Notes to Self

Tony Pipolo on The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

Andrei Ujică, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film, 180 minutes.

THOUGH IT BELONGS TO THE TRADITION of found-footage documentaries—from the work of such Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s as Dziga Vertov and Esther Shub, to such later practitioners as Edgardo Cozarinsky—Andrei Ujică’s astonishing film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu adds a twist. Boldly declaring itself an autobiography, it invokes the hidden other self that shadows all autobiographies and makes that the nucleus of the film’s deconstructive construction of the public life of the former Romanian dictator. A document of relentless self-aggrandizement that Ceauşescu himself could hardly have matched, the film, through sheer ingestion of the cloying, propagandistic media record—much of it commissioned by the dictator—of its subject’s manufactured persona, is both compelling and repellent. Ujică bookends his work with snippets from the mock trial that immediately preceded the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife, Elisa, on Christmas Day, 1989. Accused of genocide and illegal accumulation of wealth, Ceauşescu faced a judgment that shocked only those ignorant of the years of disastrous rule and economic oppression, blatant nepotism, and personality cult that constituted the truer biography of this socialist Macbeth and his partner in crime. Except for these brief excerpts at the beginning and end, the compiled footage bears hardly a sign of social distress as it tracks Ceauşescu’s twenty-four-year regime, from the time he assumed power after the death in 1965 of his mentor Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej—the country’s first Communist chief of state, whose elaborate funeral constitutes the movie’s opening footage—to his reelection as general secretary of the Communist Party just a month before the end.

Ceauşescu drew attention largely through his unique and paradoxical courting of East and West, as well as his resistance to Moscow’s efforts to control Eastern bloc nations. We see and hear his forceful denouncement of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Under his rule, Romania was the only nation to maintain diplomatic relations with both Israel and the PLO. It was no doubt such postures, reinforced by speeches proclaiming the progressive nature of his goals, that seduced state leaders of the West into believing that there was finally a voice and disposition in the communist world that was willing to communicate, if not negotiate, with democratic nations. The footage includes visits to Romania by both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, as well as receptions by Jimmy Carter at the White House and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. These paled, however, in comparison with the positively giddy extravaganzas welcoming him to China and North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of smiling, cheering indoctrinated youths lined the streets and lent their bodies to immense lawn and stadium mosaics spelling out each country’s euphoric greetings. These rarely seen images, as well as the gleeful interactions with Mao and Kim Il Sung, are precious precisely because of their unadulterated fakery.

Whatever signs of independence and progress Ceauşescu initially pursued, his second decade was marked by increased oppression and an impoverished quality of life while, inspired by the idolatrous cults of Mao and Kim Il Sung, he accumulated debts building costly, improbable architectural monuments to his rule—several of which we see in progress. Having absolute power, as both president of Romania and secretary general of the Communist Party, he suppressed all opposition and isolated Romania from any beneficial communication with the West that he himself once sought. Frightening evidence of his success is provided over and over by the unanimous, on-cue applause he received at every party meeting.

In 1986, a report by the humanitarian organization Helsinki Watch declared Ceauşescu’s regime to be as “totalitarian and repressive as any in Eastern Europe.” As part of what the critic J. Hoberman aptly called the film’s “structuring absence,” such information is not mentioned in the film. Alternating black-and-white footage and color, juxtaposing public appearances with private hunting outings and vacations, the film eschews helpful contextualization and voice-over narration of any kind. But Ujică’s understated rhetorical method does allow subtle relationships between images and sequences to emerge. For example, against the gaudy, cast-of-thousands concoctions of the Chinese and North Korean receptions, Ceauşescu’s tour of Hollywood’s Universal Studios seems paltry indeed. While we might wonder whether the fabricated illusions of the capitalist West were any match for the delirious spectacles of the Communist East, there is no mistaking the irony of watching the man comfortably touring the dream factory.

Of course, without some knowledge of the counterhistory of the subject, Ujică’s film might almost succeed as a propaganda tool, a latter-day Triumph of the Will. Unlike that commissioned masterwork, however, Ujică’s film demonstrates that even adulatory found images culled from the official record and offered ad nauseam can generate enough disgust to implode. More toxic than intoxicating, the overkill of jubilant parades and enthusiastic party endorsements illustrates the potential mock in every documentary. Against this glut, Ujică provides a telling and stirring motif—a silence that often interrupts the blather of politicians and statesmen as the footage continues. In these voiceless intervals—totaling well more than half of the film’s three-hour length, and sometimes accompanied by an ominous musical score—Ujică invites us to look at the ghostly images of the once powerful and reflect both on the dangerous if ephemeral nature of hubris, and on the historical and personal truths left undocumented.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on Friday, September 9.