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Re-ro: re-enacted scripts in and around Alexandru Solomon's The Great Communist Bank Robbery.

Take it with a grain of salt: Romania experienced a short period of relative liberalism under Communism. At its peak, the country's then most promising director, Lucian Pintilie, was allowed to shoot and launch his feature film, Reconstituitea (Reenactment). This was in 1968. The movie was shown in theatres for about a week, after which it was withdrawn and, officially, never spoken about until the end of the regime, in December 1989. Its story line has a bar brawl re-enacted so as to make it into a didactic short meant to warn against delinquency stemming from high alcohol consumption. As the movie is being shot, one of the brawling lads is repeatedly hit by the other--the director requites many takes--until be accidentally bangs his head against a rock and, bloodied in the mud, dies smiling ambiguously. In Pintilie's film, and somehow ever since, the standard of truth is shown to have split between the actual happenings and their re-enactment on film. The latter turned out to have more serious consequences. Someone dies--an unpredictable supplement poisons the attempt at minute mimesis; the properly sublime takes over verisimilitude. Pintilie's black and white, dark and ironic, hopeless-ending film has since been hailed as a masterpiece--oftentimes the masterpiece--of Romanian cinema, and a tall-order provocation thrown to younger filmmakers.

Alexandru Solomon answered this provocation with his nonfictional Marele jaf comunist (The Great Communist Bank Robbery; 2004). Here he takes on another documentary, directed by Virgil Calotescu and produced by the "Alexandru Sahia" Cinema Studios in collaboration with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Popular Republic of Romania in 1959. This black and white documentary, titled Reconstituitea (Reconstruction) tells a gripping story.

At the end of the 1950s Romania was always finding something to celebrate: either the withdrawal of the Red Army troops, which had been stationed in the country for some 14 years, of the birthday of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Romania, and the last staunch Stalinist leader in Eastern Europe, of the building of this or that new factory, dam, apartment building of whatever. With every new victory, the country was celebrating another step away from the hydra of capitalism, and taking another toward the glowing, communist future. Peace reigned in the country's cities, villages, and in the souls of their inhabitants, joyous builders of a new society. Then, the unconceivable hits: in a Bucharest neighborhood, a group of bandits ambushes a delivery vehicle of the National Bank, from which it steals an amount of cash equivalent to some 2,000 monthly average wages. The all-powerful Securitate (the Secret Police made in the image and likeness of the KGB) looks desperately, yet unsuccessfully for the robbers, until one of its generals comes up with an original idea: to look inside the communist establishment for the culprits. After weeks of dedicated search and surveillance work, the Securitate arrests a group of six, all of whom had been, until recently, members of the higher echelons of the one Party. Here they are, presented in the flaming, standard wooden-tongued Cold War rhetoric of Reconstruction:

* Alexandru (Lica) Ioanid: a swindler capable of anything to ensure a luxurious lifestyle for himself;

* Paul Ioanid: a fake intellectual, a corrupt and rotten element;

* Igor Savianu: a rotten element who, although a qualified engineer, refused to work in his field and preferred to rob the working people of their money;

* Sasha Musat: an adventurer who, instead of putting his University Professor diploma to good use, preferred to gain financial advantages by means of an armed bank robbery;

* Haralambie Obedeanu: a gangster disguised as a journalist, who handled the gun better than the pen; and

* Monica Savianu: a rotten, marginalized element.

Under a polite, inflexible and intelligent interrogation, the six confess to their crime. They also agree to play cameos in the filmed reconstruction of the robbery, of their capture and interrogation. After all this is filmed, they also play their own roles in the filmed trial, which does not follow the actual trial. The bothers Ioanid and the other four are charged with terrorism and with acts of sabotage against the social order. The hold-up was the last, and least important, of these charges. The five men are sentenced to death and executed at the Jilava prison, in the vicinity of Bucharest, in early 1960. The court magnanimously spares the life of Monica Savianu, the mother of two young children. Instead, she is sent as a lifer to a hard labor camp. The Securitate and Justice apparatuses have done their work, most of the loot is recuperated, and the culprits exemplarily punished. Reconstruction is a fairytale for those in charge of the dictatorship of the proletariat in late 50s Romania.

