The Semiotics of Insurrection: Farocki and Ujică's Videograms of a Revolution

The Semiotics of Insurrection: Farocki and Ujică's Videograms of a Revolution

Nenad Jovanovic
The focus on the chronology of the Romanian 1989 revolution and the sparing use of authorial commentary in Harun Farocki and Andrej Ujică's Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution (1992, Germany) conceal the film's deeper thematic concern with signification. For the revolution to succeed, the signs associated with Nicolae Ceaușescu's regime needed to be replaced with new ones. The latter, however, needed to seem familiar to the viewers of the National TV broadcasts – the revolution's principal media outlet – in order to be comprehended. Some of the earlier commentaries on Videograms note this paradox but do not offer a sustained analysis of the complex and evolving dynamics among the various signs within the film: those used by the regime's representatives, those used by the revolutionaries, and the signs specific to Videograms as a work of cinema. This article argues that the film's preoccupation with sign production and reception operates as an agent of reflexivity – characteristic of Farocki's entire oeuvre – and illuminates its meaning-making implications for Videograms.
Harun Farocki; Andrej Ujică; Romanian 1989 revolution; reflexivity; semiotics; historiography.

Introduction: Videograms as a Reflexive Film

The subjects of the approximately one hundred films and installations that comprise Harun Farocki's artistic oeuvre range from military to educational processes, and explore events as diverse the transition to the postindustrial era in the west to the development of the computer games' animation verisimilar aesthetic. What connects them is an interest in signification: from the debut Nicht löschbares Feuer / The Inextinguishable Fire (1969, Germany) to late works such as Serious Games (2009-10, Germany) and Parallele I-IV / Parallel I-IV (2012-14, Germany), Farocki investigated how films negotiate the gaps separating perceptible phenomena from their visual, aural, and linguistic representations in cinema. As Thomas Elsaesser notes, “there is little Farocki cares about which is not also a reflection on cinema itself” (2004 a: 11). Farocki’s films like Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges/Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989, Germany) flaunt their reflexivity through reliance on what Sergei Eisenstein called intellectual and vertical editing (respectively, editing together images and sounds to give rise to meanings that are not discernible from each of those constituents alone, and juxtaposing the video and the audio track in manners that further expand the range of interpretative possibilities for the edit).1 Some other films are reflexive in terms of the subject matter (Ein Bild / An Image (1983, Germany), for instance, documents the production of a still depicting a nude woman for the German edition of the Playboy magazine) while predicating themselves on the use of direct sound and an inconspicuous editing style of observational documentaries.

Discussing the reflexivity of Farocki's Zwischen Zwei Kriegen / Between Two Wars (1978, Germany), Nora Alter usefully evokes Fredric Jameson's notion that “what in modernist times counted as self-reflection and auto-referentiality tends to become today, in the postmodern condition, the way in which culture acts out its own commodification” (paraphrased in Alter 2004: 225). But whereas Farocki – a Western artist who came to maturity during the final major wave of leftist upheavals so far – belongs to the context of postmodernity biologically, it is less certain that he alleges himself with the postmodern artistic sensibility – the kind that doubts the possibility of learning history lessons “other than the melancholy ones of defeat, circularity, and repetition”, as Elseasser formulates it in another commentary on the filmmaker (Elsaesser 2004 b: 100). The diachrony of history and the continued possibility of political change also mark the work of the Romanian-German artist Andrei Ujică (b. 1951). His collaboration with Farocki on Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution (1992) – the first in a series of Ujică’s films based on archival footage that explore the collapse of European communisms – was prompted by the publication of an edited collection of texts that explore the televisual aspect of the Romanian 1989 revolution (von Amelunxen and Ujica, 1990).

In his discussion of dramatic films on the Romanian 1989, Constantin Parvulescu claims that their reliance on reenactments, rather than on archival footage, operates as a source of (self-) reflexivity (Parvulescu 2013b: 372). Despite not using any original imagery, the widely screened and highly acclaimed Videograms2 manages to consistently point to its own formal operations. “[Functioning’ both as a reconstruction of the revolution and a deconstruction of its politics of representation” (Kernbauer 2010: 78), is a work not only of history, but also of historiography. Hayden White's seminal Metahistory (1973) has illuminated the relationship between the two, arguing that history bases its methodology on narrative conventions. Historians select and organise facts according to the criteria of causality and ideological coherence, disregarding or suppressing those that they deem incompatible with their discursive purposes. These procedures can be countered through the historian's reflexive analyses of her procedures, which possess the capacity to reveal how alternative theses – or biases – might allow for alternative discursive logics, and, ultimately, historical narratives. Like historiographic writings, Videograms links its events in terms of cause and effect, but also subjects its own procedures to a reflexive self-analysis.

