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To an average American kid in the 1960s, Eastern Europe was a mysterious and fearsome place. We Americans learned about what was happening in those dreaded Iron Curtain countries only through snippets of Television news film, almost always accompanied by negative commentary. So far as we knew, Eastern Europe was a collection of slave states that either supported the Moscow bosses or found themselves occupied by Russian troops. The news coverage of the internal politics of the satellite countries was slim at best, unless there was a Soviet outrage to report. In a way, the propaganda prevented Americans from realizing how oppressive the basic living conditions in Eastern Europe really were, especially in a totalitarian regime like East Germany.
When Nicolae Ceauşescu's socialist government in Romania fell in 1989, he had held power for almost 35 years. Ceauşescu's image in the West was actually fairly positive, as he had made many speeches proclaiming Romania's independence from the USSR; the leader had visited Washington and London and been given awards. Only after his fall were we suddenly made aware of his regime's brutality and corruption.
The fascinating documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu concerns itself exclusively with the dictator's own filmed propaganda. It has no narration, no thematic through-line and no thesis or mission statement. It is instead a chronological assemblage of largely uncut film and video. It's called an Autobiography because it's Ceauşescu's story as told by himself -- as the president controlled all of the state media and information sources, the lengthy newsreeel shoots and public appearances were all staged and designed as self-promotion. Students, historians and those viewers already familiar with the facts of Ceausecu's reign in Romania from 1965 to 1989 will be fascinated to see all of this material intact. This is how a Communist leader handles his public relations, and it is one long and uninterrupted charade. The lengthy (three hour) film is less of a conventional documentary than it is a prime-source historical archive. Viewers willing to access Wikipedia and use the disc's Who's Who DVD-R guide will be able to learn a great deal.
The filmmakers received access to the entire state-run film and video archive, which seems to have been the personal resource of Nicolae and his wife Elena. We see thirty or forty years of news film coverage, much of it in perfect condition, accompanied by extensive home movie footage. Ceauşescu is seen at the funeral of his predecessor, giving unusually dull public speeches, addressing party conferences and touring construction sites. Some of his speeches are quite vocal about Romania's independence, proclaiming that he will help protect neighboring Czechoslovakia from outside aggression by the Soviet Union. This diplomatic balancing act earns Ceauşescu visits from most of the Western heads of state. Charles DeGaulle, Prince Philip and even Richard Nixon are given huge public receptions. Interestingly, Nicolae repeatedly brings touring visitors to a bakery stocked to the rafters with delicious breads and pastries. The setup looks completely phony, especially after Ceauşescu makes the same comments, etc., during visits years apart -- it's all for show. We're told that Romania propped up its sagging economy by exporting a huge portion of its agricultural output, leaving its own people to suffer.
We see the Ceauşescus visiting other foreign capitals as well, including the U.S. -- by openly defying the U.S.S.R. on some issues Romania was able to play both ends against the middle.
The coverage of Ceauşescu's visit to North Korea is astounding. The Korean host appears to have spent his country's entire GNP on outrageously flamboyant spectacles to impress visiting Socialist dignitaries. The roads are lined with thousands of carefully costumed and color-coordinated greeters waving flowers. A massive square must hold 50 or 60 thousand costumed dancers holding flowers and parasols, all moving in unison. Moving shots from vehicles show endless lines of performers, with the most beautiful women smiling up front. A rally at a sports stadium is more of the same. A giant decorative biplane 'flies' over the field and a vast card section in the stands depicts enormous artwork and lengthy slogans in Romanian. Ceauşescu and his interpreter are dazzled by the grandiose display, while the North Korean dictator smiles at his "little amusement thrown together for the afternoon."
When Elena Ceauşescu appears in official footage she always wears fairly drab clothes, as if playing the Pat Nixon role of the humble wife of an honest politician. She's careful not to look too elegant in the home movies either, even when the family is photographed on fancy boats, etc. Nicolae begins the show looking quite young. In his 40s he's gained weight but has a look of experience about him; photos from this era would remain his official image even as his appearance changed with age.
One interesting kinescoped episode at a big re-election meeting shows a speaker rather lamely expressing displeasure with the president's rule. He's shouted down by a chorus of delegates shouting Ceauşescu's name. The moment seems so unlikely, that we wonder if the guy were asked to fake his speech, so as to trigger a "spontaneous and unrehearsed" group endorsement of Romania's unopposed leader.
We do note that events don't always seem to be in chronological order, at least not at first glance. The one major editorial imposition is the use of a crude videotape made on December 22 1989, during an ad hoc trial. Just a few days earlier Ceauşescu had ordered his troops to fire on demonstrators in the city of Timisoara. His government immediately collapsed and he and Elena were arrested as they tried to flee the country. In the videotape we see Nicolae and Elena refusing to answer questions (which he does anyway) and proclaiming that he is still president. Director Andrea Ujica places parts of this footage at the very beginning and very end of the show. What the docu presumes we already know, is that Nicolae and Elena would be shot by a firing squad just a few minutes later.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is not a conventional documentary but a record of the way a despot promoted the idea that he and the state were inseparable: the 'cult of personality'. He immodestly declared himself a genius by presidential edict. Only those that read further will get an idea of how harshly Ceauşescu ran Romania. He stacked the government with family members and cronies and his totalitarian state controlled all information sources. Dissent was brutally repressed. The visual document on view here presents a political monster playing the role of a warm and humanitarian leader.
Kino Lorber's DVD of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu has given this recent film an excellent encoding. Much of the film footage is in pristine condition. Occasional video sources from odd formats and the much later home video footage of course does not look as good as the 35mm news film. Many sequences are in very good color, especially the spectacular North Korean gala reception. The film is fully subtitled in English but the subs are not removable. A theatrical trailer samples images with a maximum visual interest.
A DVD-Rom extra called Who's Who partly addresses an issue that many might feel is a major drawback with the disc, unless one happens to be very familiar with Cold War politics and Romanian political personalities. None of the dozens of politicians, party figures and world leaders are identified during the course of the film. Only those viewers prepared to compete on Jeopardy will be able to name many of them. It's also probable that younger viewers will need help to identify men like Charles DeGaulle and even Jimmy Carter.
The ideal solution may have been impractical -- add a second subtitle stream that displays name IDs, dates, locations. The disc distributor AnimEigo is adept at using subtitle tracks to annotate its Japanese samurai films with definitions of odd words and explanations of obscure concepts, etc. The Who's Who DVD-Rom extra is a text file packed with information on at least a hundred personages seen in the film, each accompanied by a photo. Most are Romanian party officials and Ceauşescu relatives, but the long list includes leaders from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, China and North Korea. It represents quite a lot of concentrated research.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu rates:
1. Note: I have not attempted to write all the correct accents and other diacritical remarks for these Romanian, Czech and Polish names, etc. -- I tried to do it once in Czech and received a note from a tolerant Czech correspondent that I was just making a mess of things. Just call me under-educated.
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