Like Assayas’s Carlos, Ujică’s Autobiography mostly remains an investigation of a public figure in its public functions. And both films subtly decenter their Big Man of History protagonists. Both document a changing, interconnected landscape in which these central figures gradually become smaller and smaller.
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Olivier Assayas’s Carlos and Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu had their first public screenings in May 2010, at the Cannes Film Festival, on consecutive days. For all the obvious differences in their aesthetics – Ujică’s “autobiography” of the Romanian dictator is a found-footage documentary, while Assayas’s biopic-cum-procedural on the international terrorist is a work of reconstruction and thrillerish immediacy – they were immediately paired by some critics as 21st-century autopsies of communist bogeyman figures from the late Cold War era. J. Hoberman, for example, wrote that in a way they were both “outrageous political gangster film[s]” sharing a grand geopolitical sweep – we watch their “criminal megalomaniac” protagonists traverse the decades as they keep being “enabled by all manner of regimes.”1 Indian critic Srikanth Srinivasan went further, writing on his blog that Ujică deals with Ceaușescu “more or less like Assayas deals with Carlos,” showing “the Jackal” as a man who gets “stuck in a time capsule, adhering to his beliefs and illusions when the world has moved beyond him.”2
Both films are globe-hopping, decades-spanning epics of considerable length, set in dozens of countries and featuring huge casts. Assayas’s Carlos is a five-and-a-half hour film commissioned by the French television network Canal Plus (French-Romanian director Radu Mihăileanu had been attached to the project at some point) and also screened as a TV miniseries. It is set between 1973 and 1994 in France, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Syria, South Yemen, and Sudan. (The filmmakers were unable to shoot in Damascus, Baghdad, and Tripoli, and all they could shoot in Khartoum and Aden were some actorless landscapes; Lebanon stood in for all those locations.) It is spoken in Spanish, French, English, Arabic, Japanese, German, Russian, and Hungarian, most actors playing characters of their own nationalities. Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu lasts three hours, spans almost 25 years (from 1965 to 1989), and, apart from Ceaușescu, its cast includes the likes of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexander Dubček, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, and Queen Elizabeth II. Ceaușescu is also an offscreen character in Carlos – there’s a scene in which Carlos (played by Édgar Ramírez) and his second-in-command, Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer), discuss whether they should pick up an offer from him and do a bomb hit on the Munich headquarters of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe. Both films leave the impression of featuring many shots of delegations descending from planes, with a lot of handshaking; of course, the meetings in Ceaușescu are official, while those in Carlos tend to be secret. (Carlos is in that sense some sort of shadowy twin to Ceaușescu.)
Both films can also leave a first impression of filmmakers who have put their trust in the power of document-gathering. Of course, Assayas and Ujică are dealing with different kinds of documents. Assayas is relying on expert research (filtered by Le Monde’s former foreign news editor, Stephen Smith) into the facts of Carlos’s life, while the material compiled by Ujică is mostly official, Ceaușescu-approved footage of events involving rehearsal and in some cases a very elaborate choreography – state meetings, parades, and so on. Assayas’s narration also makes periodic use of (sometimes altered) historical footage – for example, Yasser Arafat speaking at the United Nations in 1974 (“I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hands.”); unlike Ujică, Assayas always provides scene-setting and character-introducing titles. On the other hand, Ujică’s narration can appear, at first glance, to simply reproduce, in compressed form, 25 years of mostly official self-representation from the Ceaușescu regime; apart from identificatory, place- and time-orienting titles, he also dispenses with any didactic apparatus of voice-over commentary or talking heads.
But Assayas, who has declared that he relied on the accumulation of facts to generate a true image of Carlos,3 has also said that he wanted to call his film Carlos: A Novel.4 This sounds similar to Ujică’s literary conceit of calling his film an “autobiography” of Ceaușescu, although in his case, that title is truly essential to the film: it’s Ujică’s opening move, framing what we’ll see in the next three hours as Ceaușescu’s version of reality – what life might have looked like to him from within his bubble as everything he did was met with almost universal approval, as everywhere he went he was greeted with applause. It’s like an enchanted dream lasting 25 years – a dream of parades and motorcades and rallies and mass pageants succeeding each other endlessly (alternating with more intimate moments, with familial epiphanies), a dream of limitless industrial and agricultural growth for his country, self-suffcient and autarchic Romania, the equal of any other state. It’s a dream of being a major player on the world stage, an engine of history. There’s the occasional crack in the dream; shadows of more disturbing realities pass from time to time on the walls of the bubble. We see Ceaușescu at an international forum in the late 1970s, responding irritably to what must have been questions (we don’t hear them) about the state of democracy and human rights in Romania. We see him at the 1979 Congress of the Romanian Communist Party, challenged by a veteran communist who accuses him of making a mockery of Party elections – perpetually rigging them in order to be reelected. This lone accusing voice is drowned in the other participants’ – there are hundreds of them – applause for Ceaușescu. The reverie continues without additional tremors of dissent, but the very insistence with which the pro-Ceaușescu consensus is performed, its increasingly elaborate stagings, become more and more strained, hysterical, and oppressive.
