The Specter of Communism: A Communist Structure of Feeling within Romanian New Wave Cinema
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This essay explores three films—4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), and Police, Adjective (2009)—to see how communist “structures of feeling” suffuse various time periods: the Ceauşescu regime, the anniversary of the revolution, and a post-communist world. These films often obliquely address the traumas of communism, not through direct representation of repression, but instead through a minimalist aesthetic that creates an atmosphere of oppression.
Romanian director Lucian Pintilie has observed, “Communism disappeared as a regime, not as a mentality.” Although belonging to a different generation of directors than the Romanian New Wave (RNW), his comment reflects a primary occupation found within many New Wave films: addressing the psychic impact of communism during its official existence within Romania and its lingering traces upon a post-communist world. Not coincidentally, many of the central directors of the New Wave like Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristi Puiu, and Cătălin Mitulescu were in their teens or early twenties during the 1989 revolution. Their films, as a result, must be seen as “intimate forms of processing a traumatic experience” where communism and its fall structured their lives and psychological outlooks.
RNW films often obliquely address the traumas of communism, not through direct representation of repression, but instead through a minimalist aesthetic that creates an ever-present atmosphere of dread and oppression through sparse mise-en-scene, long takes, and askew framing. Although such filmic techniques are fairly common to global art cinema, RNW directors redeploy them to create a distinct communist structure of feeling and its after-affects in a post-communist world in their films.
Raymond Williams coined the term “structures of feeling” in the 1950s, though it has taken on multiple iterations throughout his work. I want to highlight Williams’ emphasis of it as “a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity.” Such structures are always in process, “often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis (thought rarely otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics . . . .” In essence, Williams posits that feelings are socially constituted and relate the lived relations that one experiences under a specific ideology within a historical moment.
The complex matrix of the ways in which a structure of feeling intertwines with dominant, emergent, and residual cultural practices takes on heightened importance in understanding Romanian New Wave cinema where many of its directors consider themselves belonging to an in-between generation. RNW directors were coming-of-age when Romania suddenly shifted from communism to capitalism. Corneliu Porumboiu claims, “My generation won’t change too much in Romania—it’s an in-between generation—but the generation following it will. Everything will change radically 20 years from now, when those guys are in power. But for now, we’re in a time of transition.” Many residual tendencies of communism haunted the daily lives of this generation during the transition. Older forms of architecture still punctuated cityscapes while capitalist construction took place. Much of the communist oligarchy re-invented themselves as the new class of capitalists. As Tony Judt notes, “In Romania they made the transition much more fluently than elsewhere.” Monica Filimon similarly claims, "during the transition from communism to postcommunism, there was more continuity than disruption between the power structures, the individuals who populated them, and their practices. But most importantly, old psychic attachments to communism remained and were particularly acute for the RNW directors who had spent their formative years growing-up under communism.
Literature, cinema, drama, and other forms of art play an important role in translating such structures of feeling through their forms and conventions. The RNW marks an important body of work where a communist structure of feeling inhabits the very form of its films. This essay explores three films—4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), 12:08, East of Bucharest (2006), and Police, Adjective (2009)—to see how a communist structure of feeling suffuses various time periods: the Ceauşescu regime, the anniversary of the revolution, and a post-communist world. The films reveal how communism remains a state of mind long after its official passing where its effects seep into one’s consciousness and daily actions. The films translate “the area of interaction between the official consciousness of an epoch—codified in its doctrines and legislation—and the whole process of actually living its consequences” by making visible the micro-practices of everyday life where such feelings reside.
In particular, this Romanian communist structure of feeling encompasses elements of ever present surveillance and the ideology of homogenization that makes anything other than sameness unacceptable. Homogenization appears in the films through architectural minimalism and uniformity, the use of wooden language, and the complicit actions of many of its characters. As Gail Kligman notes, Nicolae Ceauşescu ruled less by terror than fear by controlling people’s bodies in multiple ways such as through the 1966 Decree 770 that outlawed abortion, the criminalization of homosexuality, and the forced depravation of heat and electricity. It is the type of power that disciplines bodies in a Foucaultian sense: “a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior.” The RNW illustrates the micro-levels in which power circulates across bodies, through the psyche, and within living environments as well as the moments of resistances against it in their oeuvre.
Situating the Romanian New Wave
Although some RNW directors adamantly deny that they comprise a new wave, this reaction seems more a desire on their part to maintain their own sense of individuality. Yet a New Wave clearly exists not only due to a certain set of shared stylistic attributes, but also because it arose from a unique historical moment that made such filmmaking possible. As George A. Huaco demonstrates in The Sociology of Film Art with his analysis of German Expressionism, Soviet avant-garde cinema, and Italian Neorealism, four structural conditions must be in place for a cinematic wave to take place: (1) A cadre of film personnel; (2) An industrial infrastructure and equipment; (3) A mode of organization that complements the emergence of a new wave; and (4) A wider social climate that supports its films. All four conditions linked-up during the early 2000s to allow for a Romanian New Wave to take place. In regards to the first condition, many of the scriptwriters, directors, camera people, and other cinema personnel were studying at Bucharest’s National University of Drama and Film (U.N.A.T.C.) throughout the 1990s, graduating by the end of the decade.
