Bogdan Jitea: “The Romanian National Cinema Epic has created a distorted image of our national history, which has been perpetuated long after 1989”

9 February, 2021

Born in 1982, Bogdan Jitea has a PhD in History from the University of Bucharest, where his thesis was sustained in 2012 and was coordinated by historian Lucian Boia. He is also a specialist in film history, visual propaganda within the totalitarian regimes, and Ceausescu’s cultural politics.

2021 brought a debut for Bogdan – his first volume of “Cinema within the Socialist Republic of Romania. Conformity and dissidence in Ceausescu Cinema” (published by Polirom), which came was developed starting from his PhD thesis and analyzes the control mechanisms, the communist epics and the timely films, as well as some resistance forms within the film industry under Ceausescu’s regime.

 

How did you come across your subject in matter?

In 2003, in my third year of university, we had to choose our major; I chose the history of mentalities – an area coordinated by Lucian Boia, who has retired since. I was very fond of cinema, so I looked for a subject that could intertwine my two passions: history and film. My bachelor’s degree was on the image of the leader portrayed in historical films, and that’s how I discovered the genre. Later on, my subject was furthermore developed for my dissertation, which was focusing on the Romanian National Cinema Epic. Both were coordinated by Adrian Cioroianu (ie. Romanian historian and former politician)

My PhD thesis followed the same direction in the beginning. However, during research, I had to concentrate more on the institutional organization of Ceausescu’s film industry and the mechanisms behind, which made everything work. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with the Romanian Institute of Recent History on a research and development project about the history of Romanian cinema during Ceausescu’s regime. We had planned a series of ten episodes, interviews with filmmakers, but we managed to film only one. However, I used the interviews for my PhD thesis and afterwards in my book.

How much have you developed your PhD thesis so you could turn it later into a book?

I was quite discontent by the fact I couldn’t get testimonies of the political dissidents. I needed the other side of the story, as well. I have interviewed Ioan Traian Stefanescu, who served as the Vice President of the Socialist Cultural and Educational Council between 1982-1984. He was responsible with the film industry and was the right hand of Suzana Gadea (ie. President of the Socialist Cultural and Educational Council). Mr. Stefanescu lost his position as VP when the Glissando scandal exploded, but there were, of course, other issues that contributed – the Mangalia Thesis in 1983 or the scandal with Sand Cliffs.  With his help, I reached Dumitru Popescu – his testimony was crucial, he gave only one interview prior to mine, sometime in 2000, to Lavinia Betea. Until now, he refused to talk to anyone, his role in Ceausescu’s cultural politics was essential, but I made a convenience of the emotional factor – you see, we both come from the same city, Turnu Magurele, and he was quite interested in its development. When I interviewed him, I found out he was well aware of the New Romanian Wave, he had seen The Child’s Pose, which was quite recent back then.

Besides all these interviews, I was also involved in a post-PhD project in Cluj and had been to Berlin for a research internship. Here I developed a lot of my bibliography, which helped me clear my mind a little bit. Meanwhile, some new studies have launched, so I would say the book is a development of my thesis – about 40% was added.

How did you decide to structure your book in these two directions: conformism and dissidence?

I think it happened the moment I spoke with Daneliuc (ie. Mircea Daneliuc, film director). I knew the story of his film, Glissando, his personal struggle, but I had not known about the endeavors within the industry. I thought his case was similar to Pinitlie’s, that he was only trying to get a pass for his own films, and just about it. I read Daneliuc’s file held by the Securitate and called him after. I understood from my interview with him how the industry worked at that time, and how all these films were allowed to be shown – it was a coordinated action by an advocacy group.

So I started thinking a lot about the term dissidence. There have been reproofs regarding it, and I find it quite interesting that this movement, within the film industry, has overlapped with other dissident movements, from different fields of work. After 1975, when almost every state in the communist bloc signed the Helsinki Agreement regarding human rights, the third party gave ground. That’s when the dissidence phenomenon took action, but what does the term mean? Disagreement with the system from within it. You try to reform the system by using its own weapons, within the legal limits. It’s not about turning over the system.

