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Barbara Wurm: SĂPTĂMÂNA MARE (Holy Week) is your third feature, following ACASĂ LA TATA from 2015 and ARREST from 2019. ARREST focused on the ‘80s in Romania and the topic of the Securitate.

Andrei Cohn: The last two scripts are about evil things and are part of a larger project. AREST was about Communism, even though I’m not into political movies. But Communism is the backdrop and the story is about how we dealt with it. SĂPTĂMÂNA MARE is about another terrible chapter from our past. The main character is trying to handle the strained relationship between Jews and the rest of the community. It’s set at the beginning of the 20th century, albeit not at any precise date, but definitely before the nightmares that were to come – the Holocaust, Bolshevism and the rest.

BW: This is your second period piece and you said that you’d been working on it for a long time. Did you start right after ARREST?

AC: I had been thinking about this story for a long time. I can’t say exactly when I started, because I’m always working on several stories at the same time. I finalised the script after ARREST in 2018, applied for funding in 2019, then the pandemic hit in 2020 and now I finally managed to complete it.

I’m into humans, I make my films out of a love for people

Irina Bondas: Was there a certain moment when you came across the novella “An Easter Torch” by Ion Luca Caragiale which the film is based on and was there any specific event that led you to make this film?

AC: We learned about the author at school, and I’m pretty sure that my classmates skipped this novella, as they were not so interested in the subject, but I, as a Jew, was interested in the story of a guy trying to dance this ballet in dealing with his environment. So this story stayed with me for a very long time. I had this idea about making three films that are based on three stories about the act of killing, where fear is at the centre and it’s about trying to understand how one can deal with it. The decision to make this film had no external reason. Of course, it might look like it these days, which is unfortunate.

IB: It might indeed seem different today, yes. Has the film changed its significance for you because of recent events?

AC: Of course, I’m very stressed about it, like everybody. I’m sure that the film will have some unfortunate things read into it these days which were not my initial intention. I’m into humans, I make my films out of a love for people. I was thinking about individuals, about an innkeeper sliding into this spiral of evil out of fear. Of course, the story has some very relevant connotations today. It’s about this vicious circle of hate, and nobody knows how to break it.

BW: Can you tell any non-Romanians that did not read Caragiale in school about his significance as an author?

AC: He is one of the most famous Romanian writers, and I think he is the one who knows and loves us the best. But he got tired of us and left Romania for Berlin, where he died. He’s well known for his humour, but there is always drama in the background. My film is a very free adaptation of one of his stories. The original is pretty different, even the ending. And the message is different.

Drama doesn’t know how cinema decided to portray it

IB: He is considered a predecessor of Eugène Ionesco and the Theatre of the Absurd. What kind of role did Caragiale’s humour play in your film? Because in your case, it is a drama, but there is also humour in the background. What did you decide to change and why?

AC: I strongly believe that drama doesn’t imply rain and clouds and black and white. I think it happens in daylight, with some people saying stupid things. Drama doesn’t know how cinema decided to portray it. I believe that in terms of realism, humour is a requirement for drama. So I always work with humour. I changed some details of the story because I didn’t want the original ending in which the character goes mad. I didn’t want him to enjoy doing evil. It was just the starting point for my reflections.

BW: I read an interview with you while you were making this film where you said that you didn’t want to change history. And yet you changed the ending of the story.

AC: I don’t want to change written history, so in that interview I was referring to actual world history, to Romanian history. I’m not contradicting the way history is written down in books. It’s not about the facts for me. It’s not about anti-Semitism or Zionism in Romania. That’s up to historians or politicians. It’s only about how individuals deal with history. It is just the setting for them to make decisions and to carve out their own path.

IB: What’s also remarkable about this film is that the characters are very ambivalent, especially the protagonist. In every scene, the film avoids clear-cut characters or obvious turning points. It balances on this thin line of human ambivalence. Yet there is also this hostile environment and the historical context, both of which obviously play a big role and have a big impact on the characters. What comes first for you? Is it the individual or is it the living conditions that shape this individual? Because you leave us with all these questions with regards to the protagonist, what we are to think of him.

AC: Generally speaking, I believe that this is the way we are, neither good nor evil, neither brave nor cowardly. I believe all of us are dealing with life the best we can. I read a lot about the historical context, and it was much worse than the film is presenting it. If I had shown it the way it was for the majority of the Jewish population at that time, I would have told a very well-known story. But I was more interested in this fear which is half made by the environment and half made by the protagonist himself. Because I believe that fear comes not only from objective facts. You get all worked up by imagining ghosts. I think that’s the gateway into the spiral of hate. Once you start living under this sort of pressure, every day it will build. And you won’t be able to tell reality apart from the menaces your mind is making up. I can’t say whether the pressure my character is under has real reasons or not. There is a lot of stupid talk, but these words don’t necessarily turn into real actions. Yes, he’s ambivalent. The things he is dealing with are ambivalent. He’s not sure whether he’s dealing with ghosts or with real people that might come to kill his family one night. It’s more of a psychological quest rather than a story based on facts. The pressure often has a greater effect than reality, for all of us. And after terrible things happen, we find reasons for them, and it doesn’t always add up. Because things don’t work like that with us being humans, it’s more complicated.

I was interested in the everyday slow-cooked pressure which can turn someone into a different person

IB: I can imagine that this might challenge viewers because of the topic and the historical context. You said that when you were researching the historical context it was much more dire for Jews living in Romania. How did you do your research? Is this film also an outcome of your own engagement with history?

