Memory's objects line the table of Otilia and Gabita's dorm room.
Catalin Mitulescu's The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) also revisits everyday life of the 1980s.
Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2006) depicts the condition of the socially disposable.
Voices reconstructing the past in Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006).
4 Months underscores the medium's conceptual boundaries.
Our glimpse into the past is limited ...
... angled ...
... drawing attention to the act of viewing.
More souvenirs of the Ceasescu era.
Gabita waxing her legs.
Otilia escapes the ticket checker.
Otilia's boyfriend: both kindred spirit and antagonist.
Hostile service providers.
Their favors must be won with a bribe. Note the pack of cigarettes under Otilia's ID card.
A family reunion.
Gestures of the older generation.
The cold world behind the window:
On November 12, 2006, the French Press Agency (AFP) informed the world that Bulgaria was catching up with the rest of the former Soviet Bloc states and was opening a large-scale exhibit on everyday life under communism. According to AFP, all other former communist countries had already consecrated such sites of memory. Bulgaria, it seemed, was the last. Germany had set the trend. The former German Democratic Republic became the state most rapidly integrated—politically and economically, if not culturally—into the capitalist order. As a reaction to its quick disappearance, an ostalgia[open endnotes in new window] culture flourished in Germany’s eastern provinces and spread, shadowing “European integration,” first through Central Europe and then to the South East, in countries like Romania and Bulgaria. It followed a wave of Euro-enthusiasm and public rituals of “looking back in anger,” and marked the need to cast a different look at the pre-1989 era, a need arising, not coincidentally, after registering the full social and intellectual impact of “real-existing capitalism.”
The emergence and success of the exhibits on everyday life during communism—be they virtual or museum-based, state-sponsored or European-Union-funded—marked a turn in the way in which former Soviet satellites dealt with the past. The exhibits were preceded by (and often ran in parallel to) two other kinds of shows. One group aimed at emphasizing the European (Western) “vocation” of Eastern European culture/ history/ politics, and regarded the post-WWII communist period as an historical hiatus. The other group memorialized the crimes of "totalitarianism," working to identify and celebrate anti-communism’s heroes, battlefields and victims.
Besides marking the effort to recuperate marginalized aspects of history, the return to the everyday was also an act of revaluation. The implicit goal here was to discover moments of happiness and dignity in the ashes of a politically and economically rejected past, and to bring some color or cast a good-old-days smile, as the AFP report informed its readers, at the nation’s experiences. The shows understood themselves as a corrective against public practices of national soul searching. A too gray image of the days gone by, engendered by previous anti-communist exhibits, needed merriment. A too politicized look needed a chill out. Social relationships, in particular, had to be reinvestigated, and such a reassessment had to start not from above, the site of moral judgment, but from below, from the materiality of the objects this disappearing culture left behind.
The French Press Agency labeled the Bulgarian exhibit in Sofia, "An Inventory Storehouse of Socialism." The show’s curator, Georgy Gospodinov, explained the change of course in his country's politics of remembering:
Such a change in tone was not an isolated event of the post-1989 experience. The way in which exhibits and memorial sites shifted focus from remembering the tragic and the exceptional to the mundane and the ordinary mirrored shifts in historical discourse, the arts, and, indeed, in cinema.
After an initial concern with strong contrasts, tough and allegedly uncompromising moral scrutiny, post-1989 Eastern European cinema toned down its rhetoric. This phenomenon was especially manifest in Romanian productions, which will be the focus of this essay. Whereas the Romanian cinema of the 1990s was a cinema of tragic satires, intense verbal and visual violence, and political allegories, the hiatus of the year 2000, the “anno zero” of Romanian film (in which no film was produced), brought into theaters features about everyday life. These films deftly balanced suffering and nostalgia, squalor and dignity, synthesizing the messages of the previous generation of films and the type of ostalgia expressed in exhibits like the one Gospodinov curated. Films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) or The Way I Spent the End of The World (Catalin Mitulescu, 2006) aimed at a material recuperation of temps perdu, a rebutted world, ethically, politically and intellectually assigned to the trashcan of history. These films remembered, but without falling prey to uncritical nostalgia. They considered oppression, but no longer directly linked it to government practices and to its leaders. Cinema was now focusing on oppression’s spectral dimension—still “there” but harder to pin down in the recesses of everyday behavior.
