastered the cinematic rules well enough to break them with confidence.

In her starring debut, Ioana Iacob gives a live-wire lead performance as Mariana, an idealistic theater director preparing to stage a grand outdoor historical pageant based on a notorious wartime massacre. In October 1941, Romanian troops allied with Nazi forces to murder between 25,000 and 34,000 Jews in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Before switching sides to fight against Germany in 1944, Romania’s military dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu presided over a policy of mass ethnic cleansing second in scale only to Hitler’s genocidal plans. Around 400,000 Jews, Roma gypsies and other minorities were slaughtered.

Antonescu was tried and executed for his wartime crimes in 1946, but Romania’s long history of anti-Semitism remains a prickly topic even today. This troubled legacy becomes a bone of contention during Mariana's rowdy rehearsals in the grounds of Bucharest’s National Military Museum, when mutinous members of her ragtag army of non-professional extras challenge her version of the Odessa massacre. Some even protest at having to act alongside gypsies. Black comedy and bitter irony hang heavy in the sweltering summer air. Meanwhile, Mariana’s complicated private life is adding to her stress, as she realizes she may be pregnant to her married lover, airline pilot Stefan (Serban Pavlu).

Romanian theatre veteran Alexandru Dabija, who co-starred in Jude’s prize-winning 2015 period drama Aferim!, has a showcase supporting role as Movila, the wily government official who approved funding for Mariana’s project but tries to curb her more provocative choices during rehearsal. Although wary of playing the heavy-handed censor, Movila attempts various rhetorical strategies to dissuade Mariana from potentially offending the public with her graphic depiction of the Odessa massacre. It will scare children. It will waste taxpayer money. It will insult Romania’s fallen wartime heroes. It promotes a kind of selective historical "Darwinism" where some massacres are commemorated and others conveniently forgotten. And so on. Behind Movila's self-serving cynicism lie some bitter truths.

This sparky battle of wits between Mariana and Movila plays out over an extended duologue that references Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg, Isaac Babel, Leni Riefenstahl and more. Their terrific set-piece argument cuts to the heart of the film’s key question about the utility or futility of art in addressing any nation's shameful, bloody, complex past. A less subtle writer-director might have made Movila a soulless bureaucrat standing in the way of Mariana’s noble artistic mission, but Jude generously allows him some persuasive arguments and humane qualities.

Mostly shot in long mobile hand-held takes, with an artfully artless docu-drama aesthetic and purely diegetic noises on the soundtrack, I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians is not an easy watch at times. At various points Jude lingers uncomfortably on archive stills and film clips of murdered Romanian Jews, blunt reminders of the numbing savagery that inspired his mischievous reboot of history. Switching to more vivid video and a more formal shooting style for the climactic staging of Mariana’s wartime pageant, Jude concludes with heavy hints that anti-Semitism and other forms of racism remain deeply ingrained in 21st century Europe. There are no cosy monochrome certainties here, just plenty of rich material that provokes uneasy laughter and invites disturbing contemporary parallels.

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Production company: Hi Film Productions
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu
Director, screenwriter: Radu Jude
Producer: Ada Solomon
Cinematographer: Marius Panduru
Editor: Catalin Cristuțiu
Sales company: Beta Cinema
140 minutes