Under Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign as president of Romania during the 1980s, many Romanians struggled to make a living after their president ordered much of the country’s agricultural and industrial products exported in order to cover the more than $13 million in debt it had incurred over the years. That, however, is among many of the harsh realities that Andrei Ujicâ, the writer-director of the conceptually intriguing documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu deliberately leaves out in fashioning his own kind of portrait of the increasingly reality-challenged ruler. But it’s not because he’s attempting to try to empathize with Ceaușescu—or, at least, if he is trying to see things through his eyes, it’s not to try to elicit understanding. (If recent films from the so-called Romanian New Wave suggest anything, it’s that the country still bears considerable scars from Ceaușescu’s Mao Zedong-ish presidency, and that most are just trying to move on from it all.)
Instead of fashioning an in-depth psychological examination of Ceaușescu, Ujicâ—working with copious amounts of footage taken during his decades of political prominence (starting in 1965, as first secretary of the Romanian Workers’ Party)—has fashioned what amounts to a three-hour portrait of his public image. Thus, in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, we barely see any sign of the struggle of everyday Romanians during his presidency; the pageantry—the parades, the political photo ops—is all we get. If there are signs of the poor standard of living that developed during his presidency to be seen in any frame of this film, its subject certainly doesn’t remark on them.
On a conceptual level, then, Ujicâ does for Nicolae Ceauşescu what Sofia Coppola did for Marie Antoinette in the 2006 film bearing her name, and what Todd Haynes did for Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Actually, one could think of Ujicâ’s film as a synthesis of Coppola’s hermetic approach (telling Marie Antoinette’s story by sticking almost exclusively within the privileged four walls of Versailles) and Haynes’s deconstructive one (creating a whirling palimpsest of Dylan’s various public personas in a purposefully failed attempt to try to find the human being underneath). The implications of this completely exterior approach to a biographical subject, however, are distinctive in Ceaușescu’s case. Maybe, by giving his film the title The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Ujicâ is suggesting that the Romanian politician really was that clueless about the way things actually were in his own country—that, throughout his whole political life, he really did believe in the cult of personality he so lavishly cultivated, and which this film so extensively details. It’s telling that, in its final concluding minutes, we see television footage of Ceaușescu during his 1989 public trial reacting with surprise when he hears about the deaths of innocents in Timis?oara, where an anti-government demonstration erupted into violence.
Naturally, because the film is so single-mindedly focused on Ceaușescu from the outside, psychological insight is limited at best. Ujicâ includes some home-movie footage of the man hunting, badly playing volleyball, and swimming with his wife, but rather than serving to humanize him, the footage only serves to emphasize the vast disconnect between the fiery socialist rhetoric he spouted and the comfortable home life he maintained. And, at heart, this is one hell of a slippery movie. If you didn’t know any better, if you didn’t come into the film fully aware of Romania’s travails during the Ceaușescu presidency, this film may well play like the kind of glorification of leadership that the subject himself probably would have approved. And yet, the film is unexpectedly fascinating as much because of its deeply problematic nature as in spite of it. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
No such slipperiness infects Nuremberg, the U.S. government’s official 1948 film about the Nuremberg trials that, because of political concerns, has never played in U.S. theaters—until now, in a new 35mm restoration created by Sandra Schulberg (daughter of the film’s director, Stuart Schulberg) and Josh Waletzky. Also a documentary, the film intercuts footage from the trials with the Nazis’s own film footage of the atrocities they committed during the Holocaust. In other words, as The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu tries to use Ceaușescu’s own footage to condemn him, so does Schulberg use the Nazis’s own filmed records against them.
Being an official U.S. government film (one that was distributed in Germany as part of its de-Nazification program), Nuremberg, subtitled Its Lesson for Today, doesn’t deal much with political or moral nuance; unlike Stanley Kramer’s fictionalized Judgment at Nuremberg from 1961, the question of whether some of these Nazi war criminals ought to be condemned for their ignorance in merely following the orders of the state is never really broached. Are some of the criminals’ expressions of remorse genuine? That’s for another movie to determine. The chief interest of Nuremberg, then, is principally historical—and timeless. In light of, say, the continuing atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, or past instances of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Bosnia, the lessons of the Nuremberg trials still reverberate to this day.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 24—October 10.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.