The cruelty of indifference
"I do not care if we go down in history as barbarians," declared Romanian authoritarian Ion Antonescu to his nation's Council of Ministers in 1941; he was arguing the case for exterminating Jews, either by deporting them and thus leaving them to the mercy of the Germans, or simply by gunning them down. In 2019, Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude has turned Antonescu's words against him, using the authoritarian's callous proclamation as the title of his latest movie. The effect is so damning that if Antonescu lived today, he may find that he cares after all.
Jude's film rebukes Antonescu's shameful legacy and confronts Romania's self-delusion over its role in the Holocaust; his purpose is to interrogate the country's past sins. But by wielding Antonescu's own words in the name of satire, I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians simultaneously captures present-day global antipathy toward immigrants: In Italy, where Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini remains determined to criminalize Mediterranean migrant rescues, in France, where members of Generation Identitaire posed as border guards to deny African migrants entry into the country, in the United States, where Donald Trump's supporters react to family separations with contemptuous sneers, where Mike Pence observed CBP cages overflowing with tired migrants and said that they're "in good shape."
Wisely, I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians doesn't make an active effort to connect the dots between Antonescu, the Holocaust, and the present day; Jude's purpose is specific to the crimes of his homeland rather than the crimes of others. Instead, those dots connect organically as the film's plot progresses over its 140-minute running time. Jude shot mostly on 16mm using hand-held ambulatory takes, stripping away all artifice and emphasizing sober reality to drive his points home.
Jude opens on Ioana Iacob, Jude's lead actress, breaking the fourth wall to introduce the basic conceit: She plays Mariana, a theater director staging a reenactment of the 1941 Odessa massacre using only non-professional actors. Throughout, Mariana is stymied by members of her cast, who erroneously dispute the facts of the massacre, and by her government, represented by the city official Movila (reliable Jude collaborator Alexandru Dabija), who repeatedly tries to persuade Mariana to compromise her vision.
It's a Russian nesting doll of a premise, a play-within-a-movie that blurs lines dividing documentary and fiction; think of this as Jude's version of Robert Greene's Bisbee ‘17 or Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, two pictures that similarly use reenactment as a tool to relitigate past atrocities.
Mariana's a thorough student of history and a sharp debater, possessed of keen wit, stamina, and enduring patience for suffering fools, each an essential quality for her job. "All of this is very anti-Romanian," one disgruntled extra scolds Mariana during production, outraged by the portrayal of Romania's culpability in facilitating genocide. "It's not anti-Romanian, it's facing our own history," she retorts as the sky opens up and pours rain down on them all, as if taking her side.
Mariana faces the same dilemma many like her face across the world: A dumbfounding populist insistence on alternative accounts of past and present, divorced from reality as well as morality. Her on-set conversation with the rankled young man is just one among many such conversations, whether with extras angry at having to appear in a play alongside Romani people or with Movila, Mariana's most formidable opponent, who tries to nickel and dime her through either whataboutism or negation: The play will offend the public, it'll upset children in the audience, it's a drain on taxpayer funds, it dishonors Romania's fallen soldiers, it highlights a Romanian massacre at the expense of other massacres perpetrated elsewhere. Movila's cynicism is nauseating, but at least he does Mariana the dubious courtesy of posing a substantial challenge to her worldview.
But in Movila, I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians finds a nastily smug vehicle for expressing prevailing global nationalist attitudes toward outsiders and foreigners. We're a nation of laws; people shouldn't enter illegally; if they do, they must pay the consequences; blame child separations on the parents, they should have known better. There are inexhaustible justifications for the cruel anti-immigration policies that are practiced in Europe and the U.S., just as Movila has a riposte for every reason that Mariana gives for making her play as blunt as possible. It's a diversionary tactic meant to dress up inhumanity in respectability and rationality. Of course breaking laws incurs penalties. That's the point of having laws! How obvious.
The logic is self-defeating. It's a tacit admission that yes, stranding refugees and asylum seekers in limbo at best and at death's door at worst is horrifying, but it's also the law, so stop complaining about it. Jude's film reflects the apathy driving this logic; routinely, people Mariana interacts with — Movila, her actors, and even her lover, Stefan (Serban Pavlu) — argue with her seemingly out of exasperation, as if discussing genocide is an inconvenience. "I'm sick of all the Jews whining," Stefan grumbles to Mariana in a post-coital chat; in the 1940s, he says, all of Europe was anti-Semitic, so Romania simply imitated other Europeans, as if this excuses Odessa.
Assigning responsibility to third parties or shrugging off ill treatment of migrants under the banner of law are practically instinctive reactions among the far right; that instinct is key to the film's meaning in context with 2019. Pence doesn't care if he's photographed, arms crossed and frowning like a petulant schoolboy who's been reprimanded for bad behavior. Trump's supporters don't care if families are torn apart at the U.S.-Mexico border. Neither Trump nor Salvini care if their policies lead to the deaths of innocent people. But they should. 78 years from now, the filmmakers of the future will turn their lenses on all of them, too.