Solomon's take on Reconstruction in the Great Communist Bank Robbery is a tactful, painstaking search for the truth of the events that occurred close to half a century before the shooting of the film. He dives into the archives, interviews a number of survivors of the events, keeps a good balance between the incredible and the reasonable, and brings to light a different story line. First, the vitae of the six "bandits," all of whom were in their thirties at the time of the robbery, abound in exceptional details. They had a few things in common: all were members of the Communist Party since wartime resistance; all held high positions in the Communist establishment after 1944; and all were Jews:

* Alexandru (Lica) Ioanid, was the brother-in-law of Constantin Draghici, the Director of the Securitate (also known as the Romanian Beria, the mastermind of Communist terror in Romania, and arguably the most prolific murderer in the country's history). Until spring 1959, Ioanid had been the Chief of the country's Criminal Police; his brother-in-law was his direct boss;

* Paul Ioanid, his brother, was an aeronautics engineer and Head of Aviation at the Interior Ministry. He had studied in the USSR under Antonov and Tupolev, and participated, as Romania's representative, in the secret Soviet space program. He was arrested as he was returning from Moscow in early fall, 1959;

* Igor (Gugu) Savianu was an aeronautics engineer and a World War II hero who participated actively in the fight against the German army in August 1944, after Romania switched sides to join the USSR and the other allied forces in the fight against Hitler. He had been dismissed from his position a few months before the robbery, after having worked for years for the Aviation Unit of the Interior Ministry;

* Sasha Musat (Glanzstein), a former secret agent of the Securitate, had spent five years abroad on various assignments. In 1953 he was expelled from France. Six years later he was dismissed from his position at Bucharest University, where he had been a Professor of History and the Party secretary.

* Haralambie (aka Hari) Obedeanu had been a journalist at Scinteia (The Spark), the official newspaper of the Communist Party. He had recently been dismissed from both the newspaper job and from his position as Dean of the School of Journalism (both high positions in the communist hierarchy);

* Monica Savianu, Igor's wife and mother of two, had spent three years in Israel with her first husband but had returned to Romania in 1948 to marry Igor. Her Israel adventure "was regarded negatively" by the Party, and eventually led to her husband's dismissal.

Reconstruction "hides more than it reveals," claims the voiceover that narrates The Great Communist Bank Robbery. And the latter adds, "Did the film really convince the audience, of was it just meant to scare them. What trust can we put in any of this today?" Were the six of them real gangsters? "We were all speechless: the six were former members of the Secret Services, all formerly belonging to the Communist establishment," declares, in 2004, the despicable Colonel Gheorghe Enoiu (then a Securitate Captain and the Chief Investigator of the case). Did they conspire against the regime they had duly served in their high capacities? The trial Judge, Vasile Varga (now a retired General), contends that, "because of their hatred against the State, the political indictment looms so large in the trial. You see, they were Jewish nationalists [sic!]who could not come to terms with the fact that they no longer enjoyed the privileges that the Communist establishment had granted them for many years" (after which Varga adds other xenophobic "niceties" about representatives of the large Hungarian and German minorities, which had been tolerated to hold high office, "but, really, for how long could that be sustained?"). Conflicting hypotheses abound in this case. Yet, what is clear is that things could not possibly have occurred as they were presented in Reconstruction, a film shown only to members of the inner circle of the Party and of the juridical and Securitate systems.

It seems rather that the six characters were the designated victims in one of the periodical internal purges that marked the history of the Communist Party in Romania. Following the trial and the whole brouhaha surrounding it, the Ministry of the Interior and the Justice institutions were purged of Jews, culminating with a few high profile trials against Jewish economists. At the same time, the rulers reauthorized the emigration, which had been suspended for a while, of Romanian Jews to Israel. The Jewish presence within the ranks of the Romanian CP had been massive since the 1920s; in 1952, two of the four leaders of the Party, Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca, both of Jewish origin, were expelled from the Politburo; the last purge of the "Jewish elements" took place in the mid sixties, when the newly installed General Secretary, Nicolae Ceausescu, "cleansed the diplomatic apparatus," and, with a sigh of nationalistic relief, appointed only ethnic Romanians.

For those interested in pursuing a detective-style reading of the case, it would he advisable to start with the highest ranking of the six, Alexandru Ioanid, a former Head of the Secret Police. If he was really part of the heist, he made a pretty slapdash job of it. Or, maybe, he was inept enough to let his former subalterns catch him so easily, in which case his previous dismissal appears to have been dead on. Was he victimized as a leading Jewish figure of the Party, as part of a family vendetta, or as a cleaning operation aimed at strengthening of weakening the position of his brother-in-law, the Romanian Beria? Were the others victims designated in such a way as to "clean up" and frighten the aeronautics industry, the central press, the University and the School of Journalism, respectively? Details are foggy. It is not clear how well the six of them knew each other. It is highly uncertain that they pulled off the heist, or even that the heist took place at all; it could well have been staged by the Securitate itself. If so, why six culprits, when they could have been three, or ten? A mystical number? A random one? A number resulting from the link between the rime it took to concoct the dossiers, to fill in enough pigeonholes, and to heighten public anxiety (by word of mouth, the case had become an urban legend while the culprits were still at large)? What is clear is that hundreds of people were interrogated by the Securitate, that some of them died under torture, and that their families were terrorized by secret agents; that the whole country was in the grip of the almighty Party and Securitate, that the elaborate gulag system was overcrowded with political prisoners, and that the whole thing looked like a concentrationary universe. And it was clear beyond a doubt that the six of them were guilty, because the Party found them so.

