Where to begin with Radu Jude

As his latest no-holds-barred satire on modern life arrives in cinemas, we get you up to the breakneck speed of Romanian provocateur Radu Jude.

4 March 2024

By Miriam Balanescu

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World (2023)

Why this might not seem so easy

In a career spanning scarcely more than two decades, Radu Jude has become one of Romania’s most provocative and prolific auteurs. To date, he has directed 10 solo feature films, numerous short films, more than 100 commercials, plus a television series – and his output is only accelerating.

Jude is a fledgling of the Romanian New Wave (alongside Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Adina Pintilie and others), a group of filmmakers who seized the international spotlight in the 2000s as Romanian cinema – previously all but ignored – gained ground in the post-communist era. He was assistant director on Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), the film credited with cementing Romanian film’s new global standing.

While Jude shares a corrosively black humour with his contemporaries, he has carved out a distinctively rule-flouting style. A three-time reject of Romania’s national film school, Jude is often brazenly dismissive of formal (or any) conventions, forgoing pedestrian techniques or neat narrative arcs in favour instead of a rough-hewn essay-like structure. Within this framework exists a riotous collision of ideas.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc, 2021)

He is formidably well-read, with a magpie-like approach to texts, archives, footage and images. In films such as Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021), influences including Virginia Woolf and Witold Gombrowicz rub shoulders with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Patty Jenkins. (His film credits serve as eclectic reading lists.) But however obscure his references, Jude’s work is anything but lofty, fusing the highbrow with the low and applying an evenly critical eye to both. Equally, he opts to bring together high-calibre thespians, sitcom actors and non-professionals in his cast, and is as likely to find some way of incorporating a TikTok as a neoclassical painting.

Harnessing this dialectical energy, Jude is a firm advocate for the power of montage to excavate hidden truths, citing Jacques Rivette and Sergei Eisenstein, along with Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “optical unconscious”, as major guiding forces.

Where Romanian New Wave films typically offer searing satires of life in the former satellite state, Jude probes far deeper into Romania’s troubled past. Anti-Roma discrimination, antisemitism and misogyny are defining concerns throughout his oeuvre, which looks unflinchingly not only at Ceaușescu’s dictatorship but also at Romania’s fascist regime and, before that, its little discussed epoch of slavery. One of Jude’s main traits, though, is that despite the topical severity of his dramas they are above all uproariously funny – wielding a bawdy, always ironic sense of humour and an unapologetic tendency to shock.

The best place to start – Aferim!

Although an outlier among Radu Jude films, Aferim! (2015) is still the ideal entry point. This Wallachia-set ‘eastern western’ established many of Jude’s presiding themes, and, as his first period piece, sowed the seeds for many of the historical details which would crop up in his later portraits of contemporary Romania.

A constable (Teodor Corban) and his son (Mihai Comanoiu) ride out on horseback at the behest of a boyar to track down an escaped Roma slave (Cuzin Toma). Corban excels as the loquacious law-enforcer, veering between repulsively racist and sexist remarks and almost beautifully poetic aphorisms. Aferim is the Ottoman Turkish word for ‘bravo’, and it is this unwarranted self-adulation which underpins this caustic tale of corruption and the handing down of history.

Aferim! (2015)

Marking a turning point in his career, Aferim! is perhaps Jude’s most gargantuan production to date, setting out with a budget of over a million dollars. By this point, Jude had already earned his stripes working on a horde of commercials, several shorts and two slim-budgeted features (his debut The Happiest Girl in the World (2009) and Everybody in Our Family (2012)) bearing many of the hallmarks of austere post-Iron-Curtain realism. Aferim!, then, strikingly changed tack – an interpretive version of history where the Balkan wilds, shot in crisp widescreen black and white, resemble the backdrop to a spaghetti western or the rugged forests of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966). While Aferim! didn’t turn a profit, it was a critical victory, winning the Silver Bear at the Berlinale.

What to watch next

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018)

From this foundation, Jude went on to become best-known for scathing contemporary sketches with a historical bent, splicing together the action with foraged documents, images and footage. The first to do this was the brilliantly meta I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018). A headstrong filmmaker (Ioana Iacob) prepares to stage a re-enactment of the Odessa massacre in which 34,000 Jews, Roma and Ukrainians were slaughtered – but the reluctance of its funders, participants and audience to accept its truth is as much on display.

This sense of spectacle – and debacle – continues in Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which puts a teacher on a makeshift trial for the accidental online upload of her wince-worthy sex tape. The film notoriously opens with said video, starring porn actor Stefan Steel. But its middle section – a slew of newfangled dictionary definitions (the culmination of three years’ research) appearing on the screen at breakneck speed – is the film’s most interesting.

Jude’s most no-holds-barred film is his latest, Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World (2023). It trails Angela (Ilinca Manolache), and her Andrew Tate-esque social media alter ego (incredibly, dreamed up by the actor before Tate rose to notoriety), as she relentlessly zigzags through Bucharest’s streets while assistant producing a dubious employee safety video. The road movie is braided with snippets from Lucian Bratu’s censorship-age film Angela Moves On (1981), a kind of filmic doppelganger which Jude warps and moulds, and features appearances from hack director Uwe Boll and Christian Petzold collaborator Nina Hoss as a disembodied head levitating amid an artificial Zoom background.

The Dead Nation (2017)

Still in this double-barrelled mode but much more bone-chilling is Uppercase Print (2020), about a teenager turned over to the Securitate. The way in which this verbatim play by Gianina Cărbunariu is filmed feels akin to icy interrogation.

Given Jude’s penchant for documentary, it’s hardly surprising that he eventually dabbled in the medium: The Dead Nation (2017) and The Exit of the Trains (2020) are well worth seeking out. And his other period drama Scarred Hearts (2016) – adapted from the Jewish writer Max Blecher’s little-known novel which chronicled the rise of fascism – surrenders up a tenderness scant in Jude’s other films.

Where not to start

Jude is not the kind of filmmaker to make any serious misstep, though you may wish to leave his earlier work until later during any deep dive into his filmography. That said, traces of The Happiest Girl in the World surface in Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World and Uppercase Print. Though still on realist terrain, Everybody in Our Family presaged the absurdism which would run amok in his later output. In A Film for Friends (2011), the mark made by The Death of Mr Lazarescu on Jude is felt keenest – although this is undeniably the grimmest of Jude’s pictures.

An absolute must, once you’ve worked through the rest of Jude’s filmography, is an encounter with the understated family study The Tube with a Hat (2006), which boasts being the most garlanded Romanian short film ever made.

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 8 March 2024.