by Rob White
from Film Quarterly Spring 2011, Vol. 64, No. 3
Videograms of a Revolution (1992) documents the December 1989 overthrow of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s authoritarian regime in Romania. Co-directed by Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică, the film adds a ruminative narration to found footage from numerous sources to create a sequential account of an event that could not be captured from any single viewpoint. At the start a timecoded video shows barely visible lines of people moving in the gap between two buildings: “from the window of a student dormitory in Timişoara an amateur video camera records demonstrators moving towards the center of the city,” says the narrator. “The event has been shifted to the background; the camera gets as close to the event as the lens allows.” Unspectacular, inexact—both the clip’s content (the far-off drift of unidentifiable protesters) and its provenance (a nameless, frightened civilian videographer) contrast with the official imagery of dictatorship, which is closely fixated on a single person. The discrepancy is highlighted by the TV footage that follows. Speaking from a Bucharest balcony, the Romanian president endeavors to calm the huge and antagonistic crowd in front of him. It is to no avail and in another shot he is an uncharacteristically tiny figure in the distance, escaping the city by helicopter.
Ceauşescu failed to flee the country and at the end of Videograms of a Revolution, a TV news report shows him and his wife apparently being told that they have been sentenced to death. But it is hard to know exactly what is happening because all that can be heard is a soft electronic hum, which is eventually interrupted by the announcer’s voice. Then the last videogram of Ceauşescu shows his corpse.
The man who ruled Romania for so long returns like a specter in Ujică’s remarkable new film, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which begins where Videograms of a Revolution concluded, with the couple’s hasty trial. This time, however, Ceauşescu’s flustered voice is audible. He repudiates the proceedings as a “masquerade” but begins to defend his record before a cut takes us back to 1965 and the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, whom Ceauşescu succeeded as head of the Communist government. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is another chronological narrative made up of found footage, but it covers twenty-four years not five days, and the Romanian dictator is the center of attention throughout. He receives flowers, attends party congresses, dances, meets other heads of state. Addressing a vast crowd in summer 1968, he denounces the August invasion of Czechoslovakia by other Eastern Bloc countries. He is greeted with honor by de Gaulle, Nixon, the British royal family, Brezhnev, Mao, and others. He and his wife take a cruise with Imelda Marcos and there is also more intimate footage which shows the president at leisure: hiking, hunting, playing volleyball.
Is this history or a home-movie anthology? History or a dream of history? Ujică includes pristine and radiant color film of a state visit to North Korea. After parading in a cavalcade through the streets Ceauşescu and Kim Il-sung sit together to watch a magnificently choreographed stadium pageant. The occasion includes a sort of widescreen celebration of Ceauşescu in the form of thousands of handheld cards that combine into images of heroic socialist leadership. No wonder the Romanian leader smiles as he observes the gaudy cult of his own personality.
There is almost no evidence of dissent or opposition in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The one striking exception is an incident recorded during the twelfth congress of the Romanian Communist Party in 1979: party veteran Constantin Pârvulescu speaks from the platform to claim that the re-election of Ceauşescu as Secretary General is being rigged. Confronted with this objection, the delegates rise as one to acclaim their leader, chanting “Ceauşescu and the people!”
By contrast with Videograms of a Revolution, Ujică supplies no analytic narration to guide viewers through his reconstruction of the imagery of dictatorship. He and editor Dana Bunescu do, however, disturb the film’s pageantry through sound editing. Half-way through the film, there is a cut to a black screen over which screaming and commotion can be heard. On two subsequent occasions the president is seen inspecting urban architectural models and there is an odd mechanical clicking on the soundtrack. I interpreted the cries as an index of popular suffering under this regime and the clicking as the grinding gears of the state propaganda machine. However they are understood, these noises are like rips in the fabric of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu; for a few moments unruly, cryptic sounds suggest the world missing from the official pantomime.
This interview with Andrei Ujică was conducted by email in January 2010. His responses were translated by Andrada Romagno. (Thanks to Magda Stroe, Deputy Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in London, for facilitating this interview.)
Rob White: How did you come to work with Harun Farocki on Videograms of a Revolution and what was your project in making the film?
Andrei Ujică: as you may already know, I have a background in literature. I started to write as early as high school, prose at first, and that’s when my passion for cinema also started. Unlike literature, however, I didn’t do anything about it, always having this absurd conviction that one day this will happen by itself.
After I emigrated to Germany, in 1981, I was forced by circumstances to take a detour through theory. I got an assistant post at the University of Mannheim, with a specialty in literary theory and film theory. That’s where the events of 1989 found me. In 1990 I published, together with Hubertus von Amelunxen, photography historian and theorist, a book called Television/Revolution: The Ultimatum of the Images—Romania in December 1989. It contained, among other things, four dialogues I had with Romanian intellectuals, friends from youth, two from Timişoara, two from Bucharest, who had witnessed the events both at first hand and on TV.
Harun Farocki contacted me through the publishing house, expressing his interest in making a film adaptation of the dialogues and asking me if I wanted to help him. I told him it would be so much more interesting to make a film about what is not dealt with in the book, namely the videograms of that revolution. We decided to do it together.
