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Petrovszky/Rau: The Body of the Event

12. September 2012, 07:48 Uhr

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Unprecedented by any other political event of similar magnitude, Romanians and the rest of the world were able to follow the summary trial and execution of the Ceausescus live on TV. The steady torrent of images from the 22-27 of December 1989, and the political developments instated in the country immediately thereafter, lead to a growing impression that a Romanian revolution can only be spoken of in quotation marks. Twenty years on, conspiracy theories still abound, suggesting that many of the key events were stage-managed by enemies of democracy. The most critical question is, however, whether the Romanian revolution was a revolution at all, or rather a coup d’etat.

Milo Rau and Konrad Petrovszky are the creators of two very different projects centered on the Romanian revolution: Rau (Berlin) directed a comprehensive artistic re-enactment of the Ceausescu trial which has been made into a theater piece and a feature film, while Petrovsky (Berlin) joined Ovidiu Tichindeleanu, (Chişinău/ Binghamton) to edit the collection Romanian Revolution Televised. This comprises a range of cultural and media theory essays on the so-called “Tele-Revolution” of 1989.

Konrad Petrovszky: In interviews you’re usually asked about the aesthetic, theoretical aspect of your project. We’ll get to that later, but first I want to hear about your extensive, two-year research. From my experience, the subject of the revolution of ‘89 is usually met by a strange mixture of laconic descriptions and exalted talkativeness, so I can imagine that contacting the persons involved with the process was anything but simple. How hard was it to find and access your interviewees? How willing were they to talk?

Milo Rau: Very willing—which probably had to do with the end of the Iliescu era. We were told that after Iliescu’s incumbency, the two-front mentality came to a halt. We were also lucky enough to have gotten in contact with a former military reporter who was still in touch with many military men from the 90s. Allinitial contacts and coordination of meetings went through him.

Konrad Petrovszky: For me, the fact that twenty years after the revolution this is in fact possible is very telling. It seems to confirm the theory that a time span of about one generation has to pass in order to achieve a new perspective on a specific social event. It seems to be the case here, and this phenomenon was also a theme in our book. For example, we examined the reasons why the Romanian literary market only offered a one-sided representation of the event. In the 90s, generally speaking, the market was dominated by personal accounts and chronicles, typical of a transforming society. After the political system had changed, the market was flooded with witness commentaries. Regarding the events of December 1989, we found there was a strong focus on one aspect and an obfuscation of the other. I feel like the binary perception of “repressive Communism” vs. “post-Communist freedom” undermines any attempt at a deeper, more nuanced discussion. It’s hard to imagine an adequate way to approach the subject within the binary discussion available now. To fill the gap, the press, media and literature market published personal accounts and victim stories, or in other cases a range of conspiracy theories involving aliens, the CIA and KGB, often with anti-Semitic undertones. Given the current state, it seems important to give the practically non-existent discourse new impulses with alternative projects such as your own.

Milo Rau: My impression of the way the revolution is discussed in Romania—and this formed especially through conversations with intellectuals—is that it’s similar to what happened in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 60s, when a structuralist view of the Nazi regime arose and replaced the approach common until then that only a core of fascists were responsible for Nazi crimes. In order to advance any change there’s a pressing need in establishing a culture of debate and complex analysis. The dominance of conspiracy theories is very characteristic, and we let them be articulated freely in all the interviews we’ve conducted.

Konrad Petrovszky: The proliferation of conspiracy theories and the lack of a culture of more complex analysis have to do with the fact that in Romania, the relatively little means available for articulating political opinions are controlled by a small number of mandarins. These opinion-rulers are still famous from the time of the coup, when the main protagonists of the post-communist era featured prominently on TV. Whatever political views they came to represent later, their credibility was established in these few turbulent days. A large portion of their prerogative is still nurtured by the myth of a “resistance through culture”—a necessary twist that has established itself, allowing for rigorous moral castigations such as labeling Communism as “antichristian” and therefore “anti-Romanian.” Our book criticizes the hegemony and self-representation of the so-called cultural dissidents who are essentially responsible for the stereotypes and nationalistic reflexes dominating the discourse.

Milo Rau: Okay, but why do you take the detour through Television and Media theory?

