Toward the beginning of Eruption
(1957) we are suddenly drawn into a close-up
of a man's hand clutching a woman's dress as a child might hold on to a parent's garments, a gesture filled with innocence and intent. If I were to encapsulate Liviu Ciulei's legacy into one image, I would say this image is this giant's relationship to Art. An intimate, familiar, passionate and pure gesture of love and support.
The scene is one of pain however, a couple is breaking up, a woman and her child leaving behind a household and a husband and father, because the small oil town is disintegrating in the looming shadows of dried-up
drilling rigs. The husband stays behind, as there is a flickering hope that one day, hopefully soon, oil will be reached once again and pumped into the dying heart of the deserted landscape. Ebbing-and-flowing
becomes the leitmotif of Eruption
. It is a film about the ecosystem of human relationships projected against the background of oil rigs, substrata of mud, and laboratory tests; the search for oil becomes the search for one's self. Just as the last working rig is incrementally going deeper into the bowels of the earth, so are the characters plumbing their innermost selves and their intertwined relationships.
Romanian Film Festival hosted by The Film Society of Lincoln Center has presented the Liviu Ciulei retrospective
on December 2, 2011: Eruption
(1957), The Danube Waves
(1959) and Forest of the Hanged
I met Liviu Ciulei in May of 1994 in New York. I was 18 years old and a new immigrant in America. I was studying acting and I felt compelled to contact him and ask for advice, as I was convinced that acting was my calling. His name was bigger than life. I grew up in the artistic world in Romania, and the name Ciulei
had an aura of myth. The visits to his Washington Square Park apartment were going to become a familiar ritual henceforth. Helga Ciulei, his wife, and Liviu took me into their family in a way. I faithfully attended his rehearsals at Tisch School of the Arts where he was director-in-residence
in the graduate theater department. He was very gracious, always allowed newcomers to acting and directing to observe him at work. Not one school in the world can teach what one can learn by watching a master in the process of creating.
I was twice fortunate to watch and learn from another master of the theater with Romanian roots, Andrei Serban, who has been teaching at Columbia University since the early '90s.
Ciulei and Serban became my pillars of learning, different styles and approaches to theater, directing and acting, equally powerful to a novice in this medium where all is in flux. After my drama school classes, I would spend my evenings shuttling between Ciulei's rehearsals downtown at NYU and Serban's uptown at Columbia, watching their labor intently, stealing their secrets, dazzled by their visions.
In the wake of Liviu Ciulei's passing, I came to realize that we have no idea what we have lost.
My relationship with Liviu was personal not professional, so those who have actually worked with him in the theater in America can best describe his influence in their artistic lives. But when his Romanian films were shown at the festival this week, I was both heartbroken and joyful. Liviu was also an actor; he acted in legendary Romanian theater productions; he also acted in two of his films, Forest of the Hanged
and The Danube Waves
. As he graced the big screen tonight at Walter Reade Theater, I was humbled before his magnetism as an actor. His eyes were childlike, wide open with wonder, his gaze piercing, his presence impeccable. And I teared up because up there was the Liviu I knew: he may have entered old age when I met him, but his spirit was that of a child, bubbling with joie de vivre
and eternally in love with Art.
Ciulei directs and acts in Forest of the Hanged
, a masterpiece which won Best Director at Cannes in 1965. He plays the supporting role of a tormented would-be
deserter in World War I. The lead in this drama is played by extraordinary film and stage actor Victor Rebengiuc. The film is a visual poem, a paean to love and life in the midst of death and destruction. The scenes may take place in the trenches and in the crossfire, but their spirit lies in the sky and the solar plexus. Ciulei manages to find the order in the chaos of human activities such as war and redrawing borders. He steadily follows the human story, in the close-up
of hands touching, or leaves clutching to a twig, or a noose hanging against a godless sky. Such detail seen through the lens of a camera burns the retina and invites to a new look, a cathartic exploring of life immediate.