The idea at the basis of the project can be summarized in this way: in 1989, a hundred cameras followed what was happening in Romania; history is no longer divided into theatrical scenes, nor into literary chapters—it is perceived as a sequence; and the sequence demands a film.
One of the narrator’s main theoretical statements in Videograms of a Revolution is: “Since its invention, film has seemed destined to make history visible. It has been able to portray the past and to stage the present. We have seen Napoleon on horseback and Lenin on the train. Film was possible because there was history. Almost imperceptibly, like moving forward on a Möbius strip, the side was flipped. We look on and have to think: if film is possible then history too is possible.” Are you a historian?
Inherently, any artist who transcribes his historical biography into his work is also a historian.
However, other statements should be added to the ones you mention, statements which were molded after the film was done and which sum up this problematic as follows: between December 21, 1989 (the day of Ceauşescu’s last speech) and December 26, 1989 (the day of the first television reports of his trial) cameras at all the most important locations in Bucharest captured the events almost in their entirety. We have gathered all these various recordings together in order to reconstruct the visual chronology of these days. The aim was to disentangle the mass of images and to arrange sequences in such a way as to suggest that, for five days, one was moving from camera to camera on one and the same reel of film.
The prevailing artistic medium of an age has always had a determining influence on history. This is clearly the case in the Modern European Age. It has been influenced by theater, from Shakespeare to Schiller, and then by the novel, until Tolstoy. We know that the twentieth century is filmic. But it is only with the advent of the video camera, and the increased possibilities for lengthy and mobile recording it offers, that the process of the filmification of history can be completed.
As regards the statement “if film is possible, then history too is possible,” it is in fact an ironic reference to the posthistoricist theses from the beginning of the 1990s, when it was being rumored that we have reached “the end of history”. . .
The narrator also makes a statement about the experience of living in Romania during the dictatorship: the sense of time freezing, “the inertia of fear”—a feeling of always being at war. Please say something about your own memory of living under this regime.
Besides these two feelings, the dominant frame of mind in that regime was that your life had been confiscated. As if the desideratum of that small, short-lived party from the beginning years of the Soviet Union, called The Immortalists, which asked for the nationalization of the time of one’s life, as the last remnant of “private property,” in opposition to the Bolshevik collectivist postulates, would have come true. With the films that make up this trilogy [Ujică also directed Out of the Present, in 1995] and especially with The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, I have the impression that I have gained back that section of my life nationalized in my youth.
I’m using here almost the concrete sense of the word, this being a process very similar to that of my wife’s gaining back her family’s estate, nationalized in 1949 and retroceded in 1997.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is wholly composed of found footage. What kind of archival research was involved?
The advantage this project had, unlike Videograms of a Revolution, was that all images are stored in two big institutions: the Romanian Television Archive and the National Film Archive, which has also taken over the archives of the former Alexandru Sahia Documentary Studio.
During the twenty-five years he was in command, Ceauşescu was filmed on an average of probably one hour a day, which adds up to approximately 9000 hours. From this hypothetical corpus, around 1000 hours have survived. Two researchers, the filmmaker Titus Muntean and Velvet Moraru, the producer of the film, watched all this material and made a preselection, based on certain criteria set by myself. In general lines, this implied a chronological, year-by-year covering of Ceauşescu’s political biography, with special attention dedicated to reel ends, where I was hoping to find moments from the beginning or end of shooting, which show real life fragments outside protocol. This work period lasted for a year.
The images thus preselected—around 260 hours—were watched and classified by myself together with Dana Bunescu, who later on did the editing and sound design of the film. A process for which we gave ourselves a lot of time and which took altogether another year. The result was that, when we started the image-editing, we knew the material so well that we were able to work from the start on the final version, which we finished five months later.
The film is mostly comprised of what looks like official newsreel footage, but there are also clips from what seem to be home movies. Can you explain the nature of the footage?
Ceauşescu liked to be filmed, so there are images with him in a private environment from early on. In the 1970s, the Sahia studio used to make quarterly rough cuts with this kind of images, which were given to him under the “discreet” title of “Recollections I–IV,” to be watched with the family at their residence. In the second half of the 1970s, they reached the point where all his hunting trips were shot (and he went hunting most Sundays).
The “Recollections” portfolio ended up, together with the entire Sahia collection, at the National Film Archive. A series of these “state home movies,” so to say, can also be found at the television archive. The two archives partly overlap because the same few cameramen with the highest protocol clearance were always involved. The security apparatus, as well as Ceauşescu himself, were averse to new faces in their entourage.
The film simulates a process of committing to memory and the association of official images with intimate ones fits perfectly this narrative convention. As a matter of fact, since our memories are both black-and-white and color, both mute and “with sound,” they are a lot like a film archive, which makes our work easier.
Why did you call the film an Autobiography?
Any video archive of a chief of state is a protocol archive. Therefore the only point of view from which a cinematic story, limited to these images, can be built is an “autobiographical” one.
