The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu opens with videotaped footage of its indignant subject at the kangaroo trial that occurred moments before his execution on Christmas Day in 1989. He repeatedly refuses to recognize the court’s authority, claiming only the Grand National Assembly is worthy of his testimony. Eventually the word “genocide” is used—a reference to Timisoara, where anti-government protestors were fired on days earlier—and the film abruptly cuts to footage of people on the streets, shuffling silently in what amounts to a country-wide funeral procession for Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the departed Romanian dictator whose reign immediately preceded Ceauşescu’s. It’s a solemn, if not quite lachrymose, affair steeped in fearful reverence that immediately raises the question: What’s really on these people’s minds? Seen from a distance in black and white, they’re reduced to the faceless masses that we’re used to thinking of Eastern-bloc citizens as having been. Andrei Ujică’s third and final entry in his nonfiction trilogy detailing the last gasps of Eastern-bloc communism (after Videograms of a Revolution and Out of the Present) manages to be intimate and impersonal at the same time, a trait constantly reinforced by his portrayal of not only Ceauşescu but the populace he led, represented, and controlled for nearly three decades.
The early moments of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu in particular, best described as a meticulous cobbling together of archival footage edited into a cut-up and montage-like style, are as fascinating formally as they are in content. A sort of anti-socialist realism, the film presents reel after reel of spectacles devoted to Ceauşescu’s cult of personality: grand celebrations (January 26th, his birthday, was the most important day of the year in the country during his reign); state visits both to and from other countries involving such familiar faces as Nixon, de Gaulle, Gorbachev, and Mao; and honorary titles and degrees. Through nearly all of it, his face appears emotionless—as though he’s looking for something else. Ceauşescu has a semi-scowl permanently imprinted on his face, his eyes quickly dart back and forth in order to take it all in at once, and employs steady but sweeping hand gestures when orating. Ujică offers an abundance of his subject’s public persona in the hopes that, after witnessing him deliver so many speeches and sit through just as many events held in his name, a glimpse of the man as he truly was will begin to emerge. The attempt makes for a distinctly immersive experience. It would be wrong to say that Ujică pities Ceauşescu, but he’s certainly aware of how bizarre the man’s day-to-day life was.
Many specters haunt this film, not only communism and the still-echoing voices of its leaders, but also the men and women who lived through it and whose voices were never heard, who never got a chance to speak, who perhaps wouldn’t have taken it if they had. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is as much about the people as it is the dictator; Ceauşescu is intriguing in and of himself, but it’s the ways in which he was—and wasn’t—a reflection of his people that make him so enigmatic a figure. By rarely showing these people, Ujică presents them in much the same way that Ceauşescu seems to have thought of them: strange, even alien beings whose only real interaction with their leader was to cheer him on whenever he appeared before them. We never see a single Romanian on his or her lonesome; they’re always part of a crowd, whether assembled outside to listen to their leader speak or gathered around the television to do the same. We’ll catch a glimpse of one of these speeches first from the perspective of the crowd, and then the film will cut to a family in their living room or workers in the factory watching that same speech. It’s an almost 360-degree technique as remarkable for the sheer volume of footage assembled from Romania’s national archives as for the craftsman-like precision with which it was edited.
More than once, we’re treated to the sight of Ceauşescu at a gathering of the elite with nary a commoner in sight. Each time this occurs, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu goes silent. We don’t get to hear what the powerful have to say to one another, only what they decide to grace us with, and individuals are only important for their ability to receive the no doubt glorious wisdom of their leader. Remarkably, the documentary features no narration or explicit authorial intrusion of any kind: Ujică’s wordless editing technique says it all. In much the same way that Romanian cinema of late has offered an embarrassment of riches, 2011 has seen no shortage of strange, exceptional documentaries—The Arbor and Nostalgia for the Light in particular—and yet this film is unique even among that esteemed company for its formal rigor and politically charged but silent air. Many of its most compelling notions are established within the first half hour, but if not each and every one of the film’s 180 minutes is absolutely necessary, the exhaustive runtime is successful in creating a pervading sense of Ceauşescu’s vice grip-like control over his countrymen. There’s little sense of movement or momentum, linear or otherwise, making the goings on often feel like a static collection of moments and incidents that it’s left to us to piece together.
Ujică eventually returns to Ceauşescu’s trial, but only for a precious few moments. “What you’re saying is all lies, mystifications, provocations,” the irate authoritarian exclaims; it’s a fitting closing statement from a film intent on highlighting the epistemological uncertainty surrounding its subject. If this myopic depth of field, normally awe-inspiring, sometimes feels redundant, it’s only because Ujică means for the experience of viewing his film to mirror Ceauşescu’s 24-year reign as closely as possible. The conviction that this is a documentary that needed to be made and presented just so is ultimately quite persuasive. To make an easy film would be both intellectually dishonest and counter to Ujică’s dual aim of showing the man as the people knew him and somehow going beyond the inscrutable surface toward the answers beneath.