Two Insights into the Romanian GULAG

By Elena Dulgheru (film critic, Bucharest)

© Elena Dulgheru, 2007

Two complementary authors, two ways to relate to history. In spite of a vast and relatively abundant “prison literature,” communist detention camps have been rarely represented in Romanian cinema after 1989 (of course, before the fall of communism the subject was absolutely off limits). Only two filmmakers, Nicolae Margineanu and Lucian Pintilie, have dealt in a serious way with this still delicate subject and, in many ways, their approaches could be considered as opposites.

Margineanu and Pintilie belong approximately to the same generation and both filmmakers have a solid professional reputation, have produced a significant oeuvre, and have maintained a certain continuity in their ideological universe. Each of them commands a distinct body of work that has artistic value and aesthetic vision, and their films are unified by a passionate preoccupation with the so-called “Romanian phenomenon.” Both try to fathom recent or relatively recent Romanian history, which they painstakingly scan not so much for the sake of history itself, as much as to find answers to actual ethical dilemmas of Romanian people. The two filmmakers' perspectives differ, however, in their approach to and affective relationship with their treated subjects, and therefore in their feeling of belonging (or not), of complicity (or not) with the evoked social universe .

Nicolae Margineanu accepts the past “as is,” with the aim of understanding it from the defining position of the Classical Realist paradigm: that of a disciple facing “Master-Reality.” For his projects he selects heroic moments and exemplary individuals from the “Romanian chronicle”; his effort to understand and reconstitute epochs, heroes, and mentalities is a tribute to the ancestors in order to anchor the moral axis of the present. Avoiding aestheticism, Margineanu treats reality synthetically, as a social fresco that underscores the struggles of conscience his characters undergo. Through his empathic examination, he succeeds in bringing these symbols of the Romanian cultural universe closer to present-day viewers?the painter Stefan Luchian, [1] the peasant-writer Ion Creanga, [2] the national poet Mihai Eminescu [3] —and in the process, the present reveals itself as a continuation of the essential ethical foundation of the past. Margineanu's analytical and empathic abilities enable him to understand and revive his subjects in the context of their times. His immersion into the past in order to enrich and ennoble the present spiritually is exceptional in contemporary Romanian cinema, which is mostly preoccupied—as are many other European cinemas—with the so-called “autonomous present” that is cut off from the past.

Lucian Pintilie is at the antipode of classicism's respect for acknowledged values. He feels a permanent need to challenge any fundamentals in order to impose his own, personal view. Demiurgical and deconstructive, polemist par excellence (and, as a consequence, strongly “anti-empathic”), he situates himself at a pulpit somewhere above history and society, from where he mercilessly pronounces his verdicts upon a world that is he sees more as a theatrum mundi or a zoo, and to which he doesn't feel he belongs. He chooses extreme, bewildering, or uncomfortable historical situations—for example, in The Unforgettable Summer (Ovara de neuitat, 1994) or Too Late (Prea târziu, 1996 )—which he cinematically recomposes (or “deconstructs,” as he likes to say), in order to prove a predefined thesis that is formulated as historically or socially irrefutable. His cinematic poetics, marked by a very personal kind of Surrealism, is aggressive, always surprising, rich in black humor and the absurd, and gives preference to subjectivity over historical reality, which becomes just a pretext for the magisterial development of his auctorial thesis.

Yet despite their different approaches, the two directors have found inspiration in the same texts about Romanian history. In a recent short film (Tertium non datur, 2005), Pintilie adapted Vasile Voiculescu's [4] story “Auroch's Head” (Capul de zimbru) about Romanian soldiers during World War I, in which patriotism and military dignity provide the main themes. A decade earlier, the same literary work inspired Nicolae Margineanu in his TV film Auroch's Head (1996).

From Either Side of the Wall

Pintilie's The Afternoon of a Torturer (Dupa-amiaza unui tortionar) and Margineanu's Bless You, Prison (Binecuvântata fii, închisoare) were released in 2002. Both films were inspired by contemporary literary sources: The Road to Damascus (Drumul Damascului), a long interview conducted by the journalist Doina Jela, and the autobiographical book Bless You Prison by Nicole-Valery Grossu, respectively.

