Where there’s pomp… Cristian Mungiu on Tales from the Golden Age

Cristian Mungiu’s Tales from the Golden Age is an omnibus of satirical urban tales about the absurdities of life in late-Communist Romania. He tells Nick Bradshaw why Romanian cinema needs more laughs.

Nick Bradshaw
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After winning Cannes’ Palme d’Or with his second feature 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu announced that it would inaugurate of a series of films, called Tales of the Golden Age, about the hardships of life in the 1970s and 1980s under Romania’s late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In the event he has gathered a handful of fellow young directors – Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu and Ioana Uricaru – to direct individual episodes of a portmanteau film which relates five or six urban legends from the era.

Unlike the grueling tension of the earlier film, the overall tone here is blackly comical. ‘The Legend of the Official Visit’ depicts the merry dance a small town’s bureaucrats lead its denizens through in anticipation of a state visit. ‘The Legend of the Party Photographer’ relates the background to the only time the official newspaper Scienteia failed to make the newsstands – a tale involving the misbegotten doctoring of a photograph of Ceausescu meeting the (taller) French premier. ‘The Legend of the Chicken Driver’ describes a long-haul truck driver’s temptation and downfall on the road; ‘The Legend of the Greedy Policeman’ is a combustible tale of illicit pig cargo and the domestic gas supply’, while ‘The Legend of the Air Sellers’ reminisces about two young con artists’ experiment with private enterprise. Missing from the UK theatrical release is ‘The Legend of the Party Activist’. As Mungiu explains below, the film comes in many permutations.

You call this a ‘folk film’, as opposed to a ‘festival film’.

I toured 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days around Romania and even Albania, screening it in towns that don’t have any theatres left. And talking to lots of people, I heard several times this remark that “you” – meaning the Romanian directors of the day – “are only making festival films.” Which is to say films that are very difficult: “no regular audience wants to go out after eight hours of working to watch a film that brings us so many problems.” And I do think there’s a way of making a film which is entertaining without being stupid, like so many mainstream American films.

So I came up with this idea of a film of folk tales. And unlike my previous film – an auteur film, which views cinema as instrument for making life better – this film is firstly a comedy, and secondly a film about the period. If you lived through the era then it’ll bring back memories, and if not then it’ll inform you without being didactic. I was happy that the young people in Romania who watched the film kept telling me that it helped things fall into place.

I believe that there should be films for all kinds of audiences. It’s more difficult for one person to provide them; if I were a studio it would be easier, because I could have one division for high-class film-making and another for entertainment, but it’s just me, so I don’t think I can keep on doing things like this. But especially in a country which has completely lost the habit of seeing films, I believe that all of us Romanian directors who are successful with arthouse films need to take one step closer to the audience and say, I will do my part to bring you back to watch films in theatres.

You need some education to watch festival films: if you’re only watching TV then you’re not prepared for films with 15-minute-long shots, or these films about small, average things, a couple of hours in somebody’s life. They’ve been trained that you should cut to the chase. All of a sudden these Romanian directors decided that you can make a film in which nobody needs to die; that films shouldn’t avoid the average, that you live your life in small steps and that the big drama is what happens to you in a day. That’s very difficult for people to follow.

How is this different from the old divide between government-sponsored ‘Socialist realism’ and films that tried to show the reality of life under Communism?

But films were not at all like this during that period; on the contrary. Directors were not allowed to make direct films about the reality of the time, so they took refuge in very intricate and complicated metaphors. They made films full of illusions and significations, but none were very precise; they were just adding things and waiting for the people to interpret them. It all became very abstract. Directors felt this was the only way they could criticise the regime, which was part of their social obligation; but the side effect was that the flow of storytelling was completely lost. Once Communism collapsed they discovered they had no idea how tell tell a simple story. Everybody was just commenting, and that’s just awful in a film. We have to fight with actors of that generation even today: just be plain, nothing, I don’t want the chain reaction, just say the line and don’t do anything. People see immediately if an actor comments on cinema.

Your ambitions for cinema sound more in keeping with what Kieslowski was doing in Poland in the 1970s.

It’s true, what we’re doing now is not far away from Kieslowski’s lessons, and we’re very interested in him. But it’s only him – he never created a trend; there wasn’t a ‘Polish school’ of the time. We could watch him because he was from the East, but he certainly didn’t influence anything at the time in Romania. Admittedly there was more of a cinema tradition in Poland, Czechoslavakia, even in Hungary than there was in Romania. We had some directors, some films, but never a school or traditions, and the Romanian directors who were very good in the early 1970s were forced into exile until 1989. The two most promising had to work as theatre directors in Paris and the US.

