ERUPTION (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1957) 5
DANUBE WAVES (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1959) 7
FOREST OF THE HANGED (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1965) 7
When you go into a series of movies with that country and those dates, you just have to accept certain things, primarily that you’re gonna see Communist propaganda, to a greater or lesser degree, and the style of Socialist Realism, in all its blunt overtness. Within these historical and systemic constraints, as you can infer from the grades, Liviu Ciulei managed to make some enjoyable films in different registers. He made only four films as a director, though he apparently had a greater reputation in Romania as an actor and stage director. But if he truly was the best Romanian director prior to the early/mid-00s flowering, as was the subtext to the series I saw at the weekend when I wasn’t being corrupted by drunks like Simon Abrams and Matt Zoller Seitz, well … you can infer something else from the grades. Both about Romanian Communist-era cinema, and, maybe the structurally equivalent systems.
After being subjected the catastrophe of the anti-oil propaganda film THE MUPPETS, it was refreshing to see the building of an oil rig turned into a glorious project of profitable construction. ERUPTION is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Romanian Oil Industry in one of those kitschy title cards that accompany totalitarian-regime propaganda, and the first shot actually shows real promise. A full symphony plays a propulsive but menacing-sounding score that, like a more classically-arranged version of some of Jonny Greenwood’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD riffs, simultaneously both plays against and plays up the fetishizing images of the oil rigs. It also counterpoints both the bubbling crude (Romanian Rum) that oozes off the screen during the titles and the Hot Chick Student from Bucharest whose arrival at the oil field for work experience provides the narrative entree. The problem is that Ciulei and/or his script have no sense of cinematic rhythm whatsoever, especially in the first half. The pacing of (and within) sequences is eccentric and the film just lurches from scene to scene without ever really “building.” Here’s a bunch of weakly-drawn people at a barren oil field, they have some semi-conflicts and some things happen. He tries to create a community without the ability of Altman at his best to make it flow.
Still, this very simplicity yields, almost by the very way of its Griffith-like crudeness, some moments of archetypal elemental power — The Dark-Haired Tramp racing up the oil well in shame over the (very clumsy) exposure of her past while The Worker climbs up after her. And the last part of ERUPTION, after they strike oil and the well blows and has to be capped, goes in to full Socialist Realist Propaganda mode with montages of the working class being mobilized racing against time, as the filth-caked rig men heroically battle the gushing oil, an old night caretaker tries to bust down a locked door, and a phone operator tries to get out the word (more Griffith) — and the film becomes almost a kitschy hoot. My favorite bit was when a worker is wounded but taking him away on a stretcher will require men needed to cap the gusher. One man intones solemnly “this is the party speaking. We have no right to let him die, not even for 1,000 wells.” It’s so overt and a historical lie, that you can’t even laugh at it. Fortunately the wounded guy hides (freeing the labor) and recovers (how?) by sequence end. I was sniggering — all those 30s kulaks were … just … hiding. But as a film, ERUPTION’s recovery is as if the Commie Propaganda genre requirements finally straightened things out.
Which provides a nice segue to DANUBE WAVES, which is almost a perfect example of Manny Farber’s “Termite Art” and was the best and most fully realized of the three Ciulei’s films I saw. It’s a straight-up genre piece, telling a single small story about an operation as part of a broader war — in this case, World War II in 1944, after Romania had entered on Nazi Germany’s side but with the tide having turned and the advancing Soviets over the horizon. It’s three strongly-drawn characters on a single journey — a Romanian soldier on his honeymoon (Ciulei himself), his bride (Irina Petrescu, who presented the film in person), and a Communist partisan posing as criminal labor to get on the soldier’s boat as he sails it up the Danube on an ammo-delivery mission. The bride is attracted to the “criminal” and figures out the truth, bringing elements of POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE or DOUBLE INDEMNITY. You could imagine Raoul Walsh or Henry Hathaway or maybe even Howard Hawks doing the Hollywood remake of DANUBE WAVES in 1962 or 1963.
