At the start of Andrei Ujica’s epic documentary The Autobiography Of Nicolae Ceausescu, the late Romanian president is seen on video shortly before his 1989 execution, in a small room with his wife by his side, refusing to answer questions about his crimes against his people unless he’s taken in front of the Grand National Assembly. Ceausescu considers his interrogation undignified for someone of his stature—“a masquerade,” he calls it. His captors respond by saying, “It was your masquerade for 25 years.” It’s a bracing moment: the dictator laid low, called to account by the citizens he either abused or ignored for decades.
After that opening, Ujica flashes back to archival footage of the funeral of Ceausescu’s predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, followed by film of Ceausescu’s first speeches. Then for the next three hours, Ujica proceeds chronologically through the history of the Ceausescu administration, using only the material shot for the official archives, with no narration and onscreen titles. We see cocktail parties, meetings, public festivals, state visits, and speech after speech after speech. And we see Ceausescu building monuments to himself while paying lip service to the superior brand of democracy he claimed Romania was practicing. The impression Autobiography gives is of the banality of malice, buried within staged celebrations and dry bureaucratic business.
Most likely, The Autobiography Of Nicolae Ceausescu will mean the most to actual Romanians, who will recognize the locations and fashions, and may even know what the government’s documentarians left out of the picture. But the movie offers plenty to captivate even outsiders. There’s material about Ceausescu meeting with Nixon and Mao, and of him traveling to other socialist countries to compare notes on the glorious workers’ paradise and the job still to be done. And there’s footage of everyday Romanian life, showing the gradual decline of factories and equipment that looked state-of-the-art in the ’60s. Mostly, though, Ujica isolates his subject’s smugness, whether he’s smirking before deigning to answer a foreign correspondent’s question, or cruising on a yacht. It’s easy to see why those who lived in the Ceausescu seethed every time he opened his mouth or waved at them dismissively from the back of a moving vehicle. Until one day, after a long, long stretch, the people had their say.