In relation to the second and third conditions, Romania was in massive economic distress throughout the 1990s that made independent film production nearly impossible. Similarly, although the Romanian National Centre of Cinema formed in 1990, it was not fully functional until the early 2000s to support independent projects. It served as a clearing house where directors would submit their film proposals that would then be forwarded to the government for funding. But because its top ranks were largely comprised of former managers of state-owned companies, they tended to favor well-established directors than those of RNW who were just starting their careers. Furthermore, EURIMAGES, the film financing arm of the European Union, did not grant Romania any assistance throughout the 1990s. Although there had been foreign investment in establishing new studios in Romania at the time, the turmoil of reorganizing the film industry and establishing new legal structures regarding film production and distribution severely constratined the production of new films. Some important films like State of Things (Stere Gulea, 1994), Look Forward in Anger (Nicolae Mărgineanu, 1993), and Bucharest, University Square (Stere Gulea, Sorin Ilieşiu, and Vivi Drăgan Vasile, 1991) were indeed produced during the decade. But by 2000, due to increasingly dire economic conditions, no films were made in Romania. This soon changed afterwards with EURIMAGES’S support that not only financially supported productions, but also facilitated the distribution and exhibition of films internationally. This support regarding distribution and exhibition should not be underestimated since Romania had so few theatrical venues to screen RNW films at the time of their emergence and RNW directors generally lacked domestic audience support. To make matters worse, Romanian ticket prices skyrocketed throughout the 1990s by 60-80 percent.
Because of distribution facilitated by EURIMAGES, the fourth condition was met during the mid-2000s as RNW cinema received wide international acclaim on the festival circuit. In 2005, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu received the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes. In 2006, 12:08, East of Bucharest won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. The same year Dorotheea Petre won the Un Certain Regard award for best actress in The Way I Spent the End of the World. In 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days earned the Palme d’Or and California Dreamin’ received Un Certain Regard.
This international acclaim is all the more important since RNW films remain unpopular at home, partially because of their subject matter and also because not many cinemas exist to exhibit them. For example, although 600 theaters existed in the country in 1989, by 2010 only 68 theaters remained. Such a sparse cinema infrastructure cannot support a domestic film industry. As Cristian Mungiu notes, “The moment we lose this foreign interest will be the end of this generation of filmmakers. There is no real understanding and respect for us back home. At home the general opinion is that somehow we fooled the whole world aside from Romanians.”
The RNW also shares certain stylistic tendencies. This is a fairly common occurrence as new modes of realism often accompany the emergence of new waves of cinema. The neo-neorealism or minimalism often associated with the RNW relates to a longer historical trajectory where international conversations of realism and political cinema began to take place during the 1930s among Marxists like Georg Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Italy served as a prime location for such debates in its cinema journals, ultimately leading to the formation of Italian neorealist cinema during the 1940s. Hamid Naficy notes how “[p]eriods of major social turmoil and transition seem to produce some of the most innovative cineastes and cinematic movements” as one witnesses in the French New Wave, Cinema Novo, and various Third Cinema movements.
The post-1989 cinema of the RNW fits into this longer historical trajectory. Although it shares many stylistic attributes with contemporary art cinema produced by directors like the Dardennes brothers, Zhangke Jia, and Bela Tarr, the RNW has its own distinct features in its attempts to reject the dogmas of the communist past as well as the sensationalism of the brutalist cinema that took hold within Romania throughout the 1990s. Cristian Mungiu relates the overall concern with authenticity that underlies much of RNW cinema: “The way of life presented was ridiculous. There was a huge gap between the way people really talked and the kinds of things that happened on the screen.” As A.O. Scott perceptively observes, the realism of the RNW seems to be “less a matter of verisimilitude than of honesty. There is an unmistakable political dimension to this kind of storytelling” in response to a previous life dominated by “fantasies, delusions and lies.”
I want to hone in on how the RNW relates a communist structure of feeling of immense oppression, surveillance, and homogenization not only through its characters’ actions and words, but also through its cinematic style of using long takes, oblique and distant framing, and sparse mise-en-scene. By exploring films representing the communist era, the anniversary of the 1989 revolution, and the post-communist landscape, we can see how they employ particular aesthetic approaches that relate in subtle ways a communist structure of feeling that predominated during its official heyday as well as comprised active residual practices of post-communist society.
A Technology of Power: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Michel Foucault’s notion of “a technology of power” serves as a useful concept to understand the subtle ways in which communism (and power in general) does not simply flow unidirectional from state institutions onto its populace but in more lateral and nebulous directions. Foucault employs the concept “to free relations of power from the institution, in order to analyze them from the point of view of technologies . . . and to detach them from the privilege of the object, so as to resituate them within the perspective of the constitution of fields, domains, and objects of knowledge.” This reveals how power relations pervade every aspect of our daily lives along with the potential for moments of resistance.