After watching long rehearsals at Tisch School of the Arts, Liviu and Helga would invite me to dinner. We often went to the Ukrainian restaurant down the block, on Second Avenue in the East Village. He was commanding when it came to ordering food. "Anca, I'll tell you what's best here, you must
have the blintzes." I obliged, I was a starving actor after all. We would then go back to their apartment in Greenwich Village and have a shot of tzuica and talk about the daily news, the progress of his graduate students in rehearsals and the faint memories of our common ground, Romania. I can see Helga running around the cozy apartment straightening up, while I tried to remind her that there was no need to stand on ceremony.
In The Danube Waves
Ciulei directs and acts again. He is exploring the role of a jaded barge captain whose one-liners
are the best stuff ever uttered in colloquial Romanian. War, a recurring theme as in Forest of the Hanged
, drives the story. This time, World War II. Ciulei, once again, zooms in on the human aspect. That's his mission: the daily intricacies of relationships juxtaposed with the unconsciousness of global madness. A newlywed couple, floating on a rickety barge in heavily mined waters, takes in a stranger who has a political agenda. But the deft director is not interested in the politics of the day. He remains faithful to the human experience, the close-up.
The master shot, 1940's Romania swapping one gruesome political regime for another, only enhances the audacity of the human spirit helplessly caught in the claws of unyielding history. Ciulei transcends history because he damn well knows it only repeats itself. But the human experience is unique. Love lost and love reborn may sound like a cliché, but it ain't when you zoom in on it. The human experience may be universal, but unlike the repetitive history of regimes, systems, wars and truces, it touches the heart, and it is not written in textbooks, but in poems, songs and art, where the coordinates meet above not below.
In March of 2010 I saw Liviu for what was going to be the last time at his house in Bucharest. I was on my way back to the States, after a rare and brief visit to the country which bore and raised me. I hadn't seen him and Helga since they left New York, early in the new millennium. We reminisced and laughed about the good old days in the City that never sleeps
. He was happy that he had returned home. His Romanian abode, neighboring The National Theater, was the brick-and-mortar
legacy from his family. I remember in the early '90s in New York, he was undergoing the process of reparations initiated by the post-communist
Romanian authorities, the arduous piecing together of a past blown away had started. He wanted to go back and live there in old age. Exile was drawing to an end.
Around October 15th, less than two months ago, I called him on the phone in Munich where he had been staying since the summer. His health was deteriorating; he had been in and out of the hospital. His good humor was intact, but he was very realistic about the prognosis of his health. He was looking forward to the New York retrospective of his Romanian films. "I don't know about the first one" he said. He was referring to his debut film, Eruption
from 1957. "I don't know if it's still relevant today." I told him I would go and see all the films and send him reflections from the local New York press. "Embraces" rang across the long distance call. That was the last time I heard Liviu's voice. On October 25th
, 2011 he passed away in Munich at the age of 88.
I saw Eruption
for the first time today. The opening shot is a close-up
of an aging rig's turntable laboring to extract oil from a dry well. The frame opens up into a tall groaning iron silhouette pulsating in and out of a stubborn earth. The black and white of the celluloid augments the trepidations. I am speechless in front of the human experience that unfolds for the next two hours. I have nothing to articulate, only emotion pulsating in my veins. Now, I realize what we have lost. Liviu Ciulei is on a par with Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman.
I urge all new generations of actors and directors to see Liviu Ciulei's film legacy. It may be small by contemporary standards, but it is priceless. We can never evolve as artists if we don't learn from the tradition that has been freely and generously given to us. We must constantly question commercial success and ego-driven
fleeting adventures in the world of Art. We must learn from the masters, make the lesson our own, and transform it.
Yes, Eruption is
relevant today, so relevant that we must look inward and start exploring anew. Thank you from the heart, Liviu!
(Anca Suiu, New York, December 2, 2011