The texts belong to the current trend of unmasking and exposing the crimes of the Romanian communist regime. The two films are different not only in their genres, but also in their antithetical views of the communist prisons. Doina Jela's book focuses on the image of the torturer, who is almost faceless, caricatured and grotesque. The book by Nicole-Valery Grossu, by comparison, examines the life of a militant member of the Romanian Peasant Party, [5] accused and imprisoned by the Stalinist regime for her political convictions. Jela's book is structured as an incriminating inquiry that is followed by answers verging on the absurd. That is why Pintilie feels an urgent need to transfigure it artistically, to impose a strong auctorial mark—the poetic expression of the filmmaker's thesis. The result is a grotesque image of a doomed, infernal, repetitive universe, from which no one escapes alive. Grossu's book is a confession about courage, firmness, suffering, and endurance through faith. It is a simple story with a linear narrative, where emotion is partially concealed by the sequence of events. The filmmaker's task may appear to be easy (since the structure of plot and characters are already there), but in fact it is very subtle and extremely complicated: it consists of artistically representing the transfigurative movement of the main character from a common state of conscience (as described by the young militant woman) to that of Christian acceptance of martyrdom. This spiritual dimension extends the text beyond the closed frame of the memoir and the historical chronicle.

The mystery of martyrdom is an extremely rare theme in cinema, infinitely rarer than renditions of various kinds of political revenge. Therefore, the filmmaker's discretion in treating the intimate aspects of the inner experience of the main character runs the risk of being perceived as schematic and austere.

Each of the filmmakers successfully transcends the limitations of a journalistic reportage of their sources. Pintilie descends into the Hell of the torture chamber, but he never represents torture scenes; he just evokes the nonsense of cruelty by describing the psychotic universe of the torturer, who cannot make penance. Using the stylistics of the theatre of cruelty and the theatre of the absurd, he enlarges Hell by endowing it with his trademark demiurgic voluptuousness. By presenting evil in paradisiacal colors and compromising purity, Pintilie creates a “fascinating Hell,” semantically extended to a socio-political and existential parable, with no answers or moral solutions. Indeed, Surrealism and its theatrical derivations offer the most suitable language for sustaining such an approach. But how to speak about sacrifice and spiritual elevation, using the same artistic language? No one would understand nowadays. At the same time, if you speak about Christian sacrifice in terms of the sublime, no one would believe! That's why Margineanu gives priority to reality and psychological realism in describing the experience of his character.

As much as Pintilie “fumbles” with the mind of the audience, “electrocutes” the public, as he likes to say (240), Margineanu invites viewers to meditate on the revival of the past, on social cohesion and forgiveness, and embarks on his journey from the Inferno of communist concentration camps, but small step by small step he ascends towards Paradise. Making use of a more discrete and traditional artistic palette, avoiding excessive cruelty and violence (even though his subject matter offers many opportunities), Margineanu takes the audience on a memorial journey of suffering and forgiveness, leading it to the gates of Christian spiritual transfiguration (metanoia).

The Prosecution Desk

The Afternoon of a Torturer —not unlike Too Late, The Oak (Balanta, 1992), or Next Stop Paradise (Terminus paradis, 1998)— raises an accusatory voice against post-December 1989 Romanian socio-political reality, desperately seeking a change of mentality, a confession of collective guilt, and a break with the communist past. All four of the mentioned films could be viewed as parables. More precisely, by following a more or less complicated narrative line, featuring a group of referential characters—a kind of "Romanian reality concentrate" (according to Pintilie's vision)—all of these films gravitate around a symbolic topos: the underground tunnels of the sub-man (Unter-Mensch) in Too Late or the space around the oak in the film of the same title become, through a sarcastic semantic inversion, the “ tree of the evil” in The Afternoon of a Torturer . The symbolic topos, an inexorable “bird of ill omen,” attracts both the narrative and the characters, forcing them to escape from their quasi-journalistic origins in order to break out into the domain of political parable. Pintilie's political meditation hides a bitter existential meditation. For him, man is a zoon politikon , and the civic evil is, by its essence, incurable. From this follows the fundamentally tragic dimension of his films, even if the tragedy is always hidden by derision.

A Sisyphean, aimless, cyclical movement—which, behind its terrible calmness, conceals the impossibility for self-improvement—is essential for the infernal. It can be concealed behind a carnival masquerade, but it still remains “a carnival of damnation.” No narrative digressions or quid pro quo s ease the spectator, obliged to contemplate the ferociously quiet fixity of a concentration camp improvised on a patch of the Baragan plain.[6] In a confession to the journal Secolul 21 , Pintilie stated that he “wanted to electrocute” the spectator's “flaccid, Romanian conscience” (240). And he succeeds by forcefully and originally exploiting the terms of the dramaturgy of the absurd, which turns his film into “a black masterpiece.” The fixity of the mise en scène, the lack of any moral solution (which could be provided only by penitence and expiation), the omnipotence of evil, the degradation of the main character and the moral slighting of the others who are reduced to simple marionettes—all of this cumulatively creates the effect of an electric shock. The filmmaker intends—and succeeds—in physically depicting the state of society's moral deprivation.