Ceauşescu’s 1966 decree that made abortion illegal and restricted birth control in order to populate the Romanian state and build a future labor force is a perfect example of Foucault’s notion of how power deals with “living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of life itself; it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body.” Yet the two female protagonists of 4 Months who seek to have an illegal abortion during Ceauşescu’s reign represent Foucault’s notion of “counter-conduct . . . in the sense of struggle against the processes implemented for conducting others.” Găbiță’s (Laura Vasiliu) decision to abort her child has vast political implications where communist power traverses all spaces and practices, which 4 Months illuminates through its aesthetic choices. As Maria Bucur notes, “Since communist regimes aimed at controlling both the private and public spheres, the notion of disaggregating the two and retaining control over the private realm . . . could be considered as a type of dissident activity.” This is an important observation since dissent is often implicitly gendered masculine with male intellectual elites serving as its living embodiment. Mungiu’s focus on the private realm and women’s struggles over the control of their bodies in 4 Months draws into intimate view this often overlooked sphere where dissent on a micro-level most commonly operates. It also suggests how in 1987, when the film takes place and two years before Ceauşescu’s overthrow, a younger generation negotiated an increasingly oppressive yet failing Communist state.
The camera creates an indifferent yet surveillant gaze throughout the film. Frequently, it remains indifferent to the movements of its characters. We witness this early on when Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) calls the dorm to speak with Găbiță. The camera frames the public phone in the middle of the screen on a desk. From a distance we watch a dorm monitor approach the phone and answer it. However, instead of reframing higher to include his face, the camera remains motionless, cutting off his head as he speaks to Otilia to relay a message. The framing suggests the immobility of a CCTV security camera that tracks movements throughout its public thoroughfare. The dorm’s inhabitants are constantly under surveillance.
Furthermore, it is an inhumane gaze that does not privilege the human body more than any other object. The framing decapitates the man’s head, suggesting a larger system indifferent to the individuality and uniqueness of its participants. In many ways, the sequence visualizes Gail Kligman’s observation that “the people’s body, so to speak, was the property of the state, to be molded and developed into the socialist body politic.” Unlike Western capitalist cinema where the camera normally repositions itself around moving bodies to center them in its frame, RNW films choose an aesthetic that embodies the state’s unbending gaze that will not accommodate its characters’ movements within it.
This framing gets repeated later when Otilia secretly rummages through Bebe’s (Vlad Ivanov), the abortionist’s, suitcase. The camera frames the suitcase at midlevel as Otilia’s head gets decapitated by the upper frame. She quickly has to shut the suitcase as Bebe exits the bathroom. Interestingly, the camera does not move, continuing to frame the suitcase as Bebe opens it to remove his equipment. He is similarly decapitated by the upper frame as he methodically unpacks a probe, rubbing alcohol, and latex gloves. In addition to the surveillant and dehumanizing connotations that inhabit such framing similar to the previous sequence, it also generalizes the events happening, suggesting that such illegal abortions occur to a variety of women. Although we are witnessing the particular case of Găbiță and Otilia, they stand in for Romanian women in general who disobey Ceauşescu’s law in seeking to terminate their pregnancies. As a result, the decapitated frame does not simply dehumanize its participants, but also generalizes their condition as applying to all Romanian women living under communism. The detailed chronicling of the preparation in this sequence—Bebe laying out the gauze, disinfecting and placing the probe on it—speaks to a common practice that many women had sought out under the restrictions of the 1966 decree.
The oppressive framing becomes most apparent when Otilia leaves her boyfriend’s parents to return to Găbiță. A rain-washed, corrugated, black metal bridge extends from the foreground of the frame to its top. Old half-moon streetlights unevenly illuminate its walkway. Otilia runs down its path, her body occasionally becoming engulfed in its shadows. In the far distance lies a street where we see a bus approach. The camera indifferently frames the moment as we see the bus’s door open in the lower right corner of the frame as a silhouetted figure we assume to be Otilia enters it. The metal edifice dominates the framing, obscuring everything else, barely making Otilia visible. The structure weighs on the road beneath it, its inhumane steel plunging into the distance as nondescript characters traverse its distance. The indifference to Otilia’s plight is further punctuated by the fact that she has to run to the bus, accommodating herself to the rhythms of communist life, not vice-versa. The noirish look of the edifice additionally suggests that its ominous, dimly lit structure proves a hazard to anyone walking it at night, particularly a young woman. It is not concerned with its users’ safety, but merely serves a functional purpose to get from one area to another. The bridge becomes a metonymy for communism as a whole: a callous system that remains indifferent to the human suffering it causes as it relentlessly pursues its goals of higher production numbers and more efficient and utilitarian methods.
