As upon much of the world's early cinema, the ravages of time have left their mark upon Romanian film prints. Tens of titles have been destroyed or lost for good. From these films, only memories, articles and photos published in the newspapers of the time have remained. Since 1965 Arhiva Naţională de Filme (A.N.F.) (The National Film Archive) has made serious efforts to reconstruct the obscure history of the beginnings of Romanian cinema, in parallel with the publication of memoirs and private research undertaken by great lovers of cinema, such as film critics Ion I. Cantacuzino and Tudor Caranfil, together with the directors Jean Mihail and Jean Georgescu.
Romanian cinema has recently achieved worldwide acclaim with the appearance of such films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, directed by Cristi Puiu, (Cannes 2005 Prix un certain regard winner), and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, directed by Cristian Mungiu (Cannes 2007 Palme d'Or winner). The latter, according to Variety, is "further proof of Romania's new prominence in the film world.
The first cinematographic projection in Romania took place on 27 May 1896, less than five months after the first public film exhibition by the Lumière brothers on 28 December 1895 in Paris. In the Romanian exhibition, a team of Lumière brothers' employees screened several films, including the famous L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. The event was arranged by Edwin Schurmann, the impressario of Adelina Patti and Eleonora Duse, and was hosted by the French-language newspaper L'Indépendance Roumanie. Mişu Văcărescu (descendant of the boyar Văcărescu family), a journalist for L'Indépendance Roumanie, noted that "there took place a representation of 'the miracle of the century'". Initially an elite attraction, permanent screenings both in the building of L'Indépendance Roumanie and in other locations (such as the biggest room of the newspaper building on Eforiei Spitalelor Civile Boulevard, then the Hugues room across from the old National Theatre) helped bring the ticket price down and cinema became a popular spectacle in Bucharest.
The next year, in 1897, the French cameraman Paul Menu (an employee of the Lumière brothers) shot the first film set in Romania, The Royal parade on 10 May 1897, showing King Carol I mounted, taking his place on the boulevard to head the parade (A.N.F.). He continued by filming other 16 news items over the following two months, but only two survive today as nr. 551 and 552 in the Lumière catalogue. Menu's first Romanian films were presented on 8 June/23 June 1897, including images of the floods at Galaţi, Romanian Navy vessels on the Danube, and scenes from the Băneasa Hippodrome.
However, by 1898 public interest in cinema started fading, so Paul Menu offered his camera for sale ("L'Indépendance Roumaine", 16 March 1898). The camera was bought by doctor Gheorghe Marinescu who became the first Romanian filmmaker, realizing a series of short medically-themed films between 1898 and 1899. Gheorghe Marinescu, together with cameraman Constantin M. Popescu, made in 1898 the first scientific film in the world, Walking difficulties in organic hemiplegia. In a letter to doctor Marinescu from 29 July 1924, speaking about these films, Auguste Lumière acknowledges that "unfortunately, few scientists followed the path you opened". His films were considered lost until 1975, when a TV reporter named Cornel Rusu discovered them in a metal cabinet in a hospital bearing the famous doctor's name.(A.N.F.)
Film screenings resumed in Bucharest in 1905 at various locations, as the Edison, the Eforie, the Lyric Theatre, and Circul Sidoli. In May 1909, the first theater in Romania built especially for exhibiting films, Volta, was opened on Doamnei Street in Bucharest. Transylvania, then part of Austria-Hungary, had already had its first movie theatre in Braşov since 1901. Volta was followed starting with the next year by others, such as Bleriot on Sărindar Street, Bristol, Apollo and Venus. The programs consisted of actualities and short "little films with actors" (for example, a five minute shot of Victor Eftimiu and Aristizza Romanescu during a stately walk on the seashore). The films gradually increased in running time, eventually developing into newsreels and fiction films.
The first Romanian fiction films are wrapped in an aura of legend.
An investigation regarding the beginnings of Romanian cinema, published in an insert of the newspaper "Cuvântul" (The Word) in December 1933, mentions that in 1911 an "arrangement of a play for the cinema", Păpuşa (The Doll), was produced by the cameramen Nicolae Barbelian and Demichelli in collaboration with the head of the actors' troupe, Marinescu. At the same time, Victor Eftimiu, in collaboration with Emil Gârleanu, wrote a film script which they offered for free to a certain Georgescu. The resultant film, called Dragoste la mănăstire (Love in a Monastery) or Două altare (Two Altars) and shown only in 1914, played for just eight days. This was despite the fact that the film was composed merely of shots taken during two rehearsals for the role, attended by Tony Bulandra and Marioara Voiculescu, the rest of the film being taken up by intertitles and long letters.
The first Romanian fiction film was Amor fatal (Fatal Love Affair), starring Lucia Sturdza, Tony Bulandra and Aurel Barbelian, actors from the National Theatre Bucharest. The film was directed by Grigore Brezeanu, a director from the same theatre and the son of the great actor Ion Brezeanu. The film played between 26 and 30 September 1911 at the Apollo Cinema.
On 7 November 1911, the film Înşir'te mărgărite... (Spread Yourselves, Daisies) premiered. It was based on Victor Eftimiu's poem, and in fact showed scenes filmed in different locations in the country for the completion of the play with the same name that was playing at the National Theatre Bucharest; it was what today would be called a magic lantern show. Aristide Demetriade and Grigore Brezeanu directed. Aristide Demetriade appeared in the role of Făt-Frumos. This film/theatre hybrid was well-received by spectators of the day.