The film chronicles the December 1989 popular protest that initiated the toppling of Nicolae Ceauşescu's dictatorial regime, combining images and sounds recorded by various TV stations with VHS footage captured by the citizens of Bucharest and Timişoara. The revolution was sparked by the December 15 order for the Hungarian Protestant pastor László Tőkész, who had earned notoriety with the regime and popularity with the people for his criticism of Ceauşescu, to be removed from Timişoara. The police’s attempt to remove Tőkész was thwarted by the citizens of various ethnicities of the country, leading to a citywide revolt. In an attempt to reassert his power, the dictator organised two Bucharest rallies. The first one – which took place on December 21 – elicited booing from the crowd, in response to which the joint forces of the army and the Securitate killed a number of protesters. When demonstrators attacked party headquarters during the second rally on December 22, Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu were taken by helicopter to a military base 50 km away from Bucharest. Immediately following a sham trial (Hitchins 2014: 291), the Ceauşescus were executed on the charge of genocide.

Because a central event of the revolution occurred in the midst of what would prove to be Ceauşescu's final televised speech, gaining momentum after the transition of its leaders to the studio of the Romanian Broadcast Company, the political event has been interpreted as crucially theatrical3, televisual4, or both.5 The connections between these various notions become more apparent when one considers that “liveness” – a defining quality of theatre – also characterised television until the late 1950s, when the use of videotape was standardised.6 Romanian national television and its style was but an extended arm of Ceauşescu's regime, and the revolutionaries recognised the necessity of replacing the hackneyed and ideologically polluted linguistic and visual signifiers of the regime they were upturning with new, “unspoiled” ones. As Jan Verwoert has written about Videograms, “The entire grammar of gestures and phrases through which it was possible to identify one's position in the previous system has already lost its validity, yet the protocol of the new order is still unclear and in this very moment is about to be worked out” (Verwoert 2005: 76).

Verwoert's remark is characteristically astute, but his and other discussions of the film are silent on the ways in which Videograms thematises the development of a new sign system as an instrument of bringing about the revolution, as well as on how the film's treatment of the theme expands the horizon of its available meanings. Elucidating the two related topics is the goal of the following pages. For clarity, they are divided into categories according to the following criteria: a) whether a sign is a property of the archival footage that the film relies on, made into a filmic one through its inclusion within Videograms, or a creation of Farocki and Ujică's (i.e., the voice-over and various interventions in the imagery made during the post-production process); b) whether a sign is linguistic or visual; c) whether a visual sign stems from the pro-filmic event or from the cinematographic apparatus that has captured it.

Signs, of course, impact each other: certain pro-filmic events lend themselves more readily to some events than some others, and the medium-specific techniques of cinematography, editing, and sound inevitably impact one's perception of the pro-filmic event. For this reason, the division must remain tentative (hence the qualifier “primarily” attached to the names of signs identified in the article's subheadings).

New Names for the Things Political: Primarily on Verbal Signs

Linguistic signs are the most conventionalised among the non-medium-specific signs that this film (and most others) employ, insofar as they adhere to the rules and norms of the principal languages that Videograms uses – Romanian and, in the version of the film used for this analysis, English – as they are established in the extra-filmic context. This makes them a logical point of departure into an analysis. The beginning of the film is marked by the imposing figure of the leader of Romania and its Communist Party, Nicolae Ceauşescu (1918–1989), whose position of public prominence had lasted for 24 years at the time of the film's “present”. Ceauşescu appears to the public as a deliverer of speeches, and one's familiarity with the role played by language in his public persona can aid one's understanding of how Videograms uses the politician's rhetorical style to draw attention to its own significatory operations.

Herta Müller, the Romanian-born German-language writer, relates in her autobiographical essay “The Red Flower and the Rod” that the poorly-educated ruler had difficulties even with the simplest grammar (Müller 1997: 2) – a fact presumably reflected at least in the unscripted statements made by Ceauşescu makes in the film, but lost in the translation to standard English.7 The viewer unable to understand the film's original language is also likely to miss Ceauşescu's speech impediment, which, as Müller mentions (ibid.), is a trait that surely drew the additional attention of Romanians to the materiality of his verbal communications. As importantly, Müller informs us that Ceauşescu's speeches consisted largely of the “repetition of prefabricated phrases” (ibid.), which for native speakers must have further emphasised his linguistic signifiers at the expense of the signifieds.