The bridge also manifests homogenization in action. Gail Kligman writes how homogenization works: “By refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of private domains of interaction, the state extends its tentacles of control into the bodies and minds of its citizens.” The bridge is a disciplinary mechanism that reveals the state’s indifference to one’s safety by not being well lit. Also, it imposes a maze-like structure that forces bodies to negotiate it and increase one’s pace to meet the state’s rhythms, like catching a bus. Private concerns are banished for state functionality. The state does not adapt to the individual’s needs. Instead, the individual must bend to the state’s collective goals no matter how unrealistic and dangerous they might be.
Cristian Mungiu relates how he intentionally used such shots to relate a sense of oppression: “[I] hoped that, when the film was finished, people would understand some aspects of Romanian society from the way the film was made. I hope the film invites discussion of this diffuse sort of oppression, the fear of always being watched and controlled. But I didn’t want to make it too explicit.”
This surveillant and oppressive yet indifferent gaze gets literalized in some of the characters’ looking relations. For example, as Otilia negotiates hotel reservations, the female hotel desk clerk barely looks up from what she is doing behind the counter. It is initially unclear if she even recognizes Otilia’s need for a room. Tellingly, the only time she directly looks at Otilia is when she questions her: “If you’re in a dorm, why do you need a hotel?” Otilia quickly answers, “It’s too crowded. We’ve got exams. It’s hard to study.” This not only shows Otilia’s ingenuity in negotiating such surveillance, but also how indifference should not be mistaken for the lack of surveillance. Even an ordinary desk clerk can demand to understand one’s movements and motivations, revealing how the reach of the State extends to an everyday transaction of renting a hotel room. As Gail Kligman writes, “Suspicion pervaded living environments, further eroding the damaging walls of the private sphere,” thus forcing homogenization within one’s daily life.
This gaze becomes most apparent during the frequently remarked upon dinner sequence of the film. Although Otilia is framed in the center of the frame, her boyfriend’s family and friends speak over her, barely acknowledging her presence, often gesturing and passing food over her image. She is visually pinned in the scene, often having to suffer her elders’ classist remarks like—“simple folk often have better sense than the educated”—when they learn that her parents are factory workers. Yet it should be noted that her silence in this sequence can also reveal counter-conduct, a refusal to appease her elders and play into their classist discourse and generational hubris.
Otilia is also periodically reprimanded by her boyfriend’s, Adi’s, godfather who has completely introjected communist ideology and frequently blurts out some of its maxims in declarative statements like: “Kids have to learn life is hard.” When Otilia smokes a cigarette, he chastises her: “A young girl like you smoking in front of her boyfriends’ parents . . . I was 43 when my father died, he never saw me smoke.” Interestingly, he is not suggesting that smoking is unhealthy or that women shouldn’t do it, but that they should do it clandestinely, a suggestion that ironically resonates with her other clandestine activity of assisting her friend with her abortion.
Additionally, others at the table remind Adi’s godfather that his father was well aware of him smoking. But he brushes this observation off by claiming that the gesture, not the reality, was most important. “It’s a question of respect,” he replies. His words embody the wooden language of Romanian communism. As Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Alina Haliliuc note, “It’s vocabulary is often dominated by slogans, dying metaphors, invectives, and manicheist terms to replace critical analysis and vilify the ‘enemies of the people.’” Adi’s godfather manicheistically asserts that his generation is respectful unlike the younger one. Furthermore, his language, like the communist regime’s, has little concern for reality. It is more important that one pretends to hide one’s smoking rather than successfully doing so. This is not unlike the Ceauşescu regime claiming through its wooden language that Romania was on the rise throughout the 1980s when the country was really being further plunged into dire economic impoverishment.
Later in the sequence, the same man harasses Otilia to sing louder while celebrating her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday. This abusive and ignorant paternal authority figure becomes a frequent character throughout RNW cinema. As A.O. Scott observes, “All of these men . . . display a self-importance that is both absurd and malignant.” The paternal figure takes on an added political dimension when one keeps in mind that Ceauşescu, like Stalin and Mao, repeatedly referred to himself as “the father of the nation.” Therefore, the frequent exposure of such a figure by RNW directors as absurd, abusive, and pathetic is in part a reaction to the cult of personality Ceauşescu perpetuated and the subsequent suffering under the tyranny and dehumanizing logic that dominated throughout his reign.
Bebe, the abortionist, crystalizes all the contradictions of the paternal authority figure under communism through his similar use of wooden language. He insists that the girls must submit to sex in order for him to provide the abortion. Tellingly, he never says “sex” nor “abortion.” Instead, he cloaks reality with euphemisms. “Insert the probe” stands in for abortion while “tell me who goes first” veils his sexual intentions. His euphemistic language emulates that of the communist oligarchy that also ignored the suffering and injustice it perpetuated as it brandished hollow slogans concerning worker productivity and the good of the nation as rationalizations for such cruelty.