Konrad Petrovszky: The book has two axes; one is devoted tothe nexus of Power and the Medium as it’s materialized in the Ur-Event of ’89. Here, we focus on the one phenomenon that seemed to put a spell on outside witnesses and stun insiders—Television. The second axis comprises essays discussing the global dimension of the tele-revolution: its far-reaching effects and reactions, but also accounts of personal memories of the images themselves. The state of media post ’89 is also discussed. Not only did it change thoroughly, it was also a central and therefore fiercely disputed factor in the transformation of society as well as a means of asserting certain discourses, modes and consumerist culture. Romanian television in the 80s was basically a two-hour propaganda broadcast, and TV sets were rare. Within a short period of time, everything changed radically: TV is not only a “bare necessity”—always turned on in Romanian homes, especially when guests arrive—it’s also a main source for the press. Journalists cull content from TV. If I were asked what was the symbol of the so-called change in political system in Romania, I’d say’ Television’ without thinking twice. So why not approach the events of 1989 from this aspect? And furthermore, a media-centered approach is not necessarily confined to the problem of authenticity vs. manipulation. You could, for instance, just as well assume that that’s all there was to the revolution—a ceaseless interplay of power relations. This has two consequences: firstly, all this talk about “manipulation” and “hidden forces” that need to be uncovered becomes pointless all of a sudden; and secondly, it allows you to pursue the various claims, pressures, and aspirations which act upon the event along with the conflicting meanings the event produces in turn. So, basically, our point is about getting over the assumption that says “a medium is (illegitimately) altering reality,” because though not a banal statement, by virtue of internal normative logics, it favors conspiracy theories.

Milo Rau: In all the interviews we’ve done, the myth of the revolution still exists but only in order to be negated. The notion of a betrayed revolution prevails, of a revolution that was claimed by the background players of the old system. A youngman in his thirties told me that when he thinks about the regime change, he realizes that his memories of the events are overlaid by the notion of a lost democracy that never materialized. There’s a repressed trauma within this society that experienced a material boom but where structurally, a lot remained the same. The starting point of my project is also medial. According to a Time Magazine survey, the images of the bodies of the Ceausescus are among the five videos that sunk into the collective subconscious, at least in the U.S. and Western Europe. The video recordings of the trial were my starting point. I’ve wanted to reenact them for a while.

Konrad Petrovszky: These images are iconic. Their singular effect can be explained by their extraordinary nature of a gaze directed at the outside world while simultaneously contemplating the gaze from the outside: How are we perceived? How do we represent ourselves as a country that, by means of a collective effort, managed to flip into a democracy? The intention to broadcast the recordings of this show trial was conscripted allalong. How do you stage the already staged trial in theater and film?

Milo Rau: Our focus is different than yours. For us, everything stems from Târgovişte, the place where the Ceausescus spent their last days, and where the process took place. This focal point allows for flashbacks and flash-forwards. We do a preview show in Bucharest on December 11th, and the play premieres in Berlin December 21st. The first part consist of monologues, the second of trial scenes in a courtroom reconstructed from the video recordings and from original material we filmed in Târgovişte. This iconic room should be emulated naturalistically, which implies a very paradoxical interpretation of naturalism. Meaning, the reenactment is characterized by a mélange of hyperrealism and strong iconic sensibility. The film is an edited montage of the play. All the TV channels we’ve contacted asked for a documentary, which we weren’t interested in producing. Instead, we’re making a film that follows the tradition of Dogville or Der Kick. That’s why we also limit it to the allegorical model of a revolution, where each character has its role: the general who changes sides, the dying dictator, the jubilant people, and then the betrayal of the revolution itself.

Konrad Petrovszky: The scandal around the process wasn’t the fact that it was televised, but rather that it was released in fragments. There was a furtive unwillingness to show it to the public in full length. First they released a short, silent excerpt, then a longer one with sound, and it wasn’t until April of 1990 that the film was broadcast in full length after it had been shown on French television. Wouldn’t it make sense to dramatize the fragmented protocol of the process?