And I believe this is what Daneliuc did, too. From within the system, and by using its weapons, he tried to reform the system in the favor of the filmmakers. Like I write in the book, through their open letters, they’re using Ceausescu’s rule of 1977 – when he declared that censorship is abolished, in their own favour: “If there’s no more censorship, why do the censorship mechanisms still work?” And this is why I think the term dissidence is relevant for the period after 1975. Before, there were only individual actions, such as Pintilie’s case. Or Gabrea’s, who left the country. These were individual cases of going against the system, not coordinated actions.

But how united was this group which had Daneliuc as an informal leader?

In the files held by the Securitate, there are lots of mentions regarding this group, including wire tappings. In Daneliuc’s file, for example, it is written that “Danton” (his name code) talked with directors such as Alexandru Tatos, Stere Gulea, or Adrian Petringenaru, who’s also mentioned several times as being in connection to this group, about a letter they intended to send to the Filmmaker’s Association and to Nicolae Ceausescu himself. So it’s obvious that these people worked together for at least 2-3 years – through open letters, memoirs sent to the Filmmakers’ Association, discussions requests with the people running the film industry, even with the party’s General Secretary.

It’s easily noticeable how films have started to be less censored at the beginning of the ‘80s. Could this pressure you are talking about be a factor?

Yes. This pressure within the Filmmakers’ Associations had started a few years back, in 1977-1978. It’s the ‘70s generation that made films and had a say in the industry. They were challenging the previous generation, represented by Gopo, Mircea Dragan, even Sergiu Nicolaescu – filmmakers that had resources and a much more open communication with the political dissidents. It was a battle between two groups, and at the end of the day, even Daneliuc seemed a dissident in some moments, because of his volcanic temper; like the moment when he lays his Party card, a typical gesture of a dissident and an unimaginable one. A contempt of the regime, which raised a lot of discussions. Daneliuc was called at the Ministry of Culture. He even threatened to go in front of the Embassy of Hungary in Bucharest to start a hunger strike.

In the second half of the ‘80s the regime became more strict in all fields of work.

And even Daneliuc had no choice but to accept the situation. The fight against the system eroded him eventually; he fought one year and a half only for Glissando. A lot of his projects were rejected, he used to have at least two screenplays submitted yearly at the Ministry of Culture and various production companies. In the ‘80s, all of a sudden, after The Cruise, he directed only two more films: Glissando and Jacob.

In your research, you always turn to the archives. How hard was it to access them?

The hardest part was accessing the Ministry of Culture’s archives, as they didn’t have a chief curator at the time. I have no idea if now they have someone in charge of organizing the archives. I went to the Ministry of Culture after finishing my PhD thesis, so all the references to their archive that appear in my book weren’t also used in my thesis. The fact that in my three-year research, while working on my PhD, I didn’t run out of material, it made me keep going. I was working at the Communism Crimes Investigation Institute and I was helped by the administration to get access to the Ministry’s archives. The warden told me to “go in, take the truss of files and see what you can find”. It was like looking for the needle in a haystack. Among others, I have found a beautiful letter sent by Elia Kazan to Mihnea Gheorghiu in the ‘60s. 

What were you looking for in the various archives you researched?

I was interested to see how the cultural policies outlined by the party and, of course, by the party leader, general secretary Nicolae Ceausescu, came to be implemented in the film industry. They were drafted by the Ideological Committee of the Central Committee (CC) of the Romanian Communist Party (RCP). But their actual implementation involved going first through the committees of the CC, then to the Ministry of Culture, and finally to the production houses, which contacted screenwriters. This is when many of the filmmakers found their creative freedom. There was some freedom that would allow them to express some ideas, including the fact that many of the themes in the thematic plans weren’t so clear.

It’s astonishing how many control points existed at the time in order to make a film and release it, from the moment the cultural policies were set to the preliminary screening meetings.