But the crucial twist occurs when Bebe performs the abortion where he effaces his earlier actions like the rape of the women by instead performing the role of a paternalistic and concerned doctor. He recommends Găbiță take some aspirin if a fever takes hold. He insists if they need help that they call him. He finally pats Găbiță’s calf as he says, “Good luck now,” and leaves. The sequence reveals the full perversity of power where abuse and faux concern for others intertwine, where one can rape two women and then feign sympathy with them afterwards. As Palmer-Mehta and Haliliuc observe, “Bebe’s ambiguities, euphemisms, and overused slogans, characteristic of wooden language, allow him to reduce the violation of Otilia and Găbiță to an impersonal transaction between ‘nice’ consenting free adults.” This disjunction between actions and words is a condensation of Romanian communism that claimed it was for the people as it relentlessly exploited them in its practices. Bebe shows how such a contradictory attitude manifests itself at the interpersonal level where power imbalances between Romanian leaders and their subjects gets re-inscribed in gender imbalances between abusive patriarchal figures and the women who need their assistance.
Yet the film further stresses how even Otilia and Găbiță also subscribe to such ideological contradictions from the film’s opening sequence, thus revealing their complicity with communist practices. We see a shot of a fish tank a third full. Two fish swim within its smudged glass. When Găbiță mentions that they should have someone look after the fish during their absence, Otilia responds: “They’ll be fine without food for two days.” Interestingly, the depravation and dehumanization that the two women suffer under communist rule gets re-inscribed in their treatment of the fish. Why fill up the tank fully when a third of the water in the tank will suffice? Why feed the fish daily when they can perhaps survive without food for two days? Their actions embody homogenization in action where the state remains indifferent to individual concerns. Such indifference to suffering complements the very same homogenizing attitude exhibited by harsh laws that ban abortion: why shouldn’t women be forced to have children when they can? Why shouldn’t women sacrifice personal choice for the goals of the State? The cramped and minimal conditions of the fish mirror that of the same conditions of the women.
The linkage between the fish’s condition with the two women’s is made apparent by the film’s end as we watch Găbiță and Otilia sit across from each other at a table behind a pane glass window of a restaurant. Car headlights sporadically reflect over the glass and pass over them as they sit silently attempting to register the trauma that they endured. The indifference of traffic, of people going on about their daily business despite the immense amount of suffering that such a life entails, resonates with the women’s indifference to the fish at the beginning of the film as they carry about their own business to pursue an abortion with little to no concern about the fish’s survival. Although victims of the system, the two women are also perpetuators of it. The technology of power that implements communism leaves no one innocent as complicity occurs even when one is simultaneously resisting the state like claiming ownership over one’s body by having an aborition.
Warring Gazes and Generations: 12:08, East of Bucharest
As can be inferred by the aforementioned dinner sequence in 4 Months, generational conflict defines many of the RNW films. The older generation, with its outdated tendencies and ossified beliefs structured by communism, becomes a living weight upon the young. The younger generation’s desire to be free of the past and the yoke of their elders is clearly displayed in Child’s Pose (2013) where a mother recounts how her son told her how her “generation should just disappear.” 12:08, East of Bucharest draws such intergenerational tensions to the forefront and marks a moment of radical transition in Romanian society to a post-Communist world. In particular, the film sides with the younger generation in its desire to throw off the shackles of the past for the uncertainty of the new. It captures some of the utopian expectiations of this generation that accompanied the fall of Communism before the harsh realities of economic and social transition and stagnation took hold.
The young characters of the film, represented by the television studio band and the cameraperson, spark with energy and desire for the emerging new world. We see this as the band plays a Latin American tune. One of the boys sings while dancing: “Hear the rhythm, feel its sway/It keeps calling me your way/Dance to the dream/The heavenly steam/Latino music is my life.” Although they are drably lit within the sparse studio and dressed in regimented blue and black uniforms, the music clearly helps them escape their conditions as the boy spontaneously dances and the band members sway to the music.
However, once Jderescu (Teodor Corban), the television producer and host, enters the studio, he demands that they immediately stop. He encourages: “Play a Romanian tune! It’s Christmas.” One of the members of the band quips after he leaves: “We should play something fun.” But the band leader says, “You’ll do as I say,” emulating the rigid authority that Jderescu represents in spite of the entire band desiring otherwise.
Perhaps most revealing during this sequence, the youthful cameraman films them playing using a handheld camera. He pans across them and gets more adventurous as the sequence progresses by getting down on his knees to shoot up to the singer and then film in close up. Once Jderescu enters again, he demands that the cameraman “put it on the tripod before I whip you with it.”
This is a subtle self-reflexive moment where the film draws attention to its own filming technique through the figure of the cameraman. Like the RNW directors, the cameraman uses non-traditional filming techniques like a handheld camera filming at oblique angles to capture the energy of the moment. Jderescu, however, only sees such filming and music as chaos, an affront to the older order of homogenization—not unlike the firecrackers that the even younger generation light across the city, which have become newly available due to the capitalist logic of supply and demand. Even though he is hosting a show on the sixteenth anniversary of the Romanian revolution, Jderescu’s actions expose how older habits still prevail, that his generation is locked into the past where homogenization rules in spite of the lip service they might give to the revolution and new democratic ambitions.
