I think the more vocal reaction among Romanians tends to be, “cool, finally we get what we’ve wanted to see in a long time, a Romanian story told by Hollywood, that will reach the World, and it’s funny and lively, not bleak, focused on orphans, amusement park swan-devouring minorities, hit-you-with-an-ax-in-the-head poverty”; this is an automatic response, like a reflex.
Some may go further and intellectualize their liking of it: ”and it’s smart, there’s a reality television-like base, framing a satyrical alternative-reality narrative, laden with references”. And referential content is so in today. When you get it, you’re silently in agreement with the others. You are in!
Plus, there is a complex spin on this now classical recipe here: between Comrade Detective and you, the audience member, there are 3 Walls:
- Yourself, the real person and fake Channing Tatum’s world, or the so called reality tv-base, are separated by Wall No 1.
- Fake Channing Tatum shares his reality with the older survivors of the eighties era Romanian filmmakers, who send him the tape. Their reality seems like reality TV to us, and it acts as a base, a frame around the actual eighties series, Comrade Detective, which is separated from Channing by Wall No 2.
- Where is Wall No 3 you ask? Why, Wall No 3 is the subtle device which the creators of this series hope to be the ultimate hook for us, the real audience. They’ve nested it in there like a matryoshka doll, packing it in, knowing we’d subconsciously get it right away. Wall No 3 is the wall between the series Comrade Detective and the supposed Romanian audience watching it in the eighties, perhaps realizing its shameless propaganda and – now this is the crux of it all, depending on how knowledgeable you, the real audience person of today watching Amazon are – either completely agreeing with it and absorbing every word with patriotic pride, or completely denouncing it as cringeworthy. We can only indirectly infer information about that audience, through the characters from Comrade Detective and their occasional quips and grimaces when delivering lines – because in a way, back then, in the eighties, when they were portraying Gregor Anghel and Joseph Baciu, those actors were their own audience, with their own thoughts and feelings towards the propaganda they were creating. And they have been directed to be rather ambivalent. However, in the base reality, the frame of Comrade Detective, fake Channing Tatum and fake Jon Ronson sit in the cinema at the very beginning of episode one and tell us “Similar to American propaganda films like Red Dawn and Rocky IV that demonize the Eastern Bloc, Comrade Detective was produced and funded by the Romanian government, not merely to entertain but to celebrate and promote Communist ideals”. Which is to indicate, that there was at least an expectation of success from Comrade Detective among the fake-reality Romanian audience of the eighties watching it back then, since Rocky IV (starring Sylvester Stallone) and Red Dawn (starring Patrick Swayze), although not enjoying a high critical acclaim, arguably became cult movies of their genre. But the real reality of the eighties would indicate the exact reactions an audience back then would have had at such a film. Since Romanians in the eighties, among other abhorrent privations (such as often times no electricity, no heating, no hot water, no gas in the cooking stoves, a shortage of food which meant enormous never-ending queues for a sorry-looking frozen chicken casserole, on top of the typical totalitarian privations such as oh, lack of personal freedom, being followed by the Securitate, the state security police, not being able to emigrate, censorship, etc.) were getting only one hour of TV per day consisting of REAL communist propaganda, the rest of the broadcast being jammed and scrambled, they would have reacted as follows: initially, shock; then consternation; and finally all culminating in unconditional anger towards the system, the nomenklature, the dictator and his consort. In no way would their response have been ambiguous, in no way reverential or embracing of the propaganda. I may go as far as to speculate, almost sacrilegiously, in this impossible scenario, showing Comrade Detective in Romania in the (especially late eighties) would have brought about the 1989 Romanian Revolution earlier. There is thus, a huge moral incentive for the consenting adult Romanian to be insulted at “Comrade Detective”, nowadays. I personally, certainly take it as an insult to the memory of Liviu Babeș, the man who committed suicide in protest against the communist regime by self-immolating and sliding down the ski slope at Poiana Brașov as a human torch on skis. The Romanian Jan Palach. Who are they? Google them! And the thousands of others, intellectual dissidents, trapped in their own minds in the dystopian Romanian world of the eighties.