The closer we get to 1989, the more screening meetings there are. If during the ‘60s, for example, there were screenings only within the Bucharest Studios, in the ‘70s, after the release of The Reenactment, Ceausescu asked that all members of the Ideological Committee watch every produced movie. So the number of these previews increases significantly.

The fact that some of the “challenging” films were actually released seems to be a miracle.

It had to do with the person seeing it – some officials were more open-minded. Ioan Traian Stefanescu, for example, encouraged at first the ‘70s directors. Something he couldn’t do anymore after the 1983 event.

Back to the archives matter, not even the access into the National Film Archive came as easy, even though I was a researcher there, I was working on a project about documentary films made in the interwar period. I had a tough time getting access to the production files. And I wasn’t allowed to take photos.

Why do you think that was?

It’s a rather closed institution where secrecy still seems to be a thing. There’s probably a general fear that who knows what might resurface.

Instead, I had absolutely no problem with the National Council for Studying the Securitate Archives (NCSSA). I sent in a request in which I mentioned my research topic. They brought me almost everything I wanted. Apart from Sergiu Nicolaescu’s informant file. I thought it existed, but I was told otherwise. Still, they didn’t deny its existence either. So this file could have existed. But, like many other cases, it was either not handed over or disappeared during the crazy times of the ’90s.

At the time of my thesis, some of the people I was writing about were in important positions. Mihnea Gheorghiu was the president of the Romanian Filmmakers Union, Sergiu Nicolaescu was a senator. My interview with him took place at the Romanian Film Center, where he had come after his birthday party and where he had the biggest office. A huge, fancy office. Basically, he ran the Romanian Film Center, although he was only the chairman of an advisory board. I don’t think anything was done without his knowledge.

Instead, you came across an investigation file on his name.

His code name was “The Commissioner”. He had a great deal of freedom, he could leave the country and work abroad, and then return safely. He brought in currency. And there were suspicions that he was using these benefits in his personal interest.

Not because it posed a danger to the regime.

No. When it came to his films, even less so. The file shows that even the Securitate treated this case much more carefully than others. It feels like they didn’t interfere much, that they kept a certain distance. They knew very well that this man has power and influence among the political decision-makers and that it would not be okay to harass him too much. There was no question of him being tracked in the manner of Daneliuc.

In the NCSSA archives you also found two investigation files on Daneliuc’s name.

Daneliuc has about 1,000 pages. There are two files, each with three volumes, I believe. One of the volumes was filled only with wire tappings. At one point, they were also following Tora Vasilescu, his wife at the time. There are a lot of sordid details on their personal, intimate life, but I didn’t use them, because they were not the subject of my research.

Was he really considered to be a threat?

At one point, yes, they might have seen him as a threat.

Unlike Pintilie, he didn’t leave the country.

He fought for his films. He also had problems with Jacob. Not like Glissando, because Jacob was of a different nature.

In your research on Pintilie, you analyze his films The Reenactment and Why Are the Bells Ringing, Mitica?, the second being completely banned until after the 1989 revolution. How could one explain his status – he had left the country, but at the same time he was allowed to return and was even offered the opportunity to make a film?

By being a theater man. He built a career in France, and the regime tried to get him back, just as they tried with Mircea Eliade at some point. According to his statements in Bricabrac, he frequently submitted film projects involving adaptations from the Romanian literature, which were rejected. But at one point, Why Are the Bells Ringing, Mitica? was selected. Dumitru Popescu played an important role in this decision. They wanted to use Pintilie, to set an example that they were not so obtuse. They allowed him to return to Romania and make a film. He was well-known, so it was probably quite inconvenient for the regime that Pintilie could talk freely in the West about what was going on in the country. But he went pretty far with Why Are the Bells Ringing, Mitica?, something no one expected.

Perhaps the most disturbing case discussed in the volume is that of Alexandru Tatos, on whose name you discovered an informant file at the Securitate. Has this collaboration ever been written about?