From an aesthetic point of view, Pintilie's solution is simple and efficient: evil is rendered in bright heavenly colors , while at the same time kindness is ridiculed (which is its axiological disqualification) , innocence is blamed, and vice exonerated. This procedure has been frequently used by Surrealists, albeit never with such a conscious focus on the anticipated effect as in Pintilie's films. The filmmaker has declared that he “desperately loves Romania.” [7] But upon returning from political psychiatry to normality, we are compelled to admit that electroshock therapy (individual or collective) has never cured anyone: not bodies, not souls, not consciences.

The Pulpit of Benediction

To understand the sense of suffering—that is the proposition of Nicolae Margineanu film, in opposition to other testimonies of communist camp imprisonment, which may look more terrible but are based only on knowledge and not on experience. The filmmaker is interested in the possibilities of moral survival and spiritual improvement in the environment of utter human degradation found in communist prisons. While Pintilie tests the limits of bestiality and submerges into the mud of psychopathology, Margineanu slowly climbs the Christian slopes of love for the enemy. Such an ascent may seem like a descent, and therefore it presupposes the withdrawal of an auctorial ego: the director's humility before sacrifice will be reflected in the cinematic poetics.

Pintilie works in anger, magnificently catching the scents of abomination and malignity, and forcing himself and the spectator to stare at them. Driven into a corner, humanness seeks to escape to the superior dimension offered by aesthetics; however this escape is devoid of ethical bearings and is colored by sarcasm. By contrast, Nicolae Margineanu does not seek electroshocks—instead, he seeks spiritual improvement and elevation; he seeks not with voluptuousness, but with humility; he does not prosecute history, but tries to learn lessons from it; he does not look for anomalies, but for the source of strength to stay normal under abnormal conditions. His way is much more difficult since he aims at a human experience that is impossible to understand without assuming it. “ It is the most difficult trial I have ever had as a filmmaker ” (8)—declares the author. To evoke the suffering of thousands of people is no longer an artistic problem; it is an ethical act. The filmmaker and his team understood this and approached the making of the film almost religiously. “ We started the first shooting day at Jilava [8] with a religious ceremony of commemoration for all the people that had died here “—states the filmmaker (8). This is how the miracle begins. Spiritual elation did not vanish during the process of shooting; it increased. As one actress has declared, [9] it was reciprocated by the inner awakening of one and all: learning of the experience of the Cross, the actors wanted to partake even for a day in the suffering of those who had been tormented in the camp. Another dimension of acting was opening for them.

Nicolae Margineanu approaches the theme of suffering with a sense of responsibility: for him, art is neither a spasmodic unwinding, nor an essentially demiurgic and egocentric gesture, but a kenosis, a diminishing of one's personality before the mystery of thy neighbor. Margineanu does not “initiate” his public by keeping himself outside, but participates in the mystery; he ventures into the prison experience side by side with the actors. He confessed that in front of the suffering-saturated Jilava walls, he felt like a simple interpreter (8). He does not operate semantic permutations but tries to decipher existing meanings; he does not engage in artistic alchemy because he respects the chemistry of reality. Margineanu avoids metaphoric—as well as naturalistic—excesses in order to create a realistic, synthetic artistic language that is based on the psychological observation of human relations. The filmmaker's voice often steps back to let in the word of the writer. Thus, the film gains the precious authenticity of the chronicle without losing the potential for fictional generalisation.

The actors' professionalism, from Maria Ploae (the actress in the principal role of Nicole) to the extras, is at its best. Re-enacting life in captivity was not a game, but a real gesture of accepting the suffering of others. The theatrical performance, included in the film, does not rely on “interpretation” but on revival. Martyrdom cannot be “interpreted”: it can only be revived and, therefore, can so rarely be found on screen.

Elena Dulgheru, Film critic, Adevarul literar si artistic, Bucharest


The Afternoon of a Torturer, Romania and France, 2001
Color, 80 minutes
Director: Lucian Pintilie
Scriptwriter: Lucian Pintilie, based on a novel by Doina Jela
Cinematography: Călin Ghibu.
Editing: Ni ţă Chivulescu.
Cast: Gheorghe Dinic ă , Radu Beligan, Ioana Macaria, Coca Bloos, Dorina Chiriac
Producer: Yvon Crenn.
Production: Filmex and YMC Productions

Bless You, Prison, Romania, 2002
Color, 87 minutes
Director: Nicolae Mărgineanu.
Scriptwriters: Nicolae Mărgineanu, Cătălin Cocriş, and Tudor Voican; based on a novel by Nicole Valery – Grossu
Cinematography: Doru Mitran
Art Director: Ioana Albaiu.
Music: Petru Mărgineanu.
Cast: Maria Ploae, Dorina Lazăr, Ecaterina Nazare, Victoria Cociaş, Iulia Laz ă r, Romani ţ a Ionescu, Maria Rotaru