With respect to the shooting of Reconstruction, one of the retired Securitate agents says, "Of course we talked to them in preparation for their acting in the movie; we told them that, if they acted well and were sincere, the court would not he too harsh on them. You know, we told them things that one would normally say in such situations." So they acted naturally, give or take a couple of awkward moments, which were not taken out in the final editing. Dressed in a light-beige, Italian-flavored suit, the cameraman of the 1959 movie, Pantelie Tutuleasa, concurs: "They acted pretty good, though it must've been hard on Ioanid to come back to his apartment to shoot the scenes of the heist's pre-planning and of his arrest." The culminating scene of Reconstruction finds both suspecting and unsuspecting interpreters in a conundrum: the art of forced simulation has the six culprits act "sincerely" at their filmed trial, where they confess their guilt and receive the death sentence without a flinch or tear. Is the filmed trial a dress rehearsal for the actual one? Or is the actual trial filmed? Normally, one would dismiss the latter, and accept that the film precedes the trial. But then again, this sequence improves on the well exercised model of the Soviet show trials, which Moscow witnessed during Stalin's Great Terror of the late thirties, and then exported to the satellite Eastern European countries in the late 40s and early 50s (Arthur Koestler's The Yogi and the Commissar and Arthur London's L'Aveu are first-hand accounts of those displays of twisted logic that allowed jurisprudence to pose as its own bloody carnival). Such logic requires that, if one acknowledged guilt on camera, one could not contradict oneself and "play games" at the actual sentencing. Once they acted guilty, there was no way to shed that guilt. Re-enactment precedes the act; cynicism meets originality in this marriage made in hell. The only logical counter-answer to this twist was Savianu's, who, while on Death Row, asked Chief Investigator Enoiu to have his last wish fulfilled, namely he placed on a Soviet rocket and sent into space. He knew what he was talking about. He also knew that the scene of the execution could not he filmed as part of Reconstruction, so, stoically cum ironically, he offered to trade one blind spot of the shooting camera, space, for the blinding shooting of the firing squad. The offer was refused by a despicably laughing Enoiu, who didn't get Savianu's irony and retorted that only heroes have the privilege of flying into space.

The five men were shot in February, 1960; Monica Savianu survived the years of labor camp, was freed during the general amnesty of 1964, and immigrated to Israel, where she died in the 1970s. Alexandru Solomon's The Great Communist Bank Robbery is a documentary that does not try to force an interpretation of the facts. There are no facts, after a11, with the exception of the material existence of Reconstruction and the execution of the five, although the latter could not he confirmed, and another urban legend tells of at least one of them having later been sent as a Securitate agent to some very distant country. Reconstruction orders the lack or the disorder of the happening; the price it requires is the appropriation of the happening of which it becomes the substitute. Solomon's film, a counter-fiction, rather than a non-fiction, is an intelligent non-Reconstruction. It refuses to play into the very net thrown by the mastermind of that old script who bets on both the thirst for and fear of truth. But there was no other truth to begin with. What remains real is the victimization of the six characters. Corpses are real, but only for one second. The real, the ecstasy of the interpretable, lasts perhaps no longer than the split second it takes for the moribund to see "the whole film of his/her life" flash before his/her eyes right before the end. Otherwise, everything turns into a chronicle of deaths foretold, and meaninglessness covers any potential meaning with cosmic force.

Beyond the case of the six characters' beheading there lies a more general question, which bears upon the status of fiction in Communist Romania. That the beginnings were remade is something that not even the Bible hides; on the contrary, the Book of Genesis openly re-scripts the world's very beginning. But a holy book's prestige can hardly he matched by the scripts of Communist regimes. The latter gathered their powers in the foggy bottoms and bottomless pits of the Kremlin and its smaller imitations, from Bucharest to East Berlin and Prague, and even to Sofia, where they were concocted and from where they were pushed into the world to cast shadows of fake light. Nowadays we would call these scenarios "proactive," these agents provocateurs of the One Party, agelessly acting from behind many curtains. This avant-scrheting of history was Lenin's and his followers' reading of Marx's quip, "The philosophers have done nothing bur interpret the world; the rime has come to change it." This is Marx's eleventh and last of his Theses on Feuerbach (1969, p. 15). Change it? Change it in advance, script it, put the intellectuals in its crypt, and present the world as having been decided beforehand by the Party. "Intellectuals are shit," Lenin used to say. At least his script was precise. What is there to add? That the mind's libido turns livid in and because of that script? That bodies and masses and their Doric ways are legitimated to take over the work of interpretation? That Communism was the applied semiotics of zero as everything and vice-versa? That prophecy was painted as script, and the script staged? That time was out of joint, again?

