The Reenactment, over and over again (I)
I could hardly imagine a stranger film, in its inside and outside, than the counter-documentary directed by Sahia director Virgil Calotessu shortly after the arrest of the cell behind the Great Communist Heist. That particular Reenactment has something to do with the more famous one authored by Lucian Pintilie and Horia Pătrașcu, even if nothing factual in this direction was ever written down. Anyways, the similarity in title might bring them together, but it is their content that turns them into complements – since what Calotescu did, a filmmaker nowadays remembered either as a dogmatic, or a defender of others by means of artistic self-sacrifice, handler of the most unfortunate projects of the Sahia Studio, is a corrector (not corrective) film, while Pintilie destabilized cinema precisely by shooting a film about the inherent brutality of any attempt at correcting the image of reality.
And there was much to be corrected with white paste in the case of the Ioanid gang, the protagonists of one of the most anthological events in the history of Romanian communism, on the same level as the 1956 protests, the Noica-Pillat trial, the Channel 77 Group and so on. On the morning of the 28th of July 1959, as such, just a little bit before the national day (the 23rd of August), a car operated by the National Bank is burglarized by six masked individuals that disappear immediately after the theft; together with them, the – enormous, back then – sum of 1,686,000 lei also vanishes, like in a Hollywood movie. The Bucharest gangsters were to be captured less than two months later and publicly shamed for their desire to get instantly rich by stealing the money of the working class. The penalty decided for them was to be so merciless – even before they were all sentenced to death – that the six vindictive “captives” were forced to pose for a final close-up. Thus, the Reenactment came to be, its plans sketched, it seems (according to Gheorghe Enoiu, investigator – that is, colonel major – in name, executioner in fact), in the innards of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party and then passed onto the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Sahia Studio. As its title indicates, Calotescu’s endeavor – from an artistic point of view – set out to reconstruct the detective bric-a-brac of the investigators, along with the actual heist; starring in the lead roles, the criminals themselves: brothers Alexandru and Paul Ioanid, Igor Sevianu and his wife Monica, Haralambie Obedeanu and Sașa Mușat.
Much is written nowadays about how (much) cinema shows death in action (Cocteau). In the case of the Reenactment, epiphany turns to epitaph – when the film was released in a closed circuit (meant for party members), the five men were already history, and Monica Sevianu was also far away, locked in Jilava (from where she was to be freed in 1964, and upon her liberation she promptly immigrated to Israel). As is, this counter-documentary beats the most simple and urgent idea imaginable – that the Ioanid gang was composed of maladjusted individuals and/or second-rate impostors (a policeman and businessman / supposed intellectual / supposed journalist etc.) The Secret Police files go even further. Beyond attesting to the fact that the six were Jewish, as well as their long history in the Communist resistance and all the way up to key roles in society (in the Judicial Police, the History College, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Scînteia Newspaper and so on). They speak about Zionist actions, of defiance towards Leonte Răutu (the chief of the Propaganda and Culture Department of the Central Committee of the Romanian Workers’ Party) and of revolting against the halting of emmigrations to Israel, and of the anti-minority policies of the state (especially towards Jews and Hungarians). In any cases, many tomes were written and spoken about this case; by Vladimir Tismăneanu, Stelian Tănase, Mădălin Hodor, in short, most of those who made a career out of producing pop analyses of communism had a thing of two to say about the Great Heist, quite naturally so. Surprisingly, however, three very different filmmakers decided to approach this topic – documentarian Irene Lusztig, the niece of Monica Sevianu, who released her own Reenactment in 2001; Alexandru Solomon and his The Great Communist Bank Robbery, from 2004; and Nae Caranfil: Closer to the Moon. For the moment, I’ll focus on Calotescu’s Reenactment and Solomon’s documentary from the aughts, and I’ll keep the other two films for the second part of this article.
