Of all the Eastern Bloc countries that gained independence after the spectacular fall of the Soviet Union, only in Romania were the former Communist leaders yanked down off the throne and killed. All the other leaders slunk away, unharmed. But in Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were arrested, interrogated, and executed via firing squad. It is indicative of the level of brutality of the Ceaușescu regime, and his old-fashioned brand of Stalinism. Romania was one of the most repressive regimes in the entire Soviet imperium. The personality cult of Ceaușescu reached North Korea levels. Even Stalin didn’t go that far. Ceaușescu’s secret police were among the most ferocious, the most feared. Romania was a poor country and Ceaușescu was a peasant who rose through the ranks of the Communist party, and became General Secretary upon the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in 1965. He ruled until 1989, when he (and his wife, equally monstrous – maybe even more so) were arrested and shot.
The Romanian New Wave of cinema is one of the most exciting cinematic communities in the world. One of the common themes is a nation and its people dealing with the wreckage of the Ceaușescu regime, even so many years later. A country doesn’t recover from a dictator like that overnight. For other nations, like Czechoslovakia, for example, it was an easier transition. Their revolution was, famously, referred to as “velvet”, for its nonviolence. Vaclav Havel became President, a dissident playwright, one of the people. But Czechoslovakia had always been more open than Romania, more rebellious. Interestingly enough, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to put down the rebellion, Ceaușescu rallied his country around the Czechs. It was appalling that a member of the Warsaw Treaty would invade a country under that same treaty. Ceaușescu often displeased the Kremlin with his independent stance. I wonder, too, if even they – with their KGB and strong state apparatus, saw the celebrations in Ceaușescu’s honor (overwhelmingly sycophantish) and thought, “Now, now, Ceaușescu, you’re going too far.”
Andrei Ujică’s documentary, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, is a fascinating examination of this hated and feared individual, told only in extant footage (newsreels, home movies), with no voiceover. Many of the clips have no sound, so you watch the behavior unfold in silence. The footage is only his many public appearances: speeches at the various Congresses (with his unimpressive hammering-it-home delivery, and his flailing arm), trips to inspect factories and state-run grocery stores (all the workers standing at attention as he passes), state dinners, trips abroad (to China, to North Korea, to England, to Hollywood, even), a vast life organized around his public role as beloved father of Romania.
The documentary is three hours long. The overall effect of three hours of public appearances is both deadening and fascinating. Consider the title of the film. It is the “autobiography” of this man. We get no personal revelations, we rarely see him speaking off the cuff, we get a lot of footage of him and his wife (always at his side), shaking hands with workers, clapping as some over-the-top parade in praise of him goes by … To a public man like Ceaușescu, the accumulation of public appearances through almost 30 years of his life as a leader, IS his autobiography.
The documentary starts with the state funeral of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, and ends with grainy video footage of a freaked-out Ceaușescu and his wife, being interrogated by an angry off-camera voice in December of 1989.
Ceaușescu cannot understand the reality of what has occurred, having lived in a bubble of his own personality cult for so long. He refuses to answer questions. When his wife tries to speak (she seems angrier and more contemptuous than he does), he quiets her. They are trapped. No one mourned Ceaușescu. In the early days, the 60s, and 70s, the parades and events created to honor him were well-organized and frenzied. Crowds of people cheering and roaring “spontaneously”. By the 1980s, the public appearances you see in the film are more ragged around the edges. You can clock people in the crowds clapping unenthusiastically, going through the motions. And Ceaușescu himself seems increasingly unhappy (although he never really seemed happy). But the vast theatre of Love he had created for himself, the pageantry and parades and ovations … it’s empty. He knows it. People will never clap for him enough to satisfy him. And if they clap for him and don’t mean it, then what the hell has his life meant? All of that is evident on his face.
There is a fascinating clip from one of the Congresses, where a colleague gets up in that giant hall, and makes a speech criticizing Ceaușescu for somehow doctoring the voting system so that he will stay General Secretary, overriding other possible candidates. The man is heckled and booed, and when Ceaușescu takes over the meeting again, the ovation is so uproarious that nobody can speak for five minutes. There are stories of the ovations that Stalin used to receive: huge crowds in smoky halls, clapping for 10, 15 minutes, clapping so hard their palms bled. They clapped not because they loved him so much and wanted to clap for that long, but because each individual in that hall was terrified of being the first one to stop clapping. That’s what you sense in those ovations in The Autobiography too.
There is extraordinary footage (not included in the film for some reason) of Ceaușescu’s final speech, given from the balcony of one of the government buildings in Bucharest. It was December 21, 1989, and violence had broken out in Timisoara. The troops had been called in to crush it. Revolution was sweeping through the country. Despite the control of the press, Romanians were hearing what was happening in their fellow Communist countries over the radio. Protests started breaking out. Unlike Czechoslovakia, there was no real history of open dissent in Romania (a measure of how repressive the regime really was). In December of 1989 it exploded, and in the middle of all of that, Ceaușescu walked out onto that balcony with his wife and made a speech. It is a terrible speech. (It’s on Youtube in its entirety.) At a certain point, the crowd in the square below (all holding flags and banners and signs proclaiming their love for him) gets too rowdy for him to control. He is actually heckled and booed. You can feel his confusion and panic. He is completely out of touch. He tries to Shush the crowd, over and over again, haranguing them to be quiet. They refuse. Elena gets in on the act, yelling into the microphone for everyone to be quiet. You can hear Ceaușescu say to her at one point, “Shut up!” Incredible footage. In a desperate moment, he yells out to the crowd that just that morning “they” (meaning the Guys in Power) have decided to raise the minimum wage a little bit. They also will raise the amount for pensions. (It’s queasily ironic that in a Communist country, a worker’s paradise, allegedly, his last-ditch effort to get the crowd on his side is to throw money at them. Sounds pretty darn capitalist there, Nic.) There are some cheers of approval in the crowd, but the scene is so chaotic that the sense of unity is completely absent. The whole point in having a crowd (in Ceaușescu’s view) was to have them all move as one, marching past his balcony, the individual obliterated. That crowd in the square below in December of 1989 had become a huge fractured group of angry individuals. He and Elena basically slink off the balcony, terrified and confused. They were airlifted out of there by helicopter. The writing was on the wall. They had only a couple of days left to live.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu does not provide any new information to those who remember these events. What it does do is reveal the self-perception of one of the world’s most repressive absurd dictators. And it does so through showing, in intimate detail (the footage is absolutely extraordinary), his public appearances, his speeches, shaking hands, kissing children, sitting with Mao Tse-tung, watching the changing of the guard with Queen Elizabeth, shaking hands with Reagan, shaking hands with Gorbachev (Ceaușescu’s behavior is eloquent: he looks at Gorbachev with a mixture of contempt and fear), strolling through grocery stores and squeezing the roles of bread on display, commenting to his aide, “The bread is better in the capital,” making a speech to a Writer’s Union saying that “abstract” art is fine, but writers needed to be writing socialist revolutionary poetry as well (he was completely uneducated, and it shows) … It’s boring, it’s maddening, it’s a completely empty life filled with bureaucracy and pageantry. With pictures of him hanging everywhere. Just like he liked it.
If you have three hours free, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu is a hell of an experience.