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Tyrant with a Movie Camera

J. Hoberman
Culled from a thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this unconventional documentary assembled by the émigré Romanian film-essayist Andrei Ujică is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality.
Nicolae Ceaucescu.jpg

Andrei Ujica

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, in a scene from The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which had its world premiere at Cannes last month and will be turning up at other film festivals this fall, is an example of what the radical Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov called a “film object.”

Culled from a thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this unconventional documentary assembled by the émigré Romanian film-essayist Andrei Ujică is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality. Ceauşescu’s Romania, the Eastern bloc’s most brutally destructive regime, is remembered for its systematic repression, its failed industrialization, and its pervasive police state—including a disastrous ban on contraception that produced a culture of clandestine abortions and horrific orphanages. None of this appears explicitly in the film. Instead, Ujică shows Ceauşescu’s public image as fabricated by (and for) the dictator himself during the course of his catastrophic 25-year reign.

Much of the material was shot without sound—only the speeches included an audio component—and Ujică shows the footage largely as found, often in the form of unedited rushes, in Romania’s National Film and National Television archives. There’s neither annotation nor voiceover commentary, although the filmmaker does intermittently add naturalistic sound effects—and, at one point, a slyly-chosen pop song, so that a gaggle of fashionable young Romanians can be seen dancing the Twist to the 1965 rockabilly hit “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”

Meaning is generated through montage—or its absence. (Ujică frequently includes revealing or awkward moments that would have been routinely excised from official documentaries.) The Autobiography is bracketed by shots of Ceauşescu and his wife Elena, diminished yet defiant as they are interrogated by ad hoc military tribunal in a cheaply-furnished provincial office shortly before they were executed on Christmas Day 1989. Flash back, as if in the dictator’s brain, to the 1965 funeral of his predecessor Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, with protégée Ceauşescu a stolid pall bearer. Romania reborn! A delegation of uniformed children—approximately the same age that Ujică, now 59, was then—thank the Communist Party and its new General Secretary for their happy lives. Joy is enacted with a lengthy series of celebratory fun fairs, pageants, harvest rituals, and loyalty demonstrations, as well as the carefully coordinated “flying visits” Ceauşescu pays to factories or collective farms.

Over the course of The Autobiography‘s first hour, a peasant’s son from a backwater village is transformed into an international statesman. A decade before he destroyed the Romanian economy, Ceauşescu established himself as the West’s favorite Communist leader—largely because he refused to join the countries of the Warsaw Pact in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia—the increasing repressiveness of his own regime notwithstanding. As pithily explained by an anonymous correspondent from the region, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1986: “In effect autocratic Romania has refused to allow the Soviets to impose their social model on it, but it has voluntarily imitated that model, and in a markedly more retrogressive form.”

As shown in The Autobiography, Ceauşescu’s mass rallies typically featured foreign leaders—although none from Israel with which Romania, alone in Eastern Europe, nevertheless maintained diplomatic relations (along with ties to the PLO). Ceauşescu appears beside Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon—he was the first Eastern Bloc leader to host a US President—and travels to Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth made him an honorary British knight. (As Gertrude Stein observed in Everybody’s Autobiography, her follow-up to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, “It is very nice being a celebrity a real celebrity who can decide who they want to meet and say so and they come or do not come as you want them.”) Most of this is empty ceremony although de Gaulle, leaving the riotous Paris of May 1968 for Bucharest’s obediently cheering crowds, offers shockingly blunt praise for the “national state” as opposed to something he calls “the cosmopolitan state.”

Ceauşescu’s foreign audience further expanded after he cozied up to the People’s Republic of China in the early ’70s. Touring the US, he hobnobs with President Jimmy Carter and pays a state visit to Universal Studios. Although his face is portrayed in a giant field of electric bulbs and he is serenaded by Imelda Marcos in Manila, the Romanian leader appears more obviously impressed with the spectacular show arranged for him by Kim Jong Il—an entire stadium filled with thousands of precision drilled North Korean dancers who create an elaborate Romanian folk pageant for an audience of two (and the camera). Comrades Ceauşescu and Kim watch together through binoculars. The Romanian seems stunned, not least by the magnitude of Kim’s satisfied grin.


Midway through The Autobiography, production numbers are leavened with footage of dubious “human interest,” excerpted from the home movies Ceauşescu commissioned as “souvenirs” of his Black Sea holidays and Carpathian hunting trips. The first of these—a blast of richly saturated Kodachrome interrupting 90 minutes of black and white footage—preserves a casual volleyball game in which Ceauşescu is not only showboating but blatantly cheating. In subsequent candid moments, Nicolae and Elena are shown playing backgammon at the beach or driving through the snow, bundled up in matching, fur-trimmed white parkas. Perhaps I missed it but Ujică provides no evidence of the scepter Ceauşescu was said to wield on state occasions. Still, the spectacle of Romania’s royal couple, costumed as though for the sleigh scene in a 1950s MGM musical, suggests in a small way the megalomania of Ceauşescu’s bulldozing central Bucharest to build a gargantuan presidential palace and parade boulevard.

As the construction sites grow increasingly vast in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ceauşescu’s rhetoric disintegrates. His command of Communist jargon seems to have atrophied. His speeches might have been written by a language poet—with rote terms like “dialectical materialism,” “anti-imperialist democracy,” “victory of the proletariat” appearing as a succession of disconnected phrases amid a torrent of self-congratulatory verbiage. The performer is alternately befuddled and disdainful, unable to mask his sour expression at a meeting headed by a beaming Mikhail Gorbachev.

Even more damningly, his carefully orchestrated public appearances begin to fall apart. Inspecting what is obviously a specially-stocked market, most likely in the mid-’80s—a time of famine, earthquake, and economic collapse—Ceauşescu picks up a loaf of bread and, staring at it as though he’s never before seen one, declares that food is even more plentiful out in the countryside—this, after forgetting to acknowledge the bakery employee who greets him with a bouquet, blankly handing the flowers to an aide. The solipsistic star of his own reality show, Ceauşescu seems no less spellbound than his courtiers. There’s a startling clip of an unidentified speaker at the 12th Party Congress, several years earlier in 1979, who calls for Ceauşescu’s resignation and is able to continue talking for far longer than one might imagine before the sluggish delegates rouse themselves to give their leader a boisterous, if mechanical, vote of confidence.

Having left Romania for Germany in 1981, Ujică is understandably fascinated by the lost Communist world of his childhood. His previous films include Videograms of a Revolution (1992), fashioned from TV reportage of the 1989 Romanian uprising that toppled Ceauşescu; and Out of the Present (1995), a portrait of the cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who lived in the Mir space station during the 10 months that brought the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each in its way, these movies explore analogies to the filmmaker’s own situation as a fascinated spectator.

In Cannes, Ujică told interviewers that, for him, The Autobiography was a form of therapy. In effect, his first movie to be made in Romania enabled him to return to his home and reconstruct Ceauşescu’s Potemkin village from its celluloid shards. The result is as monumental as it is ephemeral, and not without a certain ghastly pathos. The misery of Ceauşescu’s dreadful misrule that is the movie’s structuring absence is amplified by the manufactured delusions foisted on a suffering nation.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu will be shown at the Munich Film Festival on June 30 and July 1 and at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 3 and 7.

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