Opposite the dictator, there are the rallyists assembled on the Bucharest Palace Square on December 21, 1989, beginning to claim the country's political arena through their disapproving outbursts. The regime-controlled TV company broadcasting the rally reacts by interrupting the transmission. “Let's continue to the beginning of the disturbance,” we hear in the voice-over shortly after the described event. “What had occurred? Something rivets [Ceauşescu's] gaze. Shouts surge up. His speech stops. The camera wobbles. The technical disturbance. The broadcast is interrupted.” Videograms locates the beginning of Ceauşescu's fall at the point at which the habitual dynamic between the message-sending ruler and the message-receiving people undergoes a transformation. In the midst of the dictator's speech, a commotion in the crowd starts to swell, to which he reacts by repeatedly shouting the salutary address “Alo”. “Command communication from the ruler to the people had broken down,” comments the voice-over reflexively. What stuns the dictator is not the addressee's failure to hear him, but the fact that they, too, have assumed the role of message senders.

The regime's sycophants are thus turning into, or at least acting like, those who seek to upturn it, but the direction of the revolution is determined not by their steps and shouts, but rather by the language of the would-be leaders of post-Ceauşescu Romania. A few of the film's scenes explore the import of renaming existing social institutions as an act tantamount to creating new ones, in a manner reminiscent of the second book of Genesis. Consider the following parts of the dialogue from the crosscut scenes where two of the revolution's leaders, Ion Iliescu and Dumitru Mazilu, discuss the denominations of the nascent political entity's institutions.

Mazilu: “The one-party system must be abolished. Pluralistic structures must be introduced. Free elections must be held as soon as possible. By May at the latest.”

Off-screen speaker I: “In March.”

Off-screen speaker II: “No! March was the month the tyrant held his elections.”

Off-screen speaker III: “In February.”

Off-screen speaker IV: “In April, at Easter.”

Mazilu: “To please everyone: as soon as possible.”

The brief exchange illustrates through humour that the participants did not intend the tension between the project of participatory democracy pursued by the revolution and the necessity of articulating political decisions to be reflected in a single and authoritative voice. Mazilu's conclusion is conspicuously identical to his premise (and hence similar to Ceauşescu's own) that the only difference between them concerns the respective timeframes proposed for the elections. In light of the fact that “May at the latest” implies all of the months proposed by the other speakers as valid options, the debate's circular and therefore absurd structure becomes apparent.8

But if the many words uttered during the exchange fall short of their intended function, they inadvertently speak to the nature of the revolutionary project as perceived by some of the common folk. The female speaker's proposal that the elections should not take place in the month when the ousted ruler organised them and that they instead take place on a Christian holiday establishes a dichotomy between the supposedly godly Romania of the future and the supposedly iniquitous one of Ceauşescu's times. At the same time, however, the woman's associating the month of March with the elections of the regime that is being ousted testifies to the continued hold on the people's consciousness by the rejected, communist political system. The work of the revolution again proves to be one of divorcing signifiers from their signifieds and conjuring up new relationships between them.

Subsequent segments of the sequence, featuring a meeting of the army representatives and various other officials with Ion Iliescu – the revolution's other major figure who would later become the country's first freely elected head of state – develop this theme. The following segment of dialogue is a case in point.

Iliescu: “As I was saying, structures of power for the National Salvation Front throughout the country. Their immediate priorities: Energy supplies. Food supplies, public transport.”

Speaker II: “Mr. Iliescu, ‘salvation’ is no good. It sounds like a coup d'Ètat. ‘National democracy’ is better.” I suggested ‘People's Unified Front’.”

Iliescu: “No.”

Speaker III: “‘Democracy’ was used before. [...]”

Iliescu: “The people in Timișoara called themselves ‘Socialist Democratic Front’.”

Speaker IV: “Let's leave ‘socialis’” out of this.”

The dialogue reads like the classic chicken-egg conundrum. A new political entity needs a novel name that needs to be found quickly, as the country's identity will crucially depend on it. But how to be sure whether a name is suitable before that identity is determined and established? Just as the regimes of Ceauşescu and of Christian righteousness are posited as dichotomous, so are “socialism” and “democracy” configured as mutually exclusive. The hectic pace of both dialogues appears to explain why this reasoning passes unchecked by logic, as well as why it seemingly escapes everyone involved in the dialogue that the disregard of the qualifier “socialist” – formerly used by the entity whose new name is now being decided – can be rightfully seen as a betrayal of the democratic principle on which the new Romania is attempting to fashion itself. As we will see, the film employs gestural signs to make a similar point.