In December 1911, the theatrical magazine Rampa published a note under the heading The Cinema in the Theatre (signed by V. Scânteie) indicating that "The Maestro Nottara is in the course of making a patriotic work re-creating the Romanian War of Independence on film, so that today's generations might learn the story of the battles of 1877, and for future generations a live tableau of Romanian bravery will remain".
As a result, the director of the Bucharest branch of the Gaumont-Paris studio, Raymond Pellerin, announced the premiere of his film Războiul din 1877-1878 (The 1877-1878 War), scheduled for 29 December 1911. A "film" made in haste, with a troupe of second-hand actors and with the help of General Constantinescu, who commanded a division at Piteşti, from whom he had obtained the extras needed for the war scenes, "Războiul din 1877-1878" was screened a day before by the prefect of the capital's police, who decided that it did not correspond with historic fact. Consequently, the film was confiscated and destroyed, Raymond Pellerin was declared persona non grata and he left for Paris, while the "collaborationist" general saw himself moved to another garrison as a means of discipline.
On 5 May 1912, the magazine Flacăra (The Flame) brought to its readers' attention the fact that "as it is known, a few artists have founded a society with the goal of producing a film about the War of Independence... Such an undertaking deserves to be applauded". The initiators were a group of actors: C. Nottara, Aristide Demetriade, V. Toneanu, I. Brezeanu, N. Soreanu, P. Liciu, as well as the young Grigore Brezeanu, associate producer and the creative force behind the whole operation. Since a large amount of money was needed for the production, they also brought into this effort Leon Popescu, a wealthy man and owner of the Lyric Theatre. The group received strong backing from government authorities, with the army and all necessary equipment being placed at its disposal, plus military advisers (possibly including Pascal Vidraşcu). The cameras and their operators were brought from abroad, and the print was prepared in Parisian laboratories. Could Grigore Brezeanu have been the film's director? No source from that time gives credence to such a hypothesis. On the contrary, they present him as "initiator", producer of the film, beside members of the National Theatre and Leon Popescu. Furthermore, it appears that it was he who attracted the financier of the entire undertaking. In 1985, the film critic Tudor Caranfil discovered among Aristide Demetriade's papers his director's notebooks for Independenţa României, unequivocally confirming that he was the film's director. Thus, the film's production crew was as follows: Producers: Leon Popescu, Aristide Demetriade, Grigore Brezeanu, Constantin Nottara, Pascal Vidraşcu. Screenwriters: Petre Liciu, Constantin Nottara, Aristide Demetriade, Corneliu Moldoveanu. Director: Aristide Demetriade. Cinematographer: Franck Daniau. Makeup and hairstylist: Pepi Machauer (see a clip here: A.N.F.).
On 2 September 1912, at the Eforie cinema, the largest movie theatre in Bucharest, the premiere of Independenţa României took place. Despite all its shortcomings as the theatrical game of the actors, the errors of an army of extras uncontrolled by direction which provoked unintended laughter in some scenes and rendered dramatically limp those of the beginning, the film was well received by spectators, being shown for several weeks. Through this realization, through the dimensions of its theme, through the distribution method chosen, through the genuine artistic intentions, through its professional editing (for the time), the creation of this film can be considered Romania's first step in the art of cinematography.
And yet he who had realized this work, the man who kept the whole team together, the theatre directror Grigore Brezeanu, was left disappointed. The press of the time made ostentatious mention of Leon Popescu, who financed the film and made sure to distance the other financiers, buying their part; no such praise was heaped on the artistic makers of the film. This caused producer Grigore Brezeanu to say in an interview given to the magazine "Rampa" and published on 13 April 1913: "My dream would have been to build a large film studio. I have come to believe that this is impossible. First of all, we are missing a large capital investment. Without money we cannot rival the foreign studios...A studio, according to our financiers, is something outside art, something in the realm of agriculture or the C.F.R. Hence I have abandoned this dream with great regret."
But Leon Popescu---after the appearance of certain products allegedly of the Romanian cinema, filmed by the Pathe-Frères studio and featuring second-hand actors; in fact, these were a mixture of foreign films with scenes shot in which Romanian actors appeared (they were presented on the stages of movie theatres, in the form of theatre productions played by actors "in flesh and blood" coupled with filmed scenes of the same actors), known as "cinemasketches"---responded with a wide-ranging offensive plan, forming the Film de artă Leon Popescu (Leon Popescu Art Film) society in 1913.
Collaborating with the troupe of Marioara Voiculescu, which included actors sympathetic to Popescu (C. Radovici, Ion Manolescu and G. Storin), they managed to put on the market the following films: Amorul unei prinţese (The Love Affair of a Princess) (1913), Răzbunarea (Revenge) (1913), Urgia cerească (The Sky-borne Disaster) (1913), Cetatea Neamţului (The German's Citadel) (1914), Spionul (The Spy) (1914), with all but the penultimate proving to be well below expectations.