The – peerless – irony is that Calotescu starts his film precisely with a laudatio of cinema as keeper of unmitigated reality. Beyond this, the film’s beginning and ending frame its matter in an overly aggressive manner: under the auspicious sign of a socialist city symphony and of an explicitly triumphalist voice-over, describing the new men of the factories, plants, institutes and institutions as the true victims of the Ioanid gang. And their justice will be served. But, until then, we have the reenactment of the investigation, with each internal affairs officer acting as themself. They rarely speak, since the voice-over is almost always one step ahead of them; but when they do talk, they sound like “porn-actors-that-can-also-serve-a-line”, as Andrei Gorzo put it in a review of the Great Communist Bank Robbery. This, however, is forgettable – such wooden, creaky apparitions are not that hard to find in cinema. Creak: two of the investigators talk about the case of the suspect Sevianu; a few seconds later, a colonel comes in, the case is handed to him, to which he approves and recommends a careful follow-up of Sevianu, but also of Alexandru Ioanid, about whom he was not told anything. Put together, the most harmless moments, those of the first investigations, make for an unusual ganster short film, where the underground of Bucharest, with its chiaroscuro bars and night hedonists, brings its head to the surface. Lasting as long as a rebuke, of course.
It is only when the infamous six finally appear that the Reenactment becomes truly remarkable. It’s the moment in which death starts to operate at high speed. And, aware of where it all leads to, it becomes all the more painful to watch; it doesn’t even matter that they don’t really shine on screen either – precisely because they’re carrying an unavoidable inner darkness. Their fumbling is related to pure pain, while others are just simply horsing around. We know from Alexandru Solomon (in fact, from the investigator Gheorghe Blidaru) that it is quite possible that the making of the film gave them hope for a milder punishment, that they did everything against themselves out of one last despair. This can be seen rather between the frames, because, either from principle or from clumsiness, Calotescu’s decoupage keeps everything on a tight leash, with maximum one idea per sequence, and the shots get lost in clear, somewhat bookish explanations – this is the suitcase, this is the money, this is the weapon, and so on. Throughout the entire trial, the only event that didn’t need a reenactment, the six are given more time. Their eyes slip, their hands detach from their chins, their frowns render their cheeks supple; in short, the emotion that escapes from the clutches of prefabricated lines. Serghei Loznitsa, who directed a found-footage documentary composed of recordings of Stalinist trials (The Trial, 2018), might have just missed out on the greatest of them all.
Solomon was the one to follow it closely, enough to speculate that at the time of the trial one could read the revelation on their faces — they would die from their own words. The Great Communist Bank Robbery, more than any other writing or film, traverses with patience and hermeneutic flair this reenactment that “conceals many more things than it shows”.
In contrast to the original, his documentary is intent on showing everything, on filling itself up with faces, statements and buildings, not to give a definitive meaning to the Ioanid Affairs, but rather in order to calculate its myriad meanings. The rest of all of these additions and subtractions is composed of precious details and beautiful images, especially those outdoor ones of a torrid Bucharest (showing the neighbors of the Sevianu couple or the Malmaison courtyard). When going inside, Solomon’s camera – Constantin Chelba’s, more precisely – cools down, begins its long ghostly travels, haunting from one building to another, cinemas and prisons, airports and courts, the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS) and beyond. Faces, places, statements; their conglomeration feels heavy at times. In the end, this could have been a film composed solely of such rests – Pantelie Tuțuleasa, the cinematographer of Calotescu’s Reenactment, shooting in the streets of Bucharest once more, that of the early 2000s, while speaking to the camera about the ethics of documentary reenactment (as he believes that it’s natural to maintain a perfectionist mise en scene, in a solar confession). Or a lengthy observation of the audience attending the (cathartic?) screenings of the Reenactment in the cinemas and gardens of Bucharest, bringing together friends and foes, victims, executioners and judges that, in one way or another, were realtors to the Great Heist. It could have been a film about the CNSAS, one about Alex Galis, a son who is seeking to write a different past for his father. Instead, Solomon sought out a pseudo-omniscience, sought out the voices, opinions and memories of the many, only to end up by admitting that it’s impossible to know; at least, in regards to the beginning and ending of the affair. However, such a case began and ended countless times, in the lives of countless people. Solomon made a film about the many beginnings and (never)endings of the great communist robbery; one that asks for it all and can’t have it; an important one.