Q&A: Radu Jude on ‘The Dead Nation,’ a Cinematic Essay

Acclaimed narrative filmmaker Radu Jude explores Romania’s shifting identity throughout history in his first documentary, THE DEAD NATION. Using archival images found from the collection of a rural photographer, text excerpted from the journal of a Jewish doctor, and songs recorded from the nationalistic anthems of the time, Jude’s cinematic essay provides a harrowing yet captivating account of the rise of nationalism and anti-semitism in Romania during the 1930s-40s. Equal parts mesmerizing and horrifying, THE DEAD NATION is, as the narration describes, “torn between reality and poetry,” creating a necessary recollection of a period with eerie similarities to our own. 

Dead Nation 650

You’ve made such a unique film. How do you describe THE DEAD NATION in your own words?

Radu Jude: I would call it a non-fictional found-footage essay about how we look at images, especially those dealing with history.

What inspired you to make this film?

Radu Jude: Many things. First of all, my research for a new film which I just shot which deals—also obliquely—with the massacres done by the Romanian army during the Second Word War. Then, a lot of thinking regarding the problems of representation in cinema, especially when cinema deals with the past.

Plus, some readings: Errol Morris’s book on the relationship between images and reality, the works of W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, the essay of the critic Andrei Gorzo on Andrei Ujica’s films, the discovery of the Found Footage Magazine, some found-footage films I watched… I could go on and on.

How did you find the source material?  The diary, the photos, the soundtrack…

Radu Jude: The photos of Costica Acsinte were discovered by a passionate photographer, Cezar Mario Popescu. He scanned them and made them available for the public—it is his merit. I discovered the diary of Emil Dorian by accident in a bookstore filled with old books. (Fun fact: it was published for the first time in the United States in the ’80s, under the title The Quality of Witness). Most of the soundtrack came from the National Film Archive propaganda films. I watched them while researching my new project and I realized some of them could be used for this film, too.

Once you had the materials, what was the filmmaking process like for THE DEAD NATION, since it consists of a narrator and still images?

Radu Jude: That was pretty simple after the editor Catalin Cristutiu and I found a guideline, mainly to organize the materials more or less chronologically and see what comes out of this. We tried to pay attention not to give the viewer the idea that what’s in the image has a direct connection with the soundtracks (apart from some obvious scenes), because this could create the idea that the people in the pictures are somehow guilty of the destruction depicted on the soundtrack. The first cut of the film had some moments like this; then we edited and kept the second title of the film, “Fragments of Parallel Lives,” in order to block these kinds of interpretations.

Your film explores a darker and unknown topic of world history. What does this film mean to you? 

Radu Jude: Many things, but first of all I feel enriched by spending so much time with all the documents, photographs and texts that are part of the film. I want to explore this kind of cinema more.

This is your first documentary. How did making this film compare to your experiences making narrative films?

Radu Jude: I know it may sound cliche, but for me any film is cinema and nothing more. I am not so much interested in these differentiations—documentary vs. fiction—for me they are the same thing: cinema. And I consider myself a constructivist, from the viewpoint of philosophy, so I would say that, in a way, there is no such thing as a documentary, but only fiction.

What are you hoping American audiences take away from THE DEAD NATION?

Radu Jude: Charlottesville has an interest connection, believe it or not! The funny thing is that one of the organizers there declared they were influenced by the Romanian fascist leader from the ’30s, Corneliu Codreanu. So, the audience has a chance to see at least one root of the Charlottesville riots. The Iron Guard leaders would be very proud to see how their ideas crossed the Atlantic…

Check out the U.S. premiere of THE DEAD NATION in the World Cinema section of HIFF25. Find Tickets.  Follow THE DEAD NATION on Facebook.