The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

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In His Own Words
by Michael Koresky

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu
Dir. Andrei Ujica, Romania, The Film Desk

Every nation has its own ideas about what makes a political leader, its own variations in principle and ideology. But whether government is big or small, leaning left or right, behind an iron curtain or a red-white-and-blue flag, supported by Islamic or Judeo-Christian values, there’s one constant, one quality that most agree on as a requisite for a position of immense power: charisma. And such magnetism needs to be rewarded, with elections, yes, but with pomp and circumstance, too. Speeches need not only content but also form (and formula); the theater of politics is well known to all but only the most naïve, but we still all are naturally in thrall to idolatry. When that delusion touches not only the masses but also the elected leader, danger lies ahead. For then it’s image that must be maintained above all else. The new film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu—a thrilling three-hour whirlwind through tumultuous late twentieth-century Romanian history that focuses exclusively on the deposed president and tyrant—reminds us that the public face is often all we are privileged to see. As the title jestingly implies, we’re only getting things, troublingly, from one point of view.

Andrei Ujica has made a documentary without voice-over narration or talking-head commentary of any kind, without introductory titles for principal personages, without scene-setting placards that provide context. It’s a film structured around absence, yet the infamous man at its center is constantly present. The more this complex, largely linear tapestry of images and sounds goes on, the more pronounced that sense of absence grows. We gradually realize that it’s not only those touchstone documentary functions that are missing but history itself: if the twentieth century as represented in the media is a history of obfuscation, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is a canny cataloguing of elisions, a sly paean to the prominence of the public record.

In mounting this vastly impressive, deeply frightening narrative constructed from countless hours of found footage, Ujica has taken a damningly benign approach. This has got to be the most smile-laden political documentary ever made—let alone that it’s about one of the last century’s most insidious, cruel leaders. When the film begins, Ceauşescu is briefly glimpsed as a frail man in his seventies and the tail end of his career and life, perched uncomfortably in a chair in an austere, wood-paneled hearing room. Seated next to his equally defiant wife Elena, he looks beaten down but headstrong in his declarations: “I am not guilty of these charges. I am not signing anything.” The image is caught on shoddy, late eighties-era video, giving Nicolae and Elena a putrid, pixellated quality. We will see Ceauşescu here again, at the film’s close, but in the epic drama in between these bookends, we will get a very different image of him—as saluted leader, cheerful diplomat, delighted world traveler, defiant commander, even a hale and hearty, if bumbling, backyard volleyball player. The many faces of Ceauşescu that we see are all one face, though, that which was determinedly recorded for posterity for more than three decades.

There is another single character at the heart of Ujica’s film—the Romanian people. In a brilliant move, the filmmaker rarely allows us to see the public as anything other than a mass, which heightens the dramatic split that defines world history: the leader and his followers, willing or unwitting. Once Ujica flashes back and begins the narrative of Ceauşescu in 1965, we meet this mass as a sea of people, introduced trudging solemnly in endless lines circling through the squares and municipal buildings in Bucharest. As we come to realize, this is the day of the funeral of the Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, and the mourning is immense and genuine, but also alarmingly ritualized (the excess of public ritual will become the film’s most recurrent image). His successor and protégé soon makes his speech, addressing the Romanian people for the first time as their leader, in a mundanely rousing plea for unity in times of distress; this is our first look at young Ceauşescu, with his boxer’s mug, flaunting a bulbous potato nose over a rosebud mouth. He’s an unlikely looking leader, but once he assumes his position, Ujica’s film falls necessarily in thrall to him; we functionally become his viewing public.

