Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Nicolae Ceausescu Looks at Stuff: Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

The New Wave of Romanian cinema (and I don’t know how we date new waves exactly, but it was definitely under way by 2006 and it continues to this day, I think) has produced some undeniable masterpieces: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; 12:08 East of Bucharest, and Tuesday, After Christmas, to name just a few (the Romanians are evidently interested in time).  They have also produced a number of films that one might call “difficult,” although I don’t like that label; I don’t think any film is difficult, although some may be more or less opaque than others (“opaque” was the conclusion that Jonathan Rosenbaum drew upon his first viewing of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and I think it’s a good descriptor).  For instance, there’s Cristi Piui’s 2009 film Aurora, which is three hours long and has a vague plot that takes place over the span of about five minutes.  And now there’s Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausecu, a three hour documentary composed entirely of stock footage of Ceausescu’s 1965-89 reign as president-dictator of Romania.

The film provides no voice-over narration and no commentary from talking heads.  It’s just footage of Ceausescu making speeches, meeting with foreign heads of state, and providing on-sight advising at random stores and construction sites, much like the Kims Jong-il and Jong-un, and this is perhaps no coincidence, as Ceausescu was a great admirer of the patriarch, Kim Il-sung.  Now, as Romania is a uniformly gray and poorly-lit country, the North Korean scenes of The Autobiography are surprisingly cheerful, if only by contrast.  “Kimjongilia” may be creepy as fuck, but the dictators there know how to put on a good show involving thousands of people moving in unison.

Having only recently mastered the art of the screen-capture, I crave your indulgence as we look at these beautiful pictures from Ceausescu's trip to North Korea:

Perhaps one of the problems with The Autobiography isn’t a problem with the film itself, but with this viewer, and that is that it assumes its audience already possesses a broad knowledge of Romania’s communist history, and so a lot goes unexplained.  Now, going into this, I knew the general outline of Ceausescu’s reign, or at least the highlights—the refusal to invade Czechoslovakia, the rapprochement with the West, the rapport with Kim Il-sung, the construction of huge concrete apartment and office blocks, and then the final, rapid overthrow and execution of Ceausescu and his wife during an uprising on Christmas of 1989.  The most fascinating footage in the film—footage which I would have liked to see more of—is from Ceausescu’s awkward show trial, which his captors felt compelled to stage (and film) before shooting him in a hurry.  Here we see Ceausescu unscripted and, for the only time in the film, humanized, as he snipes at his judges while attempting to comfort his wife.  For further details on the show trial, I would direct the reader to Peter Nadas’s essay “The Great Christmas Killing.”

On a much lighter note, I came away from three hours of footage of Ceausescu convinced that he bears an uncanny resemblance to David Lynch.  Does anyone else see it?

The late Mr. Ceausescu.
 Post-script: Perhaps he looks more like Jack Nance than David Lynch.

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