Rumunia - Romania - România
The Rulers and the Exiles: The Past and Memory in Romanian Cinema Since 1989
Publication: 15 October 2021
Rumunia - Romania - România
The Rulers and the Exiles: The Past and Memory in Romanian Cinema Since 1989
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In new Romanian cinema there is no room for lifting heroic faces, patriotic cataracts or excuses. There is no pathos and the kind of symbolism which was abundant in communist productions. What is to be found instead is mirror or the reflections of a distorted mirror.
“Good father, father-tyrant, father-coward. Dear father. Sleep in peace” – says the main character of Balanţa (The Oak), Lucian Pintilie’s film about the decline of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. In a moment, due to the stupidity and servility of the dictator’s henchmen, children’s blood will be spilt on the screen. It is no accident that the scene brings to mind the events of December 1989, when people died pointlessly, as victims of chaos.
Balanţa is the first cinematic reckoning with the Romanian past, a hoarse scream after a long silence, a derisive and relentless voice. It will still be over a dozen years before Pintilie’s disciples, young Romanian directors, create daring films deconstructing communism and tackling the myth of the dear Father-Tyrant. While at it, they will reap laurels at the most important foreign film festivals, and the world will learn that Romanian cinema has been reborn.
Christ and the Creator of the New Wave
“Without Lucian Pintilie there would be no Romanian New Wave” – said renowned director Cristi Puiu. His 2001 debut Marfă și bani is a founding film of new Romanian cinema which mapped out the style for subsequent productions. Alex Leo Șerban, the late critic of the young generation, humorously proposed a caesura for his local cinematography: “Before and after Cristi.” If we were to follow this metaphor and call Puiu “Christ of the New Wave,” then Lucian Pintilie would have to be called the Creator.
Pintilie is a great mythical figure in Romanian cinema, the only such distinct example of courage and intransigence in the times of deaf-and-dumb directors. In his Reconstituirea (Reconstruction) he openly showed the cruelty of the system, the thoughtlessness of propaganda and the demoralisation of power. His next play, which he staged in the theatre, the sardonic and subversive The Government Inspector, infuriated the censors even more. The director had no other choice but to leave the country in 1975.
Having returned from exile, Pintilie discovered the talent of Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu, organised workshops and taught the young to write scripts. In the early 1990s he emphasised: “Poverty can be turned into an asset.” Today, the signature quality of the new generation of directors is the ability to turn budgetary restrictions into the two biggest assets of Romanian cinema: minimalism and piercing realism.
The Ruler and the Exile
Asked whether he regretted the years of his directorial absence, Pintilie answered bitterly: “How many films have been made by the man who denounced me to the authorities? Not counting the ‘film’ of Ceaușescu’s execution, in which he himself took part, as many as 38. I’ll repeat the question: how many films have been made by the man who denounced Pintilie? Thirty-eight.”
That director was Sergiu Nicolaescu, the baron of Romanian cinema, who was responsible for over 60 films, mainly action and crime films. His historical epics, such as Dacii (The Dacians, 1966), were watched by millions of Romanians. Nicolaescu had no qualms about turning historians’ propaganda gibberish into films. In one of them, Mircea the Elder, the Romanian national hero, speaks to soldiers gathered in front of him using the language of a communist dictator. Nicolaescu’s productions, full of pompous crowd scenes, interpreted history as they wished, without regard for facts or common sense, leading some to snidely call him “Sergiu Ceaușescu”.
The director’s visions captured the imagination of the masses, and together with hosts of “rewriters of history”, fixed a warped version of the past in the consciousness of Romanians. When the regime began to falter, Nicolaescu knew which way the wind was blowing and, next to Ion Iliescu, became a leader of the supposed revolution. In one of his books he reminisces how, while on stage, he could hear the cry from 400,000 throats: “Sergiu, Sergiu!” Nicolaescu silenced the crowd and passed the microphone on to Iliescu, stressing that he was giving it to the right person. This was one of the key moments determining Romania’s future.
Nicolaescu’s greatest adversary turned out to be Cristi Puiu, who, after the director’s death, called him “the regime’s beneficiary”, “a plot owner” and a “tyrant.” Puiu remembered that Nicolaescu put spokes in young directors’ wheels whenever he could. “And yet he could have made so much possible, since it was he, as a politician and senator, who made decisions. To make a film, we had to jump through hoops put in front of us by Nicolaescu’s men.”
While it is true that critics name Lucian Pintilie as the greatest director in the history of Romanian cinema, ordinary Romanians grant this title to Sergiu Nicolaescu. The director who denounced another artist, accusing him of a “lack of patriotism”, is considered the emblem of patriotism; the dedicated champion of Ceaușescu’s nationalist ideology is regarded as a man without whom overthrowing the dictator would have been impossible. Romanian history doesn’t just giggle, but rolls in the aisles.