I don’t know if anything was published on it, but I’m convinced there’s knowledge of it inside the industry. His file had definitely been read before. There’s a microfilm of his file in the Foreign Intelligence Service archive, considering that most of the files are held by the Romanian Intelligence Service. Tatos was especially used to bring in information from the outside, the Western states. He had as friends the Stürmer’s in Germany and the Boruzescu family in France. In his book (Jurnal), he mentions nothing about it.

How do you explain that?

As far as I know, his journal was edited by his wife. Maybe it was cleaned up. I have no idea, they’re only speculations. But I don’t see why in such an honest diary, which is one of the very important testimonies about an artist’s relationship with the regime and in which he didn’t censor his anti-communist and anti-Ceausescu sentiments, he wouldn’t have written about the Security, as well

Why do you think they picked him up?

He was easy to blackmail. His dad was in jail in the ‘50s, so he had this original sin. And there was also his brother, who tried a few times to get out of the country and succeeded only after Tatos gave in. Maybe he was a weak person, too; the Securitate tried its tricks on Daneliuc as well, but he was rather more roguish.

Before giving in, he used to be a part of the protesters’ group.

He probably thought that as long as he was only talking about his worldwide whereabouts, and not about what happened within the local industry, he could get away with it. However, there’s a note in his file saying he did inform the Party about a meeting between Dumitru Popescu and a delegation of filmmakers doing a memoir.

What struck me is that when he was turned by the Securitate, he was working on his masterpiece Sequences.

Sequences was based on a short film, Four Slaps, which he wanted to film since the beginning of the ‘70s. He added some more stories and Sequences was born, but it wasn’t a film that got him in trouble, like other titles he directed. I picked his case because you cannot incriminate him; he’s not Andrei Bailer, who was a despicable snitch. We should look beyond NCASS’ verdicts, which end one’s career once they are attributed. Tatos definitely signed an agreement with the Securitate, but we should look past it.

Has anyone suffered because of his snitching?

You can’t know that exactly. What I know is they asked him to draw plans of all the apartments he visited, but I didn’t find them. Why would the Securitate want these plans? Because they could be used against the respective apartment owners. They could plant microphones, for example. You never knew what the Securitate wanted, not even the informant.

Alexandru Tatos in “Sequences”

Let’s move to the other side, of the conformists. In your book you emphasize the usage of cinema as a propaganda tool, inspired by the Soviet Union. On the one hand, you talk about the Romanian National Cinema Epic and analyze its evolution, and on the other, you discuss the timely films.

These are the two main directions of the book. In all the party’s documents regarding local cinema, these two directions are quite clear – the historical epic and the film depicting timely issues. In the ‘60s, the historical genre was more popular. After the Thesis in 1971, the “happening now” film gained popularity and it had to reflect the accomplishments of the Ceausescu’s era.

You follow in the footsteps of Lucian Boia and deconstruct the mythology in the historical films that are part of the National Cinema Epic project.

I take the analytical model that Lucian Boia uses in History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness. I take that interpretive scheme. I reveal the main political myths behind historical films.

At the core of these films, one can identify the messages and politics of the regime.

By the time the regime in Bucharest diverged from Moscow, the Soviet Union had gone through a process of de-Stalinization and easing its grip after Stalin’s death. But Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej couldn’t accept this state of affairs, because that would have led to weakening his position. He managed to negotiate the withdrawal of Russian troops from Romania in ’58 and then began distancing from the Soviet Union. He needed legitimacy, now that he no longer had the external legitimacy given by Moscow. So they made use of the national history – Romanian communism comes as an organic evolution of history. Then, Ceausescu realized the potential of this idea and put it in practice. Maybe he acted on instinct, but I’m convinced that he also believed in many of the national ideas.

I think that the Romanian National Cinema Epic is unprecedented. Many have told me that other communist countries have made historical films, as well. True, but only our country was keen on making films depicting all the historical periods. It covers practically the whole history, in a true visual treatment of the Romanian history. From Burebista to Alexandru Ioan Cuza, no important moment was missed.