One can also read the sequence as a bigger metaphor of the generational tensions between the RNW directors and their cinematic elders. A.O. Scott recalls relating his interest in the RNW to older film professors of U.N.A.T.C.: “It was not an interest any of them gave much indication of sharing, apart from one voluble professor. ‘We are all dinosaurs, but at least I admit that I am one,’ he announced . . . .” It can also be an indirect critique of older Romanian film critics who largely dismissed the RNW as nothing more than a fad foisted upon them by the interest of some influential Western critics. The older generation is unable to understand how new aesthetic forms must accompany the changes taking place to better capture the moment. The older generation is wedded to the past in their aesthetics and actions, a homogenization of style and content, regardless of what they might say.
The energy of the new is translated throughout the show while Jderescu interviews the town historian and drunk, Tiberiu Mănescu (Ion Sapdaru), and an older participant, Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), if a revolution occurred in their small Moldavian town. In spite of the turgid wooden dialogue of the host and the banal observations of its guests, we watch the broadcast through the eyes of the young cameraman. Although on a tripod, his camera constantly moves—creating awkward close-ups, out of frame shots, and unneeded movements—as if he cannot control himself. His energy cannot be contained by the tripod, and it practically recoils at the utter pointlessness of the discussion as its host and guests fail to accept the change that has happened unlike the younger generation that embraces much of it. This energy becomes too much for Jderescu. He chastises the cameraman during a break: “Who taught you to film like that? If you move the camera again, I’ll throw it in your face.” But the point is that no one taught him to film like that or, more precisely, new historical conditions have dictated his aesthetic choices as cheaper, more portable camera equipment becomes available and a desire for change gets translated into his filmic style. The homogenization that Jderescu represents becomes a residual attitude as the Romanian revolution has introduced cheaper consumer technology and Western values to a younger generation.
This youthful energy and desire for new visual aesthetics and musical styles contrast with the hypocrisy of the elders. Mănescu is a history teacher who claims that he was out rebelling before Ceauşescu fled, a dubious claim that gets constantly rebutted by people calling-in. Yet his nostalgia for the past exposes itself earlier in the film when he gets drunk at night and mournfully sings old communist anthems. Jderescu, a communist engineer turned television producer, increasingly engages in interrogation techniques reminiscent of the Securitate as he attempts to ferret out the truth from Mănescu if he truly rebelled on the square or not. He repetitively asks him: “For the last time, were you in the town square on Dec. 22, 1989? Yes or no?” Even though Mănescu asserts he was, albeit increasingly more hesitantly each time, Jderescu continues his interrogation: “Were you?” The elders’ actions reveal that there most likely wasn’t a revolution for them since they remain so dependent upon the residual practices and outlooks of the communist era-like homogenization, wooden speech, and self-surveillance. Their words might mention the revolution, but their actions are deeply inscribed within a communist structure of belief.
The film, somewhat idealistically, ends with the voice-over of the young cameraman. Disgusted with his elders’ actions, he states, “I’ll watch them elbow each other to be in the frame.” He frames a streetlight, waiting for it to turn on as a light snow falls before it. The blue haze of twilight gently coats the gray socialist style buildings, softening their harshness. The cameraman counts down—“5, 4, 3, 2, 1”—in anticipation of the streetlight’s illumination. But this countdown can also be read metaphorically as awaiting a new beginning, a desire to escape the vestiges of the past that still haunt the present. Freed from the shackles of the studio and Jderescu, he reflects: “Calm and beautiful. Like my memory of the revolution.” Despite the violence and mixed results of the actual 1989 revolution, the cameraman hangs onto the utopian potential that the revolution represents as a younger generation attempts to seize hold of the change it ushers in despite the resistances of the older one. The handheld camerawork and Latino music embody what Piscoci, in a moment of insight, says during the show: “One makes whatever revolution one can each in their own way.” 12:08, East of Bucharest, through its youthful cameraman and his impulsive filmic style, suggests how the RNW is doing just that through its innovative aesthetic choices and subject matter by breaking through the homogenization and wooden language of the preceding communist regime.
The Surveillance State: Police, Adjective
The residual practices of communism predominate throughout Porumboiu’s next film Police, Adjective. The film serves as the next logical progression from 12:08 East of Bucharest. It identifies a moment in Romanian society that has moved beyond the initial thrill at witnessing the fall of Communism to addressing the realities of a post-Communist world where some of older Communist practices and attititudes still linger and readapt themselves to an emergent capitalist landscape. It suggests a hybrid world where the hopes of capitalism have proven illusory and older Communist structures of feeling subsist even within a younger generation that once thought it could cleanly rid itself from the past once and for all.