Milo Rau: One of the main characters in the play—and this is something we have no control over—are the videotapes with the incomplete recordings. In our interviews, the subject of the videos always came up and everyone knows there was a manuscript for the trial, which we also read. The medial protocol is definitely the crux of the matter, but we can’t have the film or play follow the logic of the trial videos. It was a show trial and istherefore inscrutable for today’s viewer. For me, it was clear that we’d have to supplement it somehow, not with documentary material, but with fiction based on the monologues in the first half. I’m interested in scrutinizing the double meaning of the images. On the one hand, the images document something that really took place, in an actual room and in real time. On the other hand, there’s the reality of the memory of the historical events, shaped by these images. In a reenactment, you always have two levels of time that you’re trying to blend into one event. A reenactment tries to achieve a unity of “now” time and “then” time. First you reconstruct all the details and gestures but at some point you have to free yourself from it in order to get at what’s crafted from the images’ internal truth. It’s a fascinating setting also because I remember seeing these images as a child on Christmas Day and it became immediately clear to me that they have an iconic or ritualistic meaning. Just as in 2001, within a few minutes of seeing the images of the twin towers collapsing, we all sensed that the images are directly connected with worldhistory, we sensed their momentous aura.

Konrad Petrovszky: What does “truth” mean in this case?

Milo Rau: I think that a revolution can’t be adequately narrated. The documentaries I know always get tangled with some conspiracy theory because when you try to create a linear presentation of facts, you allow for paranoid interpretations. I realized that the inconsistencies have to be shown as what they are—conflicting truths. My inquiry can be explained with the help of a simple semiotic model of interpretation; neither the material nor the referential level interest me in this case but rather the third level, that of the evocative power. Meaning that certain factor that tells us “this is an iconic image,” “this is an allegory,” “this is a revolution.” It speaks to us, calls us to something. The truth that I strive at consists only of the density of appeals and evocations created at the moment I saw these images as a child. I decided against a documentary or a feature film, and for dramatizing the momentousness of the images instead. On a practical level this meant meticulous, almost religious, attention to details. This is precisely where my interest in this ultimately primitive art form of reenactment resides.

Konrad Petrovszky: As far as I know, there are quite contradictory theories regarding what a reenactment should effectuate. It seems to not only be about simply reconstructing an event, but also rather enabling a retrospective reaction, a chance to go through it again. Nevertheless, I think it’s a somewhat questionable search in terms of fidelity.

Milo Rau: Our reenactment is of course an avatar of sorts, which means, according to Plato—and we’re all Platonists—a lie. The Ceausescu process was in many ways a “pretty lie” and we’re retelling it. It’s fascinating to see how the actors play it, and how we or the people we’re talking to about the events react. The project is a time capsule, 20 years on. As time goes by, images of historic events are passed on in society. We’re taking a random sample, so to say, and examining what will happen. Unlike other reenactment artists like, for example, Jeanne Faust from Hamburg, who works with small intimate scenes, we decided tohandle a big image. However, we’re not trying to put something into perspective like Jeremy Deller does. Seeing our project, one is immediately aware that postmodernism is over, because it has a certain seriousness that wouldn’t have been there a decade ago. Meticulousness or an obsession with materiality that’s essentially a little ludicrous.

Konrad Petrovszky: I also had the impression of the “end of postmodernism”—to use postmodernist jargon. When I look at Jeremy Deller’s project The Battle of Orgreave for example, it seems to have a therapeutic intent : let’s do the whole thing all over again with as many of the original participants as possible, in order to shed a different light on this important event that has been completely distorted by the BBC, and give people the chance to process it one more time and talk about it. Does your project serve any therapeutic and informative purposes?

Milo Rau: I intend to do the opposite of Deller. I’m thinking more about Rod Dickinson’s reenactment of the Milgram Experiment. His over-four-hour film reenacting the famous socio-psychological experiment possesses an incredible power, because the question it centers on, namely how could the Holocaust happen, how normal people could turn into mass murderers, belongs to the biggest sociological myths of the post-war era. The experiment takes this myth and implements it in a real process taking place on stage, without narration. I see it as similar to how theater in ancient Greece dramatized its mythological stories: four hour staging of a narrative everyone in the audience knows—including its conclusion. This affects an entirely different catharsis than Jeremy Deller’s project. Whether this is also therapeutic depends on the impact of the reenactment itself, I believe.

Konrad Petrovszky: I’m certain that a reenactment can at least affect a process of ratiocination. Deller’s reenactment took place because of the misinformation that circulated in the media. In Romania, however, the media coverage itself was an integral part of the progress of the revolution and its broad impact. The fact that it was recorded, that people saw it, and that the regimechange was consummated if not in reality at least on the screen—all these factors are what made up the event itself. The complexity of the revolution in Romania is that, unlike in Deller’s case, it demonstrated that an enactment and authenticity don’t necessarily have to constitute binary oppositions. The challenging moments are when they intertwine. It’s all the more challenging considering that any attempt at doing educational work on the revolution that is not based on the video recordings simply doesn’t function, whereas the tapes themselves are the crux of the problem!