Compared to Romanian productions of the 1990s, the new films narrated in a less demonstrative way, employing a wider spectrum of grays (or color) in their moral judgment of the past. The films of the 1990s—The Oak (Lucian Pintilie, 1992), Luxury Hotel (Dan Pita, 1992), The Earth’s Most Beloved Son (Serban Marinescu, 1993), and The Conjugal Bed (Mircea Daneliuc, 1993)—offered angry denunciations, concerned with the perversion of basic human values. Their anger was legitimate; people had had an horrendous life under Ceausescu. But this anger was also troubling. Not only did these films rely on an uncritical anticommunism and indiscriminate condemnation, but their effort to unravel the violence and perversion at the core of the Ceausescu era turned them into sadomasochistic orgies. Putting abuse on record engendered an uncanny fascination with perverse apparatchiks, secret police thugs and domestic tyrants who gave a face to oppression.
Responding to this cinematic trend, the most successful Romanian film of the 2000s, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, provides an astute balance of ostalgia and anti-communist memorial. While in the 1990s films, almost every memory of the communist world seems grotesquely perverted and becomes an object of ridicule, 4 Months... starts by depicting a corner of this world as an oasis of human dignity. In its initial sequences, a certain nostalgic gaze surveys sets, objects, and characters. An initial positive layer of memory is then overwritten by a more problematic gestalt of real-existing communism. But 4 Months... never comes close to the indignation of the 1990s. A more pensive, less virulent reflection on the past characterizes its narrative, facilitated not only by the increased temporal distance form the Ceausescu era, but also by the awareness that to accuse is to excuse. Black and white incrimination of a perpetrator is always accompanied by an act of forgetting one’s own complicity.
4 Months...’ picture of the 1980s is less judgmental, making it more difficult for the audience to engage in an act of collective condemnation and forgetting. The film shares its ethical minimalism with other features of the period—The Way I Spent the End of the World and The Paper Will Be Blue (Radu Muntean, 2006). Their loose, open-ended, almost realist-Zavattinian plotlines suggest no urgent desire to formulate a theodicy. They narrate with a clear awareness of the moment of enunciation, its limitations and interests. They opt for minimalism, understanding that the ultimate story about communism is forged in the hegemonic political patterns of the present.
Following this awareness, these films narrow their scope. Time span and depth of incursion shrink. 4 Months... and The Paper Will Be Blue’s plots unfold in one day. They adopt a Zavattinian-like prescription and depict the life of an ordinary person, telling a “found” story. If they are unfaithful to this prescription and venture into the past, they do not go deep. The Paper Will Be Blue and The Way I Spent the End of the World are set in 1989; 4 Months... in 1987.
4 Months..., The Way I Spent the End of the World and The Paper Will Be Blue are preceded by or released at the same time as a series of other films set in the Romanian present and strongly grounded in realist poetics: Nae Caranfil’s Philantropy (2002), Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) and Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (2007).
Mungiu himself started his career with a brilliant tragicomedy, Occident (2002), about post-1989 Romania. The films set in the present share the minimalism, the microhistorical approach and the awareness of the moment of enunciation with those that situate their plots in the past. The former, however, narrate with the assumption that the past informs our understanding of the present, while the latter thematize the act of “looking back.” Past and present are in a dialectical relation. One is recuperated via a narrative that responds to present-day concerns; the other has a porous texture permeated by a past that refuses to allow itself to be forgotten.
