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Past for the Eyes

Oksana Sarkisova
Péter Apor

Documents of Communism: Lost and Found

The Experiences of a Filmmaker

Reconstructing Reality from Documents in Communist Archives

Alexandru Solomone

Texte intégral


  • 1 The poll was made by the Social Studies Office (Biroul de Cercetări Sociale) between April 26 and (...)
  • 2 The Securitate (Romanian for “Security”; official full name: Departamentul Securităţii Statului [S (...)

1The results of a poll recently published in Romania indicated that 50 % of the population is not interested in understanding the activities of the political police under the communist regime.1 The poll also showed that 67 % do not want to find out if somebody in their family worked for the Securitate.2 These figures only confirm what we already knew: there is an obvious refusal to take responsibility for the criminal activities of the regime. More than half of Romanian society wishes to forget the socialist past. One must admit that this is not very encouraging for a documentary filmmaker, working mainly on recent history.

2I have long accused the media—especially the TV stations—of causing this kind of attitude. But I am probably not alone in thinking that the political establishment is just as responsible for burying our recent past. It stands to reason that most politicians in my country were, to some extent, involved in the political structures of the communist regime. It is obviously not in their interest to encourage people to reevaluate the past and establish responsibilities. On the contrary, amnesia is their best ally. As a result, archives have remained closed too long since 1989.

3Knowing all this, I have never been able to accept the extent of public indifference to something that, in my naive belief, is of capital importance for building an “honorable” society in the future. There is no future without reconciliation with the past. Nevertheless, I am aware that this kind of reaction is human and that in Germany the discussion about the Holocaust did not start until 1960s. Last year, while I was in Spain, I was surprised to find that no films about Franco’s political victims have been made till recently. It has taken thirty years to start.

4In Romania, some of the reasons for this lack of interest probably lie precisely in the media representation of the recent past. Immediately after Ceauşescu’s downfall, the communist regime began to be portrayed in the same black-and-white, propagandistic way as the old system had used against its enemies. For years, TV programs and newspapers have been depicting Communism in the darkest terms. They have made it look like a natural catastrophe which had come from abroad, from the Soviet Union—and to which individuals, in particular Romanians, made no active contribution.

5One result is that today, for instance, to call somebody “a Communist” is an insult. The word has become a substitute for senile, or describes a generic malfunction of the human brain. This linguistic habit confirms that new stereotypes have by now successfully replaced the old ones. At the same time, there is a paradox: a large section of the population is nostalgic about those times, while the younger generations have no idea of the real living conditions in Romania before 1989.

6In these circumstances, between lack of interest and a strongly stereotyped mind-set, “rememorizing” the past appears even more important. It seems to me that if there is a mission or a duty left for intellectuals, then it is to remember and to make sure things are not swept into oblivion. But this is not so simple. Although the socialist past is not that distant in history, it has become very difficult to grasp its significance. Not only are we working amidst misconceptions, but the sources that we can use are not trustworthy. We rely on archive documents—be they written or filmed—and on people. And we all know that there is no reason to trust either people or documents. I would like to write about how I learned to doubt everything while I was making an archive-based film Great Communist Bank Robbery (Marele jaf comunist, 2004).


7My Great Communist Bank Robbery is a film about the reconstruction of a true case—a robbery—and how difficult it is to get a clear picture of what happened. In 1959, the National Bank of Romania was held up and a large amount of money stolen. This was exceptional in Eastern Europe. No one kept money in the bank; you couldn’t even use money in those days, because there was almost nothing to buy. Besides, the police state was so strict that you could bet anyone who held up the National Bank would be easily caught. However, on July 28, 1959 a robbery took place in broad daylight: five people raided the National Bank and got away with the equivalent of a million dollars.

8The event shocked the whole country and, more importantly, the communist leadership. The robbery seriously undermined the credibility of the regime. Two months later, six people were arrested and charged with the theft. They were ex-Communist Party and Securitate officials, all of them Jews. They were tried in court, for a crime that was considered as a political offence. At the end of the investigation, the Party leadership decided to reconstruct the robbery in a film in which the real defendants would play their own parts. During the trial, which was filmed live, five out of six were sentenced to death and by the time they were executed, Reconstruction was ready. It was screened for Party members and produced a strong impression throughout the country.