You don’t go that much into detail when analyzing the timely films, but you show how their number is increasing and how this direction is becoming more and more important. Then you mention the discussions of the regime officials on how the films could be better, because they seemed to be aware of the fact that they were quite poor.

Yes, they saw that. But the moment they would set loose on the creative grip and entice filmmakers who looked for a little more freedom, they would come face to face with a kind of films they didn’t approve of. They would wake up with a boiling pot in their hands and wouldn’t know what to do about it. This is what happened with Sand Cliffs, for example.

In your volume you mention that Ceausescu used to watch all the movies. Truth or myth?

Not a myth. He himself says that several times, you can read it in the transcripts of the Party meetings. And when discussing the films, one can see that he knew what they were about. He had a screening room in his residence and the films were sent there.

Was he watching them before their release or sometimes even after?

Some of them, even after, I think. But the movies that would have been problematic, always before. In the case of Glissando, there are testimonies that are consistent – from Dumitru Popescu and Ioan Traian Stefanescu – and which say that the film was ultimately seen by Elena Ceausescu, not by him. She thought it was crap. She understood nothing of it, of course. She didn’t agree with a line that featured an insult to the Jew community and asked to be cut out.

Ceausescu actually understood how useful cinema can be as a propaganda tool.

Yes. As proof, the frequent meetings with filmmakers in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He had the patience to listen to them, to have a dialogue with them. He was interested. After that, it was over, he stopped getting involved.

You also write about the fact that he didn’t want to be portrayed in cinema. Why this choice, considering there was a strong cult of personality?

There is evidence that he sometimes felt embarrassed about the cult of personality. That was something that was more encouraged by the people around him. Not that he didn’t like it or that he wasn’t flattered by it, but it felt like he wasn’t the one asking for it, unlike some Hitler, for example.

Now on his portrayal in cinema, I found the transcript of a discussion from the ’80s in which there was talk of a thematic plan which also included a film project that referred to his trial in Brasov in 1939. The screenplay was to be written by Titus Popovici, and Manole Marcus was appointed director of the film; I don’t know if they had already agreed on it. Ceausescu asked what is the deal with this film. His comrades told him that they were thinking of making a film about the moment he was arrested by the bourgeoisie. He thought it was stupid and asked to be removed from the plan, so it wasn’t made after all.

These historical epics that tamper with the past and are, in fact, propaganda products have been intensely aired on TV and continue to be shown even today, without any sort of discussion or putting things into context. So, basically, we have this communist discourse that goes on and on. Do you think that their screening or airing should be accompanied by an explanation or side note?

They were made under the order of Ceausescu’s regime. I think a disclaimer would be necessary. Unlike the films that depicted the communist realities and which were clearly set apart as propaganda films after the revolution, there is no such separation for the historical epics. They haven’t been treated as harshly as propaganda films, but were rather seen as films that value national history. They continued to be produced even after 1989, leaving out the communist element, but putting an emphasis on the nationalist element. Their production was even encouraged. Sergiu Nicolaescu made such films. One is even in collaboration with Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who was the leader of the most nationalist Romanian party that appeared after 1989.

Apart from arousing nostalgia among some members of the audience and reminding people of some actors, do you think they have a harmful effect?

They create a distorted image of history, in which the leader and the united front around him prevail. Everything that comes from outside is toxic to society. Society must be self-governing. Even those who travel abroad are seen with suspicion in these films. This image of history as depicted by the national-communist theses is kept alive, after all. This discourse was perpetuated after 1989 even at the mainstream level, in textbooks and by some more nationalist, more anti-Western historians. For example, within the Romanian Academy.

Ionut Mares Ionut Mares
Journalist and film critic. He works as artistic director for several film festivals in Romania. For Films in Frame, he is in charge of the Emerging Voices column, which is published twice a month, on Tuesday.