However, as fascinating as The Autobiography is as a record of megalomania, that is not all it is. Andrei Ujică doesn’t treat Ceaușescu’s propaganda as fabrication and nothing else, fit only to be sneered at. He allows that it provides some access to a more objective narrative – a narrative of personal and national élan followed by degeneration, against a background of massive geopolitical change, of tectonic shifts in the global landscape. Ceaușescu’s early years in power – the late ’60s – were years of widespread optimism in Romania. The austerity and upheavals of the early postwar era – the imposition and consolidation of communist power, with its attendant repression – were receding. Ceaușescu – who succeeded Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej as leader of the Romanian Workers’ Party (immediately changing its name to the Romanian Communist Party) – was seen by many as a liberalizer. His charisma may not have rivalled Fidel Castro’s, and, unlike the Cuban leader, he hadn’t earned his legitimacy as a revolutionary, but he did earn at least a degree of it through his gestures of defiance directed at the Soviet Union (in 1968, Romania was the only Warsaw Pact state that didn’t take part in the military invasion of Czechoslovakia), and also through the relative prosperity that Romania enjoyed at the time – never before had so many Romanians had it so good. There were ominous signs – his 1966 decree banning abortion (rigidly enforced during the next 20 years, this policy woud cause the deaths of approximately 10,000 women), his growing investment in a deeply reactionary cult of the Romanians’ mythical ancestors – but for a while, optimism was there. And it seeps into Ujică’s ’60s footage. (Ujică also uses montage to bring it out.) The Romanian filmmaker’s leisurely presentation turns the viewer into a connoisseur of communist pageantry, alert to the differences between eras. The late ’60s version is clearly the least rigidly choreographed, with many shots of participants to the rallies looking relaxed and animated, paying attention to the speakers or if not, then being clearly unafraid to be filmed while talking or flirting among themselves. In a few years, things have already changed. (During those years, Ceaușescu, riding his favorable wave, has visited China and North Korea, where he has been treated with pageantry on a wholly different scale – thousands of extras precision-drilled into delirious tableaux, a Benjaminian nightmare of communists picking up the aestheticization of politics where fascists had left it.) By the 1980s, the pageantry has come to look both pathetic and petrified.
By then, development had stalled. The techological updating of Romania’s heavy industries had stopped. Romania was heavily in debt to Western banks – a debt that Ceaușescu, thoroughly retreating into his fantasy of national self-sufficiency, decided to pay in full. The ’80s were years of austerity, dereliction, repression, and paranoia. Ujică doesn’t show any of that directly, but, as with the positive charge of the ’60s, some of it seeps into his triumphalist footage – the joyless parading, the harassed faces, the mass ornament mummified into ever more grotesque shapes.
Ceaușescu’s noticeable physical degradation plays a big part in Ujică’s narrative – it helps a lot in setting its downward trajectory. By the end of 1989, when a popular insurrection (possibly combined with a coup) finally overthrew his regime, he had come to symbolize the decrepitude of Eastern European state socialism; he had become a historical gargoyle. In Ujică’s (more or less) chronological ordering of his footage, he starts out alert and shrewd (watch him enjoying himself in 1968 as he evades the questions of Czech journalists who want to know how he would act in the case of a Moscow-coordinated invasion), and ends up looking haggard, sick, prematurely drained of stamina. Toward the end he has a very funny blasé moment when, handed just another bouquet of flowers, he barely touches it – he instantaneously throws it into the arms of some stooge. By that time, as J. Hoberman noted, even his “command of Communist jargon seems to have atrophied.”5
Still, Ujică’s rise-and-fall narrative is not reducible to the protagonist’s personal weakness. It allows us to contemplate a bigger picture. This is a story about networks of states in the Cold War world order. It is about the global terrain shifting so that someone who had been riding a wave finds himself beached, someone who fancied himself at the center of things finds himself marginal. The story, a lot of which unfolds offscreen, is also about capitalism mutating and surviving, while Eastern European communism stalls, tied as it is to a model of development depending on heavy industry. It is also a story of debt – the foreign debt that Ceaușescu rages against, accusing the powerful states of using it to keep under control less developed nations. His analysis is not completely off-target: by then he may have lost all contact with historical reality, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he completely lacks a sense of history (as primitive as his Marxism may have been). The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu is arguably the one great Romanian film about the Cold War.