Was there a Romanian film industry before the Communist era?

There was! The first Romanian film [Independenta României, 1912], about our war of independence against the Turks, is a large-scale thing and quite complex for its period; you can still watch it today. Up until the Second World War cinema was normal in our country because life was normal. It all collapsed when Communism came.

The worst years were the 1950s. I’d like to make a documentary at some point so you could see the real propaganda films. The drama of such a film is: it’s about a worker who wakes up in the morning with a dilemma, a troubled conscience: he’s the best amateur football player for his factory, but he also wants to work an extra shift to make a lot of things for the workers in the factory, and he doesn’t know which he should do first. Work overtime or train to please these people because he’s such a good football player? And there were other films about the solidarity amongst people who were building the new socialist country up by volunteering to work on the big Communist construction sites and build dams. Actually a lot of people died building those.

There was a decade of films like this, and little by little after 1965 they started making films that were a little bit more normal. Actually, the best Romanian film ever made – still – was shot in 1968. It’s called The Re-enactment, and it’s a very good film because it works on several levels. It’s about a couple of policemen who film a bar brawl between two young unemployed people, and while the original crime was not too big, when they reshoot it as a warning film one of the kids dies. I’m wondering if it’s possible to make a sequel today.

But then in 1972 Ceausescu made a very unfortunate visit to Asia – to North Korea, Vietnam and China. He saw these huge parades, stadiums praising Kim Il-Sung, and he thought, “I’d like something like this,” and the cult of personality started after that visit. A document was published called The Thesis of Ceausescu, about how culture should work: people shouldn’t be free just to talk about small subjects, but our job should be to show positive examples of people helping the country develop. People just started to make historical films and policiers so as not to be forced to make social films. And a lot of films were censored for nothing. If a film was very successful they’d withdraw it a few days later because they thought there was something suspicious, not knowing what. Crazy times.

What does your generation remember of the ‘Golden Age’?

I was 21. Actually I remember those times quite well; but our way of looking back is very different from that of Romanian directors in their fifties and sixties, because we’re revisiting the stories that we remember. We don’t speak directly about the regime, we don’t have scores to settle, and it’s true to say that those times were kind of fun for us. It was our parents who had the responsibilities, and for us it was half funny that the lights would be cut off for two hours in the night, the candles would come out and we wouldn’t have to do our homework. But it’s a nostalgia for our youth, not for the system.

For me the film’s about the side effects of Communism, about people and how they become funny when they lose sight of the big picture. For example, my hometown was a university town and Ceausescu used to visit every two or three years to make matriculation speeches; and every time he’d visit the huge steel factory. There were people in the local authority who remembered that when he opened that, he had planted a fir tree. Of course it was knocked over the next minute because they were building the factory, but every time he visited they’d calculate how tall the fir tree would have grown, and plant another the night before. Of course he never asked about the tree, but it showed people’s enthusiasm for serving the regime. That’s why one of our stories is called ‘The Legend of the Zealous Activist’.

That’s one of the stories left out of the UK release version of the film. Why have you mixed the stories in different permutations for different countries?

It’s not my choice. It’s every distributors’ choice which episodes they want to use; the film is delivered to distributors with every episode on a different reel, so everyone can exploit the film however they want. The film was conceived like this; it’s not just one film from beginning to end. In Cannes the joke was that in Communist times we never knew what we were going to get – so we screened a different version of the film for each of our three screenings. And there were people who bought the film, came back the next day to see it again and went straight to our sales agents saying “This is not the film I bought!” It’s now going out as two films in France. But this is not my choice.

At the same time we wanted people to see the film as a collective work, and not as a collection of short films by this fellow or that fellow. That’s the most difficult thing with collective films, to make them work as one film. This one has now been sold to some 30 countries, and I believe that’s partly because it’s very difficult to say who did what – and indeed it doesn’t matter; it’s not important.

Which again makes it different from your personal ‘festival’ films.

Yes, but… that’s good. For me it’s a clear separation between what I do as an author and what I do as a producer and promoter of this generation of people who were not as lucky as I was, and hadn’t got to make a feature yet. And this film helped them a lot. Constantin Popescu is shooting his first feature now; Ioana Uricaru got a Cannes scholarship and a residency in Paris.

I’m going to continue my line of cinema and make festival films. I was talking to Alfonso Cuarón on the way back from the Lyon Film Festival, and he told me, “I’m trying to make my own personal cinema and impose it as mainstream.” That’s the goal; we’ll see if it’s possible.

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