AC: It’s a consequence of my intuition about everything I ever read. I also tried to place myself in that situation. It has more in common with me than with history. History speaks mostly about peaks and not about everyday life. It’s hard to find this kind of information. When you look into this kind of subject, you are immediately confronted with these extreme outbursts of violence. I didn’t want to focus on the most extreme and violent moments everybody knows already. I was interested in the everyday slow-cooked pressure which can turn someone into a different person. People might have problems finding their take on the story. I hope to awaken doubts. I’m not able to offer answers. In fact, I dislike people and films that do that. It’s just one possible perspective on things and even if it’s wrong, it might open a discussion. One thing I feel sorry about is that people who don’t speak Romanian have to rely on subtitles and are missing out on the language spoken in this film. It’s not a proper dialect from a certain region. I tried to invent a very primitive and strangely violent language that is a mix of old and contemporary language, vernaculars, slang and bits and pieces from all over the country.

BW: What kind of reaction to the film do you expect, especially in Romania? Creating this artificial language already sounds a bit like a provocation.

AC: I hope there will be discussions. If I manage to make enough people angry with this language, it will be good. I'm kidding! But I still hope that people will understand that it is for the sake of the film. We have to think about the right language the way we think about costumes and scenography. I travelled Romania trying to find this primitive place, and the language was supposed to be fit in. We don’t have an existing language of that kind, so I had to make it up. It became decisive for the auditions, because many of the actors were not able to deliver the text. And when an actor was capable of assimilating and delivered this language in a credible way, it became an initial argument for them. I am totally into realism and not into conventions, so whenever an actor managed to do it, I was happy. I changed some characters because of that. Gheorghe was much older and tougher according to the script. But one day this young guy came to the casting by mistake and I changed the character completely. I made him this half-orphan living with his mother, because I liked the actor so much. And the same happened with other characters.

BW: You spoke about the insecurity and fear of the protagonist. At the same time, this character and the whole cast have such a physically imposing appearance, and you feel his strength in having to make all these decisions before this anxiety starts to take control. It leaves a very strong impression. But what is in my opinion an even bigger strength of this film is the dramatic structure. How did you develop the dramatic structure in terms of the pace? How did you decide which scenes to emphasise and where to be so detailed? What were your thoughts with regards to choosing these scenes and how did you compose them?

AC: It was a lot about editing. The script was a bit more logical. The initial cut was much longer, but the main difference was that there was a clear path which didn’t fit my objective. The fear that was building was initially much clearer. Then I decided that the protagonist would be under pressure from the very start, otherwise it would be a trivial story where a poor guy gets mental problems because of certain incidents. These people were living under this kind of pressure all the time. And maybe this is only a culmination, maybe not even the most relevant point. Maybe he should have reacted before, it’s not really clear. In that respect, I was happy I decided that Gheorghe should be younger, because it adds some innocence to his character. He’s not evil by default. To maintain the ambiguity throughout the journey was one of my objectives. When I wrote the script, it had the logic and the dramatic structure of a novel. But during the shooting process, I felt that this was simplistic. I didn’t want to make another thriller. I’m pretty sure that some people are disappointed that I decided not to make it more digestible. Luckily, the initial version was long, so I was able to get rid of things after a very hard shooting, with rafts not floating properly and rain arriving when I was praying for sun. I cut a lot. We had this joke, as the initial title was changed, I said I would make one edit for “GEFILTE FISH” and one for SĂPTĂMÂNA MARE.

If everything is ambivalent in the film, at least the title is not: it is about a week and it spans a week and ends after that week

IB: So the Gefilte fish was cut out?

AC: Yes, maybe the meaning of it was too oblique. For me, the food people cook is very relevant for who they are, also because everybody comes from somewhere different from the others and they all have their own weird dish. There’s this discussion in the film about gefilte fish and dyeing eggs. So red eggs and gefilte fish were a metaphor for people being foreign to each other. But in the end, we went for a more obvious title. If everything is ambivalent in the film, at least the title is not: it is about a week and it spans a week and ends after that week.

IB: Apart from people being different and being from different places, they are embedded into the same space. You have a lot of long, static shots that capture this landscape and the people inhabiting the landscape and this prototypical village. How did you choose the location? Was it also supposed to be a place that could be anywhere?

AC: It’s not typically Romanian. The crew said they felt like they were in Greece with these ravines and a lot of water. Green hills are much more emblematic for Romania. I was looking for two things: it had to be primitive and rough and it had to be beautiful, because I wanted to convey that the Earth is actually a nice place and we are doing dirty things on it. I wanted the horrible things to happen against this beautiful backdrop, because our planet isn’t guilty of anything. I was thinking a lot about Romanian academic paintings, which are always showing how beautiful our country is. But I always thought that if these paintings had sound, you would hear horrific things.

I think the characters’ ethnicities are made by the environment as well. They are more similar than different, even this family of foreigners. We are very used to this stereotypical image of the Jew wearing black and living in certain neighbourhoods in the city. But here we have a Jew from the village, a peasant. I wanted to walk this thin line regarding how they look as well. Of course, his wife is shaved in private according to the ritual, but outside, she’s just like the others, speaks the same language and does the same work. In one scene, Gheorghe’s mother doesn’t even depict Leiba as being a Jew. He has the marks of being a Jew, but in a very discreet way. There are this kind of Jews trying to integrate into the society, not living in a certain community or neighbourhood, they are really alone. And being alone, the one thing you have to do is to integrate. They are shy with their Jewishness. And the environment has an assimilating effect on them.


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