Notably, in 1913, there appeared another Romanian film, Oţelul răzbună (Steel Takes Its Revenge), directed by Aristide Demetriade - who that same year directed another film: Scheci cu Jack Bill (Sketch with Jack Bill). The film was financed by the director, with substantial help from Professor Gheorghe Arion (8,000 lei). The 40-minute film received favorable reviews and enjoyed great success. Today only one reel remains at the A.N.F., taking up a minute of projection time; happily, all the actors can be seen in close-up. The film's producer was Gheorghe Arion; its director and editor was Aristide Demetriade; Franck Daniau was the cinematographer, and it starred Aristide Demetriade, Andrei Popovici, Marioara Cinsky, Ţacovici-Cosmin, N. Grigorescu, Petre Bulandra and Romald Bulfinsky.
At the end of 1914, the Leon Popescu Society merged with the Cipeto society with the aim of importing small-sized projectors and at the same time of renting films produced by the Marioara Voiculescu company to third parties.
During the First World War, film production was mainly directed toward documentaries and newsreels. The few Romanian cameramen were mobilized, and during the retreat to Moldova all film cameras in the country were saved. His Majesty Ferdinand I was filmed on the front, together with the generals Constantin Prezan and Alexandru Averescu, while Queen Marie was filmed in hospitals, easing the suffering of patients. Few sequences remain of the thousands of metres filmed. Some of these were later used in the film Ecaterina Teodoroiu, produced in 1930. ( here)
After World War I, internationally, film production developed in accordance with the interest of businessmen in the new industry. New studios endowed with good equipment and specialists well trained in the new technology appeared, directors and actors known to the public at large were attracted to work in the new industry, as were renowned screenwriters. Markets were opened for finished film products, which through a market-tested formula managed to bring profits and finance new productions. Film industries with lavish financial resources came to dominate the market, decimating weak national cinemas.
In this context, an active Romanian film industry was but a dream. The approximately 250 movie theatres then in existence in Romania could not even generate the amount of money needed for one film, with profits out of the question. Specialist training for film crew members was non-existent, and Romanian actors were unknown abroad so their work could not be sold outside Romania. Neither did the state accord any attention to film production. Its only preoccupation in this regard was to collect the tax on screenings, which provided a fairly consistent revenue stream, its proceeds at one time amounting to 2/3 of total revenue derived from this type of tax. (This also happened in Communist Romania, when the tax on screenings, collected from the film distribution network, covered all the expenses of the Council of Socialist Culture and Education, including film production.)
To all these were added two other catastrophes: Leon Popescu died in 1918, after which his "studio" (in fact some improvised sets in warehouses) on the grounds of the Lyric Theatre burned down; miraculously, of all the films, only one was saved: a copy of Independenţa României (this being incomplete, with about 20 minutes missing). (According to other versions of the story told at the time, suffering from a crisis of nerves brought about by his films' failures, Leon Popescu set fire to his own storehouse of films and died shortly thereafter.)
In 1920, a film studio, Soarele (The Sun), began producing Pe valurile fericirii (On the Waves of Happiness), which starred a foreign actress, Lya De Putty, and the Romanian actors Maria Filotti, Ion Manolescu, Gheorghe Storin, Alexandru Mihalescu and Tantzi Cutava-Barozzi. It was directed by Dolly A. Sigetti and the script was based on a play by K. Williamson. The film was never completed. Nevertheless, a few sequences were shown in the form of a trailer.
The year 1921 marked the production of the first Romanian animated film, more precisely of the first Romanian animated cartoon, conceived by Aurel Petrescu and called Păcală pe lună (Păcală on the moon). Surprisingly, all the animated films of this director and artist, which he was producing into the sound era, are lost. Showing foresight, Aurel Petrescu created an album with about 80 stills, today owned by the A.N.F. and from which we can get an idea of the techniques used by Petrescu in animating. Some stills have on their edge the black strip denoting recorded sound, which has led researchers to confirm that in his last phase, Petrescu produced sound cartoons.
Jean Mihail also entered the turbulent milieu called the cinema at this time. He was one of the pioneers of Romanian cinema and began his career through his participation as assistant director under the German Alfred Hallm, director of Ţigăncuşa din iatac (The Little Gypsy Girl in the Bedroom). The film, shot on locations such as Mogoşoaia Palace, Pasărea Monastery, and Minovici Vila, was based on a script by Victor Beldiman, in turn written after a novel by Radu Rosseti. It was a Spera-Film Berlin and Rador-Film Bucharest co-production. It starred Dorina Heller, Elvira Popescu, Ion Iancovescu, Mitzi Vecera, Tantzi Elvas, Ecaterina Vigny, Leon Lefter, Petre Sturdza, Petrescu Muscă and premiered on 30 December 1923. Sadly, the film is lost today.
The lack of a steady supply of financial resources was the constant obsession permanently plaguing Romanian film directors. The absence of a "Leon Popescu", a wealthy man ready to invest his earnings in film production, caused directors and the few actors passionate about the new art to seek financiers who were equally passionate and disinterested. This is how the young actor-director Jean Georgescu found a retiree in the year 1925 who, for more or less artistic reasons, invested his savings in the production of a film called Năbădăile Cleopatrei (Cleopatra's Caprices). Ion Şahighian made his directing debut on this film, which starred Jean Georgescu, Ion Finteşteanu, A. Pop Marţian, Alexandru Giugaru, N. Soreanu, Brânduşa Grozăvescu and others. It premiered on 5 October 1925 at the Lux theatre. In the same fashion, Jean Georgescu produced the film Milionar pentru o zi (Millionaire for a Day) (1925) in a Bucharest cabaret, since the owner wanted to advertise the building.