9When I saw Reconstruction, I decided that I wanted to tell this story again. Not only was I dealing with a unique affair: an American-style heist executed in a communist country by Jewish communist activists; but I was immediately fascinated by what seemed to me a masterpiece of manipulation. Although it pretends to be a documentary and—in a way—it was made with the ingredients of documentary filmmaking, Reconstruction is so obviously lying, mixing real facts into a transparent fabrication, that it cannot be used as a source of information on the bank robbery. On the contrary, it hides the truth and was made to take us far away from the reality of those events. In my proposal I wrote down what seemed to me the goal of my film: to de-construct Reconstruction, unveil the multiple layers of propaganda, and get closer to the truth. I was going to perform a cleaning-up operation.

10There was more to it. The robbery itself was a mystery: why would some Communists attack the same system they’d been fighting for, and why would they do it in this strange way—by robbing the National Bank? Reconstruction stated that they were simply driven by lust for money; they wanted to live in luxury. But this was completely unreasonable in those historical circumstances. And my characters knew very well what kind of a world they were living in. So I had to solve this enigma, too.


11If the truth didn’t lie in the archive film, then there must have been something hidden in the Securitate archives. To my surprise, my application to examine the files on the robbery was approved quite quickly. I went there, in the autumn of 2001, with a sort of religious feeling. A set of twenty-seven volumes, containing about 10,000 pages, was waiting for me. There were transcripts of the interrogations of the robbers and other witnesses, declarations made by informers sharing the cells of the accused; reports from the police and conclusions by the investigators, documents issued by the tribunal as well as prison files and much more. Even the script of Reconstruction was there, in more than one version, with handwritten annotations of the Minister of the Interior.

Fig. 1 Great Communist Bank Robbery: The filmbox of Reconstruction Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon

12Whom could I trust, among all these? I was sure I couldn’t trust the investigators and the way they transcribed the interrogations and drew their conclusions. But could I believe what my main characters—those five men and one woman charged with the robbery—stated about their motives in front of the Securitate officers? Weren’t they trying to present their own deeds in a favorable light, so that their lives would be spared? Maybe they insisted on their political motives in order to give the bank robbery a positive, “cleaner” relevance. While reading and comparing their declarations, I learned that these people also liked to invent stories—another factor I had to take into account (Fig. 1).

13Furthermore, could I trust the informers who shared the cells of the defendants? Weren’t they trying to distort what the robbers said, in order to win the officers’ favor? I was, however, inclined to believe these informers’ reports, because they were handwritten and seemed less contrived. They looked like accurate accounts of what my characters said when they thought—naively—that nobody was listening to them. Only towards the end of the investigation did the robbers realize that their cell mates were regularly reporting on them.

14When you plunge into such archives, it is like diving into the darkest, most hidden parts of the human soul. You are surrounded by suffering, treachery and viciousness. Nonetheless, one thing was clear: I had no right to condemn these people. And the fact that in this story there were no heroes, no characters driven by their ideals, attracted me even more. It took me weeks to read and make notes and then more weeks to organize all the material. I tried to hunt down any irregularity, to compare the testimonies and find discrepancies; I made a chronology of the investigation and tracked the way the investigators forced the defendants to make whatever statements suited the propaganda machine. But there were always grey areas and pieces missing in the puzzle.

15At the end of this research, it looked as if I had understood some of the motives that led six former activists to raid the National Bank. It seemed to me that I could also detect the intentions of the Securitate and how the communist regime took political advantage of the bank robbery. I thought I could spot where the secret police had misled the investigation, where they added lies or distorted the facts. By reading different versions of the script of Reconstruction, I learned how they abandoned the idea of making an overtly anti-Semitic film and turned it into a hymn to the repressive authorities. However, all these were deductions; there was no proof, no certainty, only several explanations. I was soon to discover how relative these were and how the same archival documents could be deciphered differently.


