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The Legionary Movement in the Communist Film



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Abstract: This paper contains a short summary of the Romanian Legionary Movement, preceded by an analysis of the films about this Movement made in Communist Romania. The purpose of this paper is to see if the historical reality presented in this films is correct, or it is altered by the ideology ordered by The Communist Party.

Key words: Romania, Film, Communism, Legionary Movement, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, Iron Guard, 20th Century, Interwar Period, Cold War Period.

* This text has been previously published in Colloquia/Journal of Central European History, Volume XIX, 2012. Translated into English by Ofelia Man.

The purpose of the present paper is to analyse the way in which the Legionary Movement was depicted in the communist feature films, a topic which has been too little discussed until now; the analysis will start with a series of reference points of the Movement itself, after which it will discuss the impact of the propaganda at an international level, and finally it will focus on the Romanian films produced during the communist era, in which the Iron-Guard and its members either played a central role, or were just peripheral appearances; the essay will try to trace and suggest possible similarities between these films, to point out to what extent attempts have been carried out to deliberately vilify the members of the far-right movement active in Romania between the two World Wars, and to establish if the allegations presented in the films have been more serious that the actual facts, and if so, why this was the case. In addition to this, the analysis continues with an attempt to draft a portrait of the member of the Iron Guard in the Romanian film, and finally, it aims to draw a conclusion regarding the propaganda power that the Romanian Communist film may or may not have had with regard to the members of the Legionary Movement, and why the Communists used the image of the members of the Movement the way they did. The paper will not, however, dwell too much on films which focused on the communist propaganda in itself (among the many propaganda films), but it will focus exclusively on the films with or about the members of the Legion, numerous enough to be able to speak about an anti-legionary current in the Romanian cinema. It can be pointed out that as subject of films, the Legion and its members were not forgotten, but their memory has been altered in such a manner, that a public without memories of its own about the Legion of the Archangel Michael (being born after the war) was presented with a partially phantasmagorical image of the prototype of Legionary.

An accurate history of the Legionary Movement is very difficult to write, due to the fact that opinions are either biased, coming from historians from within the Movement, or they were written on request, if we are to speak about the historians of the communist period. Nevertheless, after the communist regime was overthrown in Romania, the subject has been resumed, and a series of books trying to approach the question appeared. As a result, some facts became clear, for instance that the Legionary Movement had a far-right ideology, that it was strongly nationalist-orthodox and it was in favour of Romania's cooperation with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. As a matter of fact, although inspired by Nazism and Fascism, the Iron Guard remained a separate movement. Despite some common ideas with the two political ideologies, collaboration with the German or Italian secret services to subordinate Romania to one of these countries, if the Iron Guard would have seized the power was never carried out.1 This political organisation appeared, evolved and enjoyed a higher popularity in Moldova, due to two real problems with which the Romanians from that part of the country were confronted: the danger of the spreading of Communism, and the growing number of Jews coming from Galicia and Russia2.

According to official data, the Legionary Movement was established on the 24th of June 1927 in Iași, when the Legion of the Archangel Michael was founded under the leadership of Corneliu Zelea Codreanu (born on the 13th of September 1899 in Huși – died on the 30th of November 1938). Ion Moța, Radu Mironovici, Corneliu Georgescu and Ilie Gârneață were co-founders of the organisation; nevertheless, they did not even come close to the decision-making power of the one called the Captain (as Codreanu was called by his followers).

Until his death, Codreanu was inextricably linked to the Legionary Movement, which he led and fostered, until, after almost 15 years since its foundation, it succeeded to govern Romania for a short time, together with General Ion Antonescu, but at a time when Codreanu was no longer alive. That is exactly why, by the time it did manage to seize the political power, the movement had lost its original ideology and had degenerated. From a youth movement led by an idealistic and maybe naive young man, it came to be a political group with a well-defined agenda and divided by various interests.

During the communist regime the interest towards the history of the Legion was still alive and was instrumented by the regime, which portrayed the movement as the enemy par excellence. One of the methods of creating a negative image of the Legion and its members was through cinema. A discussion about the propagandistic power of film becomes, therefore, necessary. This essay will try to discover by whom, why, when and how feature films were used for their ability to spread ideas and convince the audience of their truthfulness. After that, it will take a look at Romania of the 1950s, as well as at between1960-1980, two very different periods, from the point of view of the Romanian communist propaganda. The study will also try to understand the reasons behind these practices, and why propaganda during Ceaușescu's regime changed, and the topics began to diversify. The opposition Communist-Legionary was widely employed in Romanian films and the reasons behind this are extremely interesting and logical.

