Are We Still Laughing When Breaking With the Past?

By Dana Duma (Bucharest)

© Dana Duma, 2007

National University of Theatre and Cinema, Bucharest; Hyperion University, Bucharest; Film critic for Contemporanul and Caiete critice


All great incidents and individuals in world history occur, as it were, twice: …the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

— Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire (287)

For Romanian cinema, the hour of breaking with the communist past has finally struck. Two films by young directors, Catalin Mitulescu's How I Spent the End of the World and Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest), have recently gained acclaim in the international festival circuit. In addition to this recognition, they also share a very personal—and humorous—approach to bringing the last days of the Ceausescu era to the screen. Growing up in communist Romania, we were taught at school that, according to Marx, comedy was a genre whose purpose was to help us “break with the past by laughing at it.” I shall neither comment here on the adequacy of this interpretation of Marx's famous quote (see above), nor shall I dispute the precision with which Marx himself interpreted Hegel in this particular case, [1] but will concentrate instead on the question of whether comedy helps in breaking with the past. Or, more specifically, does this proposition work in the case of the two films under scrutiny? The answer, at first blush, is yes, it does seem to work, if we consider their national and international resonance, similar to the enormous success of other films from ex-communist countries, like the Oscar winning Kolya by Jan Sverák (Czech Republic, 1994) or of films focused on the recent communist past like the German Good Bye, Lenin (dir. Wolfgang Becker; Germany, 2003) and the latest Oscar-winning film, The Life of Others (Das Leben der Anderen ; dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Germany, 2006).

How I Spent the End of the World and 12:08 East of Bucharest mark a new development in Romanian cinema, which, during the past decade or so, has been mostly engaged in a pessimistic reflection on post-communist reality, in the growing social polarity, moral confusion, corruption, and cynical pragmatism. The ironic approach to topics like the communist nightmare or the December Revolution reveals a fresh new attitude. In the early 1990s, films dealing with these issues were generally avoided by the public because of their ethical didacticism and schematic plots. There are a few exceptions, like Lucian Pintilie's The Oak ( Balanta , 1991) or Nae Caranfil's Don't Lean Out the Window (E pericoloso sporgersi, 1994), the first internationally celebrated Romanian films made after the Revolution. The Oak 's protagonist, Nela (Maia Morgenstern) a young woman with a defiant attitude to the absurdist restrictions of the times, sometimes gets involved in comic situations during her anarchic rebellion. In a world full of “well-adapted citizens,” Nela and her lover, the doctor Mitica (Razvan Vasilescu), are the exceptions, the rebels who seem “larger than life” even without the humorous touches. Pintilie`s strategy is clear: the tragic is constantly undermined by black humor, but the intrusion of the grotesque does not diminish the human dramas evolving before our eyes. No other Romanian director before Pintilie had succeeded in portraying the rebel so powerfully. His is not a statuesque image, but a real human being and a funny one at that.

We meet another non-heroic female rebel in Mitulescu's How I Spent the End of the World. The events, evolving during the year preceding the fall of the Ceausescu regime, are viewed through the eyes of an adolescent girl and her much younger brother. Eva (Doroteea Petre), a 17 year-old girl, and her 7 year-old brother Lalaliu (Timotei Duma), observe dreadful scenes from the adult world, full of injustice, fear, and suspicion, but they still enjoy the simple pleasures of childhood and adolescence, naively hoping that Ceausescu will eventually die and the world will be rid of this nightmare. Lalaliu dreams of killing Ceausescu and even plans with his friends how he would do it while singing in the choir invited to entertain the dictator. Eva goes through the first major betrayal in her life when her boy-friend, after having accidentally broken Ceausescu's bust at school, puts the blame squarely on her shoulders. In order to prove his loyalty, the boy—following the advice of his father, a Securitate officer [2] —goes through the rite of self-criticism in front of the whole class, while Eva refuses to do so. In her obstinate and childish way she is also a rebel, refusing to obey and to kneel, preferring to be transferred to an inferior school as punishment. In Doroteea Petre's luminous interpretation, Eva radiates good nature and humor, which brought her a well-deserved award at the Cannes Festival (in the Un certain regard program ).

Structured as a trip through memories, the film recreates the atmosphere of these years, pairing significant details with whimsical minutiae: the hours of mandatory black-outs imposed by the Ceausescu's regime in order to save electricity, the horrible TV programs entirely dedicated to Ceausescu, the dictator's obsessive portraits spread everywhere, the risky attempts to flee the country. The songs of the “Golden Era,” mostly “patriotic,” are efficiently integrated, implying the amount of ideological pressure exerted upon the entertainment industry. The children are also well versed in the double standard game and are shown laughing heartily at their father's hilarious impersonations of Ceausescu at home, but diligently writing poems that glorify the dictator at school. The funny group, comprised of Lalaliu and his two friends, always triggers comic relief. There are some endearingly funny episodes at Eva's school, where the vivid description of college atmosphere is reminiscent of the best moments in Caranfil's Don't Lean Out the Window . One can easily detect the influence of Caranfil's film as a source of inspiration. Besides, the filmmaker, who like Eva was also 17 years-old in 1989, and his sincere testimony intensifies the charm of the movie. Nostalgia is no longer what it used to be, one might think while watching How I Spent the End of the World ; now it is “a tragicomedy mixed with a little bit of nostalgia,” as Mitulescu defined it in the press release. Winner of the short film Palme d'Or in Cannes in 2004 for Traffic (Trafic) , Catalin Mitulescu confirms his capacity to create a dense atmosphere and to capture those human gestures that are able metonymically to suggest a drama. The film has a solid script with a personal touch (and received an award at the Sundance Festival project contest), an affectionate aura enveloping the main characters, a subtle ironic commentary on the events—for instance, the exaggerated happy ending in candy colors featuring the heroine working on an elegant cruise boat. These are but a few of the qualities that have put Mitulescu' s film amongst the most promising debuts of the last two decades.