16Two years later, when I started shooting, I invited the son of one of the defendants to Bucharest. Years before, he had applied for permission to look through the files, but had never received an answer. We decided together that he should come to Bucharest, and even if he did not get a permit, we would go together to the archives, where I would film him being refused access, and do an interview on the spot. We applied for a permit to film at the archives. Alex came to Bucharest, we met for a brief planning session and he left our production office. Half an hour later he received an invitation from the archives to start studying the files about his father (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Great Communist Bank Robbery: Reading the files Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon

17We were stunned; we couldn’t find any explanation for this sudden approval of his application. Had they listened to our conversation and decided to appease us? We began to suspect that our offices were bugged and we had become part of the same comedy. At the same time, I thought that there was at least one human benefit from the fact that I was making this film: Alex would see these files and get to know his father better. The robbery had happened when Alex was eight years old and he had never seen his father again.

18Alex spent two difficult weeks in the archives, writing down and comparing, going through the same ordeal as I had. He was much more personally involved than I. At the end of this experience, he told me that he had reached a conclusion: everything had been set up. He believed that the robbery might not have taken place at all and doubted that his father had taken part in it in any case. He thought that all these files were just fiction, part of a more general script written by a dark spirit. To support his theory, he referred to some details that I hadn’t noticed. Above all, he pointed out that the serial numbers of the supposedly stolen banknotes were not listed anywhere in the files. He suggested that this amount of money was never taken from the bank. I replied that of course, the Securitate files are full of gaps and lies, but this could not justify his belief that 10,000 pages, including statements by hundreds of people, were simply made up by a diabolical mastermind. But I had to admit that archival documents are no solid ground and that one single lie could cast doubt over the whole story.


19The essence of information in a Stalinist society was rumor. As the media were strictly controlled and there was no real news, just propaganda, everybody relied on gossip. I combed through the press of the months that followed the robbery, and found nothing about the case. Nonetheless, while talking to people I realized that everybody knew about it. With no information in the press, rumor spread, combining things said by the witnesses with fantasies to create something that resembled mythology. I will mention one particularly long-lasting myth. It was said that the robbers had built a film set, with cameras and lights, to make passers-by believe that the raid on the bank was just a scene from a movie. They told people who approached the bank: “Go away; we’re shooting a film!” I heard this story from many witnesses, and I was—of course—seduced by it. It was like a metaphor, or maybe a premonition, of the whole production of Reconstruction. But it was too beautiful to be true.

20While I was going through the files, I read about some filming that had taken place at the hospital opposite the bank two days before the robbery. Then I found statements by women being treated in the hospital who, looking out of the window and seeing the robbery, thought that the film crew had come back. I realized that the imagination of these women had been stimulated by the coincidence—on the same street—of the filming with the robbery.

21This story is—for me—a perfect example of how easily people confuse what is in their heads with their real experiences. With many of my witnesses, I had to make an effort to separate rumors and faulty recollections from genuine memories. Most of them were certain that they held the key to the whole story, and that they alone knew it. But I also met an astonishing case of amnesia. I was delighted when I located the woman who had edited the Reconstruction film. I was sure that she could tell me more about the choices made by the director, e.g. what scenes were left out, and so on. She agreed to meet me and I traveled 300 kilometers to the town where she lived. I showed her the film: she was on the credits and she acknowledged working with the director on other films. But she kept saying—as she had already told me on the phone—that she couldn’t remember anything; she even supposed that somebody else had edited Reconstruction.

Fig. 3 Reconstruction: The group Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon and Libra Film

22After a while, an image came back to her from the past: she had been editing at night for three nights; she couldn’t get out into the corridor, which was patrolled by a Securitate officer. She was exhausted and told the director that she couldn’t go on and the director replied: just splice these three shots and it’s done. That was all she could remember. No pictures, nothing else. Either because it was safer, or because she was traumatized, she had erased this film from her memory. Later on, I found in the archives a note of the destruction of all the unused rushes from Reconstruction. It was dated 1966. If oblivion coincides with the removal of evidence, there’s nothing more to be done.

