by Bruce Laurie
Reconstruction bears multiple meanings for its producer, director, and editor, Irene Lusztig. It refers to her film of the same name, which re-examines a bizarre incident that was the subject of an "official" film produced by the Romanian government in 1961. It also refers to Romania`s repeated reinventions of itself in the course of the 20th century and to Lusztig,s attempt to understand her grandmother, Moni. The last of these meanings forms the centerpiece of this haunting film in which Lusztig probes a sensational bank heist in Bucharest in 1959, carried out by five men and a woman, including her grandmother and her grandmothers husband. The crime inspired a show trial that led to the execution of the men. Spared the firing squad, her grandmother served five years in prison.
Did they or didn`t they? Lusztig apparently isnt quite sure at first, and neither are we. Gugu, her grandmother`s husband, certainly had motive enough. A ne`er-do-well with a taste for the high life, he went through a quick bourgeois makeover following the heist, acquiring such suspicious accouterments as new clothes and a motorcycle. Police and neighbors alike accused him of everything from being an Israeli spy to being stupid. Critics of the trial, such as they were, insisted the robbery was sponsored by the regime to justify yet another crackdown on internal dissidents, who in 1961, as ten years earlier, were synonymous with Jews. Anti-Semitism, it seems, was to Romanian Communism what family squabbles are to Italian opera. About halfway through Reconstruction, however, the truth finally comes out. Transcripts of bugs planted by the secret police in Gugu and Moni`s flat reveal their guilt.
Reconstruction, however, is not a spy story nor a mystery that drives inexorably toward fingering the guilty. Lusztig does not develop the tension that inheres in the mystery, and guilt soon loses its relevance. She is far more concerned with capturing the layers of tragedy that befell her mother, along with the legacy of resentment and sadness that haunts the family to this very day. Grandmother Moni, the daughter of a physician, was a vivacious woman and a stubborn romantic with an inchoate political sensibility that drew her to the anti-Fascist underground resistance in the early l940s under the auspices of the Communist Party. Jews like her and her sister embraced the party as the only hope for a people threatened by the proscriptive laws imposed by the Fascist regime in the mid-l930s. After the war broke out, Romanian Jews from provincial cities were herded to the gas chambers in Germany and Poland. Bucharest`s Jews were spared only by the sudden end of the war. The hope that anti-Semitism would stop with the fall of Fascism, however, proved to be horrifyingly false. Romanian Communists tolerated Jews only as long as they were needed to help consolidate power immediately after the war. Many held ranking positions in the party and in higher counsels of government; very few remained after the political cleansings of the early l950s and 1960s.
For their part, Moni and her sister found themselves in a world of intrigue and betrayal worthy of Arthur Koestler`s Darkness at Noon. Aging neighbors who recall Moni and her family with fondness on camera turn out to have spied on them. The government sensationalized their crime in the original "Reconstruction," a truly dreadful piece of propaganda that starred Moni, Gugu, and their accomplices, who were released from jail to play themselves, not simply as bandits but also as decadents living much too well. In one of the film`s most telling sequences, its director explains to Irene Lusztig that it was not really a "documentary" because he took license here and there. "I was just working for my boss," he adds.
Through Lusztig`s multi-generational story, no one can stay in one place because there is no one place for anyone, except perhaps Israel. Immediately after the war, Moni spent three years on a kibbutz, only to return to Bucharest. After her release from prison, she went back to Israel, where she died in the late 1970s. Her sister and brother-in-law, who raised her daughter, Miki, during her incarceration, emigrated to England. This broken and beleaguered family reflects in miniature the postwar Jewish diaspora.
No one finds reconciliation — not with the past, with the family, or with themselves. All of them dwell on recriminations and on settling scores for ancient transgressions, both personal and political. Moni`s brother-in-law considers Gugu something of a fool and a crackpot, not the tragically flawed man he surely was. Moni`s sister condemns her incessant drive to be "different," instead of seeing the pathos in her. She, in turn, derives no satisfaction for having raised Miki. For her part, Miki considers her aunt a contemptible woman and an inadequate surrogate mother who nearly ruined her life. She also resents her real mother for abandoning her. Mother and daughter did not quite reconcile even after Moni was released from jail.
Moni was a confused and complicated woman who had a child with the first of her three husbands as a sort of romantic adventure. She had a relatively brief affair with Communism but a seemingly longer one with material possessions, and never quite learned how to grow old. She dies a sad but mercifully sudden death alone—estranged from her daughter—in bed amid a heap of estrogen bottles and the torn wrappings of chocolate bars. Miki has something of a change of heart near the end of film, sighing that Moni was merely "looking for love."
One can only wonder about such portraits. We necessarily see these figures, and Moni in particular, through the lens of Irene Lusztig. It is her camera, not ours, and it is her voice that narrates the tale. She tells us that she has not been involved in politics and compares political engagement to "falling in love," an odd metaphor indeed for her grandmother`s generation. The political world that engulfed Moni and her circle through the Fascist era and the Cold War appears as elusive as the love and affection that escaped the family. The adage that we all make history but not in circumstances of our own choosing applies with special force to the Holocaust generation. The tragedy in this case is the legacy of nearly unremitting personal bitterness — at least by this telling. Another telling years from now may well evoke still another Reconstruction; we do that to history just as history does that to us.
Reconstruction uses family photos and recent footage interspersed with newsclips from the postwar era. The latter are especially effective. They strongly evoke the gray and gloomy world of heavy-handed bureaucrats in overstuffed suits and broad-brimmed hats. Even in its boom phase, when the regime vowed to restore Bucharest as the "Paris of the East," the city never quite rose above its dark provincialism. It looked worse by the time the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed on Christmas Day 1989. The Cold War era clips have an amateurish quality, a reflection perhaps of the ham-handedness of one of the East Bloc`s more primitive regimes. By the same token, so do the street scenes and interviews shot by Lusztig, but in a different way. Her camera betrays the sometimes unsteady hand of the home movie maker, not the tightly controlled vision of the tyrant state. And perhaps fittingly so. Reconstruction is, after all, a profoundly personal story, a home movie in black.
Bruce Laurie, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has just completed six years of service on the board of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.
Reconstruction was supported by major grants from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. The film won the Best Documentary Award at the 2001 Boston Film Festival. For more information, go to www.komsomolfilms.com.
©2002 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities
Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2002