To Clapping and Back: Gestural Signs

Early in Videograms, the Ceauşescus and their cronies can be seen on the balcony of Bucharest's Royal Palace, standing above a sea of indistinguishable rallyists. Initially, both groups are observing their habitual duties: the politicians wave and their subjects clap. These basic gestures will evolve throughout the film and change meanings according to context. To begin exploring how this unfolds, I want to return to Herta Müller's depiction of Ceauşescu, which includes reflections on the dictator's distinct gestures. According to Müller, the dictator employed them to distract his audiences from his shortcomings as a speaker (Müller 1997: 2). Besides the hand waving noted by her and seen in the interrupted speech that opens the film, Videograms features a gesture whose meaning-making significance is revealed only to the viewer well-acquainted with the dictator's body language. Performed in the film's penultimate, mock-trial segment, the gesture consists of flailing both arms while sitting in an improvised courtroom next to Elena (Fig. 1). The only sound heard in the scene is a loud videotape hum, but the situation allows for the inference that Ceauşescu has made the gesture in response to the verdict.

Screenshot from Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution.

The other archival footage-based film that Ujică produced about the deposed Romanian leader – Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu / The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010, Romania) – omits this moment from its edit of the trial, but shows Ceauşescu perform the described gesture in a different scene. In it, Ceauşescu visits the Potemkin village of a grocery store, its shelves brimming with delectable food items during a period where the majority of Romanians were barely sustaining themselves on staples. Upon entering the store, the president cuts the air with his arms in the midst of an energetic applause before proceeding to inspect the quality of bread piled up against a wall (Fig. 2). This gesture – whose meaning can be translated into words as “enough of the formality” – marks the beginning of the dictator's behaviour in the store, his performance for the cameras present. Even though his appearance in the store postdates the line “How much fish did they bring?”, asked offscreen by an employee presumably unaware that the camera was already rolling, Ceauşescu surely understood the primary purpose of the visit: to create propaganda that the quality of daily living in Romania is much better than it actually was.9

Screenshot from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu / The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu.

Ceauşescu's cutting the air with his arms at the trial, too, lends itself to being interpreted as a commentary on a formality – this time a judicial one – and that it would again be shortly followed by a cessation: first, of the examination by the tribunal, and immediately thereafter, of the Ceausecus' own lives.10 Understood this way, the gesture challenges the notion that the dictator is no longer in charge, as it shows him influencing – or at least pretending to influence – the course of action in front of his persecutors.

A similar conclusion can be drawn from the way the film patterns the gesture of hand clapping. As illustrated by the film's early scenes (and the wealth of other visual documents from Ceauşescu's long reign), this once was a knee-jerk response to the politician's every public statement and therefore a symbol of civic complacency and docility. The film's final shot, however, shows the gesture performed in a different context: by a group of TV viewers, in reaction to an image of the Ceauşescus' corpses on the small screen. The hand clapping prompts us to ask whether the approving response to the gruesome sight confirms or refutes that the revolution represents an abandonment of the legacy of violence for which the Ceauşescu regime was notorious. In other words, it invites us to contemplate whether the revolution marks a genuine and unambiguously positive societal change, or whether it constitutes but a substitution of one set of signifiers with another, leaving the signified – Romanian society – essentially unaffected. The answer to this question engendered by the film's use of hand clapping proves to be similarly ambiguous.

Everyday Items on Special Days: Primarily on Objects

In the scene where the revolutionaries meet with the director of the national television to demand access to the broadcasting facilities, an insurgent addresses the camera with the words: “Let us determine the re-birth of Romania.” He and his fellow revolutionaries are aware of the moment's historical weight, but oblivious to the massproduced painting of Ceauşescu that is adorning a background wall. The viewfinder is estranging the portrait for the videographer, however, reminding him of its significance. He recomposes the frame throughout the scene's duration, in an attempt to simultaneously capture its entirety and omit from it the image of the dictator (Fig. 3–4).

Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution.

Towards the scene's end, another insurgent raises a bullet into the air t, and the camera zooms into a close-up of the small object. “The symbol of Romania's freedom and rebirth,” he declares ominously. He acts for the lens, assigning and addressing import to an everyday object that has yet to become a part of a momentous event, whereas the videographer acts with it, at once acknowledging the portrait's former symbolic power and denying its continuation into the future.

Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution.

This act of turning a thing into a symbol by exposing it to the camera receives a variation in a later scene, set in the liberated TV studio on Christmas Eve. Symmetrical to the scene discussed previously, it likewise brings together – and develops further – the themes of televisuality and theatricality. We see a group of teary-eyed national theatre actors in front of a decorated fir tree as they sing in unison a carol about angels descending from radiant heavens. Following the song's end, a man at the forefront delivers the following monologue (here reproduced in abbreviated form):

“We are incredibly close to each other this Christmas. It is a miracle. We felt impelled to come here, and declare... [...] We declare that our hearts, with all that is sacred to us, are with you and this wonderful country... Forgive me. I'm so overwhelmed with emotion, joy, with this brotherhood, that I am lost for words. I, who am usually so eloquent. But the day will come when each of us will speak and open his heart... I brought something from home. A symbol: a small, red heart.” (Fig. 5)

Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution.