23Working with communist archives involves a great deal of moral responsibility. But interviewing people who acted in those times is even more complicated. I had to convince all sorts of individuals to cooperate on my film. I could not deceive them, but they had to see some advantage in embarking on such a risky trip. They learned to trust me; however I could not trust that their answers truly reflected their knowledge and feelings. Being involved with some of them—becoming a partner, a comrade of the Securitate officers for instance—was a real burden.

24When interviewing people, I usually confronted them with other witnesses and with archival documents. I did this not only during the interviews but also through editing. At one point one of the interviewees, a former senior Securitate officer, told me to stop behaving as if I was interrogating him. It was he who was the investigator—not me. Although I never acted as if I were prosecuting my witnesses, it is true that the position of a documentary maker is that of putting on trial all his sources. Even having to use the word witness is significant. After showing my film to these people, the fact that most of them were disappointed was, for me, a guarantee. It confirmed that I had managed to place myself somewhere in the middle. Finding the right distance and the appropriate point of view is crucial in making documentaries. But it also meant that I wasn’t able to solve the enigma.


25After so many years, propaganda and faked documents have replaced the reality. Many of my witnesses referred to Reconstruction as evidence that things happened that way. When I went into editing, I had to resist the temptation to use the pictures of the robbery as staged in Reconstruction to illustrate the event (Fig. 3, Fig. 4). I had to frame them so that the audience would not take them for granted but be aware that this was just a quote. I screened the pictures in a cinema, to emphasize this quotation procedure and I played the same images several times to decode the manipulation. I brought the cameraman of Reconstruction back to some of the sets and gave him a camera, to reestablish the way all this was arranged (Fig. 5.) In general, bringing these people back to the locations where they acted forty-five years ago gave me—and them—a distance from which to reflect. The English word re-enactment is very appropriate for this kind of ritual. When the police take a suspect to the scene of the crime or confront him with the weapon, they don’t want him to perform for art’s sake; they are trying to break down his denial. Indeed, we are talking about a crime in our case. Sometimes, propaganda kills. This is not just an intellectual argument: the Reconstruction film, along with the Securitate files, was used as criminal evidence to convict six people.

Fig. 4 Reconstruction: The robbery Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon and Libra Film

26Finally, as I had to give up on my attempt to crack the mystery, I realized that I could achieve a greater goal through my film. To confront people with their common past and let them establish their own contribution is the kind of process of coming to terms with the past that we need in our countries. So I decided to bring as many of my witnesses together in a hall where I would screen Reconstruction for them. I didn’t want to be the one to point out who was guilty; I didn’t have the right to do that. All I could do was to stir their memories and let them make up their own minds. I had to abandon my ambition to provide a clue to the story and solve the enigma. I was not the director of Reconstruction, who gives a single answer and tells—even forces—the people to think what he wants them to think. But I was happy with my role.

Fig. 5 Great Communist Bank Robbery: The cameraman Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon


1 The poll was made by the Social Studies Office (Biroul de Cercetări Sociale) between April 26 and May 4, 2006.

2 The Securitate (Romanian for “Security”; official full name: Departamentul Securităţii Statului [State Security Department]), was the secret police force of communist Romania. Previously the Romanian secret police was called Siguranţa statului [Safety of the State]. The Securitate was, in proportion to Romania’s population, the largest secret police force in the Eastern bloc. For more on Securitate, see Dennis Deletant, Ceauçescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965–1989 (London: C. Hurst, 1995).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 Great Communist Bank Robbery: The filmbox of Reconstruction Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon
Fichier image/jpeg, 90k
Légende Fig. 2 Great Communist Bank Robbery: Reading the files Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon
Fichier image/jpeg, 81k
Légende Fig. 3 Reconstruction: The group Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon and Libra Film
Fichier image/jpeg, 95k
Légende Fig. 4 Reconstruction: The robbery Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon and Libra Film
Fichier image/jpeg, 98k
Légende Fig. 5 Great Communist Bank Robbery: The cameraman Courtesy of Alexandru Solomon
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Alexandru Solomon (b. 1966) is a filmmaker, based in Bucharest. He has written, photographed, and directed several documentaries based on recent history and culture, broadcast on the BBC, Arte, ZDF, and other international channels, and screened at numerous festivals. He is currently producing a film on Radio Free Europe.

© Central European University Press, 2008

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