As it is, the Romanian DANUBE easily meets Hawks’ famous “three good scenes, no bad scenes” definition — in spoiler-free terms, the floating mine (which is prepared for in the pre-credits sequence of the risks of minesweeping); the second German soldier, who “has no objections”; the walk to the wedding-night suite. Ciulei’s direction gets taut and brutal here and sometimes even dry and understated. The performances in the three lead roles avoid declamation while filling the genre types — Lazar Vrabie’s partisan is heroic without being Heroic; Ciulei is cynical without being Cynical, and Petrescu is sexy and torn without etc. … There is a late moment that I’ll just call the DOUBLE INDEMNITY shot and I said to myself “film over” … but it isn’t and the last five minutes are Regime-Mandated Filler involving an overt battle followed by the victory of The Romanian People and Their Heroic Soviet Liberators (one person at the screening, not myself amazingly, laughed at the line “Romania will soon be free”). It’s not my repulsion for Communism that is the issue exactly; I don’t care for speechifying about Truth, Justice and The American Way in Hollywood’s “films among the grunts” either. It’s that it detracts from the bleak end of the conflict between the three characters on the boat (and a boy they pick up along the way). And is poorly done to boot. As much as I liked this film, Ciulei cannot stage a battle scene — an earlier scene’s insertion of stock footage of Soviet bombers is iconically clumsy.
In another pattern not unfamiliar to Western capitalist cinema, Ciulei’s next film was a bid for “White Elephant Art,” in the form of a 160-minute prestigious literary adaptation about a big subject (World War I intrigue in the Austro-Hungarian Army, centering on an ethnic Romanian soldier 1). And while it’s a useful term of critical description, as my grade for FOREST OF THE HANGED implies, I don’t at all share Farber’s distaste for White Elephant Art. In the particular case of HANGED, the novelistic source gives the film both sweep and scope, and opportunities (which Ciulei takes) for great set pieces, while setting up traps (which he also takes) of episodicness and rambling. Without (anachronistic in 1916) communist cheerleading, the best parts here hold up better in 2011 than comparable sequences in DANUBE and ERUPTION while the weaknesses become less excusable. Basically everything after the decision to desert is just marking time and the hero becomes way too much of an existentialist Gandhi-type for my taste. There’s a whole subplot involving an authentic romance with a Pure Peasant Girl that feels completely tacked on (though it does … EVENTUALLY … lead to the film’s triumphant end). The last half-hour of the film feels like pages 900-1,000 of one of those lengthy Russian novels, where you appreciate the journey but your eyes are starting to glaze over and you can’t avoid thinking, “yes, Leo, you ARE Tolstoy, but you still only get one chance to wrap things up.”
But, like with Tolstoy, there’s too much here to cavil too much. The first thing we see is a mass of soldiers marching ahead of the camera, until a single soldier gets pulled out by looking back (at us, implictly) as Ciulei’s shock cuts and dissonant orchestra music intersperse that image with the credits — think the opening credits of PERSONA, though Ciulei doesn’t Bergman far down that road. The lengthy opening scene is of a deserter’s execution and even though there’s not the slightest narrative suspense and Ciulei eschews obvious “goosings,” it works kinda like how I said Satyajit Ray’s shooting of THE MUSIC ROOM did — the extra time makes things felt. An image of some characters coming across a passle of maybe 12-15 corpses hanging from trees made me wonder if a certain Greek Communist saw FOREST and was taking notes. There is a protracted Austro-Hungarian attack on a Romanian searchlight that is not only gripping but manages to be a political-consciousness metaphor that is also an actual military attack (at its best, FOREST suggests PATHS OF GLORY). Again revealing its novelistic roots, character touches abound, like the intellectual who stores an aristocratic-style carriage, like the way people jockey for assignments (from cowardice and bravado, or both at the same time), like the stolen glance of the hero’s mother done in a shock montage with stabbing music and blown-out lighting. FOREST also walks off with a lengthy, deafeningly-silent meal that had me wondering whether Horatiu Malaele had whole levels of in-joke and Romanian-cinema satire in SILENT WEDDING that went completely over my head, even though I still think that sequence is one of the funniest ever made. You also get the benefit of learning that the Romanian word for “Fire!!!” (the command form of the verb, not the noun) is “Fooock!!!”
1 At the time, there was a country called “Romania,” but it was only about half the size of the country by that name now. Transylvania, though largely populated by ethnic Romanians, had long been ruled by Hungary, and as a result there were ethnic Romanians on both sides of the war. Here’s a time-changing map of the country’s boundaries.