The actor's performance attempts to conceal its status as such through the speaker's lack of discursive coherence, which is also acknowledged verbally. As in other scenes set in the TV studio after the insurgents' takeover, the lack of professionalism operates as a guarantee of authenticity, manifesting itself in the collapse of language under the supposed impact of transcendent powers of religion (symbolised by Christmas and its iconography) and love (symbolised by the plastic heart). The limits of language, hitherto used in the TV studio as a tool for maintaining the oppressive regime, are being exposed, and the nation is now supposedly being unified by a blissful feeling beyond words, whose magical power rests precisely in its distance from logos. But the camera's zoom lens subverts the desired significatory logic. By rendering the small object extraordinarily large, it emphasises the object's synthetic quality and – thereby – the inadequacy of a visual sign to embody a symbol rooted in language. Rendered visible and larger than life, “heart” reminds the perceiver of its first, denotative level of meaning as a force pump that maintains the circulation of blood within an organism. It is hardly a coincidence that the following scene features the execution of the presidential couple.

Whereas certain everyday objects are accorded the status of signs through gesture and the techniques of cinematography and editing, certain other ones are being simplified to suit the ideological needs of the nascent political entity. In discussing the name and the flag for the new Romania, the insurgents employ the logic of elimination: the country's name, they agree, should exclude the phrase “socialist republic,” and the flag should no longer include the coat of arms used during Ceauşescu's rule (representing afforested mountains beneath a rising sun, with an oil derrick in the left side of the composition, framed by a wreath of wheat ears and topped by a five-pointed red star). Yet addressing the critical question of what signifiers would replace the ones that have been deemed inapplicable to post-Ceauşescu's Romania is deferred, in the same way that the implication of the discutants' conflation of dictatorship and socialism, carried by the latter term's omission from the new country's name, is ignored. What remains instead of the phrase and image pointing to the privileged branches of the country's economy from 1965 to 1989 is a void, symbolic of the moment that – for the majority of the nation – was overflowing with hopes and dreams of a brighter future.

In a photographically exciting moment, this void receives a literal representation allowing for rich exegeses. In the hand of a street protester, we see a flag from which the coat of arms of the socialist Romania has been cut out, rendering a group of other protesters visible through the oval opening (Fig. 6).

Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution.

At least two related, albeit contradictory, implications stem from this image. The first is that the revolutionary situation has replaced symbols with reality. As Jean Baudrillard formulates it in his essay on the Romanian revolution and its televisual representations (although to make a different point), act and sign are confused (Baudrillard 1994: 56). The other implication immediately follows, a result of one's sense that these visible people – demos – paradoxically must be deprived of its denotative identity if they are to successfully claim their political identity, as Benjamin J. Young – following Claude Lefort – reminds us in his reading of Videograms: “[T]he identity of 'the people' must always remain a question; maintaining the indeterminacy and open-endedness of democracy prohibits one group from laying claim to society or 'the people' as an integral whole to the exclusion of all others.” (Young 2004: 255). Following this line of argumentation, this new media visibility of “ordinary” Romanians (replacing the select, suitable ones who were granted media visibility in Ceauşescu's era) is not only a sign of imminent and irreversible victory of democracy over autocracy, but also an indicator of that victory's limits. Notwithstanding the freshness of Iliescu's laconic treatment of some of the country's foundational elements (sharply contrasting with the infamous rhetorical verbosity of communist bureaucrats), the temporary void that has resulted from the overthrow of the symbolism associated with the former regime can produce trepidation as much as enthusiasm, because it allows for any kinds of sentiments and views to be projected onto it. To quote but a particularly troublesome example, the liberated TV station's anchor wears the Romanian tricolor on a sleeve of his shirt, a symbol of patriotism conjuring up undesired associations of the armbands that the minorities of Nazi Germany were forced to wear as signs of identification and means of degradation. This attempt of representing the revolution through a symbol of love for the country is made additionally questionable by its inherent reductionism. Signification is going awry, and the TV apparatus – as we will see – is only contributing to the confusion.