The film’s plot offers both an allegorical and parodic account of the police state, a residual but predominant holdover from Communism: In a small Moldavian city an undercover officer named Cristi (Dragoş Bucur) spies on three high school-aged kids who smoke hash. One of the kids informs on the other two for reasons unknown. Romania is the only country in the European Union where such a small amount of hash possession would lead to an arrest. Furthermore, other than ruining the kids’ lives, their arrest would lead to no significant larger arrests like catching the main supplier of the hash. As a result, Cristi initially rejects participating in a sting operation against the kids. The irrelevancy and utter pointlessness of the law, the mindless bureaucracy that pursues an aimless arrest, and the minor resistance on Cristi’s part all reveal how residual practices of the communist regime still lurk within existing institutions like the police. Although the regimes might have changed, the practices have not. Therefore, even though taking place in an unspecified post-Communist moment, Police, Adjective has Cristi struggle with the very issues that anyone living under Ceauşescu’s rule had to wrestle with daily.
The palpable presence of the communist past can be seen through the film’s mise-en-scene. The police station where much of the action takes place, an actual location according to Porumboiu, still has the desks and metal lockers from the communist era furnishing it. Its layout reveals the functionalist and impersonal zeitgeist of a past age: pallid sick-green painted, windowless walls, ancient computers, and worn hardwood desks and chairs. A general indifference to its occupants’ comfort pervades the police station sequences. Its austere furnishings and interior design embody the oppressive and indifferent outlook of a bygone age that still infects many of its survivors’ actions and attitudes. It reveals the homogenization of building codes that were developed within a national public aesthetic that championed state functionality over personal convenience. It is the bridge that we saw Otilia cross in 4 Months resurrected as a police department.
We witness this indifference when Cristi attempts to enlist a colleague to engage in a computer search on the three suspects he is tailing. When Cristi returns for the results, the colleague continues working at his computer, not looking at Cristi, and responds, “I haven’t had time.” As Cristi explains the urgency of his request, the colleague continues typing at his computer, facing away from Cristi, questioning him, “Do you think I work for you?” This interaction resonates with the earlier sequence we saw in 4 Months concerning Otilia’s interaction with the hotel desk clerk. In both cases, a mired bureaucracy largely ignores the needs of its clients and colleagues. The distant interpersonal relations reveal how such a communist structure of feelings still inhabits individuals’ actions.
Also similar to 4 Months, a pervasive sense of surveillance dominates the film. Shots are often composed in distant framing. For example, we see the three kids smoking hash at a distance in a school yard through a chain linked fence. The image suggests that they are already jailed. Furthermore, the crossbars of the fence make them seem in the sights of a scope of a gun.
We initially assume that this shot of the kids is from Cristi’s point of view. But as they walk away from the yard, we see Cristi enter from screen left, a location far away from where his point of view would have been located. He walks to the yard to check the ground for the remains of the hashish they were smoking. Interestingly, he occupies the same position as the kids: observed from a distance behind the chain linked fence. The image shows that even if Cristi is observing the three kids, he is also enmeshed in the same inhumane and mindless bureaucracy in which they are. His actions are equally constrained by the desires of his captain to bust the kids even though it would serve no larger purpose. He is under the gaze of the police department and its superiors as much as the kids are under his own gaze. He is complacent with the system even while he attempts to resist it in part.
Furthermore, the sequence exposes how a surveillance society still survives even with the passing of communism. The shots are reminiscent to ones we saw in 4 Months. Porumboiu explains, “I followed Cristi around the same way he, in turn, follows his suspects around, with a strong belief that the cinema is witness to a meaningless world.” Although meaningless, it nonetheless remains equally bureaucratic and unresponsive to human needs.
The residual practices of communism are made most apparent during the film’s final sequence where Cristi confronts his captain, Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov), about not wanting to bust the kids. Porumboiu notes the captain’s intimate connections with the communist past: “This kind of character was useful in communist societies for making sense of the world . . . His authority was obviously legitimated and enforced by a police state, but it also helped people in these societies make sense of their world. He’s also a very believable character in the context of postcommunist society.”
Ivanov’s steely and understated performance playing Anghelache is reminiscent of his similar style in playing Bebe in 4 Months. Both are cruel and impersonal patriarchal figures of authority exploiting and warring against a younger generation. Similar to Bebe who uses euphemisms to engage in black market abortions and rape, Anghelache also displays wooden speech that warps meanings to suit his own convenience—like selectively appropriating dictionary definitions of words like “police,” “law,” and “conscience” to argue his case against Cristi’s insubordination and justify the stupidity of busting three teenagers as holding some kind of societal significance. For example, he asks Cristi to read the definition of “police.” One definition states that the police “exercise control through repressive methods.” But the captain quickly retorts: “Ridiculous. All states depend upon the police.” Not only does this expose Anghelache’s selective understanding of words, but it also demonstrates how his conflation of repressive methods as being synonymous with policing reveals his distinct biases and residual beliefs that have been informed by his time serving under the Ceauşescu years. He can’t imagine a world where the police and repression do not naturally accompany one another.
