Banality of Pragmatic Evil
An Interview with Florin Iepan, director of Odessa, about the massacre of Jews in Odessa, the blind spots in Romanian history and Iepan's attempt to reverse perception of the past
What was the trigger for your project?
I was approached by our television network to make a promo film about Ion Antonescu. It was part of the programme Great Romanians. The interesting thing is that in Germany they banned voting for all the Nazi leaders. It was a good idea for the Romanians to reconsider their own past and they bought this TV format from the BBC. But as the show started, Antonescu became the most popular figure. At that moment my perception of Antonescu was also positive - an anticommunist fighter who was executed by the Russians in 1946 as a war criminal. Except we didn't know he was a real war criminal. He was a great role model for our politicians.
But throughout the research, I realized that Antonescu was more committed against Jews than the Germans at the beginning of the war. In October 1941, there were no Nazi concentration camps there yet. And at that time Antonescu had already killed thousands and thousands of people. He was pragmatic. In his vision, the Jewish population in the northern part of Romania was pro-communist and pro-Russian - there was no topic of ethnic cleansing. So I decided to make another documentary that would shed more light on our past.
But when you found out about these things, did you in the end complete the promo documentary?
I did but I included part of this revelation. That was already against the BBC rules. It was the political decision of our national TV to break the BBC guidelines. And Antonecsu fell from the first position to the fifth place. But even today he is very popular. We are like those South American countries where the military figures are dedicated to their countries. Plus Antonescu died in front of the film camera shouting: "Long live Romania!".
How do you see King Mihai's involvement? You think you will manage to get him to comment on that in your film?
My plan for the past year has been to put at one table former King Mihai who was king at the time these atrocities took place, and Mr. Zaslawski, the only person who survived the Odessa massacre. They are the same age and look the same. But I'm not let through by the king's entourage, institutions, guards... By the way, I've just found out that the Jewish community has awarded King Mihai for his courage for protecting the Jews during the war. He never ever made any statement about the hundreds and hundreds of Jews slaughtered during his reign. King Mihai is the only figure that was awarded by Hitler and Stalin. And now by Putin and suddenly even by our Jewish community. What confuses me the most is that it seems there is no interest in lifting the lid from any of the sides. The confusion is so big and the public image is rooted so deeply in people's minds that even the old Jews tell me to consider leaving the subject because they are afraid they would become the target of people becoming massively angry.
What do you actually learn at school about that period? What is written in the textbooks?
That we saved most of the Jews, that Hungarians are a bit worse....
And the historians whose obligation is to open these historical facts?
Today nobody is able to accept that Romania was a fascist country. No historian is willing to go against the status quo.
I would say your title in this sense is a bit misleading - Odessa evokes the past massacre, you are making a film about the possibility to reverse the persisting blind spot...
Yes, for the moment I have no other option but maybe something like Operation Reverse.
Your documentary Odessa doesn't want to document. You want to reverse the knowledge and the propaganda system. How?
First I want to raise the issue so that people realize that there is a problem. I would like to promote this moment as a commercial product, as "Odessa - the darkest moment of our history". And I would like to use very modern tools. Internet, media, hot line. I would like to use the iconic film director Nicolaescu, who basically created our history by making all the historical films. We have no history, we have historical film. If I persuade Nicolaescu to make a film about Odessa, it will immediately become part of our history. He is seen as an independent, as a figure that is above all.
But apart from rewriting history, you also want to open debate. What are the possibilities to raise such an issue in Romania today?
I talked with one journalist about how to address people with such topic and he was very skeptical. But in the end we came up with an idea to make something very spectacular. There is a lot of corruption in politics. It could cost approx. 20,000 euro to bribe someone in the parliament to start an initiative to give some land to all the survivors or the related families as a kind of compensation. That would be a long process, we would have to change the constitution and so on but he says at that moment the whole country would stand up against that. And that already means that Odessa starts to exist in people's minds and they will start talking about this.
Is the blind spot based rather on a denial or agreement with the Nazi past?
Most people would say, yes, maybe, that was the case, but... There is always the "but". And that is the tendency of a small nation, to erase and rebuild history. Nobody has made a good documentary about victims of Romanian, Hungarian, Croatian Nazis... But the responsibility for the Holocaust is not only a German issue. It should be shared among many countries. We can't blame just the crazy person Hitler, and a number of other countries, without the ideological background people often had their own pragmatic reasons for such evil things...
That is the "banality of evil" Hannah Arendt describes in Eichmann in Jerusalem…
Yes... You don't need a nation or ideology in the process of the Holocaust. Look at Romania in the interwar period, it was seen as a nice half-crazy Balkan country where everybody enjoyed a good life, including the Jews. And three, four years later, we were ready to kill women and children. But I'm optimistic, I believe that Romanian society is ready. We are not like twenty years ago under Ceausescu. I don't think that everything is on my shoulders, an open dispute will open up and I will be able to step back.
The interview was first published in the 2nd issue of Industry Reel, our industry bi-daily for film professionals in Jihlava.