Is it a tragic narrative? For a while, Ceauşescu is a dynamic, vigorous figure—for example when he criticizes the invasion of Czechoslovakia. But by the end of the film he is a visibly shrunken man, visiting empty shops and living in what seems like a kind of bubble world of despots. He never relinquishes the language of revolutionary idealism. “I have relentlessly served the cause of socialism, the vital interests of our people,” he says on receiving an honorary doctorate in 1973. Is this just hypocrisy or is there truly a measure of personal tragedy here?
Ceauşescu was indoctrinated when he was fifteen, an age which, as we know, predisposes to a lifetime of ideological rigidity. After that, he spent a great part of his youth in jail, where the idea that he had to seize power germinated and became a mission he had to accomplish. So he was anything but a hypocrite. That’s why his biography, indeed, gradually takes on a tragic dimension. There is a Shakespearean touch in him, of a character captive to an evil beyond him, which “leads” his path. In the history of the ideology we are talking about it is, however, hard to draw a line between visionary and fanatic, liberator and tyrant, revolutionary and gangster.
There is electrifying footage of Constantin Pârvulescu denouncing the procedure by which Ceauşescu is being re-elected to the central committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Why is this the only dissent seen in the film?
Because this is the only act of dissent that comes from within the political apparatus and which takes place in Ceauşescu’s presence. These images owe their existence to the fact that the incident took place at a party congress and these were always recorded by the television in their entirety. At first I was surprised that the material wasn’t erased immediately after the meeting. After a while I realized, however, that the propaganda machine knew its job very well. Those people were aware that, if it were ever needed, that tape could be used as proof of the unconditional solidarity with the leader. And that, even though anyone would have realized, by watching it, that the people in the audience were cheering first and foremost because they were scared to death, this very demonstration of fear disguised in loyalty confirmed the triumph of the apparatus over any attempt at dissent.
I could not always tell whether a song or piece of music had been added to the soundtrack by you—for example the version of “I Fought the Law” an hour into the film, which accompanies footage of dancing and urban bustle. In which cases did you actually add the music?
With the exception of a few parade choirs and marches, as well as the singer who performs on the stadium on Ceauşescu’s sixtieth anniversary, all musical pieces were added by us. Over eighty percent of the images are mute because, for cost reasons, the sound recordings weren’t archived. Hence almost the entire soundtrack of the film, except the fragments mentioned above and, of course, Ceauşescu’s speeches, was designed by us. When period music was needed, we added period music. As for “I Fought the Law,” it was a gift from Dana Bunescu. We had finished editing the shot with 1970 youth dance, something I put in the film because it reminded me of my high-school prom, which took place the same year, and we were looking for music to add to it. I remember listening for an entire day to “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan in the legendary Manchester concert in May 1966, when he was called “Judas” from the audience and he answered “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” Unfortunately, this piece was in tune only with my state of mind and not with the images. At one point Dana, who was listening to other songs in her headphones, said: “Do you remember this one?” Then she played Bobby Fuller singing “I Fought the Law.”
There are three uses of sound that seem to me like ruptures. First there is a rumbling noise like an earthquake, which then turns into screaming. Is this in a sense the sound of popular suffering that the official version of events refuses to acknowledge?
That sound fragment is a historical document. On the evening of March 4, 1977, at 9.22 p.m., a 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit Romania, destroying a vast part of Bucharest and having an impact on the entire southern area of the country. At that very time, the Radio Hall was hosting a symphonic concert. The earthquake took place during the break, but a magnetophone was on in the recording cabin, to “catch the background,” as they say. It recorded a little over twenty seconds of earthquake noise, half of the total duration. We wanted to give this acoustic document a context fitting its gravity, that’s why we put it on black. We were, however, aware that in this way it would also gain the meaning you’re referring to.
Then, on two subsequent occasions, you include footage of Ceauşescu inspecting architectural models. Both times, a clicking sound intrudes. Please explain what is happening here.
In this case, we have a real acoustic abstraction. The sound that can be heard in both scenes with architectural models is a musical composition: Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes by György Ligeti.
Although your film is a found-footage documentary, I think it has something in common with certain films in the Romanian New Wave of fiction films: for example Police, Adjective and Aurora. There is a shared sense of slow menace and a shared lack of contextual explanation. Do you see any connection?
We are dealing here with “the two faces of reality” in cinema. While I start from fragments of reality, which I try to compress through syntactic devices into an aesthetic discourse, the Romanian New Wave directors start from an aesthetic presumption, which they try to dilate through morphological means until it becomes fragments of reality. We find ourselves, to go back to the image we started with, on the two different sides of a Möbius strip, with neither of us being able to identify the point where it twists.
In one 1960s sequence, a pop song is heard with the lyrics: “Remember that in life, a smile drives the tears away. Forget about your pain. Don’t be blue.” Do memories of the dictatorship still bring pain? Is Ceauşescu starting to be forgotten now or is he like a ghost haunting Romania and Romanian cinema?
Before becoming abstract, a historical figure of this kind usually traumatizes its own nation in personam and as a ghost for about one hundred years. Thus, we find ourselves roughly at Ceauşescu’s halfway “presence” in Romania. During this sort of periods, art, and nowadays mainly cinema, usually takes on a psychotherapeutic function over collective