12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006), set in the present, has a plot revolving around the effort to reconstruct an event in the past, and it can be regarded as a mediator between the other films, and even as a manifesto of this generation of filmmakers’ poetics of looking back. 12:08 East of Bucharest problematizes the workings of memory, rendering visible the difficulties inherent to the project of tracing the story of “what really happened.” Set in post-1989 Romania, it reenacts a TV talk show whose aim is to reconstitute a historical truth. What happened in Vaslui’s central square (a city located north-east of Bucharest) at 12:08 pm on December 22, 1989, on the last day of the Ceausescu regime? Did the people who are now considered the heroes of the “anti-communist revolution” demonstrate before or after the dictator relinquished power in Bucharest? The truth cannot be established. The film puts on display the biased and biasing act of looking back. Different people with different backgrounds recount different stories. There is no convergence of opinion. Every voice constructs the event in its own way, and “facts” lose their self-evidence. 12:08, December 22 proves to be, as Hayden White puts is, a “(post)modernist event,” in which facts become nothing more than a function of narration. Who is telling the story, when, and how are all critical to the reconstruction of “what really happened.”
4 Months...’ realism integrates the historiographical questions raised by 12:08 East of Bucharest and regards the past as constructed in the act of narration. Besides narrowing its scope and mainly narrating from the perspective of a single character, 4 Months... employs a series of self-reflexive tropes to remind the viewer that the ontological claim of its representation is limited. What we see and hear is nothing more than an artifact—however, one that strives for objectivity. Compared to a film set in the present that aimed to be a realist account of the last day in the life of an ordinary man with an ordinary name dying an ordinary death in an ordinary hospital—The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—4 Months... shows an increased awareness of its mediating practices. Both films convey a sense of confidence in the documentary power of the camera, but The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, in its contemporaneity, is closer to Zavattinian-style, neorealist transparency. Set in the past, 4 Months... is more cautious, more aware that realism and transparency are possible only insofar as their limitations are acknowledged. Its cinematography inscribes an awareness of the medium’s boundaries within the cinematic visual expression. It achieves this by a framing technique that both makes the limits of representation visible and constructs the film’s visual universe as an object on display. This latter feature brings us back to the exhibits of the everyday. Like such exhibits, the film roots its imagery in the materiality of objects and in detailed reconstructions of interiors. The visual style and mise-en-scene draw attention to the act of viewing and to subject-object separation.
4 Months... is full of souvenirs from the late days of the Ceausescu era. The first fifteen minutes of the film reassemble with ethnological accuracy the look and atmosphere of a 1980s student dorm. We are invited to study, and, if we lived through the period, remember. The film’s long takes give us respite to scrutinize the mise-en-scene and indulge in nostalgic recollections. The camera takes us through cluttered dorm units, long and dark corridors, and shared shower rooms. We are introduced to everyday activities and to a host of products, staples of the time-period. We learn about brands of cigarettes, soaps, hairsprays, shampoos, illegal movie-renting, powder milk, instant coffee and pastry; medicine, contraceptive pills, antibiotics and painkillers; dial-pad phones; dorm furniture; and identity cards. All these objects are or could have been on display in Gospodinov’s exhibit. Cinema, of course, can do more. While not being able to bring its audience in front of the actual objects, but only in front of their traces on celluloid, it can nonetheless contextualize and document on a larger scale, represent architectural interiors and exteriors, streets, traffic, empty shop windows, and desolate public transportation. Regardless, however, of what is shown and of the accuracy of detail, the way in which the camera frames these objects always reminds us that they are on display. They emerge from the past and we view them with the limited and biasing eye of the present.
This initial nostalgic gaze will soon change. Moving away from objects, which are somewhat innocent, and from the drab but still familiar realm of the dorm, the film becomes more critical, emphasizing Henri Lefebvre’s thesis that space, social space in particular, is constructed by human relationships. The initial sequences of 4 Months... depict the milieu of the dorm as a world of solidarity, a protective matrix endowed with many features of a communist utopia, where money and basic needs never seem to be a problem (problems are usually overcome by mutual help). Property has minimal value, and even though there is commerce, everyone is willing to share. However, once Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), the film’s main characters, exit this microcosm of objects/ fetishes, a different world starts to unfold. Their outside world is increasingly hostile, exploitative and less nostalgia-inducing. Mungiu’s film changes registers and puts other memorable facets of Ceausescu’s Golden Age on display, framing the utopian niche of the dorm as existing within a landscape of degraded human relationships.
