Monday, November 18, 2019

The Romanians: The Great Communist Bank Robbery

They knowingly risked their lives and reputation to steal money that was practically worthless. Even today their motives remain shrouded in mystery. Sadly, we cannot simply ask them, because the Communist regime executed nearly all of the accused bank robbers. Alexandru Solomon investigates the unlikely caper and the state’s sinister response in The Great Communist Bank Robbery, which screens, which screens as part of Film Forum’s current retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

If the circumstances of the 1959 Romanian bank heist sound familiar, perhaps you saw Nae Caranfil’s excellent narrative film, Closer to the Moon, starring Mark Strong and Vera Fermiga. Although there is a lot we do not know about the incident, due to the regime’s secrecy, the British drama sticks fairly close to the facts as Solomon establishes them.

At that time, Romanian leu were officially unconvertible, due to Romania’s self-imposed isolation. Even in Romanian, leu were practically worthless, because there was practically nothing available in stores, under socialism. Not surprisingly, everyone was desperate for Western hard currency. That is why security was relatively lax for cash transports from the central bank.

There is little debate on the how’s of the robbery, in large part because the robbers re-enacted the caper for a Party-produced propaganda film titled Reconstruction. Solomon uses the film as a lens through which he refracts the Great Bank Robbery case as well as the fundamental realities of life under Communism. He incorporates extensive excerpts, sometimes screening them against the imposing architectural facades left behind like relics of the old regime.

Where Reconstruction most notably departs from the truth is in its depiction of the bank robbers themselves. According to the propaganda film, they were essentially adventurers and anti-social criminals of one sort or another. However, the truth is they were all former Communist Party members in good-standing. They also happened to be Jewish, caught up in the Party’s anti-Semitic purges.

Solomon is a talented documentarian, who also helmed the insightful Cold Waves. In Robbery, he deliberately emphasizes that which is no longer knowable. Yet, he concretely establishes the nature of Romanian Socialist Regime, especially with respects to the bank employees who had the profound misfortune of falling under initial suspicion for the crime. These days, the madness of Ceausescu’s personality cult is widely accepted, but the truth is life was not much better for average Romanians under Gheorghiu-Dej.

The incident in question is a fascinating piece of Cold War era history. Solomon presents it in a way that maximizes the intrigue, as well as the chilling reality of life under a totalitarian system of government. There are lessons to learned from it, even and especially today. Very highly recommended, The Great Communist Bank Robbery screens this Tuesday (11/19) and Wednesday (11/20), as part of the Romanians retrospective at Film Forum.