Nicolae Ceausescu’s last speech, 21st of December, 1989.
I will begin my blog on visual culture with a case in which the production and consumption of an image (in this case TV footage) marked the end of a political era. It was the 21st of December 1989, and the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gave a speech to about 100.000 people who have gathered at Piata Republica in the capitol Bucharest. Romanian state television transmitted the speech live, in what was supposed to be a celebration of Ceausescu’s leadership. The broadcast begins with the predictable signifiers of an autocratic regime: Ceausecu stands on the balcony of the gigantic Central Committee Building, speaking down to the huddled masses below, his amplified voice is echoing in the vastness of the Republican Square. In support of their General Secretary, Ceausescu is flanked by various Communist Party officials and the Deputy Prime Minister of Romania, his wife Elena. Romanian TV operated mainly two cameras who covered this event: one focusing on Ceausescu standing on the balcony, and the other focusing on the people standing in the square. The depiction of the crowd is also highly stage-managed and filled with ideological signification. The front segment of the crowd are likely party members clapping in unison or holding up banners and giant portraits of Ceasescu and his wife. The elevated viewpoint of the camera has the effect that the grandness of the occasion is matched by the huge masses that can be seen filling up the square. But also, by filming from high above, the people gathered in the square remain, in the eyes of the viewer, an anonymous mass whose purpose that day was to support their leader. In other words, in the footage any individualism is reserved to Ceausescu himself.
The TV footage however would also depict that Ceausescu’s regime was already crumbling by the time he made his speech. A few minutes into his final act on the political arena, sections of the crowd start hissing. It is an unusual sound that creeps from the back of the crowd towards the front row. Like a wave crashing into the shore, the sound of his own people booing and hissing in condemnation finally reaches Ceausescu whose facial expression is one of disbelief. For a brief moment, the sound coming from the crowd is so high pitched that it has the characteristics of a panic. The camera starts shacking. The transmission is interrupted by interference and noise.
While Ceausescu raises his right hand asking for calm, the TV camera picks up rushed and flurried activity on the balcony of the Central Committee Building. One man in particular stands out: he is well-built, dressed in a black suit, looking towards the square as if to check out who exactly started the hissing as he rushes behind a curtain. The signification of the curtain in these moments caught by Romanian TV are important: as if to signal that the iron curtain was, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, finally also lifted in Romania. The curtain also underlines the performative aspect of Ceausescu’s appearance on the balcony. It’s as if he is the main actor, the politbüro the supporting actors, the balcony the stage and the people the audience who knows that the final curtain is about to fall.
When it became clear that neither Ceasescu’s desperate attempts to calm down the crowd, nor a shot of the crowd itself were conducive to the agenda of the party, the camera starts filming a building on the other side of the square. Another shot depicts a similarly monumental building, whereas the crowd itself was cropped out in both shots. In other words, the camera, lost in the fast advancing events of that day, was searching for appropriate subjects that would not undermine the regime. For almost three minutes, Romanian state television broadcast these scenes while Ceasescu’s can be heard saying over and over again ‘hallo, hallo, hallo …’. Still in disbelief that the people are hissing, he knocks on the microphone in the assumption that surely, if the people heard his orders, they would stop booing him. Elena as well can be heard reaching towards the microphone, asking for silence. Again, the echoes of their voices are bouncing of the buildings in the square. The visuals and the sound are thus entirely paradoxical. While state television filmed subjects that signify steady government, the desperateness of the situation is only discernible in the combination of image and sound.
After three long minutes, the crowd reaches a temporary moment of silence and the cameras take up their usual positions. However, as opposed to earlier shots, the camera zoomed away from Ceausescu and his cronies as if to signify that even Romanian state television are now, literally, distancing themselves from the regime. Ceausescu’s voice, tired of demanding order, is breaking up as his final act comes to a close. He would disappear behind the curtain while the crowd grew bigger, louder and more agitated. The revolution had begun. Ceausescu and his wife were trapped and they needed to be airlifted with a helicopter the next morning. Three days later, on the 25th of December, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were sentenced to death and executed on the spot. The execution happened so quickly that the omnipresent camera of Romanian state television failed to capture the decisive moment.
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