Nicolae in Wonderland

08/31/2011 4:00 AM |

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

Directed by Andrei Ujică

Of all the heads of Warsaw Pact nations unemployed by the 1989 revolutions, Nicolae Ceauşescu has the distinction of being the only one put up against the wall and shot by his adoring subjects.

The first images of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu are handheld camcorder of the toppled dictator at the trial which immediately preceded his execution, his doomed wife, Elena, at his side. Like Charles I, Ceauşescu denies the authority of the assembled court to try him. Accused of commanding massacres and venal overbuilding, Ceauşescu seems genuinely indignant, and it’s difficult for a neutral observer not to feel sympathy, for in their rumpled refugee outfits, Nicolae and Elena resemble frail foreign grandparents.

This is the film’s only interruption of unscripted, rude reality, before a three-hour This Is Your Life flow of official documentation from the Ceauşescu regime, beginning in 1965 and ending in the kangaroo court. Autobiography‘s only “commentary” comes from Ujică’s soundtrack cues (amid Communist warblers, Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law” sounds like the best song you’ve ever heard) and his associative editing of footage collected from Romania’s National Film and Television Archives, much of it ghostly, silent. The film presupposes an audience that understands what the Ceauşescus pointedly do not: The decades of untold suffering that Romanians endured under their gross misrule, none of it visible herein. Explaining this disconnect is the project of the Autobiography.

We see Nicolae at Harvest Day celebrations; Nicolae presiding over Congress after Congress, giving the same speech for a quarter century; Nicolae on one of his famous, rigged bear hunts; Nicolae, penguin-shaped and graceless, playing volleyball; Nicolae greeting foreign leaders, from De Gaulle to Nixon to Brezhnev.

Ceauşescu is a homely man; a poodle-ish pompadour hardly compensates for his shortness. A dark comic episode from the recent Romanian omnibus film, Tales from the Golden Age, concerns a photo retoucher for the state-run press attempting to minimize the difference in height between Ceauşescu and visiting French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. On a small scale, this gets at the phenomenon at the center of Autobiography: The spectacle of a hermetically sealed society constructed at every level around showing a single man what he wants to see, giving him the applause that he wants to hear.

Some of Autobiography‘s most extraordinary discoveries involve the author of one national simulacrum visiting foreign manufactories of same. In Los Angeles, Ceauşescu tours the Universal Studios lots. In North Korea, seemingly the entire populace shows up to fete Ceauşescu with the halftime show to end all halftime shows. On his own turf, Ceauşescu oversees the plowing of downtown Bucharest into a bog, preparing for the construction of his enormous House of the Republic, which, when complete, is the world’s second-largest building and, inside, looks like a wedding rental hall in Flushing.

More accurately, many images from Autobiography resemble nothing from the corporeal world, as Ujică’s film illustrates a statement recorded in Jon Ronson’s book Them, the speaker a Romanian government lawyer met at an auction of the Ceauşescu estates: “Romania was twenty million people living inside the imagination of a madman.”

Opens September 9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center