Jean Mihail directed Lia (1927), on a screenplay by Mircea Filotti financed by a German businessman who wanted to fulfill the wish of his wife, well-known actress Lilly Flohr. Likewise, he made Povara (The Burden) at Vienna in 1928 with the money of a lady who wished to see her name listed in the credits as production director.
At the request of a firm that sold coffee, radios, etc., Marcel Blossoms and Micu Kellerman directed the film Lache în harem (1927) (The valet in the harem).
On other occasions, due to lack of money, film enthusiasts would form a cooperative: one would contribute the camera, the other the laboratory, the other the script, the other the direction; the actors were easily obtained due to their desire to see themselves on screen, and finally they had to find a creditor willing to lend them some money on the assurance that it would be returned to him after "the great success of the premiere". This is how there appeared under Jean Mihail's direction Păcat (Sin) (1924) and Manasse (Manasseh) (1925). The actor Ghiţă Popescu directed Legenda celor două cruci (The Legend of the Two Crosses) (1925), Vitejii neamului (The Bravest of Our People) (1926) and Năpasta (The Calamity) (1927). Jean Georgescu directed Maiorul Mura (Major Mura) (1928), financed by collecting money from friends.
The attraction of the screen and the real desire to make a name for oneself in the new art led to the foundation of several film schools. Students' tuition fees paid for the production of certain films. Of course, the students were unpaid actors, which allowed for widespread distribution. The Clipa-Film studio produced, with this form of financing, the films Iadeş (The Wishbone) (1926), Iancu Jianu (1927), Haiducii (The Haiducs) (1929), Ciocoii (The Boyars) (1930) and, later, Insula Şerpilor (Snake Island) (1934), the penultimate one featuring an attempt at sound, and the last one being a talkie.
On the other hand, a film production society called Soremar, generally specializing in documentaries and Newsreels), produced the 1928 film Simfonia dragostei (The Symphony of Love), directed by Ion Şahighian . With the director Niculescu Brumă they produced the film Ecaterina Teodoroiu, in which there appear clips filmed during the First World War of the great personages of the time; the mother of Ecaterina Teodoroiu appeared as herself. These films were produced in Vienna studios.
From a technical point of view, making these films was very difficult. If a film camera could be obtained from newsreel photographers, the print was prepared with them also. The problem of finding a set to use was very difficult, with the director searching for a set among all nearby warehouses, granaries, stables or dance halls. Sometimes filming was done in different apartments or in homes owned by those willing to help. Lights were usually gathered up from photographers' studios. Often, due to overcrowding in residences, films would accidentally display a light or the cameraman and his camera reflected in a mirror or a piece of furniture. The best locations were those offered by various theatres on occasion that work take place at night. Another solution was for them to shoot interiors outdoors. They built their "interiors" on sets exposed to sunlight (thus eliminating artificial lights) and built on a platform that could be rotated and thus make full use of sunlight. The technical crews, in contrast to those found abroad, had to be jacks-of-all-trades, yet ultimately workmen: the cameraman would also prepare the print in the laboratory, the director might be a make-up artist as well, the producer a prop-man, an actor an assistant director. As for distribution, this depended on the actors' willingness to work for free. To all this was added the fact that negatives were scarce, meaning that sequences were filmed in one take only, regardless of the quality of the outcome.
The lack of innovation in the field, due to a lack of materials and sometimes of information, caused these suffering devotees of the new muse to play things by ear, with many films showing weak artistry.
Even if the conditions in which these people worked and created did not allow them to reach a level equal to wider contemporary standards on a technical level, they still managed to record a pretty page in the annals of Romanian film history, despite all the inherent artistic lapses at the beginning.
On the other hand, the intellectuals of the day still considered cinematographic art to be a lowly sideshow, not according it its due importance. It is true that the specialty press was also rather thin on content and sometimes uninspired. In 1928 Tudor Vianu wrote in the article "The Movie Theatre and the Radio Broadcaster in the Politics of Culture": "The cinematic press [was] created first of all in order to sustain the interests of cinematographic capitalism...There is no actor, no matter how mediocre, not to have been proclaimed a first-rate star by the cinematic press and there is no film, no matter how boring or mundane, not to have been declared an incomparable achievement".
At the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, cinema entered the consciousness of certain Romanian writers and cultural figures, such as Tudor Vianu, Liviu Rebreanu, Victor Eftimiu, Camil Petrescu and Dimitrie Gusti, who all became aware of this new mode of expression and culture. As Rebreanu observed in 1930,
...In the great haste toward the realization of the art, of a true cinematographic art, Romanian efforts cannot be futile. As much as our material and technical means have not permitted us to participate in the peoples' race toward the new art, I think the moment must come when we bring a Romanian contribution as well...Romanian talent would have a large possibility to manifest itself.
