Errant European

Tales from the Golden Age

And the Conducator* said his was a “Golden Age…”

Monty Python’s weaponized “killer joke” may have been used for offensive purposes, but under the Ceausescu regime humour was mainly in self-defense:

Humour is what kept Romanians alive, and TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE aims to re-capture that mood, portraying the survival of a nation having to face every day the twisted logic of a dictatorship.

So go the notes to the official English-language site of Cristian Mungiu’s latest film, where he scripted the work of four separate directors in a very cohesive and funny parable on life in the last years under Nicolae Ceausescu (the dictator was executed in December 1989). These were Mungiu’s formative years, and they’ve left their mark.

We just saw Tales From the Golden Age on the wide screen, but if you happen to see it at home, rustle up some Eastern European-type snacks while you enjoy this cultural history morsel. Some sausage, pickles, dark bread, brandy or vodka. Get into the mood. Food, as you’ll see – its scarcity, its centrality to the struggle for survival, its civilizing influence (sometimes) – is a recurring theme in Tales.

Oh yes, the Tales, or urban legends:

  • The Legend of the Official Visit
  • The Legend of the Greedy Policeman
  • The Legend of the Party Photographer
  • The Legend of the Air Sellers

Each of the urban legends rings true, whether it’s the depiction of party apparatchiks vying for favor, or the advantages of using your position vs. the inherent risks of playing in the black market.

Though I’ve only spent short periods in former East bloc countries, the “legends” brought back memories from the absurdities of life in other autocracies: the tar macadam still steaming from a road paved within hours of a ministerial inspection; the octogenarian president’s trademark scarf heroically – magically, in the absence of any wind – billowing in the daily front page photo; the array of telephones (whether they functioned or not) on an official’s desk as an indication of his relative importance…

Mungiu has plenty of material from which to choose:

Newspapers were required “to mention his name 40 times on every page” and “factory workers spent months rehearsing dance routines for huge shows at which thousands of citizens were lined up to form the words Nicolae Ceausescu with their bodies”

So writes Alina Stefanescu in Romania Revealed, in an excellent blog post on the importance of humor in Romania and other Communist bloc countries during the Cold War.

Tales from the Golden Age is definitely not a Romanian version of Germany’s “ostalgie.” Far from it. Indeed it is criticism at its best – through black humor, which is not far-fetched, just absurdly real. Too bad you can’t watch it on an old pirated VHS tape, just like in the film…

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*”Conducator” (the Leader) was the title Ceausescu chose for himself, equivalent to il Duce, Caudillo, Führer… You get the picture.

Gerald Loftus first published this in Avuncular American.

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