Young Critics: Carlos Kong over Scarred Hearts
“The impression that nothing is real…” Interrupting the image sequences of Scarred Hearts, this phrase appears onscreen against a black background, as if to give text to a thought or to demarcate a new chapter. A contrary thought presented later undermines the former impression of detachment: “The vertiginous feeling of reality after a long wait…” Romanian director Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts visualizes the doubling of reality’s evacuation and its consequent vertigo-inducing onrush.
Scarred Hearts opens with a sequence of archival photographs of the Romanian writer Max Blecher and ends with footage of his gravestone in a Jewish cemetery. Yet between these commemorative symbols of Blecher’s existence and ending, Radu Jude loosely adapted Blecher’s eponymous novel into his film. Published in 1937, a year before his death, Blecher’s autobiographically-inflected Scarred Hearts (Inimi Cicatrizate) tells of Emmanuel (played in the film by Lucian Teodor Rus), a young man recovering from bone tuberculosis or “Pott’s disease” in a coastal sanatorium. Spending the majority of his adult life in sanatoriums across Europe, Max Blecher himself suffered from the devastating disease and wrote the novel amidst the unnerving conditions of confinement that Radu Jude cinematically translates.
In Jude’s Scarred Hearts, Emmanuel, following Blecher himself, is fitted into plaster abdomen cast to stabilize his degenerative spine. Emmanuel thus joins the fellow occupants as consigned to a world of horizontal bed-ridden sedentariness in a sanatorium on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea. The plaster body casts effectuate a Kafkaesque metamorphosis; reality is suspended as the sanatorium patients become a new species of horizontal living sculptures. The enervating and enlivening absurdity of life theatricalized in Jude’s film is both solemn and darkly humorous. As Emmanuel’s father reassuringly exclaims upon bringing his son to the sanatorium, “Patients lead normal lives here. They go out, listen to music. They just have to lie down. You can even drive a carriage reclining!” Horizontality normalizes the debilitating alterity of illness in Scarred Hearts, creating a compelling visual choreography of beds and bodies in which reality is unfolding and simultaneously taking place elsewhere.
The “vertiginous feeling of reality” is most enthralling in moments of the sanatorium’s group dynamics and humorous mischief. A scene of a rowdy party, rife with drinking games, music, sexual tension, and drunken brawls, portrays the joyful possibilities of camaraderie and comedy across social encounters constricted by horizontal immobility. Moreover, the visceral depictions of Emmanuel’s erotic desires and sexual relations in spite of his plaster-casted bodily rigidity exemplifies the tenacious grasp on living life that the sanatorium paradoxically affords. However, Radu Jude’s film builds layers of complexity by portraying Max Blecher’s ambivalent “impression that nothing is real” through a wide spectrum of Emmanuel’s experiences, most of which assume a combination of alienation, boredom, sadness, disgust, and self-pity.
Beyond the sanatorium’s microcosmic view of social complexity, it also presents a prismatic view of the outside world, predominantly of the political realms of the late 1930s in Romania and in greater Europe. In particular, discussions of Judaism and anti-Semitism form an integral subtext in Scarred Hearts as in Blecher’s 1937 novel. Blecher and Jude reference not simply emergent European anti-Semitism but also foreground a period of social unrest in interwar Romania that culminated in the rise of Antonescu’s fascist regime in 1940, his alignment of Romania with Nazi Germany at the start of WWII, and the consequent ethnic cleansing of Romanian Jews. Beyond Blecher’s Jewish identity, various references to nascent political turmoil are evident throughout the film, specifically through the prevalence of listening to radio as a form of leisure. As the increasingly destructive cultural realms are mediated inward, the sanatorium residents resist the absurdity of anti-Semitism and steadfastly reject Judaism, as with their own physical illnesses, as the ground for scapegoating and stigmatization. In a striking scene of the residents spending an evening together, a discussion on European politics takes place. A man on crutches ultimately performs a botched and histrionic “Heil Hitler!” to the reception of roaring laughter. Devoid of censorship and safeguarded from rising fascisms, the sanatorium forms an integral character in Scarred Hearts as both mirror and screen that reflects the outside world’s violence and makes possible its contestation.
The emotional resonances and political subtexts of Scarred Hearts are particularly heightened through Radu Jude’s techniques of cinematic realism. The film is composed of long, still sequences with minimal yet realistic actions, such as extended images of the sanatorium’s vivid interiors and the Black Sea’s tantalizing horizon, or stark painful scenes of the doctor’s inventive (and invasive) medical procedures. Jude’s techniques thus situate Scarred Hearts within the recent and concurrent aesthetics of Romanian New Wave cinema, many works of which reflect on the violence of Romanian postwar history through long takes, absent music, distancing effects, and stark depictions of the cruelty of everyday life.
While Jude distinguishes Scarred Hearts from other works of the Romanian New Wave by recuperating Max Blecher and, by extension, Romanian literary modernism, Scarred Hearts also distances itself from Blecher’s original text. Affiliated with Surrealism and a dedicated correspondent of André Breton, André Gide, and Martin Heidegger from his sanatorium bed, Blecher poeticizes Heiddegerian existential philosophy in a language of Surrealism that André Breton would have likely advocated. As Blecher writes in the novel, “The strangest and most hallucinatory thing about our dreams is that the bizarrest of incidents take place in familiar and mundane surroundings.” However, in Jude’s insistent realism, particularly through the camera’s stillness, Blecher’s grounding of the novel in the hallucinatory dreams of shifting reality is evaded. Blecher’s oneiric vision is sidestepped in Jude’s prosaic translation.
Nonetheless, one of the film’s most compelling moments occurs when Emmanuel recounts a Blecherian dream. Emmanuel imagines that his sanatorium room has been transformed into a horse’s skull that he sits inside of. Inside and outside are hallucinated into reversal as Emmanuel dreams life into a space of decay. This dream structurally parallels the film’s titular metaphor—the scar tissue of Scarred Hearts. As discussed in the film, scar tissue lacks sensation and grows at the site of injury for its protection; skin thickens to heal as the wound is inscribed deeper. Does the emergence of scar tissue on a broken heart protect the heart or stop its beating? When nothing seems real and reality vertiginously returns, Scarred Hearts asks if we remain sensitized to suffering.