The key to “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” is the word “autobiography.” Andrei Ujica’s extraordinarily powerful montage of newsreel footage is not a record of the Romanian dictator’s appalling misdeeds but rather a sly use of Ceausescu’s own propaganda to drive home a devastating critique of both Romanian society and international realpolitik: We all let this happen. Running more than three hours, the docu demands stamina, but those with the required foreknowledge of Ceausescu’s monstrous legacy will find it rarely drags. Controversy at home is a given, as is cult status; a brisk tour of docu fests awaits.
“Autobiography” asks a lot from its viewers: The historical figures aren’t identified, no voiceovers or textual explanations interfere with the ultimate neutrality of the image and no dates are given (despite pic’s nonlinear chronology). Docu begins and ends with death, bookended by the well-known interrogation of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, just before their executions in December 1989. From this beginning, with the two looking small and shrunken against cheap wood panelling, Ujica and editor Dana Bunescu cut to the 1965 death of Romanian president Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, when Ceausescu assumed power.
What follows are sweeping sections of montage that present Romania at the start of his reign as a place open to outside influences: Stylish men and women who wouldn’t have looked out of place in most Western nations are glimpsed on the streets and at Party parties, while food shops offer a wide range of goods and factories are pumping at an exceptional rate. Of course, all this comes from official footage, shot and disseminated for the purposes of making Romania look modern. But compare it to later images, also official, where the pretense is gone and not even propaganda can disguise the mind-numbing uniformity or the poor choice of produce.
Ujica includes quite a few bits of Ceausescu’s speeches, and it’s fascinating following their disintegration. The powerfully delivered (though utterly predictable) grandstanding of the early years gradually gives way to a random toss-up of words like “socialism,” “workers” and “dialectical materialism,” as if it was a verbal shell game with nothing but empty sleight-of-hand behind it all. Which, of course, is precisely what it all was: While the dictator chattered on about the will of the people, he was exerting an iron-fisted grip over those he ruled.
That kind of background knowledge is a prerequisite for viewing, though it doesn’t matter that most people outside Romania won’t recognize his henchmen, nor the sycophantic so-called intellectuals and other props to the regime. What is important is for auds to identify Richard Nixon, Charles de Gaulle, Imelda Marcos, Mao Tsetung and a host of other leaders whose hands of friendship lent legitimacy and tacit support to Ceausescu’s rule while knowing full well what was really happening. In this way, “Autobiography” is an especially damning depiction of how the veneer of diplomacy seeks to cover immoral choices (watching Jimmy Carter praise the dictator’s leadership is particularly stomach-churning).
Ujica presents his own people in an equally uncomfortable light, subtly but devastatingly suggesting that Ceausescu’s increasing monomania (fueled no doubt by some mind-blowing tributes he received in North Korea and China) was fed by a cowed populace. What starts off as “look what we went through” becomes “look what we allowed,” showing the Romanians as passive enablers of an ultimately human (and banal) man’s lust for control.
Shifts from black-and-white to color help maintain engagement, and though some footage comes from second- or third-generation sources (i.e., the visuals can be a little rough), the monumentality of the subject and of some of the images, practically demands the bigscreen. Where sound didn’t exist, Ujica either leaves it silent, keeping the dusty magnetic noise of film running through a projector, or adds just enough aural enhancement (such as footsteps or crowd cheers) to bring the picture to life. The pointed use of ironic songs (“I Fought the Law,” for one) offers unspoken commentary as powerful as the intelligent editing.