Propaganda in films appeared shortly after the cinema was invented, or more specifically, in the first years of the twentieth century. Since the beginnings of cinematography, visionaries understood that film possessed a staggering ability to control the masses due to the images that impressed the viewer and the high volume of information given in a relatively short time. Due to the various editing techniques, the images acquired the anticipated effect, as they were perceived by the public as real, even if they had never possessed this quality; it is common knowledge that every film is subjective to a certain extent, being a personal projection about the world. The perspective of the camera was the one that the spectator assimilated as true, and the ratio information – time spent for receiving it was much lower than the same ratio in the case of a newspaper. Furthermore, because at the time the circulation of information was much more difficult than now, even if newspapers existed (some even with illustrations), the film represented the most credible and available source of information for the viewer. The first question one should ask is who started this practice of propaganda through film, and the answer seems rather implausible, because the first to open the way for this manipulative practice were the Americans; the very nation built on the idea of democracy was the first to use this technique at the Biograph Studios, then in the studios of Thomas Edison. Subsequently even the famous Georges Méliès created such films.3 Why did they do it? Because World War I had broken out, and the Americans understood the important role that film could play in their attempt to raise money for the military from the population. However, the projected images were misleading, because, in fact, very often the viewer himself became involved in the propaganda aimed, as stated, to sensitise the common people. Very often black or grey propaganda was used, and only rarely white propaganda. The first implies using fake sources for the movie, the second has no exact sources, whereas only the third uses real sources.4 However, this type of propaganda has only been used very rarely, and certainly not during wartime. The studios came to produce battle scenes that were much bloodier than what had actually taken place at the front itself, and in addition to that, they knew exactly how to turn the enemy into the ruthless bad guy, whilst depicting their own soldiers in a favourable light. The consequence was that almost every military had come to have a cinema section of their own, where materials were shot for editing various war short-films with a double purpose: to inform, and more importantly, to spread propaganda.

The next to adopt propaganda in films, although with a different purpose, compared to the Americans, was the Soviet Union. As Russia was a huge territory with many nations speaking different languages, the only viable solution for spreading the communist ideology was through film. That is how the Soviet intellectual montage was born, remaining famous for its specificity and uniqueness until today. Important representatives of this technique were Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Dziga Vertov, Vselovo Pudovkin, Grigori Aleksandrov and Aleksandr Dovjenko, also known as the 'film makers of the '20s'. They had the task of disseminating the communist ideas to the common people, without, however, succeeding to have a major impact on the masses; it was rather the elites who enjoyed, understood and appreciated their films.5 They also succeeded in creating art films like Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), The Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1928) or October (Grigori Aleksandrov, 1928) which were enjoyed internationally and were considered among the works from the first stages of the cinema that revolutionised this art. Hitler's Germany also made use of propaganda through films against the Jews and the best example is Der ewige Jude [The Eternal Jew] (Fritz Hippler, 1940).

 

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1 * I wish to take the opportunity to thank Mr. Liviu Malița for his suggestions and comments on this text Armin Heinen, Legiunea <> [the Legion of the <>] (Bucharest, Humanitas, 2006), p. 299.
2 Dragoş Zamfirescu, Legiunea Arhanghelul Mihail de la mit la realitate [The Legion of the Archangel Michael from Myth to Reality] (Editura Enciclopedică, 1997), p. 47.
3 Cristian Tudor Popescu, Filmul surd în România mută: politică și propagandă în filmul românesc de ficțiune (1912-1989) [The Deaf Film in the Mute Romania: Politics and Propaganda in the Romanian Fiction Film (1912-1989)] (Bucharest, Polirom, 2011), p. 16.
4 Robert Cole, International Encyclopedia of Propaganda (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998), p. 75.
5 Popescu, Filmul surd în România mută: politică și propagandă în filmul românesc de ficțiune (1912-1989)[The Deaf Film in the Mute Romania: Politics and Propaganda in the Romanian Fiction Film (1912-1989)], p. 35.

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