Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausecsu, The: Andrei Ujica’s Exemplary Documentary

By Jeff Farr

“Was it all a dream?” Michael Moore famously asked this question in “Fahrenheit 911” (2004) as we watched Al Gore prematurely celebrate his presidency. The same question powers Andrei Ujica’s exemplary documentary “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Ceausescu’s life and the world in which he operated almost seem the stuff of fiction or fantasy in Ujica’s telling. We have to keep pinching ourselves to remind ourselves that all of this craziness actually happened—and, in the grand scheme of things, not at all that long ago.

A rich film that lends itself to many possible readings and to repeated viewings, as the best of cinema can do, “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” looks on the surface to be a rather simple proposition. Ujica and editor Dana Bunescu have covered Ceausescu’s entire career as secretary general of the Romanian Communist Party, from 1965–89, by assembling three hours of actual Ceausescu footage. But they have complicated things by leaving out any narration or other cues to guide us through this huge swath of history. This pushes us to pay attention to other things, like Ceausescu’s body language, especially his shifty eyes, how he ages, his love for extreme pageantry, how he interacts with other politicians, both international and Romanian, and with his loyal-to-the-end, awful-to-the-end wife, Elena. We start to see things as he probably did—thus the curious “Autobiography” of the film’s title—from deep within the bubble that had gone up all around him.

This description thus far might sound to you like an endurance test. But if you commit to this film, you will be duly rewarded, as Ujica and Bunescu’s editing and sound design gradually pull you into the fever dream of Ceausescu’s “reality” and give you a unique, disturbing, and enlightening experience.

There are a number of unforgettable sequences, including President Nixon’s visit to Romania and Ceausecu’s visits to Los Angeles (with a stop at a ghostly Universal Studios), China, and North Korea (a visually startling sequence that must be seen to be believed). Most of the film takes a chronological approach, but eventually Ujica and Bunescu begin to skip around among the years with montages based on thematic or visual elements: Ceausescu’s endless hunting trips, the floral arrangements presented to him from throughout his country on birthdays. “Was it all a dream?”

The film begins and ends with grainy video of the Ceausescus’ trial upon their arrest in 1989, so we always know where things are headed in a “Titanic” sort of way. Ujica decides not to include the infamous footage of the Ceausescus being led to their execution directly after the trial, thus letting their refusals to answer any questions be their farewell. Underlying the film’s third act is a growing sense of doom, as we see Ceausecu and his country, which earlier looked like the most stylish Eastern Bloc country ever, begin to disintegrate. When the end does come, it is hard and swift. We get a sense of how shocked Ceausecu was, his illusions summarily burst.

Throughout the film, Ujica is careful to include poignant shots of everyday Romanians at work and play, often crowding the streets. We realize that despite all his big talk on repping for “the people, the people, the people,” Ceausescu is never himself among the people. Except in heavily scripted situations, as in his routine visits to pastry shops stocked with the best Romanian bread for him to test-squeeze.

There is a lot of big talk from the man. His speeches that at first seem plodding and abstract become increasingly and hilariously loopy as years go by and Ceausescu becomes more and more of a blowhard. In one memorable shot, even his Elena looks bored. Ceausescu comes off as bumbling his way through history toward ignominy, a touch of the Chauncey Gardner or Forrest Gump to his makeup.

One of the many gifts this film leaves us with is a sense of history’s general strangeness. Who are these odd men who come to lead us? And who are these masses that follow them, often for so much longer than they really need to or should? The crowds that once chanted “Ceausescu and the people!” so fervently—where have they gone? The grand nations and political parties that once were, that many believed in more than their own lives—how could they have washed away so easily and suddenly? “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” is filled with timeless questions like these.

Credits

An Icon release.

Directed by Andrei Ujica.

Produced by Velvet Moraru.

Editing, Dana Bunescu.

Running time: 186 minutes.