It is worth noting what the princess-poet Elena Văcărescu (the princess who would have become Romania's first native-born queen had King Carol I not forcefully intervened to stop her idyll with prince Ferdinand) said in 1930 about the importance of the seventh art: "Having great power at its disposal, the cinema should work hard...toward the greatest good of peoples and what brings them together, that is, toward peace".
The appearance of sound films opened a new stage in the development of world cinema, by implication in the weak cinema of Romania as well. The appearance of sound further complicated the tricky problem of the tehnical-material base, both in terms of production and of projection in theatres. Competition from abroad shattered the dreams of Romanian producers, such that the number of films produced after 1930 within the cinema of Romania fell noticeably. Hence, until 1939, just 16 films were produced. The majority were "Romanian versions" of foreign films produced in Paris, Prague or Budapest studios with a few Romanian technicians and some Romanian actors. Practically, they were involved in dubbing. Among these were the Franco-American film Parada Paramount (Paramount on Parade), Televiziune (Television) (both 1931 and dubbed in Paris) (with George Vraca's voice in the second film), Fum (Smoke) 1931, Trenul fantomă (The Phantom Train) 1933, Prima dragoste (First Love) and Suflete în furtună (Tempest-tossed Souls) 1934, Hungarian films dubbed in Budapest.
The German director Martin Berger, who in 1929 had directed the silent film (among the last Romanian silent films) Venea o moară pe Siret (A Mill Was Coming down the Siret) through an official subsidy, came back and in 1930 directed a film based on the novel by Liviu Rebreanu with the same name, Ciuleandra. This was the first Romanian talking film. The film was an artistic fiasco because the famous German actors provoked laughter through the German accent they had when speaking Romanian. Even the few Romanian actors who appeared in the film spoke strangely, as the German producers, being unused to the cadence of the Romanian language, imposed a diction of phrases with long pauses. Hence, in one scene, the son climbed down a staircase saying one word on each step: "How... are... you... father?". The reply sounds the same: "Fine... dear..."!
The year 1932 brought the production Visul lui Tănase (Tănase's Dream) to Romanian screens. It was self-produced in Berlin by Constantin Tănase. He was the film's financier, screenwriter, and its principal star alongside several good Romanian actors, while the German side provided the studio, direction, technicians, and a troupe of actors.
The great comedians of the inter-war Romanian stage, Stroe and Vasilache, managed, with the help of a Romanian engineer, Argani, who had put together a sound device, to produce the only entirely domestic film of the period, titled Bing-Bang (1934). As film posters noted, it was a "humorous musical" based on a script by Argani, Stroe and Vasilache; with camerawork by I. Bartok; music by N. Stroe and Vasile Vasilache; musical arrangements by Mihai Constantinescu and Max Halm; and starring N. Stroe, Vasile Vasilache, Nora Piacenti, Grigore Vasiliu Birlic, Titi Botez, C. Calmuschi, Silly Vasiliu, Nutzi Pantazi, Lucica Părvulescu, Richard Rang, Alexandru Brunetti, and Alexandru Giovani. Its premiere took place on 7 February 1935 at the Arpa cinema (inside the Bucharest Cercul Militar).
Enthusiastic Romanian directors, due to lack of funds and disinterest on the part of the ruling authorities, all began to take other paths in their lives. Jean Georgescu left for Paris, where he added sound to his 1934 film, State la Bucureşti (States in Bucharest) in the Gaumont Studio; the film had originally been made as a silent comedy. Ion Şahighian left cinema for the theatre. Eftimie Vasilescu worked as a newsreel photographer. Only Jean Mihail remained a director based in Romania, though he too had to do work abroad, participating in the dubbing of films at Hunia-Film in Budapest and Barandov in Czechoslovakia.
During this nadir of Romanian cinema a ray of hope appeared. Politicians, and not only in Romania, realized the great influential power that cinema had as part of the mass media. Cinema could be used for purposes of propaganda, for influencing the masses at large with different levels of culture. (Even Lenin, realizing the propaganda power of film, said: "Of all the arts, the most important for us is cinema". Hence, film could be used as an important ideological weapon and the Communists needed it in their "great work" of destroying democracies). Furthermore, it had been proven that the tenacious work of Romanian film directors, despite all its imperfections, had been well received by the public, and had begun to prove right those who kept calling for subsidies toward the production of Romanian films.
Thus, at the beginning of 1934, a law was passed establishing a National Cinema Fund. This was funded through a tax of 1 leu per ticket and 10 lei per meter of imported film. Its stated purpose was to create a material base for Romanian film production (studios, laboratories, equipment, etc.) and, as subsequent revenue came in, to finance productions as well. The fund's administration was placed in the hands of a committee formed by Professor Tudor Vianu, Professor Alexandru Rosetti and the writer Ion Marin Sadoveanu. These taxes provoked strong protests from film importers and movie theatre owners, yet with the authorities not yielding, tempers soon relaxed.
Following the passage of this law, Romanian cinéastes began a flurry of activity, planning all sorts of projects. An entrepreneur brought in a Bell-Howel sound recorder and founded a company called The Romanian Sound Film Industry, commencing with the production of newsreels. Together with Jean Mihail he began the production of a documentary film, România (Romania).