The Apparatus In-Between: Primarily on Medium-Specific Signs

I have repeatedly argued that Videograms implies that the question of where to turn the camera is key to both the regime that is attempting to stay in power and the insurgents who are trying to overturn the regime. In the words of Frances Guerin, “[t]he revolution played out as a struggle for images” (Guerin 2012: 491). To recapitulate, the “liveness” of the broadcast allowed for the sounds of booing the hitherto seemingly unshakable dictator and the images of ensuing mayhem to be disseminated to each household in Romania that owned a TV set. This, in turn, prompted the regime-loyal cameramen and editors to react to the unprecedented event by devising ways of maintaining the transmission while preventing the sights and sounds of the mounting revolt from reaching the audience: at one point, they tilted the cameras to the sky. The transmission thus departed from the logic of a simple shot-reverse shot (the Ceauşescus and their cronies in front of the rallyists) – a technique that had defined the aesthetics of political broadcasts in socialist Romania and beyond. As the arena of Romanian politics widened from the palace and the adjacent square to the streets, the possibility of capturing the “complete picture” from a single vantage point became increasingly unfeasible. Constantin Parvulescu insightfully discusses how the videography of the amateur footage enacts the dilemma of where the lens should be pointed, or of determining what sights and sounds best represent the nascent revolution: “In order to be able to record the revolutionary action clearly it must get closer; it has to expose itself. Yet this exposure, as we shall see, becomes a political statement itself” (Parvulescu 2013a: 359). The singular perspective of the official cameras – an epitome of autocracy – gradually gave way to a multitude of perspectives afforded by amateur cameras, whose substandard image became a signifier of authenticity.11

The widely-broadcast fuzzy images of Ceauşescu's trial reveal that a non-professional camera was used to capture this footage, too. The scenes show the accused refusing to answer the prosecutor's questions and requesting an opportunity to defend himself in front of the national assembly. Introduced to the film as the star of a political rally televised by an instrument of his own regime, Ceauşescu appears oblivious to the fact that the new political order has already adopted his own model of rule, which presupposes the existence of the public political sphere as a mirage, in the form of carefully controlled media presentations. The film, however, configures the TV studio as the revolution's true locus,12 documenting the insurgents' acquisition and challenging of the representational norms and television techniques. The chronologically arranged excerpts from the Romanian Television news broadcasts from the period allow the viewer to discern how the company's televisual style radically changed over the few days of the revolution.

The images of speakers delivering news before the revolutionaries' takeover feature a high degree of stylistic uniformity. In both, the speaker is facing the camera while sitting at a large desk in a corner of the frame. What distinguishes the composition from similar ones produced by TV stations in the West is the relatively great camera distance from the figure being photographed. The small shot scale prevents excessive attention to the speaker and facilitates an impression that she or he is communicating a truth received from a higher instance – the ruling political organ itself – signified by a telephone on the desk (Fig. 7).

Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution.

The film reveals the technological basis of the TV studio in the manner of many films of political modernism: we are afforded the view of a chroma key blue screen backdrop and lighting instruments above it.13 The first piece of TV programming produced by the revolution's leaders stands in stark stylistic contrast to the described images. It replaces the singular, smartly-dressed speaker by thirty-two people, several among whom are unkempt and wearing casual coats and jackets. They are configured as genuine “everymen” and “everywomen”, an identity to which an additional weight is lent by their non-conformity to the convention of sitting in the studio, which also signals the situation's urgency. Whereas this first broadcast after the revolutionaries' takeover of the TV station features a conspicuously uneven number of men and women (only two among the thirty-two participants in the first broadcast are female), a later transmission features a more gender-balanced group of protestors. A speaker's remark that the group includes representatives of all ethnicities of Romania gives rise to the conclusion that a conscious effort was made to present a diverse section of society in the later broadcast. Significantly, most of the speakers do not read from a script, but ad-lib – a choice that carries an additional connotation of authenticity and a decisive turn from the aesthetic of television as it existed during the dictator's reign.

An even later broadcast excerpted in the film exemplifies further a departure from the televisual aesthetic of the socialist Romania. In it, notable captives of the revolution, Ceaușescu’s son Nicu and a member of the Securitate, are exposed to the cameras and removed from the field of view in a manner reminiscent of medieval and renaissance pageants (Fig. 8). The broadcast deviates from the rules of decorum for the sake of factual evidence: blood from the face of the Securitate member had not been removed and Nicu’s scratches and bumps had not been covered before the two men were presented to TV viewers. On the contrary, the graphic sight is emphasised through an extreme close-up, a technique that mirrors the camera lens' focus on beads of sweat rolling down the forehead of the revolutionary poet Mircea Dinescu in an earlier scene of Videograms, and a firing squad member's opening the eyes of the executed Ceauşescu in a big shot, for the camera, to dispel possible doubts on whether the dictator is dead.

Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution.