Anghelache becomes a living embodiment of what Slavoj Žižek has called “surplus-obedience”: the gray line lurking between where one simply follows the inhumane decrees of others and where one derives libidinal pleasure in enacting them. An intimate libidinal component marks all functionaries’ actions and serving of a regime. One is not simply commanded to function accordingly under such inhumane conditions, but also to have one’s very identity adapt to them, which often holds an illicit pleasurable component. This would help explain why people like Anghelache still function in outdated ways. Not only does he belong to an institution where such residual practices are deeply inscribed, but also his very sense of self and pleasure are in part derived from these residual practices and the sense of patriarchal authority that accompany them. Anghelache reveals how identity itself is determined by the technologies of power that circulate through our bodies and psyche.
Also, the duration of this near final sequence—over 16 minutes long—relates the relentless way in which the bureaucracy attempts to wear down Cristi. Many moments are punctuated with long silences with Anghelache staring directly at Cristi, just waiting for him to break. Occasionally, he asks Cristi, “Well?”—making it apparent that it is only a matter of time before he recants his objections. This plodding sense of wearing someone down through verbal manipulation and the constant pressure of being the object of dissatisfaction beneath the gaze of one’s superior takes palpable hold: the sequence refuses to cut and the characters barely move, caught in a temporary stalemate between one’s personal morals and the brutal stupidity of a bureaucratic machine. It shows homogenization in practice as Anghelache attempts to quash Cristi’s individual resistance by upholding the state’s laws and goals.
In the end, Cristi submits, drawing up the plans for the sting in the final sequence. This is not entirely surprising since the film frequently suggests how Cristi compliantly shares certain similarities with his superiors more than he cares to admit. Visually, he blends into his environment with his gray/green shirt and jeans. Marius Panduru, the film’s cinematographer, uses a filter to create a monochromatic environment where characters and context bleed into one another, suggesting how context deeply shapes personal behavior and attitude. Cristi’s wife, Anca (Irina Saulescu), later reminds him to change his shirt since he has been wearing it for four days. Not unlike Anghelache, Cristi is resistant to some change.
Also, Cristi upholds a selective, literal understanding of things—just like Anghelache. We see this when Cristi questions the sentimental lyrics of a Mirabela Dauer song his wife repetitively listens to. He argues: “Anca, this song doesn’t make any sense . . . ‘What would the field be without the flower.’ ‘What would the sea be without the sun?’ What else would it be? It would be the field and the sea.” Anca explains that she likes the song for its imagery and because “it tries to define ideal love by associating it with symbols.” She suggests that the linkage of love with the sea provides an image of infinite love. He replies, “If they wanted to say infinity, why didn’t they just say it?”
Despite Cristi’s strong resistance to the captain’s inability to see the harm that enforcing outdated hashish laws will have upon the three teenagers, he is equally obtuse in comprehending his wife’s poetic appreciation of the song. Although he is not as compromised as Anghelache yet, he adheres to the same bureaucratic logic and literal interpretations as him and can ultimately be assimilated. As Porumboiu observes, “Language is more important than the individual person. Language exists on its own, in particular in this kind of society where words were abused.” So even though Cristi initially rejects the conclusions of his superiors in busting the teenagers, he is already enmeshed within the same language regime; this is made apparent during his discussion with his wife, which ultimately values literal interpretation over deeper and more abstract meanings. The communist disciplinary practices that traverse Cristi’s body and mind make it relatively easy to finally overcome his minor moment of dissent.
RNW films relate how a communist structure of feeling pervades not only their characters’ actions and dialogue, but also through their mise-en-scene, framing, and camera movements. Rather than dramatically represent this Eastern communist oppression in its more overt forms such as beatings and internments, as done in films like The Lives of Others (2006), the RNW explores how communism was a technology of power in the full Foucaultian sense where it informs one’s daily actions and structures one’s psyche so that the fall of a communist regime does not mean the end of a communist structure of feeling. Because the RNW comprises a generation that came of age during the fall of Ceauşescu, they are well-positioned to identify the emotional linkages and continuities between communist and post-communist societies through various practices of homogenization, surveillance, and complicity. They not only offer an intimate portrait of a specific historical era, but also present how a communist structure of feeling informed their and others’ lives long after the regime had fallen through the nuanced plots, characters, and stylistic choices of their films. It was not in the torture and jailing of dissidents where Romanian communism was at its strongest. Instead its ideology traversed the everyday practices between coworkers, boss and employee, family and friends, and parents and children—where homogenization, surveillance, and complicity extended its fearful reign of control. With its painstaking attention to mundane details, RNW films provide nuanced observations of how a communist structure of feeling ultimately took hold within the textures of everyday life.
Chris Robé is an associate professor of film and media studies at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Radical Film Culture (2010) and Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas (2017). He has published numerous articles in various academic journals, and is a frequent contributor to Pop Matters.
Saverio Giovacchinni and Robert Sklar, “The Geography and History of Global Neorealism,” in Global Neorealism: The Transitional History of a Film Style, eds. Saverio Giovacchini and Robert Sklar (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 9.