Sep 13, 2011
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu
This provocative, bitterly sardonic documentary starts at the end of Ceaucescu's life, when the much diminished Romanian dictator and his wife Elena sit in a court refusing to answer questions. It is a shock to see a country's leader barked at by somebody who remains unseen. He sits there, impassively, in his expressionless default mode, but looks shrunken (if it were possible to further diminish a man so devoid of charisma). The first impression is of two ordinary elderly people. They'd look like ruddy peasants if it weren't for their ornery haughtiness. Power confers distorted stature to the most unlikely people. No Winston Churchill, Stalin, or Mao, this little party hack, who astonishingly ruled Romania for almost 25 years, was a terrible speaker and looked like a pudgy rodent. One spends the mesmerizing, sometimes frightening and sometimes mind-numbing three hours of absurd official footage that comprise this fascinating film wondering how in the world he managed to rule that country for so long.
The concept behind this darkly ironic movie, is as its title describes, to tell the story of this man exclusively from his point of view. It is a testament to the isolating magnetic field of power. The archival material is incredible; some of it, particularly the material in black and white, is beautifully shot. It must have been official footage, since the camera is always present to record tovarich Ceaucescu at every parade, every march, every speech, every tour. The endless barrage of official visits to factories and bakeries, party officials trudging through corn fields (!), communist harvest days, labor day parades, has an astonishing and prismatic cumulative effect. It probably mirrors what many people must have felt living in a groundhog day-like nightmare of relentless communist propaganda. At the same time, it is a study in the insanity-provoking effects of absolute power.
Crowds always applaud incessantly. Relentless, pointless, ridiculous applause. There is so much applause that I thought the CIA could use the soundtrack of this movie to torture prisoners in Guantanamo. Who are these people who applaud to no end? Are they true believers, or are they there faking happiness on the factory's time? There are always crowds lining the streets, waving flags, clapping, but the camera is seldom interested in selecting the individuals among them. They are, according to party dogma, the Romanian "people", a designation one should be very wary of. According to these images, Romanians are a happily communist bunch. But the scenes of a congress hall full of toadies, of robotically applauding apparatchicks, make one shudder at the thought of how easily the masses can be manipulated. How easy it is for many to feel safe in the anonymous embrace of acquiescence. Totalitarians know this and exploit it to no end. Yet watching this film didn't make me feel as smugly comfortable as I would wish with our own massive acquiescence in our so called democracy. We also have plenty of applauding sycophants.
Brilliantly, the film follows Ceaucescu's rise chronologically, and even though we never get to hear from anyone else, it gives a basic tour of his idiosyncratic brand of socialism. I had to read about him in Wikipedia, but pretty much everything in his entry is represented in the movie. The crucial thing that's missing is a different point of view. He started out as an anti-fascist fighter, the son of peasants, and rose through the ranks of the communist party. He was bold enough, as unprepossessing as he was, to defy the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He had an independent streak and courted Western nations. The Russians somehow put up with his antics.
As multitudinous parades go, it is easy to infer that the better the parade, the worse off the people. Hence, North Korea takes the cake when it comes to awesome displays of Communist apotheosic kitsch, followed by China, with Romania a close third. In a very absurd bit, we see the welcome he got in England, where the Ceaucescus were received by the Queen with more pomp and circumstance than anybody has a right to deserve. When he makes it to the US, back when Jimmy Carter was president, the American welcome is downright pathetic, compared to what he's used to. Sparse, unmotivated crowds, who do not do anything in unison, and a puny dais with ridiculous bunting. A sad affair.
After a zillion parades, and trips to Maoist China and North Korea, things seem to sour. Perhaps he was impressed with these countries astounding penchant for unbelievable displays of massive human calisthenics. But apparently after his visits with Mao and Kim Il Sung, he imported the cult of personality and a harsher Marxist-Maoist line. He then lost total contact with reality. There is a great scene in which he speaks to his congress about the creation of endless committees (something out of Ionesco, except he isn't joking). Pictures with his likeness start appearing, followed by his wife's as well. There's footage of him playing volleyball (he was worse than me, and that is saying something), presumably with the national Olympic team, and pursuing certain pleasures not quite in the spirit of Communist sacrifice, such as gruesomely hunting bears, and swimming very badly in some pebbly sea. As heads of states go, the Ceaucescus must win the prize for hillbilly unsophistication. But he must have been a formidable manipulator to last as long as he did.
Subtly, sinisterly, one starts feeling the cracks. Natural disasters befall Romania. A terrible earthquake, a flood. He visits and ungracefully waves his arms, as if decreeing nature to get its act together. He is creepily inexpressive throughout. He decides to build a megalomaniac avenue with megalomaniac buildings. The scale model itself is megalomaniac. Yet the few shots there are of the streets paint a different picture from the land of abundance that appears in all the government kitsch. Buildings look dilapidated, the place looks like a backwater. When it's time for the obviously staged footage of food stores grotesquely laden with obscene surpluses of food, one immediately knows that the moment he visits these bakeries and stores, people must be suffering terrible scarcity.
Then one single man dares confront him in Congress. You can hear his wife saying, let him speak, as if she is granting permission to some lowly servant trying to say a word in his own behalf. The comrade objects to the fact that Ceaucescu has deftly maneuvered the byzantine levers of the communist bureaucracy to reelect himself yet again, but he is promptly drowned out by the unanimous jeers from the entire audience. Truly frightening.
There are many pleasures to be gleaned from this approach that lets the narrative of the tyrant speak for itself. You recognize the same party hacks from the very beginning of the movie, getting senile but still in power. You see the changes in fashion and the increase in the grandiosity and absurdity of the Communist rhetoric.
We know the people revolted against his regime because in the end, he ran the country to the ground but this was not recorded for his posthumous autobiography.
We hear about Timisoara when he addresses the nation blaming the violence on foreign imperialist agents (who else?), and next thing you know, he and his deceptively mousy wife are sitting defiantly but clearly fearful, on the other side of an angry show trial. Then the screen goes black.