Cineuropa talked to Lithuanian director Jurgis Matulevičius about his first feature, Isaac, selected in Competition at Imagineindia International Film Festival Madrid.
Jurgis Matulevičius’s Isaac, although shot, for the most part, in gorgeous black and white, and dealing with the theme of post-war guilt, is not simply another Ida. The movie revolves around the infamous Lietūkis Garage Massacre and has many surprises up its sleeve. We spoke to the director to find out more.
Isaac is based on a short story by Antanas Škėma, and it’s actually the first adaptation of his work. What made you want to do it?
For me, there are only a few good Lithuanian writers; Škėma is one of them. He reminds me of the Beat Generation, especially William S Burroughs. There is this surreal, nihilistic, poetic aspect to his work, and the structure of his novels was very modern. He wrote about this massacre from 1941, and afterwards, I went to the KGB archives and started to read about it some more. It was shocking to discover all of these things that war makes one do, how one starts killing one’s neighbours, basically. In my film, I wanted to talk about the post-war world, where people were living in fear and distress. This man kills his Jewish neighbour right at the start, but this burden is just getting heavier. He is trying to make peace with what he did, with Isaac, with himself, but that seems impossible to achieve. Škėma wrote this story as a diary from a psychiatric hospital, but ultimately, in my film, it became more of a detective story, taking place in the 1960s.
You give some historical background at the very beginning, adding, “Several Lithuanians took part in the massacre.” Can this be seen as a controversial statement, do you think?
Lots of other countries were in the same situation. From the 1940s, we were a part of the Soviet Union. The Nazis came in 1941, offering these ideas of independence and freedom. People really believed in their propaganda; they believed we would get our independence back simply by following their orders. Little by little, some Lithuanians who were cooperating with the Nazis helped them to exterminate the Jews. But my main character thought that his neighbour had told on him, and that’s why he was taken to jail. That’s why he reacted in this way – not because Isaac was a Jew. He was driven by anger and ended up killing a man. It stems from his cowardliness, after finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later on, he is haunted by this image, this guilt, but there is no way back.
This guilt manifests itself in some nasty ways, especially when he is with his wife. Trauma is a complex subject, and everyone reacts to it differently. You show this in the film.
I wanted to show his loneliness, one that leads to paranoia and madness. He was carrying this secret around for a very long time, and he didn’t tell anybody, not even his wife. Maybe that’s why they can’t connect. There is no way for him to forget this murder, so – as he passively holds everything in – his trauma builds up over time. He only reacts when he thinks his friend is trying to steal his woman, when there is this primal sense of “ownership” at play. But he lives in constant fear of what will happen once everyone finds out. The arrival of his friend, the director, is the first sign of danger. After all, he is making a film about these events.
The beginning, with the long shot in black and white, makes you think of all of these dramas about World War II, like The Painted Bird, for example. Is that why, at a certain point, you decided to switch?
This scene was shot in one uninterrupted take. I really wanted them to relive it. About the colour, I was switching basing it on the protagonist, really. In the beginning, the past comes back to him. Then I added colour because we see the beginning of something new – mostly for his wife, Elena, but maybe also for his friend. They are working on a film, re-enacting this massacre. But then the past is on his mind again, eclipsing everything else.
The idea of having a film within a film allows you to look at the past from another angle. Like when the director, confronted by a shocked extra, asks at one point: “We are filming history. Is history indecent?”
I think that every country has indecent chapters and indecent people in their history; there are no exceptions. I didn’t try to make a historical drama here, or to tell everyone the truth about how it really was. It’s fiction. In all of my short films, I liked to create my own world – one where only I know the rules. Here, I hope that everyone can recognise themselves in that situation. Very often, we want to go back to the past and change it. We understand it’s not possible, but this illusion helps us to live in the present – and maybe not repeat the same mistake again.