A ROMANIAN FILMMAKER who regularly deflates Romanian myths of national greatness, Radu Jude recently graced the New York Film Festival with a compact, farcical essay on the material basis of historical memory, or, to use Trotsky’s term, “the dustbin of history.”
The Potemkinists takes the form of a conversation between a would-be public artist and a prospective state patron. Those familiar with Jude’s tricksy, appalling account of a staged historical pageant, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018), will recall considerable screen time devoted to a similar debate. Indeed, Alexandru Dabija, the affably sly ministry official in I Do Not Care, appears here in the guise of a garrulous sculptor selling a proposal to rehabilitate a glorious moment from Romania’s past. His possible benefactor is a generally unimpressed cultural bureaucrat (Cristina Drăghici, who delivered an inspired rant as a shopper in Jude’s 2021 Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn).
Largely shot on a scenic bluff overlooking the forced labor–produced Danube–Black Sea Canal in the shadow of grandiose, derelict Ceaușescu-era monument dedicated to the Union of Communist Youth, their discussion also concerns Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 cinematic monument Battleship Potemkin, sampled throughout. The first excerpt, Potemkin’s still thrilling conclusion, hits the historical pause button on a moment of ecstatic revolutionary solidarity—which is exactly what Jude’s sculptor wants to get beyond by memorializing what happened next.
As it turns out, Eisenstein was himself asked that what followed. In a 1926 essay cryptically titled “Constanța,” he notes being repeatedly pestered by viewers wishing to know the Potemkin’s subsequent fate. Rather than answer, however, he explains that that history is irrelevant. “The movie ends at precisely the point at which it is maximized as an ‘asset’ to the Revolution”—a one-sentence theory of historical montage!
The prudently unpublished “Constanța” goes on to characterize Battleship Potemkin as a canny example of “NEP tactics” in art—a strategic use of bourgeois attractions (“doubt, tears, sentiment, lyricism, psychologism, maternal feelings, etc.”). Potemkinists acknowledges this with a deadpan parody of the most exciting montage sequence in cinema history, Eisenstein’s drama of the Potemkin Steps. A brilliant demonstration of editing-table legerdemain, not least for its outrageous use of parallel action in the service of temporal expansion, the classic sequence is burlesqued by the real-time efforts of the sculptor and bureaucrat to wheeze their way, at times on all fours, up a flight of stairs toward a huge stainless-steel whatzit.
This towering structure suggests a twisted accordion, or an airplane cargo-hold spilling baggage from the sky. Its creator, Pavel Bucur, has described it as an abstract flame meant to signify the body of a fallen angel. Evidently, the original design included a pair of wings, but the concept was never fully realized, supposedly for fear of compromising the statue’s structural integrity.
Still, Bacur exulted in his creation: “After the Statue of Liberty, it is the tallest monument in the world. It cost as much as a bridge!” It also involved the dislocation of an entire village. Now embellished with graffiti, the statue’s concrete base once held bronze plates and bas-reliefs depicting the construction of the Danube–Black Sea Canal as well as Romania’s ruling Ceaușescu couple who had revived the project, completed in 1984. An ambiguous inscription applied to all: “Let future generations know of our sacrifice for our country.”
After the 1989 Romanian Revolution, the plates (which weighed many tons) were pried loose, carted off, and stolen for scrap. (“Gypsies?” the bureaucrat asks.) As a 2012 article on the Romanian website Adverol (Truth) mourned, “stripped of the bronze bas-reliefs, blackened by rain and wind, difficult to reach because of the road and the positioning, a work of art that could have been admired by a whole world remains only an indicator for the convoys on the Danube–Black Sea Channel that it is approaching the Port of Constanța.”
Constanța is key. The sculptor proposes to recuperate this unwieldly tribute to Communist Youth by reconsecrating it to the revolutionary sailors of the battleship Potemkin in acknowledgement of the little-known fact (at least outside of Romania) that, essay title aside, Eisenstein coyly declined to divulge. After threatening to bombard and possibly obliterate Romania’s largest Black Sea port, Constanța, these Soviet heroes—the strapping young Potemkinists—were granted political asylum by the Romanian king Carol I.
Specifically, the sculptor’s plan is to put the movie’s martyr, Grigory Vakulinchuk, atop the monument, making it the tallest (and possibly most ridiculous) sculpture in Europe, with Vakulinchuk posed as he dies per Eisenstein, a proletarian fallen angel caught by and suspended in the ship’s rigging.
In place of the stolen bas-reliefs, the sculptor proposes to honor comrade artist Eisenstein with a montage of the Odessa Steps on one side and, on the other, celebrating Romanian world-historic generosity in a representation of Constanța’s citizenry welcoming the heroic mutineers. When the bureaucrat cautions him that “we don’t want to be seen as eulogists for Communism,” the sculptor quickly appeals to her patriotism. By harboring the Potemkinists, he explains, “Romania fucked Russia in the mouth!”
Arms folded, the bureaucrat is doubtful that the monument even deserves to be preserved: After all, “People had their homes destroyed for this piece of crap.” The sculptor becomes ever more manic, pivoting to suggest a new frieze on the pedestal to honor the political prisoners and acknowledge the dispossessed villagers with a “slideshow of grief.” The result, not unlike The Potemkinists, will be a “postmodern collage” commemorating a disastrous century. A timeless statue collapses in the muck of history. The bureaucrat allows that she might be able to sell that.
When irony fails, absurdism may suffice. Nevertheless, The Potemkinists ends on a sober note. Jude evokes historical memory with a few excoriating lines from a 1922 Osip Mandelstam poem—You brute of a century, who could stare / into the vacuum of your eyes—and a few ancient images, postcards showing the Potemkin in Constanța.