Filmographies

Nicolae Mărgineanu (born 1938):
2007 The Fiancées of America (Logodnicii din America)
2002 Bless You, Prison (Binecuvântat ă fii, închisoare) - Jury Award for Best Artistic Contribution and Special Mention of Ecumenical Jury OCIC, Montreal; Silver Knight Prize at IFF Irkutsk, Russia.
1999 The Famous Paparazzo (Faimosul paparazzo)
1996 Auroch's Head (Capul de zimbru) (TV film) - The Professional Romanian Television's Prize (APTR) for directing, 1997
1993 Look Ahead with Anger (Priveşte înainte cu mânie) - Grand Prize at Mostra Internationale Del Nuovo Cinema, Pesaro, Italy; The Silver Delphine Award and FIPRESCI Diploma at Troia IFF, Portugal; The OCIC Diploma at Amiens IFF, France; Best Photography at the Skoplie IFF, Macedonia.
1991 Somewhere in the East (Undeva în Est)
1989 A Clod Of Clay (Un bulgăre de hum ă)
1988 Flames over Treasures (Flăcări pe comori) - Best Directing at the Costinesti National Film Festival, Romania
1987 The Forest Maiden (Pădureanca) - Best Director at the Costinesti National Film Festival, Romania
1983 Return from Hell (Întoarcerea din iad) - Honorary Diploma at the Moscow IFF; Grand Prize at Costinesti Film Festival, Romania
1981 Ştefan Luchian - Romanian Filmmakers' Association Prise for Best Debut
1979 The Man in the Overcoat (Un om în loden)
1978 This Above All (Mai presus de orice)

Lucian Pintilie (born 1933):
2005 Tertium non datur (short)
2003 Niki and Flo (Niki Ardelean, colonel în rezerv ă)
2001 The Afternoon of a Torturer (Dup ă -amiaza unui torţionar)
1998 Next Stop Paradise (Terminus paradis) - Special Jury Prize at Venice IFF; Romanian Filmmakers' Union Award for Best Director and Best Screenplay
1996 Too Late (Prea târziu)
1996 Lumière and Company (Lumière et compagnie)
1993 An Unforgettable Summer (Ovar ă de neuitat)
1991 The Oak (Balan ţ a) - European Film Award for Maia Morgenstern, 1993
1981 Why Are the Bells Ringing, Mitica? (De ce trag clopotele, Mitic ă?) - (forbidden by the censors and released 10 years later)
1979 Paviljon VI (Salonul nr. 6) (TV film)
1969 Reconstruction (Reconstituirea)
1965 Sunday at Six (Duminic ă la ora 6)


Works Cited

Margineanu, Nicolae. “Binecu vântata fii, închisoare.” Cugetarea europeana / La penseé européene (bilingual journal) 4 (2003).

Pintilie, Lucian. “Dup a-amiaza unui tortionar. Câteva idei fixe dupa terminarea filmarilor.” Secolul 21 10-12 (2001).


Notes

1] Stefan Luchian is a representative painter of the beginning of the 20th century. He creatively adapted elements of French impressionism to Romanian realist painting, thus contributing, together with Nicolae Grigorescu and Ion Andreescu, to the creation of a national Romanian style.

2] Ion Creanga, teacher and priest, is one of the most popular Romanian story-tellers and writers from the second half of 20th century. He evoked the vivid world of childhood and the rural universe in colorful memorialistic stories and folk-tales with Rabelaisian accents.

3] Mihai Eminescu was Romantic poet, dramatist, journalist, and writer of the second half of the 20th century. He contributed to the formation of modern Romanian language and thought and is almost unanimously considered to be a symbolic figure of Romanian spirituality.

4] Vasile Voiculescu (1884-1963) was a Romanian physician, poet, prose writer, and dramatist. He was a member of the literary circle around the Gândirea Revue and of the mystical movement “The Burning Bush” at the Bucharest Saint Antim Monastery. He was imprisoned by the communists, together with most of the members of the movement.

5] A well-known governing Romanian political party, founded by Iuliu Maniu in 1926 and dissolved by the communist government after 1945. Almost all of its members, who failed to emigrate or officially to change their political views, were imprisoned.

6] A large plain in the southern part of Romania, one of the areas used for the deportation of political prisoners during the Stalinist period. In the film, it is where the ex-torturer lives .

7] Part of his public speech at the Studio theatre (Bucharest) with the occasion of the film's release in Romania, May 2001.

8] Part of the film was shot in the actual places where the action of the novel takes place. Jilava (near Bucharest) is one of the famous jails of the communist period.

9] At the press conference marking the release of the film at the Studio theatre (Bucharest), 2002. The same idea is repeated in Margineanu.

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Updated: 29 May 07