Assayas’s Carlos shares with The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu a sense of history moving, reshaping geopolitical landscapes so that in a matter of years they can become unrecognizable, stranding some individuals – some of the wannabe history-makers. Before Carlos, in transnational thrillers like Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007) – both of them films of considerable originality – the French writer-director had shown himself interested in representing the post-Cold War world order of globalized neoliberal capitalism. Steven Shaviro has written eloquently about those films’ representations of circuits and flows – “flows of goods, people, money, and data” – of the transit zones and nonplaces of globalization: office buildings, malls, airports.6 With Carlos, Assayas returns to the very different world system of the late Cold War era, before the all-over-the-world triumph, under the name of globalization, of capitalism’s post-Fordist reorganization. The word in order here is not “globalization,” it’s “internationalism.” As Assayas has put it, Carlos – actually Ilich Ramírez Sánchez from Venezuela – starts out in the early ’70s as a “committed political militant just like many young people of his generation, fascinated by the struggles for freedom around the world. Back then it was a real war – in Chile, Vietnam, the Middle East, and even in Europe – involving different variations of the two blocs in the Cold War.”7 This is a world in which members of the Japanese Red Army and their comrades from the German Revolutionary Cells work together for the Palestinian cause, engaging in acts of terrorism on French or Dutch soil. It is actually more complicated than that, since the Palestinian cause to which these fighters (Carlos among them) have committed is that of Wadie Haddad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); which means that they’re actively against Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – they regard him as a compromiser. It is actually in order to discredit Arafat’s peace negotiations that, at a certain point, they try to blow up an Israeli plane with a rocket launcher as it takes off on an Orly runway. (A 21st-century audience can only gasp at the farcical ease with which they smuggle that rocket launcher into the airport: they just park their car next to a terminal, go in, and start shooting, missing the Israeli plane but hitting two others, one of them Yugoslav; some Croatian separatists promptly steal the credit from them.) As Samuel Thomas has written, Assayas’s film lucidly maps “the international web of relationships that facilitated [such] acts of terrorism,” delineating a particular attack as part of a succession of “proxy wars between and within nation states, driven by a diverse range of ideological, territorial and economic interests.”8
The film is about the disintegration of unified international struggle, with Carlos, the superstar terrorist, ultimately revealed to be not a moving force but a symptom of larger processes in which his personality counts for little. The flaws in his personality – his lack of austerity, his preening narcissism, his domineering misogyny – are established from the very beginning. Assayas puts them upfront – minutes into the movie, a girlfriend diagnoses Carlos with bourgeois selfishness and thirst for glory, and before long, we’ve seen him admiring himself in the mirror, being bossy with women (“Go buy me cigarettes.”), or solemnly explaining to them that “weapons are extensions of my body.” There’s little additional psychologizing and none whatsoever in the form of motivational backstories – what Assayas has called “fake human texture.”9 There’s no pretence of unmasking a “real,” “hidden” Carlos, no bowing to the myth that seeing the “truth” has to do with seeing the man in private, away from the spotlight. Carlos lived in the spotlight – as Ceaușescu also did in his own way (at least this is the premise of Andrei Ujică’s found-footage epic). Ujică’s bits of home movies offering glimpses into Ceaușescu’s intimacy were oversold in 2010 to Romanian audiences – still thirsty for such things after all those years, still obsessed with the dictator. Some of that footage – Ceaușescu swimming or playing voleyball or holding his daughter – is poignant, but it doesn’t really offer revelations. Like Assayas’s Carlos, Ujică’s Autobiography mostly remains an investigation of a public figure in its public functions. And both films subtly decenter their Big Man of History protagonists. Both document a changing, interconnected landscape in which these central figures gradually become smaller and smaller.