Through the contribution of a private entrepreneur, Tudor Posmantir, a laboratory named Ciro-film was built in 1936–1937, equipped with Debrie devices. This was a modern laboratory for developing and copying films, thus assuring that modern work techniques would be used. A "film studio" was also built nearby–this was in fact a large wooden hangar, but rather good for producing films. It was here that Ion Şahighian filmed O noapte de pomină (An Unforgettable Night), from a script by Tudor Muşatescu, starring George Timică and Dina Cocea, in 1939. The film found great success with audiences and received a favorable critical reception. Thus it was shown what good technical equipment could do for the industry.
Through various governments' decisions, the National Cinema Fund was placed within the Tourism Office, where a cinema section had been established for creating travelogues. The material base created was that initially stated as the project's goal and indeed of good quality. The film cameras were of the newsreel type, with portable sound equipment set up in an automobile; work was soon finished on a sound recording room for documentaries, with minimal artificial lights in the studio. This all disappointed the creators of artistic films, as they lacked suitable sets for filming.
Also in this period at the end of the 1930s, Oficiul Naţional Cinematografic (O.N.C., the National Cinematographic Office) was formed, headed by the film critic D. I. Suchianu. In the beginning the office worked on a periodic newsreel program and on documentary production. Construction was also begun on a studio and completed with difficulty due to the start of World War II. The O.N.C. produced the documentary Ţara Moţilor, which received a prize at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. The film was directed by Paul Călinescu and marked the entry of the Romanian documentary into the realm of cinematic art ( A.N.F., the second). During the war, the O.N.C. was placed at the disposal of the Army General Staff, the majority of cameramen being sent to the front, and technicians being employed exclusively for the needs of wartime propaganda.
Despite all these difficulties, the film O noapte furtunoasă (A Stormy Night) was completed between 1941 and 1942 in the O.N.C. "studio". Producing the film under wartime conditions was a labor fit for Sisyphus, equally for the actors, cameraman, stage electricians, script-girl, stage designers and prop handlers. All the exteriors had to be constructed in the small 18x11 m studio, intended for music recording, since exterior shooting at night was impossible due to the need to maintain camouflage. For panoramic or travelling shots, two or three scenes had to be shot on a stage that had to be decorated two or three times over, and then combined in order to constitute a whole shot. The way this worked in practice was that once a scene was filmed, the set was taken down and the next design thrown up. Only one thing was not lacking for them: photographic material. In the end, 29,000 m were shot. The film O noapte furtunoasă was directed by Jean Georgescu, based on the eponymous comedy by Ion Luca Caragiale; the assistant directors were Ionel Iliescu, Virgil Stoenescu, I. Marinescu, and P. Băleanu; the cameraman was Gerard Perrin (from Paris); the sound engineers were A. Bielisici, V. Cantunari, and G. Mărăi; editing was done by Ivonne Herault (from Paris) and Lucia Anton; makeup by the Sturh couple (of Berlin); choregraphy by Emil Bobescu; music by Paul Constantinescu; set design by Ştefan Norris; storyboards and costumes by Aurel Jiquidi; and production direction by Ion I. Cantacuzino. The film starred Alexandru Giugaru, Maria Maximilian, Florica Demion, Radu Beligan, Iordănescu Bruno, George Demetru, Ion Baroi, G. Ciprian, Miluţă Ghiorghiu, Leontina Ioanid, Doina Missir, Iuliana Sym, Cornelia Teodosiu, Elena Bulandra, Vasiliu Falti, Lică Rădulescu, Ion Stănescu, Nicolae Teodoru, O. Rocos, Iancu Constantinescu and Jean Mascopol. It premiered on 22 March 1943 at the ARO theatre. This was the first and last film produced by the O.N.C.; for many years it remained a point of reference in the annals of cinematic art in Romania.
Film production nevertheless continued. In 1944, a Romanian-Italian company, Cineromit, assigned the production of the film Visul unei nopţi de iarnă (A Winter Night's Dream) to director Jean Georgescu; the script was from the play by Tudor Muşatescu. The film was finished only near the end of the year 1945 due to the events of the war. For the most part, the technical crew was that of O noapte furtunoasă, plus the French cameraman Louis Behrend. The actors were George Demetru, Ana Colda, Maria Filotti, Mişu Fotino and Radu Beligan. It premiered on 2 March 1946 at the Excelsior cinema.
There followed in rapid succession several productions completed in cooperaration with Danish and Hungarian studios by Balcan-Film Company Bucharest. Of note were "Allo Bucureşti" (Hello Bucharest), "Furtul din Arizona" (The Arizona Theft) and "Două lumi şi o dragoste" (Two Worlds and One Love''), all made in 1946.
Also important was the 1946, production Pădurea îndrăgostiţilor (The Lovers' Forest), produced at Doina-Film, on which the O.N.C. technical crew worked, with the director and cameraman being Cornel Dumitrescu.
2 November 1948 meant a new beginning for Romanian cinema. On that day, Decree 303, regarding "the nationalization of the film industry and the regulation of commerce in cinematic products", was signed.
This can also be called the period of socialist cinema. Following "the teaching of the great Lenin, the ideologue of the social formation of the proletarian class", who showed that "of all the arts, the most important for us is cinema", however, not as an art but as an instrument of ideological influence, the newly-installed regime fully subsidised the production of films which, as a necessity, as an imperative, openly disseminated propaganda.
