The film-maker who Ceausescu couldn't kill

Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu loves stories, but his own life may be the most fascinating of all.

By Stephen Applebaum, July 15, 2010
Director Radu Mihaileanu

Director Radu Mihaileanu

Radu Mihaileanu cannot help telling stories. "I don't know where it comes from," says the Franco-Romanian film-maker, "but I think it's deeply Jewish to hear stories and tell stories. We have always done that."

To date, the 52-year-old director's vibrant tales for the screen have included the acclaimed Train of Life, in which the inhabitants of a shtetl try to survive by posing as Nazis and deporting themselves to safety; and Live and Become, in which a nine-year-old Christian boy escapes the squalor of a Sudanese refugee camp by joining the secret Israeli transport of Ethiopian Jews to Israel known as Operation Moses.

The theme of identity - fake and real - is also central to his new film, The Concert. In Communist-era Russia, Andrei Filipov (Alexei Guskov), the gentile conductor (inspired by real-life conductor Evgeny Svetlanov) of the Bolshoi Orchestra, is stripped of his position during a performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto for refusing to expel his Jewish musicians. Thirty years later, while working at the theatre as a janitor, he intercepts a fax inviting the orchestra to play at the
Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. In a quest for redemption, Filipov rounds up the sacked musicians, and, using forged travel documents, leads them, Moses-like, on a mission to finish the concert they were prevented from completing in the 1980s, and regain their identity, dignity and pride.

The film is a compelling blend of drama, comedy and politics, where the music, says Mihaileanu, is a metaphor for the "energy", the "beautiful music", we all have inside us. "The problem is, sometimes we don't know how to express it. There are so many elements in life that push us to kneel and push us to not be free. But the human being - and this is very Jewish, in a way - is not made to kneel. The film says: 'Try to do it. Try to stand up.'"

Mihaileanu and his family have certainly tried. His father escaped from a Romanian concentration camp during the Second World War and, after changing his name from Mordechai Buchman to the more Romanian-sounding Ion Mihaileanu, established himself as a journalist. "That's why I am always talking about fake identity in my movies," he says. His mother also had to hide. "They were both Communists during the war, so they had two problems: being Jews and Communists." Later they became anti-Stalinists, "so they were always on the wrong side", he laughs.

Human beings are not created to kneel

Mihaileanu refuses to revert to his father's real name, because to do so would feel like "killing" him, he says. "I told him: 'Don't worry, I will never forget I am Buchman inside.' And my kids also know, and they know if they want to change, they can. But we know who we are, and everybody knows we are Jews, so that's not a problem."

Before the Second World War, there were around 800,000 Jews in Romania. Today, Mihaileanu says, there are just 4,000. Most synagogues are now museums, and "the Jews that are left are mostly old people, because the others left". The country's attitude towards its Jews has always been "complex", he says. When he was growing up under the Ceausescu regime, there were "no Jewish people at the head of enterprises [or] government - they put them out. So it was difficult to succeed on the top level being a Jew." On the other hand, there was no "frontal antisemitism, because it's the only Eastern European country, and Communist country, that kept a relationship with Israel." Under a deal between the government, the United States and Israel, set numbers of Romanian Jews were allowed to visit or emigrate to the Holy Land every year, "in exchange for money and commercial conditions with the US", he says. "So that was good for us."

As a young man, Mihaileanu acted with the Bucharest Yiddish theatre. He also had a "clandestine company" that staged plays at universities, without official permission. "That was dangerous," he says. "The secret police, they knew about it, and, step by step, they surrounded me." The turning point was a play he had written about a king and queen in 15th-century England. "That was the cover but it was very thin, and everybody knew that the king was really Ceausescu, and the queen was his wife."

He had to escape and, in 1980, with the help of an Israeli friend and some subterfuge, fled to Israel and then France, where he enrolled in the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies. His brother came later, again through Israel, followed by their parents. Slowly, Mihaileanu rebuilt his life.

Asked if he sees parallels between his own story and that of Filipov in The Concert, he acknowledges some similarities. "Yes, it's about me dreaming about art, dreaming about harmony in art, and fighting against the regime. Saying art has no politics, no frontier, I have to be free in my mind." In Romania he had been an actor and a theatre director, and, like Filipov, he had to earn his life back. "For 10 years I was an assistant director, but dreaming of coming back to the direction, of being master, of expressing my ideas. So that was like Andrei Filipov, dreaming of that moment where I could 'conduct' again."

His next project, about Arab women and their rights, could be his most daring film yet. He has been researching it for the last three years, spending time in a Moroccan village in the High Atlas mountains to try and see the world through their eyes. This, he believes, has earned him the right to make such a film. Which brings the conversation round to Roberto Benigni's death-camp comedy, Life is Beautiful.

Released around the same time as Train of Life in 1997, Benigni's film took a similarly fabulistic approach to the Holocaust. However, does Mihaileanu think the Italian, a non-Jew, had the right to make the film? He believes anyone can make a film about anything, but regards Life is Beautiful as a "special case".

"Benigni never understood the meaning of the Shoah. Never. But my sadness was that he was never preoccupied by that. He never tried to understand what it means to be a Jew. That, for me, is the big fault."

To avoid making the same mistake himself, he has been studying the Koran and Islam for his new film, which will be in Arabic, in order to understand his characters' subjective reality. For him, it's just part of who he is. "Being Jewish, for me, is always what Elie Wiesel said: 'I have to be in every other human being. That's my destiny.' So I have to understand the Chinese, the Palestinians, the Vietnamese, I have to be universal and try and understand them, and to be, every day, understanding the other one," he says. Moreover, "I love stories. I love to understand. That's the Talmud, to go deeper and deeper in the understanding . . . and it's my Jewish identity. I am in a continuous research, and that's not work for me, it's a passion."

'The Concert' opens today

Last updated: 11:22am, July 15 2010