The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.

Fucking Kim Il-sung

Posted by thearrow on October 10, 2011

Friday night I went to see “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” by the Romanian director Andrei Ujica, introduced by Prof. Vladimir Tismaneanu from the Univ. of Maryland. For those of you who might not know, Ceausescu was our beloved dictator, who ruled Romania with an iron fist, starved and oppressed his people while making them put elaborate shows to express their endless love for him, and generally displaying other such despotic signs of care. It all ended like a fairy tale on Christmas Day in 1989, when a firing squad kindly disposed of him and his equally dim-witted and vile wife, Elena.

It includes three hours of archival footage (some of it never shown before) but without any context and very few references to the years when the images were shot. Him carrying the coffin of his predecessor, Gheorghiu-Dej, then taking power, and then basking into it while ruining the country. Speeches in stiff communist-speak to vast, supposedly adulating, audiences at home, pompous festivities put together for him by the kindred nations of China and North Korea, and a string of naive Western leaders (incuding the Queen of  England and Jimmy Carter) who seemed to have had no clue about his oppressive regime; or preferred to ignore it.

Tismaneanu said that the most important thing to keep in mind is the fact that this movie is called “autobiography.” The images recreate Ceausescu’s life as he probably would have told it, with all his grand socialist achievements. I was 17 in 1989, so I remember a lot from that regime. The first hour and a half felt like watching an extended newscast from those times. I was thinking, wait a minute, we already knew he thought he was so wonderful, that’s what we were being shown ad nausea in the papers and during the paltry few hours of TV time we had each evening. But it did include images that weren’t shown at the time, such as him awkwardly holding a rifle while hunting bears that had been brought close so he wouldn’t miss them, or him swimming in the Black Sea and his wife trying the same while very close to the shore. They looked ridiculous, which happens more than once and gives the viewer some much needed, even if unintended, comic relief.

I imagine it’s very hard for someone who doesn’t already know what happened to follow three hours without any context or explanation. But it was a very important stylistic choice Ujica made. Ian Buckwalter nailed it beautifully: “if Ceauşescu were to tell his own story, it’s clear he’d never be able to shut up about himself.” Also, the fact that images follow a general chronology but they are not always  shown in their precise sequence is absolutely brilliant: they keep building the ego-maniacal self-aggrandizement we came to know so well. You can almost hear an incoherent speech about his greatness. In Mark Olsen’s description, “over the years Ceausescu seems to drift further and further into his fantasy vision of himself, making the film like a loop that repeats endlessly in his head.”

However, the absolute biggest jaw-dropper for me was Ceausescu’s visit to North Korea and China, of sad fame as they inspired his demented cult of personality. Well, I don’t know what they showed on TV or wrote in the press about it in 1971, but fucking Kim Il-sung put together an incredible show on a gigantic stadium for him. Something akin to the Beijing Olympics opening show without the fireworks. Ceausescu couldn’t believe his eyes. Thousands of people were moving flags and banners that seamlessly changed images and slogans. In Romanian! All the stupid shit with long live our beloved leader and marching towards the victory of communism. I had no idea and my parents didn’t know either. I’ve always thought he was inspired by how the North Koreans worshiped Kim Il-sung and wanted the same for himself. Well, no. He probably thought, if the North Koreans can worship him, well, Romanians better start doing the same. On his visit to China, at a show for him and Mao Zedong, an orchestra played Romanian folk music and a singer sang in flawless Romanian. Ceausescu’s mouth was wide open in amazement, as was mine. That’s where it all started my friends. After that, thousands of Romanians had to be in similar stadium shows for every August 23, which was our national day.

The film begins and ends with Ceausescu’s hastened trial, which led to his and his wife’s immediate execution. I remember seeing those images back in December 1989 and how he kept repeating that he’ll only answer to the Great National Assembly (the rubber-stamp parliament).  Tismaneanu said that  Ceausescu died singing the international and that he was a true believer in communism, which now I’m more inclined to believe. The idea that they didn’t quite know what the reality was and how desperate people were is now a little more believable for me. There was a wide group of people around him who constructed the fake beautiful reality he wanted, while accumulating great privileges for themselves. Personally, I hated him with all my heart and would have put a bullet in his head without hesitation or regret. But my hatred stemmed from the conviction that he knew what was going on. Now I realize that it’s possible he truly believed the set design was real because he took himself too seriously to ever question anything.

At the end of the three hours, all I could think was, wow, what an incredible, twisted history my generation witnessed. When the movie comes out on DVD, I’ll get it. I don’t want to forget what we went through. I want to own those images.

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