The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu traverses a wealth of exclusively archival footage - an unforgettable journey through the eyes of one of Europe's most self-absorbed dictators. Director Andrei Ujica artfully constructs an image of Romania's Conducător that is true to the title of the film: a veritable autobiography, the film depicts a man subject to his own dedication to pomp, image, and a relentless propaganda machine.
Nicolae Ceauşescu became Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) in 1965, and it is from this instance of inauguration that the film begins. From the moment Ceauşescu stepped into office, he was filmed incessantly in an official capacity. The state cameras hover around him, perpetuating the personality cult he artfully constructs. In crisp newsreel footage, a new era is ushered in as Romania finds a leader capable of bringing the revolution to full fruition. Policy is laid down and a tour of infrastructure is presented as Ceauşescu pursues a progressive economic policy, borrowing from the west. This liberalization would later be reversed in favor of a highly isolationist policy.
The documentary is selected from hundreds of hours of official state footage, and as one might expect, it is therefore the editing that makes this film. The resulting montage is both exhaustive and incisive. As the new epoch of Romanian Socialism unfolds, all cameras roll in black and white, accentuating the archival effect. All internal affairs are captured in black and white. There is a certain irony in this historical reality, as the era of Ceauşescu’s greatest approval is reflected in somber, gray footage.
Suddenly, the world appears in color – amusingly enough, in the form of a private volleyball match between the dictator and his friends. Increasingly, the color footage becomes a metaphor of escape. An international tour, meeting with world figures, hunting bears in the Carpathians – all are shot in color, and all signal an official escapism from the problems of totalitarian rule. There are even scenes toward the end of the movie in which the Leader tours his country’s bakeries, full of bread in stark contradiction to national reality.
An impressive and comical moment in color occurs on the occasion of Ceauşescu’s visit to North Korea. The fanfare is incredible, and the 35mm propaganda footage of the parade explodes with vibrant hue (incidentally, looking almost exactly the same as modern parades of Kim Jong-il’s regime). This sequence is particularly well positioned within the film. It also serves to parallel Romania with North Korea; it was here that Ceauşescu became enamored of the regime of Kim Il-sung, taking many aspects of command economy, autarky, and party indoctrination back to Romania.
Sound design plays another crucial role. In many scenes, what sound may have existed is replaced instead by the steady tick and whir of the film reel – a sort of countdown for the regime. The near-silence is eerie and gives pause for reflection between the incessant audio of the propaganda message.
Though the film tops out at over three hours, any tiredness is most certainly not the result of a tediously long film. On the contrary, as the film drags on, it is not just duration but the weight of a maintained illusion that elicits exhaustion. Three hours will tire most spectators, but twenty-four years of crumbling dictatorship is positively debilitating.
While the delusional rhetoric starts out mildly amusing, it soon descends into desperation as the president of Socialist Romania struggles to maintain stale slogans in an era that renders him increasingly anachronistic. The relentless inspections of state infrastructure seem thinly veiled and superfluous, and exclusive party conferences on the condition of the Romanian economy pin the blame on the people themselves. The faux-populist blames the very people whose sentiments he once claimed to embody, and collapse looms on the horizon. Interestingly, his deposition is not of interest to the filmmaker. Romanians broadcast his mock trial and summary execution every Christmas, so perhaps yet another visual reminded of this grisly cadou is unnecessary. But more importantly, those final moments, shot hastily by purveyors of the revolution, have no place in the dictator’s autobiography. It is already written in the footage of the party-sanctioned cameramen.
Exclusive use of archival state footage is not without its drawbacks. The film falls a bit flat at times and certainly fails to evoke the gritty realism of found footage films like Videograms of a Revolution, an account of the Romanian Revolution that mixes home video and National TV video footage into a turbulent montage. Videograms of a Revolution succeeded in portraying the revolution as inspired by the sentiments of the people, but carried out by the actions of the few with access to important institutions. Nevertheless, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu stands as a testament to the intricate work necessary to construct a successful work from archival footage, and in this it succeeds.
In the early morning matinee that I attended, the Romanian audience seemed happy to laugh and cajole at Ceauşescu's blundering awkwardness, but sighed and groaned as the demagoguery wore on. It was too familiar, even in 2010. But while they objected to the “official” message of the film, I found it to be necessary, pushing the viewer to appreciate a very different reality than that which is presented on the screen.