Like Ujică’s Ceaușescu, Assayas’s Carlos undergoes a physical deterioration. Even as a very young man, he shows a tendency to go to seed during his periods of inactivity. Later, living in Budapest and kept idle by his Hungarian, East German, and Syrian protectors, he starts to look like a stereotypically discontented bourgeois paterfamilias and domestic petty tyrant, chubby, mustachioed, and sullen. It is a shock to learn that he has just turned 30 – this is 1979. He gives off a whiff of middle-aged male squalor – he is violent with the sex workers who service him. Still later, with the Cold War over, his world radically shrunk and states like Syria and Libya turning him away one after the other, he becomes bloated and in part sexually neutralized, in need of testicular surgery and liposuctions. But as with Ujică’s Ceaușescu, this is much more than the story of a sort of international gangster who’s undone by his megalomania (in Carlos’s case, also by his appetites). Pairing Assayas’s Carlos with Steven Soderbergh’s Che Guevara – from the 2008 film whose influence Assayas has acknowledged10 – Tom Paulus has written that they “figure less as rounded, psychologized characters that evolve according to a narrative arc, or even as icons, as images mediated by culture, let alone as Romantic figures, than as avatars of historical inquiry or historical consciousness.” Paulus has also stressed “the connectedness that is at the heart of these films, in the constant interaction between the individual and the socio-historical world.”
The kind of psychology that Assayas favors is a present-tense psychology of thought under pressure – “of process, development, operation, planning, of ideas born in action,” as Paulus puts it11 – of tensed nerves and negotiations and calculations, of quick notations establishing which members of a group are good comrades, who doesn’t like whom, and so on. All of this is best showcased in the extended episode of the raid on the 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna. The commando led by Carlos takes all the OPEC ministers hostage, frees the ones representing pro-Palestinian countries, and flies the rest to Algiers on a DC-9 provided by Austrian Airlines. The Algerians want to negotiate for the liberation of all the hostages, but Carlos’s orders from Wadie Haddad are to kill two of them – the Saudi and the Iranian oil ministers. So he releases the “neutral” hostages and takes the others – representatives of anti-Palestinian states – to Tripoli. But the Libyans refuse any contact with the terrorists (Carlos had killed a Libyan in the initial shootout at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna). So do the Tunisians – they wouldn’t even let them land. So it’s back to Algiers, where Carlos finally agrees to release the remaining hostages – including the two targets indicated by Wadie Haddad – in exchange for a large sum of money.
The temporality of jet lag, the experience of living in a plane, between time zones, in a jumbled succession of daylight and night – these major Assayas tropes from Demonlover and Boarding Gate – are given in Carlos a majestic, unprecedentedly sustained treatment. As the hostage crisis drags on – another overheated runway, another military or bureaucratic Cold War face offering or refusing to negotiate, another takeoff into the night-day jumble – and everyone inches ever closer to exhaustion, the OPEC section of Carlos abounds in interesting tensions – between Carlos and second-in-command Anis Nacacche “Khalid” (Rodney El Haddad), between Carlos and trigger-happy cop-killer “Nada” (Julia Hummer), between Carlos and Saudi oil minister Yamani (Badi Abu-Shaqra), whom he’s been sent to kill. Carlos actually respects Yamani for masterminding the 1973 oil embargo – a very big deal at a time when OPEC was controlling about 80% of the world’s oil output – as punishment for the U.S. and other industrialized nations that had supported Israel during the most recent Arab-Israeli war. However, the embargo had been lifted in 1974 – and this is the reason given by Carlos to Yamani for having to execute him as a “traitor.” All this context is mentioned only glancingly in the dialogue between terrorist and hostage – a film of trenchant ellipses (typical of Assayas’s filmmaking), Carlos presupposes a viewer who is able to fill in.
The OPEC takeover is the beginning of Carlos’s downfall. He is fired by Wadie Haddad for taking the Saudis’ ransom money instead of carrying out his mission. Thus disconnected from the Palestinian cause, the professional revolutionary is lost – as Assayas has explained in an interview, “[t]he only thing he can do is get hired by this or that secret service that is going to pay him [for] specific operations.”12 From that point, armed internationalist struggle can only turn into something else.
In fact, according to the film, an element of the mercenary was already there. The film’s take is that the OPEC raid was really an Iraqi operation under the cover of a Palestinian one. Assayas has Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour) say: “The new Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has decided to smash the Kurdish independence movement. He is preparing a war against Iran, which supports them. To do that, he needs a great deal of money. He wants to impose a 30% increase on the price of oil. […] That’s why we have to get rid of the [Saudi] oil minister, Sheikh Yamani. With him out of the way, the other OPEC members will follow Saddam.”
