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The Dictator with the Most Beautiful Hair

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, 2010, a documentary by Andrei Ujica – 

“We were told to fire 30 rounds each into them. From the hip. As paratroopers. Not as a firing squad, where some of the shooters have real bullets, some blanks, so that no one has to live with the feeling of being an executioner. We fired live…

“After shooting seven rounds into Ceausescu, the gun jammed. I changed magazines and shot a full 30 rounds into Elena. She flew backwards with the force of it all. We started at about a metre range and then walked steadily backwards, still firing, so that we wouldn’t be caught by a ricochet.”

Elena’s blood splattered on his uniform. The back of her skull had fallen away. “She didn’t die easily. She was in spasms,” Mr Cirlan shook his head at the memory. “I had never even killed a chicken before.”

—Dorin-Marian Cirlan, one of the Ceauscescus’ executioners, from a 2009 interview in the London Sunday Times by Roger Boyes

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the purely sensual, filmic side to this extraordinary documentary is the unfailing beauty of Nicolae Ceausescu’s hair, and the pure pleasure that sparkles on his pretty face as he enjoys his glorious life: the parades, the pageantry, the state visits, the swank vacations. There is no sense of a grim or troubled soul, and his public remarks always seem well-reasoned and intelligent. Hitler, by contrast, always seemed a bit angry or agitated. Nixon was sweaty and anxious. Bush had his edge, with the hangdog look of a dry drunk. Perhaps this could be accounted for by different drugs. We know Hitler was a speed freak. Ceausescu seemed…high on life.

This film, by Andrei Ujica, is constructed entirely of archival footage, documented by state agencies. The destitution of late 20th century Romania is hidden in plain sight, as  staged scenes of supposedly well-stocked markets appear absurdly barren and phony to Western eyes (ironic, considering), and the parade routes of the later years of Ceausescu’s reign are thinly lined with conscripted citizens who made little attempt to disguise their lack of enthusiasm. Formally excluded from this documentary is any direct indictment of Ceausescu. This lies exclusively in the great space that the film opens up by building a framework out of the celebration of the life of a Great Man. The filling of this great space has been carried out by mainstream media critics who are in basic lockstep with the official line, that Ceausescu and his wife were corrupt monsters and deserved to be tried in a kangaroo court and shot dead within the hour of their sentencing on Christmas Day.

That the realities of the revolution in Romania were the result of more complex and sinister forces is not surprising. The General who ordered the execution has claimed that the Soviet KGB was instrumental in Ceausescu’s downfall, having been involved in planning it for a year or more. With the track record the IMF has accumulated over the past twenty or so years of being the world’s most brazen loan shark, one has to look at Ceausescu’s act of going into debt to that organization as a terrible blunder indeed; but given the number of people wanting him out of the way, the disaster that ensued seemed almost scripted. His “maverick” status within the Soviet bloc, along with his staunchly nationalist ideology contributed to Romania’s isolation. At the same time it was the principle of state sovereignty which formed the basis of his philosophy of diplomacy, a philosophy that proved largely successful until the tide turned. He seemed to relish the notion of having skilled statesmanship, creating and keeping alliances with strangers, but as the infrastructure of his own nation decayed there was an air of sham and delusion to his career which became increasingly piquant as his stature declined.

Ujica builds an exquisitely subtle tragic drama without dialogue, interview or narration. His authorship is entirely intelligent and completely invisible. This self-effacement itself has a dark edge: an eloquent a comment on the voicelessness of a population under the hold of a dictator—and perhaps there is something of this carried into the current Romanian political climate, where positive comments about Ceascescu and negative comments about his opponents are illegal. In am atmosphere of silence, scene by scene, the arc of a man’s life unfolds: beginning with a portrait of ambition, loyalty, and sincerity; building into a fantasy of pomp and self-importance, until the bloating and hollowing of the machine of state collapses, and there is nothing left of the man, only slogans, anxiety, and bald lies.

Always, it is the unstated that takes center stage in this tragedy…what we know, or think we know, what we’ve heard, what we wish to be true. Was he a delusional madman, a foolish dupe, or a cruel tyrant? A metanarrative emerges which affords us only signs.  This documentary—which ought to be considered a classic of the form—somehow seems to demand that critics and viewers fill in the spaces it leaves with what is known, or thought to be known, about the history of the time. We feel that such a construction of materials produced with an entirely “positive” viewpoint on the subject must be “corrected.” However, the blanks the filmmaker leaves, intentionally and formally, in no way compel us to fill them in. The compulsion to fill in lies entirely with our own discomfiture at any whiff of real openness—of heart or mind. Begin your story with the downfall of any man or woman—begin by showing her to be a corpse—or a prisoner rendered powerless, and somehow the jeering ceases and fascination begins, that is, unless the audience is addicted to the anger porn peddled by the mainstream broadcast news. The tension that animates this film and gives it its power is the unknown: the mystery at the heart of a subject and in his wife, and the hidden clockwork of a megalomaniac turned tragic antihero in the grasp of a skilled  historiographer.

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