The believability of the execution of the Ceauşescus may have arisen additionally from its repeated showings (this is because the sight recurs), just as the credibility of the scenes broadcast from the TV studio may have rested partially on their “liveness” (this is because it is directly transmitted).14 But years after the film's completion, it was established that the recorded execution of the Ceauşescus was, in fact, a re-enactment; the actual shooting of the couple took place while the camera was off (Kernbauer 2010: 77). One way to view the low-resolution imagery is as a means of recalling terrorist action and a failure to attest to the legal validity of the political foundation of the new power (Kernbauer 2010: 82). Another way of interpreting the imagery gives rise to a hypothesis on a different, dual function of the non-professional technology used to document the event. One of them is to acknowledge that a radical change of political regime must entail a radical change of visual regime, too, and that the revolution is fulfilling that requirement (the slickness of standard quality TV image, produced by expensive cameras available to the few, has been replaced by gritty VHS image, standing for the common man and – therefore – for the democratic turn itself). The other possible function is more sinister: the lack of sharpness of the VHS image helps cover the denial of the sight of the actual execution to the public; in other words, that an inaugural event of Romanian democracy involves a suppression of truth comparable to that charged by the revolutionaries against Ceauşescu's regime.

All of the Above: Farocki and Ujică's Authorial Commentary

What, however, of Farocki and Ujică's own stance toward the alternately complementing and conflicting theatrical and televisual signification systems at the film's heart? Like all films based on archival footage, Videograms makes what Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell call authorial commentary – a sense that an intelligence outside the film's world is pointing out something (Thompson and Bordwell 1994: 413) – by selecting, arranging, and modifying the existing footage, as well as using intertitles and voice-over narration to control the viewer's understanding of it. It is at the meta-level that Videograms reveals its unorthodoxy most overtly.

As I did in my analysis of the material the film incorporates, I want to begin with the linguistic signs, the first among those that the viewer encounters are conveyed through the title. Videograms of a Revolution tied into two lines of theoretical discourses of the period: the aforementioned one on political modernism, and the discourses on the “crisis of indexicality” brought about by the proliferation of digital imaging technologies in the 1990s. This latter term refers to the diminished credibility of pictorial representations in the technological landscape that allows for their easy and visually imperceptible manipulation. When Videograms premiered in 1992, Jean Baudrillard wrote in the original French version of his “The Timişoara Massacre” that “[p]hotographic or cinema images still pass through the negative stage (and that of projection), whereas the TV image, the video image, digital and synthetic, are images without a negative, and hence without negativity and without reference” (Baudrillard 1994: 55). This point of view represents a development of Baudrillard's well-known earlier theses on simulacra and simulation (Baudrillard 1981), but can serve in this context as a viable explanation for Farocki and Ujică's decision to foreground via the title the mediality of their images and sounds in a film about a medium, most of which were at the time of the film's production undergoing a transformation so radical that it was commonly referred to as “digital revolution.”15

The voice-over differs substantially from that device as usually employed in conventional films. First, out of the 1295 words that comprise the voice-over narration in the English language version of the film, 977 are spoken during the first 52 minutes. In addition to offering key narrative information that cannot be derived from the sights and sounds within the archival footage, the voice-over helps bring to the thematic fore the questionable capacity of television to convey factual truth, and our ability to access it. It is largely in this manner that Videograms “poses questions regarding [...] the relation between the political actor and spectator, viewing and acting” and “the historical event and its (tele-visual) representation”, as Benjamin Young describes the film's thematic preoccupations (Young 2004: 248). The majority of segments comprising the added narration reflect either on the evolving stylistic procedures of the footage employed (for example, on the decision of the videographer of some of the amateur footage to start commenting at a certain point on the events transpiring before his lens) or the various technical glitches occurring in the process of capturing or transmitting the images. The example of the first and longest fragment of the voice-over, reproduced below, will have to stand in for many.

In mid-December 1989, demonstrations had broken out in Timișoara. Protests were aimed first at government plans to banish pastor László Tőkés from the city. Then at Ceauşescu. On December 17th, members of the Securitatea, militia, and army opened fire on demonstrators. The victims were taken away. Their whereabouts remained unknown. Two days later, tens of thousands of people took to the streets as if they had nothing to lose. In reports which circulated, the number of those who had died continued to rise. General expectancy, the certainty of evil, created a pattern of perception in which the corpses of a pauper cemetery could be confused with those of the rebellion. At the time and place inscribed in the image, from the window of a student dormitory in Timișoara, an amateur video camera records demonstrators moving towards the center of the city. The camera is in danger. It has remained upstairs to continue filming. Crowd chants reverberate. The time is clearly discernible. The image in the blue wintry light is divided. The walls in the foreground and the action in the background pertain to different temporal frames. The image is unequally divided. The major portion is occupied by the foreground, which is not the focus of attention. The event has been shifted to the background. The camera gets as close to the event as the lens allows.