It is Saddam who credits Carlos with the capacity to “bear the weight of history on [his] shoulders.” (At least that’s what Carlos is told by the Iraqi chargé d’affaires who discreetly helps him set up the Vienna operation.) On the other hand, it is Carlos himself who tells the condemned Yamani that “at the end of the day we are just pawns in the games of history.” The ironic implication is that Carlos just likes the sound of his own rhetoric – he has no idea how right he’ll turn out to be. Before long, he is stuck in Budapest, paid by Soviet bloc countries mostly for doing nothing. This is a highly structured and bureaucratic world entering its stagnant final phase, and a wild card like him fits in it less and less – he becomes more and more of an embarrassment with each month that passes. He is also spending a lot of Libyan money paid to him in advance for arranging the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat (guilty of signing a peace treaty with Israel); nothing would come of his arrangements – other assassins would get to Sadat before him. He has also become a gunrunner, using Syrian diplomatic cover and Stasi contacts to help the Basque separatist movement: an internationalist smuggling weapons for nationalists. Before long he will be planning hits against Arab newspapers, as payback for having divulged information about a Syrian bomb hit against the French Embassy in Beirut. Whatever greater good he had been fighting for in the early ’70s has gotten lost on this impossibly labyrinthine global battlefield.
This is the decrepit twilight world of Eastern European state socialism in the 1980s – the last act in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu. (The Romanian version of those ’80s was particularly ghastly.) American novelist Robert Stone, who visited Ceaușescu’s Bucharest in 1981, kept a memory of sitting in the underlit lobby of his hotel, “watching unshaven Arab hit men chainsmoke under fringed lampshades.”13 Assayas doesn’t show us Carlos visiting Bucharest, but Stone’s words could very well describe Assayas’s vision of Carlos holding council with henchman Weinrich and Syrian Secret Service guy Kamal al-Issawi “Ali” (Talal el-Jurdi) in the bars of Budapest hotels for foreigners, amidst the tarnished red velvet curtains and the prostitutes who work for State Security. Kept under constant surveillance by his nervous Hungarian hosts, Assayas’s Carlos has a fit of rage during which he empties his gun at the State Security car parked in front of his house (with two terrified agents inside).
The socialist bloc still has a few years to go when the Hungarians invite him to dismantle his Budapest base and leave. When the end of that world – and of that particular grand narrative – occurs, he is in Syria. He’ll also be expelled from there in 1991; as former friend Kamal al-Issawi “Ali” puts it to him, “Syria has to find her place in the new world order.” With Carlos turned away from everywhere in a world that has become unrecognizable to him, Assayas’s epic of internationalism, informed by a sophisticated understanding of historical processes, finishes morphing into a comedy of statelessness.
- Quoted by David Hudson in “Cannes 2010. Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” MUBI, 25 May 2010, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/cannes-2010-andrei-ujicas-the-autobiography-of-nicolae-ceausescu, last accessed on 18 July 2021. [↩]
- Srikanth Srinivasan, The Seventh Art, 15 January 2011, https://theseventhart.info/tag/autobiografia-lui-nicolae-ceausescu-movie-review/, last accessed on 18 July 2021. [↩]
- Greil Marcus, “Carlos: What the Film Wanted,” Criterion, 26 September 2011, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1999-carlos-what-the-film-wanted, last accessed on 19 July 2021. [↩]
- Studio Canal Plus, Carlos press kit. [↩]
- J. Hoberman, “Tyrant with a Movie Camera,” New York Review of Books, 29 June 2010, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2010/06/29/tyrant-movie-camera/, last accessed on 19 July 2021. [↩]
- Steven Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect, O-Books, 2010, 35-63. [↩]
- Carlos press kit. [↩]
- Samuel Thomas, “Yours in Revolution: Retrofitting Carlos the Jackal,” Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, Volume 5, 2013, 451-478. [↩]
- Quoted in Marcus, “Carlos: What the Film Wanted.” [↩]
- “Olivier Assayas’s Top 10,” Criterion, 29 May 2015, https://www.criterion.com/current/top-10-lists/237-olivier-assayas-s-top-10, last accessed on 20 July 2021. [↩]
- Tom Paulus, “Historians of the Real? Che and Carlos as Political Cinema,” Photogénie, 26 November 2013, https://cinea.be/e-historians-the-real-che-and-carlos-as-political-cinema/, last accessed on 20 July 2021. [↩]
- Genevieve Yue, “The Curtain’s Undrawn: An Interview with Olivier Assayas on Carlos,” Senses of Cinema, issue 57, December 2010, https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/the-curtain’s-undrawn-an-interview-with-olivier-assayas-on-carlos/, last accessed on 20 July 2021. [↩]
- Robert Stone, The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction (edited by Madison Smartt Bell), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 317. [↩]