The Culture at Large
MAY 20, 2010
By DENNIS LIM
CANNES, France — As the title suggests, “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” is hardly a conventional historical documentary. Andrei Ujica’s three-hour-plus found-footage epic, screening out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, recounts the life of the Romanian dictator as Ceausescu himself saw it — or, as was often the case, stage-managed it. Devoid of explanatory titles and voice-overs, the film assembles a composite portrait of Ceausescu solely through the existing visual record: the speeches he gave, the parades thrown in his honor, the state visits he made (to the United States, China, Britain and, most memorably, North Korea) and the home movies of family vacations and hunting expeditions.
This is the third in a series of documentaries that Mr. Ujica, who was born in Romania in 1951, has made about the death of communism. “Videograms of a Revolution” (1992), which he directed with Harun Farocki, used existing footage of the 1989 Romanian revolution as the basis for a film essay about media and power. “Out of the Present” (1995) recounts the story of a Soviet cosmonaut who was aboard the Mir space station during the disintegration of the Soviet Union. For “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” — four years in the making (the editing alone took a full year) — Mr. Ujica started with more than 1,000 hours of footage, which he whittled down and shaped into the story of a rise and fall.
Mr. Ujica, who left Bucharest for Germany in 1981 and now divides his time between Romania and Germany (he is a film professor at Karlsruhe University), spoke about his film in an interview here on Wednesday. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
Could you expand on the implications of the title “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu”? Obviously you did not mean to make a typical documentary biography.
The challenge was to propose a new subgenre of historical film, to try to show that today we are in a situation where the corpus of images about major contemporary events and personalities is sufficient to allow us to reconstruct history. There’s a level of irony in the title, but for me it was the only possible perspective. This was an archive of images commissioned by Ceausescu and by his propaganda machine, and if you try to make a film using these images, you can make this film only through his eyes. I couldn’t make a film called “The Biography of Nicolae Ceausescu” because I did not have those images.
There are several different types of footage in the film — some of official addresses and events, and some of what look like home movies. Did it all come from the same archive?
There are only two big archives in Bucharest, the National Television Archives and the National Film Archives. The National Documentary Film Studio was responsible for the Ceausescu protocol archives, and after the revolution the archives moved to the National Film Archives. The images from the holidays and hunting trips are from the ’70s, and they were shot for the private use of the Ceausescu family. He loved to be filmed and he called them souvenirs. The footage from other countries — some were by Ceausescu’s own cameramen, but sometimes they were shot by, for instance, the North Korean documentary studio or the BBC and sent to Bucharest as unedited rushes which the Romanian propaganda machine could use.
Were you concerned about what a film like this has to leave out by definition? There’s no larger political context, and the effects of Ceausescu’s rule remain almost entirely off-screen.
Yes, I did think about that. But those who are less familiar with political events can see this as a fiction film about a historical character, and understand the evolution of a character in 25 years, the changes that power has on him and the nation around him. It’s the same way we would read a historical novel about a general of Napoleon. A cultivated French reader knows the role this person played in French history, and another reader might not but they still follow the character’s psychological evolution.
You worked with an editor, Dana Bunescu, who also does sound design, and who has worked on many notable fiction films of the new Romanian cinema, including “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Could you talk about your collaboration?
Dana is an incredible artist, and for a project like this, it was a great help to be able to work on both image and sound with the same person. There were two levels of editing for the images. The first is about constructing scenes that don’t exist in the raw material as scenes, so we had to build them through montage. The second level was a more normal editing process, putting these scenes together to find the rhythm of the movie.
The sound is the secret true fictional level of the film. More than 90 percent of the material has no sound; except for Ceausescu’s speeches the sound was not archived, only the images. We reconstructed the soundtrack on different levels, creating realistic sound and also using abstract sound to create dramaturgical effects. The film does have a commentary but it’s a nonverbal commentary. It’s in the construction of the sound and in the intervention of the music.
In the course of making the film how did your perception of Ceausescu change?
My personal reason for making the film was that I began to understand in recent years that in fact we don’t know Ceausescu. For my generation, he was an abstract figure, a screen on which we projected our hatred of totalitarianism. But it became more and more important for me to try to understand the man behind this character. Who was this man who influenced so powerfully our biographies? And surely, I discovered a human being. You could say the film is against historical clichés, and it shows that the psychological reality is always more complex. For me it was also a historical and psychological auto-therapy. In the end I don’t hate him anymore. I’m free from him, so it was a successful therapy.