The other film reflecting on the recent past in a novel manner is Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest , the recipient of the prestigious Prize Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (2006). The international title refers to the very moment when Romanian Television announced Ceausescu's deposition on 22 December 1989. It is an historical moment, about which the characters will speak a lot during a talk show initiated by the owner and presenter of a local TV station, Jderescu (Teo Corban) on the occasion of the 16 th anniversary of the Revolution. He invites to the studio Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a history teacher with drinking problems, and Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), a pensioner who does Santa Claus impersonations for money. The theme of the debate significantly is: “Was there a revolution in our town or not?” In spite of the feverish Christmas preparations, the talk show obviously enjoys a significant audience and the phone calls to the studio express their prevailing skepticism vis-à-vis the discussion topic. A vivid polemic begins after the teacher declares that he and three of his friends went to the square to demonstrate against the dictator half an hour before the famous announcement at 12:08. His dubious reputation as an alcoholic, however, provokes some ironic interventions, but also threatening ones. The mere mention in the teacher's deposition of a former agent of the Securitate, now a wealthy businessman, heats the discussion to a boiling point. The ex-agent flatly denies the accusations of his brutal professional activities and threatens to sue the station. The question about the revolution in the small town, however, gets a surprising answer from the wise Piscoci, who surmises simply that in Bucharest and Timisoara they had big revolutions, while “in our town, being so small, we had a lesser revolution.” He voices a theory that is half sad, half funny, and eloquently reveals the frustrations of many Romanians who apparently still lament the missed opportunity back in 1989 to show their courage and their determination to break with communism.

Porumboiu has a specific sense of irony and panache for bittersweet humor, which make the film such an unforgettable experience. He is also particularly fond of analogies, of quick associations that help him build a precise and intelligent structure for his film. As has already proven by his shorts, The Wine Route (Drumul vinului, 2002) and A Trip to Town (Calatorie la oras, 2003), that he is a specialist in the description of provincial life, of uneventful places with their frustrations and aspirations, of meticulous observation—demonstrated especially powerfully in the first part of the film, where we get to learn the backgrounds of all three protagonists as well as their small secrets. The intervention of a Chinese raisonneur , a shopkeeper who testifies about the honesty of his friend, the teacher, is particularly delicious and includes some remarks about Romanian's fatal habit of cursing each other even on solemn occasions.

While there is no conclusion to the debate, it certainly remains an open invitation to reflect on our recent past and to do away with its ghosts. Packed with funny and meaningful one-liners and featuring an imaginatively chosen cast, 12:08 East of Bucharest is a triumph of independent Romanian cinema (it was mostly produced with the director's own money). The film encourages other young authors to try the low budget formula and clever minimalist stories. Both The Way I Spent the End of the World and 12:08 East of Bucharest are key achievements for new Romanian cinema.

How I Spent the End of the World, Romania, 2006
Color, 106 minutes
Director: Cătălin Mitulescu
Scriptwriter: Cătălin Mitulescu and Andreea Valean
Cinematography: Marius Panduru
Art Direction: Daniel Raduta
Original Music: Alexander Balanescu
Cast: Doroteea Petre, Ionut Becheru, Jean Constantin, Mircea Diaconu, Timotei Duma, Valentin Popescu, Marius Stan
Production: Les Films Pelléas, Strada Films

12:08 East of Bucharest, Romania, 2006
Color, 89 minutes
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Scriptwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
Cinematography: George Dascalescu, Marius Panduru
Original Music: Rotaria
Cast: Mircea Andreescu, Teodor Corban, Ion Sapdaru, Mirela Cioaba, Cristina Ciofu, Constantin Dita, Luminita Gheorghiu, Lucian Iftime
Production: 42 Km Film

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 1852. In The Portable Karl Marx. Trans. Eugene Kamenka. NY: Viking Portable Library, 1983.

1] In footnote 2 to the excerpt from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 1852 in The Portable Marx, the translator writes: “Generations of scholars have been unable to find this remark in Hegel… Marx was probably echoing, inaccurately, a remark made by Engels in a letter to Marx of 3 December 1851, where Engels writes: ‘It really seems as if old Hegel in his grace were acting as World Spirit and directing history, ordaining most conscientiously that it should all be unrolled twice over, once as a great tragedy and once as a wretched farce'.” (287)

2] The formidable Romanian Secret Service under communism.

Updated: 11 May 07