For anyone who’s ever riffled through a stack of old photos in a flea market and realized with absent melancholy that it’s likely many of the vividly smiling, posing subjects have since passed away, Romanian director Radu Jude’s hypnotic “The Dead Nation” is a gently uncanny, feature-length version of that experience. Not so much a film in the classical sense as an art project built at the crossroads of 20th-century history and personal testimony, this photo-montage traces the fate of Romania’s Jewish population through the turbulent years immediately prior to and during World War 2.
Using no visual pyrotechnics other than a scintillatingly well-chosen series of static, black-and-white images, unearthed recently as part of a trove belonging to ‘Foto Splendid’ (a Romanian photo studio set up in the 1930s by photographer Costica Acsinte), Jude lets the contrast between image and sound create its own tensions and provocations. On the soundtrack, with calm dispassion, Jude reads excerpts from the diary of Emil Dorian, a Jewish doctor living through the war in Bucharest, which are then mixed in with nationalist songs and excerpts from contemporary film, newsreel and radio reports — the highly personal commingling with the propagandist political.
Dorian’s diary chronicles mounting horrors, from the ostracization of Jewish people from their professions, schools and eventually their homes, to the introduction of the infamous yellow star, to the reports of actual gruesome violence: people forced to drink petrol, having crosses cut into their backs, their tongues cut out, their young children slain in their arms. But though the images run in parallel, putting us in the same year and season, at least, as each diary entry, they are often in discombobulating contrast.
Dorian mentions the introduction of the “Roman salute” as mandatory, and sure enough in the photos we suddenly see men, women and children with their arms outstretched. But they are mostly cheerful — ordinary rural people treating themselves to the luxury of a photograph — and almost all of them look straight at the camera. So despite the datedness of their dress, and the scarred and tattered prints that often have cracks and tears spiderwebbing through otherwise crystal-clear faces, there is an unnerving directness to the way our gaze connects with theirs across the decades. It is a strange thing to feel that human connection with people proudly puffing up their uniformed chests, or showing off their prized cows, or dressing their plump children in furs to pose against a painted snowy backdrop in a photographer’s studio, while outside their Jewish neighbors are being persecuted with devastating ruthlessness.
The photos really are stunningly evocative. Jude already proved he can create striking monochromatic imagery with 2015’s excellent picaresque “Aferim!” and his selection here bears that out. Sometimes the pictures are comical: a group of young men in traditional dress with fake white beards. Sometimes they’re whimsical, like the crisply surreal shot of a slender woman holding a young boy affecting ballet pose, on one outstretched palm. Sometimes they even escape the confines of the studio and we see women sunbathing or children sledding or men arranged like a yearbook class photo around a morose-looking horse. But they are always striking, and sometimes, when the corresponding passage of Dorian’s diary is just too harrowing, or too serious to skewer with ironic contrast, Jude uses an image that is so damaged as to have become an abstraction, a beautiful mass of whorls and speckles, and so refocuses our wandering minds back onto the words and the horrors they describe.
“The Dead Nation” hasn’t got any particularly revelatory conclusions to draw, and its ascetic presentation is not likely to fill many multiplexes. The pictures and narration run in parallel through to the end and there is no neat crossover, no final act twist. But armchair historians and amateur photographers alike may get a lot from this quietly reverent, unashamedly educational experience. As the film counts off the years, demarcated by simple intertitles, tinny radio recordings of angry demagogues outline major political shifts, from the establishment of Antonescu’s fascist dictatorship, to the invasion of Russia (Romania sent more troops to the Russian front than all of Germany’s other allies combined), to the eventual coup led by the King which saw the nation swiftly switching sides. These were jagged, unprecedented times, full of war and death and abject cruelty. But “The Dead Nation” also suggests a curious kind of retrospective consolation in the fact that two things are eternally true: everyone dies, and everyone smiles in photos.