The December events in Romania were the first takeover of power transmitted live on television. Throughout the country, people sat riveted to their TV sets, watching consecutive figures giving speeches on the screen. In Harun Farocki’s documentary, Videogramme einer Revolution (1992) the viewer is struck by the impression of chaos, makeshift and incompetence. Feverish people with burning eyes, lose the plot, barrack each other, then go silent. It seems that a ruthless political rough and tumble has already begun in the crowd.
In 2006, 17 years after the revolution, three films depicting the era are released almost simultaneously: Cătălin Mitulescu’s Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii (The Way I Spent the End of the World), Corneliu Porumboiu’s A fost sau n-a fost? (12:08 East of Bucharest) and Radu Munteanu’s Hârtia va fi albastră (The Paper Will Be Blue). In all of them the TV chaos is shown from the perspective of the average viewer. In Mitulescu’s nostalgic debut, the news of the revolution finds the main characters busy at simple craft work. Astounded, they stare at the agitated crowd that refuses to let Ceaușescu speak. In the following scenes everyone comes out onto the streets, watches a hectic moving out of a Securitate agent, burns a car and waves national flags. “Down with Ceaușescu!” – they shout.
Mitulescu’s film shows how ordinary Romanian families dealt with the regime – how a slice of cheese was cut into three parts, how soup made of leaves was eaten in silence, how a father – good-hearted in times of fun, and harsh when the peace at home was threatened – controlled everything with an iron fist, while the mother mediated between him and the children. Some tried to resist the regime and maintain an illusion of freedom, manifesting their opposition, while others made compromises to better their lot at least a little, e.g. to get hold of a medicine for an ill child.
The Victims of Chaos
In Munteanu’s The Paper Will Be Blue the story takes place during the night of 22–23 December, when Ceaușescu escaped from the capital, although there was still no confirmed information about what happened next. The events are presented from the point of view of a group of militiamen who patrol the streets, hidden in a tank. They still don’t know whether they should stay on duty as forces subordinate to the dictator, or whether to fraternise with the people. Their disorientation and uncertainty increase as the orders they receive are incoherent and communication with their headquarters is continually broken off.
Chaos engulfs the characters in all its relentlessness. The idealistic militiaman who wants to join the protesters on television is beaten up by two officers who regard him as a terrorist. In the general confusion it is unclear who can and who cannot be trusted. Chaos blurs the boundaries between good and evil, mocks pathos, cancels out loftiness. The ending of the film, the sequence which repeats the beginning, depicts the young militiamen right before they are executed by soldiers, just because they were unable to give the correct password, which kept changing. Their death is poignant, absurd, and senseless.
“There was no revolution” – said Radu Munteanu in an interview. “The message of the film is this: stay where you are. All this was not worth sacrificing anyone’s life for. Innocent victims died so that others could create the impression that a revolution was taking place. Criminals. The death of children was to legitimise their actions.”
Out of Love for the Truth of which There is Never Too Much
In his debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu equally mercilessly deals with the myths of the revolution and Romanian heroism. However, his way of showing the absurdity is through the grotesque, not through horror. The original title, A fost sau n-a fost? (Did it happen or not?) refers to the question that Romanians continue to ask to this day: could the December events be called a revolution at all?
Porumboiu’s film is a contrary reiteration of the myth of the “live revolution”. The director places his characters in a local TV studio in the provincial town of Vaslui. The viewer observes yet another example of TV manipulation and lies, this time in “independent Romania”. An attempted reconstruction of the events discredits all the participants of the programme. As it transpires, Manescu, the alcoholic teacher who claims to have been manifesting against Ceaușescu on the city square, for which he was beaten up by Securitate agents, was actually drinking with his companions in a nearby restaurant. According to consecutive witnesses no one was present on the square. This is confirmed by the guard who was sitting in a sentry box, but even his testimony is uncertain as he left his post at 11:30 am to buy a Christmas tree. “There was no revolution! We were better off with Ceaușescu!” – a viewer making a phone call to the studio cries live. An alleged collaborator of the Securitate, mentioned by Manescu, also telephones the programme, introduces himself as an influential businessman, and makes it clear that any further incriminations will cost the TV station a slander trial. The only person to defend the humiliated Manescu is a Chinese man who says over the phone: “I don’t like the way you Romanians treat one another.” The host dismisses him scornfully.
“People here are cowards” – explains another guest, Piscoci, an elderly man who, instead of reconstructing the past events, prefers to reminisce about his late wife. Piscoci is more reconciled with great history than with the memory of his own past. “Everyone stages the kind of revolution they can afford” – he says. “Each in his own way.”
