An architect vacationing on a nudist beach with his family in the summer of 1983 is picked up for questioning by two officers from Romania’s dreaded secret police. They promise to return him the following day, but when he’s locked in a jail cell with a menacing small-time crook turned police collaborator, he finds himself exposed to the brutal realities – and sinister betrayals – of life in Communist-era Romania.

“Arrest” is the second feature of Andrei Cohn, based off a script he co-wrote with Alexandru Negoescu. It stars Alexandru Papadopol and Iulian Postelnicu as two cellmates caught up in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game, as the interrogator hunts for the names of co-conspirators in a cooked-up plot against the state. The film was produced by Mandragora and Iadasarecasa, with the support of the Romanian Film Center. It screened at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

Cohn says “Arrest” depicts “this ballet we were doing in our lives at that time,” when ordinary Romanians struggled to preserve the fiction of a normal life. The director spoke to Variety about the guilt he feels about growing up as a rebellious youth in a police state, and the difficulty Romanians still have when trying to confront the past.

“Arrest” is set nearly four decades in the past, during a period that many Romanians would probably like to forget. What inspired you to make a film about that era?

It’s made out of the feeling of guilt I have regarding that time, about not doing anything. Imagine being young, listening to punk music, and obeying everything at the same time — it’s not easy to live with. This is why, in order to get rid of part of that feeling of guilt, I made this. I decided to make a film regarding a normal guy resembling any of us. My very precise intention is not to speak about heroes or dissidents. It doesn’t relate to them. It’s about the rest of us. It really doesn’t have anything in common with a real dissident or heroic moment. It could be me. It could be any of us.

Both lead actors are tremendous; Postelnicu, in particular, gives a mesmerizing performance. It’s a very demanding film for them, because their movements, and the action of the film, are so restricted. How did you prepare with Postelnicu and Papadopol for their roles? Did you use that claustrophobic feeling inside the prison cell as a way to bring out their intensity?

Frankly, we rehearsed a lot. We rehearsed for very many months, all summer long, until late in autumn when we started shooting. After that, I hadn’t imagined how tough it would be to shoot for 30 days on the set inside this small room, being in darkness for so many days. It was not at all a nice shoot. Usually, there is a certain thrill when you’re shooting; there are sunsets and early mornings. This was just a dark set for so long. It’s like being in a social experiment, not a proper movie shoot. Definitely it did affect their performance, this shooting environment. But I didn’t think about it up front.

You said the film came out of a place of guilt. How did you see yourself at the time in relation to this political system, to the sort of person you thought you could or should be?

It was nothing special with me. My story was like the story of many others. My parents hadn’t had any relation with the regime. I hadn’t had any, because I was pretty young at that time. When everything ended, I was something like 17. But at the same time, looking backwards, like any adolescent in the world, I had the feeling of freedom, listening to rebel music. But at the same time, I had memories from school, from the places you are begging to buy something. This contrast did leave a terrible mark on me. This is the emotional story behind the movie.

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Is it a period that you discussed with your parents as you grew older, once you were able to look back from this perspective to understand what their lives were like? Do they talk about it now?

We talk a lot. Regarding the film, I can say that it doesn’t make them happy to portray us, let’s say, in such a way. The movie is leaving us somehow without heroes. This is not something nice for a mirror to show you. This is the relation I have with them with the way I portray the time. But frankly, this was the story of the ‘80s. There are very few cases of people doing something, acting in a way [against the government]. If you see Papadopol, he is bigger than [Postelnicu]. He could have done something, but he didn’t. There is a certain tension with my family in the way I portray that time.

I think other older viewers who lived through that period will also struggle with this film. What relevance do you think this story has to Romania today?

I believe that we haven’t done anything in order to admit that we haven’t behaved the way we would like to. The way we would like to remember ourselves. All the movies we did about that time portray us like victims, but victims which are close to heroes. Loveable victims. But I don’t remember ourselves being like that. We were just victims, but not loveable ones like in Hollywood movies. We were victims to be ashamed of.

I don’t know how useful this film is. I don’t have the [ability] to think from that perspective, if my movie is useful or not for the society. But from a moral point of view, I believe it’s important to accept that yes, we were not so great, and only like that, I believe that tomorrow we will think of changing something in our attitude. And this, I believe, is useful: Only by admitting that the past persona is not so great, and there is room for improvement. I made the film pretty much for myself, out of a certain tension and anger I have with myself. People are free to see themselves the way they like. It’s not so much about history. It’s about my feelings with regard to the past. But I think this is the only way we can go further—by admitting that we’ve been like that, and next time, hopefully it will be different.