Co-directed with historian Adrian Cioflâncã, this exhaustive and harrowing documentary from Radu Jude revisits a heinous chapter in Romanian history: the Iași pogrom, which over the course of a few days in the summer of 1941 saw the massacre of more than 13,000 Jewish civilians. At nearly three hours long, this challenging film demands patience, attention, and even courage from its viewers.
Deliberately avoiding emotionally manipulative tactics, much of the film unfolds like an archival collage. Photos of the victims are accompanied by testimonies from relatives, witnesses, and the very few survivors, information that is read out in a neutral tone. Read after one another, these accounts are especially frightening in their brutal repetitiveness: in most cases, Jewish men were enthusiastically tortured and shot by not only Romanian and German soldiers but also civilians. Those who survived the savage beating were deported on the so-called “Death Train”, cattle cars so crammed with people that most on board perished due to lack of air and food. The bureaucratic, matter-of-fact nature of the testimonies renders these gruesome final hours even more startling, evoking the scale as well as the cruel casualness with which the victims were murdered.
Three hours might seem vast in scope, yet the film only identifies about 200 victims before concluding with a completely silent section that displays photos of the atrocities previously recounted in words. Against the anonymity of these images, the biographical information found in the testimonies is even more devastating; the fates of some victims are told in one single sentence. Besides being an unusual style that challenges how historical atrocities are presented in cinema, the film’s silent ending also begs the tragic question: how does public memory bear witness to the countless deaths for which there exists no biographical records?