The success of museum exhibits on everyday life derives from the object's fetishistic power to bring back to life safe-haven private spaces constructed by morally acceptable human relationships. Spectators in museums or movie-theaters are given an imaginary access to niche cultures and realms of solidarity that compensated for the tightly-controlled public sphere of the period. The power of Mungiu’s film rests in the fact that its narrative also convincingly depicts what happens outside of the dorm's secure space, and suggests the dialectical relation between inside and outside, that one cannot exist without another. Such a dialectical perspective corrects the museum exhibit's sometimes uncritical nostalgic gaze, at the same time as it questions the total rebuttals of the films of the 1990s. A more honest representation of the past needs to rely on an art of combining nostalgia and criticism.
The film's script offers a slow transition from the protective matrix of the dorm to the milieu of traumatic exposure. Human relationships change while characters explore intermediary spaces, in which solidarity and hostility coexist. For example, Otilia’s ride on the bus offers a glimpse of such a locus of transition, as do the university hallways, where she meets with her boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean). On the bus, she has to avoid the humiliating experience of being caught without a ticket by overly zealous controllers, who often worked as small-time policemen. The film depicts the communist survivor’s escape strategies: Render yourself invisible. Don’t make quick moves. Pretend you’re in deep thought. Mutely ask for help, while you slowly back away toward the door and hope it will open before they reach you.
As the film advances, 4 Months... puts the 1980s' more disturbing aspects on display, focusing in particular on a certain unmistakable way in which people look and address each other. Fear and suspicion toward the other produce public space. Questionable gender dynamics and verbal violence complete the picture. An almost ontological sense of disappointment and frustration comes through, and any interaction with the other seems to start with a very clear delineation of power relations.
Otilia’s ordeal begins on the bus, continues with the selfish rants of her boyfriend and the patronizing treatment of the older generation, and culminates in her interaction with service providers. Their demeanor becomes the ultimate proof of the collapse of the social contract in the 1980s. Nobody believes in communism any longer. The social order survives only due to habit and fear. Ceausescu’s Romania has lost its sense of history and no longer regards itself as a collective subject in quest of a common good. In contrast to the dorm's micro-social polity, the film shows only an absence of any trace of solidarity, community, or mutual respect in public space.
The family reproduces this predicament. 4 Months…’ argument against the state is also redirected here against the institution of parenthood. Not only are parents regarded as unable to connect to their children, but also as responsible for the gloomy realities in which their children are living. Otilia has promised her boyfriend Adi to go to his mother's birthday party, and has to go there shortly after she has been raped, a "detail" she does not share with Adi. The festive atmosphere in the young man’s family's more prosperous home stands in stark contrast to the unfolding tragedy in the hotel room, where Gabita is undergoing a life-threatening medical procedure. Seated at a table, surrounded by friends of the family, Otilia finds herself among people who are indifferent to her suffering, and with whom she would not be able to find a common language to discuss what she has just been through. Instead, she has to listen to their self-indulgent chatter and taste a yet another, though milder, version of the patronizing talk she has received from the service providers she has just encountered.
Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu’s genius comes to the fore in this sequence. Hitchcockian suspense (created by the secret the character cannot share) and cinematography enhance the film’s social commentary. Both emphasize Otilia’s internal struggle. We expect the people around her to notice what's on her mind. They do not, and the irony is that most of the guests are part of the medical profession. Terrible things are happening, but the older generation has no clue, and 4 Months… suggests that even if they had a clue, they would refuse to acknowledge it. In Mungiu and Mutu’s transposition, parents look powerless and inclined to rationalization, thrown into the irony of double consciousness by the violence of a regime they failed to stand up to and whose not-so-innocent accomplices they are.
The episode's visual composition complements the lack of dialogue between generations. Sitting at the end of the dinner table, between Adi and his parents, Ottilia occupies the center of the frame. The other guests are mainly off screen. We hear them talk, but we rarely see their faces. We see only hands manipulating silverware or, from time to time, a head bending over a plate. Their voices seem to come from another world, from an “out there.” They are representative of an ideology to whose interpellation Otilia refuses to respond. Her disconnect suggests her solitude and lack of mutual support within the realm of the family. Furthermore, her lack of interaction with these voices “from above” shows a disconnect between “real life,” a life that hurts, and its discursive rendering in the double-consciousness idiom of real-existing communism.