One of the first changes Ceauşescu made was to rename the People’s Republic of Romania the Socialist Republic, a subtle but clear distinction from strictly Marxist-Leninist terminology. Yet even before Ceauşescu’s more explicit move toward neo-Stalinism, Ujica shows us the bizarre spectacle inherent in the era’s social customs: footage of Ceauşescu and other black-suited politicians descend like vultures on the elaborate 1966 countryside Harvest Day celebration, which reveals the nation’s odd preoccupation with pageantry, in this case Medieval Times–like tableaux of peasantry and military, paupers and kings. This sense of performance will snake its way through the entirety of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, from the eventual president’s elaborate birthday parties and raucously attended political speeches to his heralded visits to China, Great Britain, the U.S., and, in particular ludicrous ceremonial extremity, North Korea. As presented by Ujica, like everything else without introductory titles, names, or years, this is all triumphalism drained of context, images that make twentieth-century history seem nothing more than a succession of florid processions; politics as parade.

Of course, this is not all that Ujica’s tactics prove. By isolating Ceauşescu in the spotlight rather than dramatizing him behind closed doors, we come to scrutinize his every mannerism and word. He’s charming with the press, but also cagey: when a reporter asks him early into his term as Secretary General, “What’s necessary for a nation with Marxist philosophy to adapt to the atomic age?” he responds initially with a bemused smile and a long pause. It’s a question that of course, for Romania, could never be answered adequately, despite Ceauşescu’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Corneliu Manescu’s on-camera claims that “Socialism has proven its adaptability and capability.” It’s Romania’s gradual resignation to unadaptability, through the increasingly troubled, impoverished 1970s and 1980s, and its leader’s resulting retreat from reality into a cult of personality, that forms the nation’s, and the film’s, narrative. Despite this, Ujica’s film doesn’t tend toward a simple rise-and-fall structure—the trajectory from prosperity to poverty stays implicit, while Ceauşescu remains above it all (literally, in one sequence showing him helicoptering over the results of a devastating flood it’s clear his country will not be able to adequately aid).

Ujica reminds us that Ceauşescu’s ultimately self-prophesying tendency toward isolation has initially positive effects, as a good chunk of the film’s first hour focuses on his speaking out against Soviet-led military intervention in Czechoslovakia during reformist Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring; Romania was the only country in the Warsaw Pact that did not invade. (“Among Communists there must be cooperation but no interference,” he decrees in the spirit of comradeship.) After ascending to the throne of president and supreme commander in the 1970s (we see him do so here with tears gleaming in his eyes), Ceauşescu further pushed his autarkic inclinations, insisting on Romania as self-sufficient.

Crippling foreign debt told a different story, and Ujica’s film infers and implies Communist Romania’s gradual breakdown not through concrete images but through ellipses and breaks; cuts to black function expertly as fissures, through which some ghastly reality is waiting to seep forth. It’s one of many technical touches that make Autobiography an oddly powerful sensory experience; Ujica’s elaborate, deceptively simple soundtrack is another. So much of the film is silent that the heightened sound design used throughout lends certain moments a surreal underpinning—there are minutely doctored and updated aural accompaniments for everything from footsteps to earthquakes to mundane vacation sounds such as water splashing at the beach and the clacking of backgammon pieces during a game with Elena (these latter instances of leisure coincide with the film’s first cut to color, which show the supreme leader swatting at a volleyball like a discombobulated teenager— Ceauşescu’s physical awkwardness made vibrant and fleshy). In heightening the soundtrack in such clearly artificial ways, Ujica doesn’t take us back to the vital moment so much as reiterate how constructed these moments are, even as they make claims to untarnished authenticity.

The more we watch—Ujica takes us through Ceauşescu’s visit to Universal Studios in California and his meeting with Jimmy Carter (who calls him “a great leader of a great country”); the death of his mother in 1977; his unprecedented, and successful, feat of putting himself up for re-election despite the warnings of opposition leader Constatin Parvulesco—the more we realize how little we’re gaining access to, despite how much we’re seeing; Romania’s slide into dictatorship almost functions as a parallel, invisible narrative. Ultimately, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu amounts to three hours of ominous prelude. The horrific events at Timişoara in December 1989, when the regime allowed the military to open fire on antigovernment demonstrators, are finally alluded to in a television address in which Ceauşescu denounces “groups of hooligans rallying, attacking state institutions.” Ujica lets the known outcome of this situation hang in the air; until the end, the filmmaker remains respectful of his audience. The rest, as they say, is history.