Karlovy Vary 2018: ‘I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,’ Brilliantly Speaks Truth to Power

This review is by our guest writer, Redmond Bacon.

The Germans have a word for acknowledging their Nazi past. Known as “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” it literally means “coming to terms with the past,” describing the process by which the country tries to learn from the mistakes it made during the 30s and 40s, most significantly the Holocaust. This process makes Germany quite a unique country, as no other major nation-state can claim to have gone through quite the same amount of personal soul-searching.

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This dream of awakening her home country of Romania is the mission of Mariana, an artist who wants to put on a reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941 in which between 25,000 to 34,000 Jews were either shot or burned to death by Romanian troops. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, is named after a quote that was used to justify the process. According to her, its a part of history glossed over by Romanians, who prefer to remember the time they joined the Allies three years into War. A pertinent clip from the Romanian film The Mirror, released in 1994, shows just how deep the distortion of history goes, displaying Ion Antonescu — the Romanian leader — as a sympathetic character who only “deported” non-Romanian Jews, instead of killing them. This is a blatant lie and something that Mariana is determined to deconstruct.

Her stage? A public square in Romania, fighting the forces of censorship, prejudice, and endless mansplaining along the way. We are treated to endless scenes of rehearsal. In the hands of another director, this could get boring, but Radu Jude makes it constantly fascinating, creating an endlessly complex relationship between the present and the past. This metafictional aspect is crucial to the theme of the movie. Of course, no performance will ever get to the heart of war and genocide, because any presentation of it will inevitably sanitise it. In Holocaust literature, there is a strong belief that no words can accurately describe the horror. Passages from Hannah Arendt are read out to show that an abyss was created by the sheer evil of the event, in which nothing can even come close to doing that horror justice.

I Do Not Care represents both that futility and the need to keep trying, with the depiction of the performance becoming a reflexive tool that shows that countering hatred is always an ongoing process. Anti-Semitism and other prejudices are not relics of the past, but instead, act in the world today. A crucial scene occurs around halfway through the movie when two older men who are amateur actors complain to Mariana that there are gypsies among them. Racism is alive and well, the movie seems to ask, you just have to stop acting blind and tackle it head on in your own backyard.

It avoids become pure didacticism thanks to a magnetic performance from Ioana Iacob. This is a woman determined to put on the show no matter the cost, dealing with ingrained prejudice, sexism, and what-about-ist arguments all along the way. She is a sheer force of personality, a true intellectual, someone who can rustle up a quote or an anecdote no matter the situation, the kind of person one would be blessed to talk to for hours. A master at the clap-back, there is something immensely satisfying about watching her put down idiots with a well-timed fact. We get glimpses into her personal life too, in which she interrupts a post-coital situation with her lover to ruminate further on historical events. This constant wokeness must be tiring for her, but the fact that she never stops thinking about it — without becoming insufferably pedantic — and the sheer brilliance of how she articulates those thoughts, immediately asserts her as an instantly iconic character. 

What Mariana is after is simply telling the truth. The Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism, and all the propaganda they used all came from well-worn clichés. What they invented, and which puts them as the worst people in history, is the method of execution, which is why they can be so easily pointed to as evil. Mariana herself acknowledges this, but as a Romanian, and maybe even as a true patriot, needs to draw her people’s attention to this gross atrocity nonetheless. She is constantly asked questions like, but what about the communists, what about ISIS, what about Boko Haram, but she dismisses this as a distracting tactic. If you ask “what about?” everything all of the time, then you will never get anywhere. There is a strain of very dark comedy here in the way it turns real massacres into intellectual sparring tactics, but I Do Not Care lingers its camera long enough on images of atrocity — such as burnings, shooting, and hangings — to let you know where its real loyalties lie.

Coming at a time when the neighbouring Hungarian government is using openly anti-Semitic language to win elections and demonise migrants, the Labour party in the UK keeps accepting known racists into their ranks and Poland decided to exculpate themselves from any personal responsibility for the Holocaust, I Do Not Care becomes a deeply relevant film that speaks immense truth to power. While it may seem inaccessible due its physical length and the sheer intellectual range of its conversations, this is required viewing for anyone who is tired of trying to speak simple truths. Fighting for what is right will never end, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop fighting. I Do Not Care exemplifies all this and more, delivering one of the best films of the year in the process.

This review is part of our Karlovy Vary 2018 coverage. For the rest of Redmond’s reviews, click here.

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