Radu Jude’s new short, The Potemkinists, finds the director in typically didactic form, which is one of his greatest virtues — why not say what you mean, especially when it comes to politics? At the present moment, film holds perhaps the least cultural impact it has ever had, and short films even less, so there’s little hope for ideas buried under the propriety of subtext. In The Potemkinists, two Romanian characters — a sculptor and a bureaucrat from the ministry of culture — lay out their ideas in a vapid Socratic dialogue, debating what to make of a particularly meaningless statue that could be either a hammer, a flag, a flame, or a wing (it doesn’t really matter, since India has already built a bigger one). To make it the tallest statue in Europe and restore some of the country’s former Soviet glory, the sculptor suggests adding a tribute to the Potemkinists, those sailors who rose up on the eponymous Russian battleship, mostly because he loves Eisenstein’s film and its depiction of the event. The clarity and purpose of Battleship Potemkin create a stark contrast when intercut with these scenes of liberal yammering.
The bureaucrat pushes back against this idea because it might be seen, by the people she represents and seems to assume very little of, as a eulogy to communists. But the sculptor insists it has nothing to do with ideology. (When he apologizes for bad language, it’s unclear if he’s referring to “fucking” or “socialist.”) Even though he’s borrowing imagery from a film he calls propaganda — the dead sailor laying on a hook — it’s okay because the real Potemkinists ended up fleeing to their native Romania, where they were taken in as refugees; he manages to twist it into some bizarre allusion to the refugee crisis and the charitable spirit of Europeans. His view of history is like that of any history nerd or liberal politician: it’s fragmented into amusing little facts that can never coalesce into concrete reality, which allows them to be rearranged into whatever shape is desirable. The sculptor just wants to enjoy Eisenstein’s explicitly communist movie guilt-free without feeling ideologically impure, a desire hardly limited to liberals. (Many leftist cinephile types desperately try to convince themselves that right-wing artists like Zack Snyder are actually, secretly, woke.)
But what Jude is hitting upon is a particularly European relationship to history. America has the ability to reduce its complexities into symbols, it being allegedly a nation built on ideas and consequently subsumable into myth. But Europe is so densely populated with histories both distant and close that the only way to obscure it is to complicate it further, to make it entirely relativistic so that one could argue, as the sculptor does, that the Potemkinists were idealists and not communists. His final compromise — the liberal’s medium — with the bureaucrat is to position his tribute to the Potemkinists alongside one to the victims of a Stalinist prison camp that was built nearby.
The duo’s best justification for this gibberish collage is that “the twentieth century was a jumble anyway,” and thus there’s no point trying to interpret it or anything else. “You brute of a century,” the sculptor says, quoting Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet who was sent to a labor camp, “who could look into the centers of your eyes?” But it seems easy enough to do with a theistic reverence for anti-ideology that no longer seeks to justify the past or the status quo, settling for passive acceptance through abstraction. The tragedy of The Potemkinists is hence thus: when the sculptor and bureaucrat look into those eyes, they don’t see the grandeur and cruelty of history, but a postmodern banality.
You can currently stream The Potemkinists on MUBI.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.