Ok, back to us, the present day audience. If we are Romanian, “we get all the inside-jokes, we are the inside, and what is more, it seems the Americans are in on it too. For so long they’ve seemed distant, ignorant of our past, but it was just an impression, they are knowledgeable and invested in this with us. Ok, it’s not THAT accurate, but hey, cut us and them some slack. You’re missing the point, the point is it’s absurd and heavily sarcastic. It’s so current, so relevant in our times”. And I am truly no less surprised myself that this show came to be, that Hollywood finally lowered their gaze on Romania.
And I certainly can’t blame anyone for their opinion, for that has been generally the manner in which Romania and Romanian-ness has been depicted throughout American but also European mass-media in the last three post-communist decades. Even Romanian intellectuals themselves, especially filmmakers who have the means of creating art which in these times can be very reaching, tend to explore similar topics. These filmmakers have proven their talent in the last 15 years by creating the Romanian New Wave, a new genre of realist cinema, which has stood out and been distinguished consistently by European cinematic forums. Forums that sadly, are not enough to popularize these films enough, so as to firmly reach the larger European audience and perhaps even the American one. Films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu (2007), won the Palme d’Or, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescuby Cristi Puiu (2005), won Un Certain Regard at Cannes, California Dreamin’ by Cristian Nemescu (2007), won Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Beyond the Hills by Mungiu (2012) won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes, the Golden Ástor at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, Child’s Pose by Călin Peter Netzer (2013) won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, Aferim! by Radu Jude (2015) won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, and many others. What are their common themes? Jaded, flawed characters coping with not-so-unusual hardships in the Romanian society, depicting the Romanian ethos. With the exception of Aferim! they are also all based in the communist or post-communist, contemporaneous, flawed present time. And one would wager none of these enjoy the publicity that Comrade Detective does. Surely Comrade Detective, with its Amazon-direct to your computer in one click-type of access will reach every walks of life from the Western society and beyond. The others, they remain niche.
One might say, the Romanian New Wave is like a conditional reflex, as if Western Cinema is bidding, “for this year’s niche productions that perhaps only our greatest critics and film makers will watch, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and Romanian directors follow suite. However, what is the crucial difference between how Romanians depict themselves as of late and how Comrade Detective does it? The Romanian directors are in fact, albeit overwhelmingly so, dealing with real or realistic circumstances, characters, stories. And they do so with great talent.
One might ask, “so what is your point? Can’t you understand, Comrade Detective is a satire, you querulous bozo?! It’s made for cheap, fast, mass enjoyment of the modern i-phone owning young professional’s entertainment. He or she’s on the move, between two crunch reps in the gym and some digital entrepreneurship work with some startup incubators, he or she’s relaxing with some good, clean Romanian action flick, endorsed by his/her favorite American comedy actors. You can’t and shan’t compare it with films made by Romanians about Romania that are not satyrical like that!! And virtually none of them are, so no comparison!”
Ah, but that’s it right there!… If it is a satire, then how will it be perceived as such if all but a tiny minority of the audience is actually truly aware of the reality it supposedly mocks? You are sadly mistaken if you think that, since Comrade Detective exists and it has been made by Americans, that the greater American public actually has a good idea of the reality of Romania’s 1980s. When the greater (at least younger) Romanian public seems to have forgotten or never really learned about it, how could the greater American one be expected to ever have known? All Comrade Detective does, is just an irony of the false, superficial image Americans and other foreigners have of Romania in the 1980s. Which younger Romanians, along with other Eastern Europeans could dangerously trick themselves into believing is a true depiction, at some level.
What Romania still needs is more exposure of its real self. Although mostly gloomy, I’d stand seeing another decade of the Romanian New Wave, until some of those films become household items shown for free on Amazon and the rest of the West begins to understand us for what we truly were and are, and not associate us with another fake image, the cool leather-jacket clad eighties pinko who had style and grit, naive enough in his genius to be a chess master-enthusiast. This is a romanticized version, a more agreeable one to the immature, but certainly not real. Do not swap some definitely bad stereotypes with another one, seemingly better. Do not get lost in the artistic details here and learn about what really happened. Then, we’ll all make satire and laugh together around the camp fire eating s’mores.
This is in no way a critique towards the actors in the film, who I think did a good job with what they were given, which is why I didn’t touch upon this aspect at all. I especially hold Florin Piersic Jr. in high regard as an actor and writer. And I do appreciate Channing Tatum’s comedic talent.