In an era in which "not being with us means being against us", films had to actively strive to show the realities of the new society. Socialist films had to reflect the struggle of the "new man" against the "old retrograde society, a society in which man exploited his fellow man, full of capitalists and men of inherited wealth who sucked the blood of the working classes". Many films had as their theme the attempts of the retrograde bourgeois-landed gentry class to render futile the new objectives of victorious socialism through their stooges; but these efforts would fail because the Romanian Workers' (later Communist) Party, through its activists, would inspire, depending on the situation, workers or peasants toward victory. The same themes were found in documentaries and newsreels. Everything in these productions was "gilt" with the "glorious achievements of the working class allied with the working peasantry".
Also notable is the fact that the choice of actors for such productions was not random. Fat actors, especially those with a paunch, were chosen to play the landed gentry, while poor peasants were played by those actors who were thin yet possessed a piercing gaze and a determined gait; those who played party activists had to have the look of a workman, be muscular, and have an intelligent facial expression. The choice of actors was very important in sketching out the characters that they would play.
Unequivocally, the cinematic art of the period can be said to have been, in fact, an illustration of the era's ideology. Films had to unmask, to be hymns for a new life, to plead for some Party objective, to sound an alarm, or to show the glorious past of the working class's struggle or that of the working peasantry.
So as to have cadres ready to fill the necessary positions in the industry, Institutul de artă cinematografică (The Institute of Cinematographic Art") was founded, with a mission of preparing the new cadres needed for the new cinema: actors, directors and cameramen. It was from here that the "golden generation" not only of Romanian film but also of the national theatre graduated: the actors Silvia Popovici, Iurie Darie, Florin Piersic, Constantin Diplan, Amza Pellea, Dem Rădulescu, Stela Popescu, Sebastian Papaiani, Leopoldina Bălănuţă and Draga Olteanu, along with directors like Manole Marcus, Geo Saizescu, Iulian Mihu, Gheorghe Vitanidis, and many others.
Romania now had a national cinema after a period when the old regime had not really invested anything in the new art. The socialist authorities, through the investments made, wanted to show the whole world and at the same time to prove how much it cared about the new art, "the seventh art", as the cultural commisars of film work said with pride–men who were also called "gum-flappers" by the new professionals who made films out of passion for the art. These commisars were people who, 90% of the time, had no connection not only with the cinema, but also with culture; people who did not even have a middling amount of preparation, who came from all sorts of unrelated fields and who themselves in discussions labelled film as "a pipe dream". At least in the distribution networks, the directors of the cinematographic enterprises, at first regional, then county-wide, were activists who at a certain point in time were determined no longer to be able to carry out the "exigent demands" of Party work. Still, the real purpose for which these cadres were put into place is that suggested above. Here too there were exceptions, exceptions which were beneficial to the act of film distribution. Even if when they entered the industry they had nothing in common with the cinema, the wonderful world of the screen fascinated them, changed their conception about film and allowed them to make beneficial contributions to the industry later on. They lobbied for funds to replace the technically obsolete film equipment; they changed the appearance of movie theatres, installing elegant padded seats in place of the earlier wooden ones; they acquired ventilation systems and many other things conducive to a quality film-going experience.
At the time of nationalization, the technical-material base of film production consisted of:
This fact led the leading Party and state institutions to decide to found a center for film production. In 1950, construction began at Buftea on what would come to be called Centrul de producţie cinematografică Buftea (The Buftea Studio), also known as C.P.C. Buftea (today MediaPro Pictures). The project was finished in 1959. Technically speaking, C.P.C. Buftea rivalled any Western European film studio.
In this period a series of films was produced at the Floreasca Complex, which, since 1956, had been taken over by Televiziunea Română (Romanian Television). This studio was much bigger than that used at the time of nationalization (600 m²); it had a recording room, further technical installations in annexes, and a laboratory for the preparation of 35 mm prints both in black and white and color (Orwo color). Another studio of about 320 m² was built inside the Tomis cinema.
For the production of technical supplies needed both by studios and film distributors, Intreprinderea de Stat Tehnocin (The Tehnocin State Enterprise) was founded in 1950 and in 1959 merged with Industria Optică Română (The Romanian Optics Industry). Movie projectors for 35 mm and 16 mm film were produced, as were sound systems for movie theatres, reflecting lenses, dollies, and artificial studio lights.
Likewise, so that there would be technical cadres well-prepared to work in studios and in the operation of movie projectors, professional schools for projectionists were founded at Craiova and Târgu-Mureş, while at Bucharest, a "technical school for technical personnel" was opened, intended to prepare movie theatre operators and studio managers.
Earlier, mention was made of documentaries and newsreels being as necessary as fiction films for Communist propaganda. For this purpose the Alex Sahia Studio was founded in 1950, equipped with the best materials then available on the market: Arriflex reporters' cameras, Klang, Perfectone and Negra portable and fixed sound recording devices, Prevost editing tables, and other items. From 1954 another type of documentary began to be produced: popular science films.
If, until 1948, the production of animated films was virtually non-existent, after this year many such films began to be produced at the Bucharest Studio, with a total of 15 films in 1955. Particularly notable was the contribution of Ion Popescu-Gopo, father of the little man who, appearing in Scurtă istorie (A Short History) in 1957, won him a Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at Cannes that year. The success of Romania's animated films convinced the authorities to found the Animafilm studio in 1964. Here, "diafilms", slides for teaching use, were also produced, as were television commercials.