At the end of the programme, there is a telephone call from a mother of a student who died in the riots; but all she has to say to the guests in the studio is to wish them merry Christmas. “The first snow has fallen and we should enjoy it because tomorrow it will turn into slush” – says the woman and hangs up. The three men in the studio lower their heads.
What became the myth constituting Romanian national identity after 1989 was of no importance to ordinary Romanians, discouraged and engulfed in apathy. The citizens, preoccupied with pre-Christmas errands, often cut off from any information on new developments, accepted the turn of events with reserved enthusiasm. In Porumboiu’s film individual memory clashes with collective memory, but brings no satisfaction. Creation of a lofty myth without any premises must end in failure.
Since there are no heroes, there are no enemies either – the only guilty man died on a wall, shot after an improvised trial, sentenced by a legally invalid court ruling. The revolution is perceived as trauma and consequently is repressed from memory, as the process meant to reconstruct it is embarrassing, painful and completely unsatisfactory.
Our Daily Terror
Nicolae Ceaușescu is the great absent persona in young Romanian cinema – even if he is not directly mentioned, his ghost hovers above the characters. This is the case, for example, in Corneliu Porumboiu’s medium-length film Visul lui Liviu (Liviu’s Dream, 2004), which opens with an archive tape showing Ceaușescu announcing the introduction of Decree 770, prohibiting contraception and abortion. This is the burden that Romanian society had to bear for over 20 years; a burden which destroyed families and family relationships, a burden of fear, guilt and distrust.
“Everything was going well” – narrates Liviu, the film’s main character. “Mother was working in a clothes factory. As she was watching the thread she thought about the sheep that the communists had stolen from her father. Once in a while she took her revenge by destroying the sewing machines. Father dreamed of becoming a locomotive driver, but there were few locomotives and a lot of bribes. He barely managed to find a job as a lorry driver. Soon, he started driving to building sites, stealing anything he could put his hands on, from cement to nails.”
Liviu is the son of two frustrated people, from whom communism took away dreams, while capitalism took away their hope. As a young man he accepts shady commissions and tries to avoid entering adulthood at all cost. When his girlfriend gets pregnant, he tries to force her to have an abortion, just as his father forced his mother to have an abortion.
The problem of the abortion underground hell is addressed by Cristian Mungiu in the most well-known Romanian film since 1989, 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), awarded a Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Festival. Mungiu focuses on details, depicting the banality of everyday evil. Here, there is no trace of nostalgia, which permeates The Way I Spent the End of the World, although, like Mitulescu, Mungiu shows the power of human relationships and their solidarity which allows them to outsmart the system.
The main character, Otilia, decides to help her friend get an abortion. Ahead of her lies a prolonged ordeal among people who refuse to do anything without a bribe. This is the reality of contraband deodorant, packs of Kent cigarettes put on the counter without a word, destitution, blackmail, rape and humiliation. All relations degenerate. This is a world into which children should not be born.
Paradoxically, Mungiu is also the writer of a series of highly humorous film novellas Amintiri din epoca de aur (Tales from the Golden Age, 2009), which show the other face of Romanian communism reflected in a distorted mirror. Using urban legends, Mungiu sketches an image of a society made up of people who are cunning, but kind-hearted, forming a conspiratorial self-help network. This is perfectly illustrated by a short film about a family from a tower block estate in Bucharest, who are blessed with the acquisition of a live pig for Christmas. The youngest member of the family comes up with the idea that the pig should be gassed, which leads to a great explosion.
In both productions Mungiu shows a clear division into the private and the public. The regime held Romanians in an iron grip, and yet, even then, rebellion, resistance and creative scheming were possible, if limited to, for instance, an exploding pig.
The Death of the Father of the Nation
In new Romanian cinema there is no room for lifting heroic faces, patriotic cataracts or excuses. There is no pathos and the kind of symbolism which was abundant in communist productions. What is to be found instead is mirror or the reflections of a distorted mirror. The directors depict the absurdity of communism by employing the grotesque, but at the same time they capture the horror of the past by presenting it through hyperrealism.
In this need for scrutinising memory, however, they seem alone in Romanian society. Despite their successes abroad, most of their films have had scant viewership. Just as Pintilie was an exile from the communist reality in the 1970s, the young directors today have been exiled from the awareness of ordinary citizens. Twenty-four years have passed since the December events, but the eyes of Romanians are still fixed on the most brutal scene of Romanian cinema: the record of the execution of the Father of the Nation, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Perhaps this is why Romanians are so reluctant to take stock of their collective memory and to watch films which could remind them of their repressed past.
Translated from the Polish by Ewa Kowal
Copyright © Herito 2020