Milo Rau: Yes, and I chose this event precisely because of its magnitude, its meaningfulness and its prominence. It is, in fact, a canonical medial event. Reenactments are popular in the performance scene these days, but what I’m interested in is taking a key scene in which objective and subjective histories interconnect; everyone saw these images and having seen them is immediately connotated with 1989. For me, this was THE historical event of ’89. While the fall of the Berlin wall had an opaque and vague quality to it, the Romanian revolution followed a dramatic structure and was aligned with a Christian holiday on top of that. There was an overlapping of a Christian story and a perfectly compatible allegorical one. In this case, the reenactment is concerned with taking this complex event that’s completely merged in its evocative power and multiple layers, and giving it a material “body.” My project seeks to implement the art of reenactment in its purest form—which is where the pedantry regarding details stems from—in order to restitute a material “body” back to the event, to the very last detail.

Konrad Petrovszky: And the memory of the event is strongly connected to it, too. Like the modest courtroom that looked like a sparsely equipped class room and made everyone present to look like elementary school boys. But is the amateurish quality of the images, which is how the event is visually remembered, also taken into consideration in your play?

Milo Rau: Imitating the cameramen’s view from within the courtroom made no sense for us. We wanted to showcase the trialitself, so for the film version, we worked with six amateur cameras placed outside the room. It’s a very strict solution. In general, the project has a certain coldness to it. It’s also very demanding for the actors. They’re not playing for the audience. The room is like a time capsule, which happened to land in the theater. The process is reenacted for 90 minutes and then it’s over. They had to leave their Method Acting behind…

Konrad Petrovszky: How did people react when you presented the project? How was the collaboration with the actors?

Milo Rau: The Romanians were a bit suspicious, which is understandable. Just look at the debate over the movie Valkyrie in Germany—Tom Cruise was perceived as inadequate for portraying Stauffenberg here. But the experimental nature of the project and our naïve interest in the different stories slowly made people less skeptical. If you’d tried to do a project about WWII in Germany in the 60s you would have had the same problem. But it’s slowly changing in Romania, too. The striking thing is that you can tell exactly who lost and who gained from the revolution. The ones who lost are very stuck and biased, whereas the winners are very open and content.

Konrad Petrovszky: You had the fortune of interviewing General Stănculescu, one of the key figures of the revolution. He was appointed minister of defense by Ceausescu and changed sides much later. He was still in prison when you spoke with him; he was sentenced because of his major involvement with repressing the revolution. He’s been released lately due to poor health.

Milo Rau: We were very fortunate. When we first called on him in prison, he assumed he’d never get out, so he had no reservations, he spoke quite openly about everything. In his monologue, two trials come into play: that of the Ceausescus, and his own. At this point, the play takes on a Shakespearian dimension, exposing the inner turmoil of the people involved.

Konrad Petrovszky: I remember the Romanian revolution to really have spoiled the sequence of velvet revolutions. The triumph of the “free world” that unfolded in front of our eyes wasspeckled with a threatening, destabilizing undertone. It followed the same pattern: flags blowing in the wind, old hymns and flowers in barrels. However, the revolution was bereft of the joyfulness. Things weren’t all that peachy. So I can understand your fascination with finding fundamental dramatic structures in actu. This is a very different way of approaching the subject than that which we saw in the 80s and early 90s, when the focal points were the elimination of the opposing political systems and the onset of an obliviousness to history.

Milo Rau: Our generation was taught by the postmodernist professors who told us this was the end of history and that from now on, we’d have to live in an eternal service society. But in reality, world history took a wild twist during our childhood and youth. It left us with experiences and observations, but with no real theoretical apparatus. I detect a certain need amongst our peers to rethink the definition of History , of the objective significance of events. The images of the Romanian revolution are registered much stronger in my memory than those of theWorld Trade Center because I experienced the fall of the Eastern Bloc as a child and so it has the mythological character of childhood memories. In most interviews I give about this project, I describe the practical implementation of the play. The theme of reenactment is very popular and I talk to west Europeans about repetition, about Deleuze and so on. But actually, the touching thing about it is how hot the topic still is in Romania.

Das Gespräch erschien zuerst in META-MAGAZINE.

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