As far as the distribution of films is concerned, after the nationalization of movie theatres (only 35 mm ones, as 16 mm theatres did not exist), it was concluded that many had to be shut down because of their decaying state or because of their physically obsolete equipment. A crisis followed, there being a shortage of theatre administrators and projectionists that forced films in some counties to be shown only outdoors. This situation caused the Committee for Cinematography to be formed on 7 June 1950 alongside the Council of Ministers, and inside this institution the Film Distribution Network Directorate was established. Later, this office ran the County-level Cinematographic State Enterprises when they were established. The importance of these led to the allocation of funds necessary for the film distribution network to be developed. Implicitly, movie theatres and the establishment of 16 mm cinemas in rural areas were also a goal–together, these objectives were known as cineficare ("filmification", analogous to electrification). In the 1950s 1000 16 mm projectors and 100 film caravans (mobile theatres) were imported from the Soviet Union in order to promote the introduction of film into the rural environment. Reorganizations also took place in the next few years. Thus, in July 1952, Direcţia Difuzării Filmelor (D.D.F.) (The Film Screening Directorate) was founded. In 1956 this was merged with the Film Distribution Network Directorate to form Direcţia Reţelei Cinematografice şi a Difuzării Filmelor (D.R.C.D.F) (The Film Distribution and Screening Directorate), under the guidance of the Ministry of Culture. The purpose of this institution was to promote a single policy regarding Romania's movie theatres, "the control and guidance of political-ideological work with the cinema, the showing of films based on the political-technical demands of the various stages of the construction of socialism", as well as to craft the economical-financial plan to be fulfilled.
The reorganizations continued, so that in 1971 Centrala România-Film (Romania-Film Central) was founded, having under its authority C.P.C. Buftea, the financing of film production through five studios, import-export and the screening of films.
Although the technical vagaries of the industry at this time have nothing to do with the cinema of Romania as an art, it is also useful to recall how distribution into movie theatres took place. Romanian film production, such as it was in 1948, was practically non-existent. The timid beginnings of Romanian film production were started by director Puiu Călinescu with the film Răsună Valea (The Valley Resounds), with a theme similar to those discussed above. But, for such a "rich national production", other films were needed in the screening repertoire. Hence, the focus was on importing films also produced in countries that had started down the path of constructing socialism. Many of them also had "rich productions" and so everyone in the Eastern Bloc's orientation was toward "the country with the best and most educational cinema in the world, the USSR". From here films with a "high ideological content" were imported and shown in Romania.
Of course, not all films on Romanian screens were of this type. Even domestically, besides propaganda films, directors made films which, without renouncing "educational" values, also numbered among them diversionary films, cloak and sword epics, and adaptations of Russian literature. Films were even imported from "other countries", that is, from capitalist ones. Of course, the importation of these films was done in a very rigorous manner with regard to themes. However, the cinephile public was not denied a chance to see some of the great works of world cinema, including works of Italian neorealism and its successors (Rome, open city, Bicycle Thieves, and Rocco e i suoi fratelli), Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, a series of Westerns, Gone with the Wind (USA), and many others from France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Mexico, Japan and China.
Once the number of films (some of which had a weak commercial content but a high political-ideological component and were avoided by the public) produced by Romanian studios rose, and import taxes were lowered, the quality of films shown, in particular that of art films, suffered. At one point 40% of films shown were Romanian and 60% foreign, including those from other Warsaw Pact nations. Many times even these were hostile to ceauşist propaganda (one could no longer speak of "Communist" propaganda), as was Malenkaya Vera, which already displayed the effects of perestroika.
In 2005, Puiu's second feature, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, a journey through the Romanian health care system, competed in the un certain regard category of the Cannes Film Festival and won the prize "Un certain regard". It thereafter won many more prizes around the world, becoming the most awarded Romanian film ever made. American critics, previously rarely interested in Romanian cinema, were especially enthusiastic about the film; it received a 93 percent of reviews categorized by Rotten Tomatoes were positive.
At the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu won the Camera d'Or best-first-feature award for (aka A fost sau n-a fost?) and Catalin Mitulescu (The Way I Spent the End of the World) competed in the Un Certain Regard section. In 2007, Cristian Nemescu's posthumous California Dreamin' won the prize in the Un Certain Regard section, while Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days received the Palme d'Or in the Cannes film festival - the first time a Romanian filmmaker won that prize.
Currently the Romanian film industry is very weak. There are whole Romanian counties without a cinema and unauthorized reproduction of DVDs is common. Even the Romanian ticket income of a successful Hollywood film could not cover the low budget of a Romanian film. Because of this, Romanian films have to obtain financing from abroad and aim to win foreign awards just to break even. Paradoxically, the impossibility of local self-financing frees filmmakers of the pressure for commercialism.
Romania has also been chosen by foreign filmmakers as a location for filming scenes, such as Cold Mountain, the "Kazakh" village in Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, the French film Transylvania or the 2004 American horror film Gargoyle: Wings of Darkness, to name just a few.
1948-1990 section: Issues of "Cinema", "Filme Noi" Bulletins edited for internal use by Romania-Film Central, various articles and distribution rules.