The Party scriptor knows that what is legitimate cannot he original: it falls under the law that legitimates. But Communist scripts are the grounding story from which its puppet subjects had to turn eyes and heads away, towards the inflexible necessity, the ananke mimicked by the very law. That retroactive law is the law that was not there, to begin with; what was, was a secret script, real victims and a large amount of useless interpretations ex post facto. "There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless," Jorge Luis Borges said once, (Borges 1998, p. 94), but "ultimately" points here to a longer, lived time. While the fear of illegitimacy fuelled most of Communism's actions as a generalized covering up of that illegitimacy, the populace's impotence resolved itself in the repetition of the same attempt at understanding. Paranoid scenarios abounded; after all, the One Meaning is the counterpart of paranoia. However, this story can he told another way: the scripts' thirst for "the real" was overwhelmed by its voyeuristic propensity to see blood gushing. Victims had to he made to actualize a Communist scriptor's script. Blood was the most appropriate hardener of soft fictions.

The intellectual clarity of these musings is worth the name. But what Pintilie's and Solomon's films show, beyond what separates them, is that clarity is seen as invasive in Communist (and postCommunist) Romania. There clarity was (and is) the fifth column of a foreign power, or of a death which could not he foretold.

* As if confirmation of the previous statement were needed, a few days before the galleys were to he sent to Film Criticism, Dr. Rodica Ieta pointed this author in the direction of another "Reconstruction" of the heist. In this 90 minute documentary, which she scripted, directed, and produced for Komsomol Films in 2001, Irene Lusztig, Monica Sevianu's maternal granddaughter, provides her own retelling of the 1959 events. Although allegedly Solomon got the story from the then very young American filmmaker, whom he met in Bucharest at the end of the 1990s while she was working on her documentary, he fails to acknowledge her, tout court.

Lusztig, now an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at UC Santa Cruz, reconstructs the heist from the viewpoint of her family's story, interviews family members in Israel, Germany, and the US, as well as a few surviving street neighbors of the Sevianus. The most revealing information is offered by Irene Lusztig's mother, Miki, who was 14 in 1959, and who was living at the time with her mother, Monica (Moni), and her second husband, Gugu Sevianu. She says that, in late-summer 1959, "[...] I perceived first that something strange happened: we were having money. That was unheard of in our house. We were having money. And you could see small details. Like once I was given a banknote to go to buy bread--first, it was a large denomination banknote, I don't remember what it was--second, it was very, very new ... it was just ... the paper was like never touched by a human hand." Another family member adds that, after the heist, "Gugu came dressed ... not only new suit ... new shoes! New suit, new shoes, looking great ... inviting us to movies, and afterwards to a cafeteria to have cookies ... it was very strange."

The director's voice-over adds: "[In Bucharest] I find volumes of transcribed conversations taped in my grandmother's house by hidden microphones: they read like a kind of obscenely voyeuristic movie script. Characters called woman, man, child #1, and child #2 discuss the price of meat, train schedules, and summer vacation plans--no one mentions buying an airplane of financing a revolution, but every ten pages of so, someone says something like where did you hide the money, of put away that gun. If I had any doubts that the bank robbery actually happened, I don't any more--it seems inconceivable that anyone could invent dialogue that banal."

Works Cited

Marele jaf comunist (The Great Communist Bank Robbery; 75 minutes; 35mm; color/BW, subtitled). Directed and scripted by Alexandru Solomon. Producers: "Les Films d'Ici" (Serge Lalou, Virginie Vallat), and "Libra Film" (Tudor Giurgiu). 2004.

Reconstruction (90 minutes; color/BW, English/Romanian/French/ Hebrew, subtitled). Produced, directed and scripted by Irene Lusztig; Komsomol Films. 2001.

Reconstituirea (Reenactment; 106 minutes; 35mm; black and white). Dir. Lucian Pintilie; screenplay Horia Patrascu and Lucian Pintilie. Producer: RomaniaFilm. Cast: George Mihaita, Vladimir Gaitan, George Constantin, Carmen Galin, Emil Botta. 1968.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote." Trans. Andrew Hurley. Collected Fictions. New York: Viking, 1998.

Koestler, Arthur. The Yogi and the Commissar. London: Jonathan Cape, 1960.

London, Artur Gerard. The Confession. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. New York: Morrow, 1970.

Marx, Karl. Theses on Feuerbach (1845). In Marx/Engels, Selected Works. Vol. 1. Trans. W. Lough. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969.
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Author:Mihailescu, Calin-Andrei
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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