The voice-over establishes characteristically Farockian dual themes of visibility of and legibility, harkening back to one of Farocki's best known films, Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989). Early in Images, we see a grainy and blurry aerial shot of structures that – the voice-over informs us – depict the Auschwitz concentration camps and the adjacent I.G. Farben plant photographed by the Allies on April 9, 1944. Because the analysts of the photographs did not have orders to look for the camps, they were not able to identify them.

The linguistic cues to the themes of (non-)visibility provided early in the film help keep the viewer alerted to them even when they are not addressed directly by the voice-over or intertitles. A case in point is the scene showing the Ceauşescus fleeing the presidential palace in a helicopter. They appear to the camera as unidentifiable specks – a sharp contrast to the grandeur they were exuding previously as a result of the carefully chosen combination of angles and shot scales of the National Television's TV cameras (Fig. 9).

Videogramme einer Revolution / Videograms of a Revolution.

Farocki and Ujică's manipulation of the footage in what follows immediately further emphasises the lack of the Ceauşescus’ recognisability: a digital zoom to which the filmmakers subject the presidential couple does not improve, but impairs the legibility of the image, with the result that what the viewer struggles to interpret as an event is, in actuality, a combination of a finite number of TV lines. If seeing indeed is believing, the question arises, why are we basing our conclusions about the fugitives' identity on the voice-over and the exclaims of the onlookers?

The question of whether the events presented to us are authentic (documentary) or staged (theatrical) also applies to the film's frequent replaying of the events. The sequence discussed in the previous paragraph, for instance, shows the ascending helicopter carrying the Ceauşescus twice, and the scene where the Prime Minister Constantin Dascalescu announces the government's resignation demonstrates the act three times, as it is captured by different quality cameras at various angles and distances from the speaker. As a variant example of this technique, the film incorporates unedited footage where a British journalist is shown delivering four consecutive takes of a report on the clashes then in progress between the Army and the Securitate, in attempts to coordinate his speech with the sounds of bullets flying behind his back.

An obvious common function of these various instances of repetition is to interrogate the potential for the contemporary historical event's occurrence and existence outside of the media. On a meta-level, the suggested repeatability of those events also brings into question the idea of “liveness” as a crucial feature of theatre and much of television.


As my analysis has shown, Videograms uses all types of signs available to the filmmaker working in the contemporarily conventional format (a two-dimensional, single-channel image and sound) to create a tight meaning-making system. In great part, the film's extraordinary structural coherence results from its reflexivity, manifested through thematic foci on both the anti-Ceauşescu revolution and its semiotic procedures. Like the works of history and their commentators who – according to Hayden White in his Metahistory – mirror one another as they employ the same discursive models, the film draws attention to its own formal procedures by closely examining those of the revolution and its televisual representations. This makes Videograms a work at once of history and historiography.

The film systematically reminds us that a separation between any subject and its manner of representation is inevitably arbitrary. In the particular context of Videograms, that implies that the notion of “historical truth” can only exist as a function of a given sign-system. What makes a revolution occurring within the media-saturated landscape of the late twentieth century particularly suitable as a subject for exploring that concept is the overhaul, reformation, or abandonment of signs that a revolution must entail in order to justify its name. The film's “drama” can be located with most precision within the communication channels shared by the dictatorial regime and those who seek to overturn it. The latter are faced with tasks that are difficult to reconcile: replacing old signifiers with new ones, while ensuring comprehensibility of their messages.

It is precisely the film's concentration on signs and their exchange that enables it, through various instances of communicational and representational “noise,” to also point to what does not fit the logic of customary signification: the unmediated “real.” Throughout Videograms, one sees people misinterpreting each other's words and gestures, and TV cameras failing to show what they are supposed to (the “non-image” of the sky in the broadcast of Ceaușescu's final speech) or showing sights that it would not show under ordinary circumstances (the corpses of the executed Ceaușescus). The film's consistent preoccupation with live versus pre-recorded broadcasts and with manipulations that reveal the imperceptible difference between the two enhances its theme of semiotic – and therefore also political – errors.

Videograms depicts the outcome of the Romanian revolution as both a historical defeat and an epistemological success, which is reinforced by the final sentences heard in the voice-over: “Film was possible because there was history. Almost imperceptibly, like moving forward on a Moebius strip, the side was flipped. We look on, and have to think, if film is possible, then history, too, is possible.” This conception of history presupposes the inevitably medialised nature of the past, but also an immediately accessible vision of the future.

Nenad Jovanovic
Wright State University


1 For Eisenstein's own definitions and discussions of the two terms and techniques associated with them, see Eisenstein 1977 and Eisenstein 1991.

2 The film has been shown in venues like the Locarno International Film Festival (1992), the International Film Festival Rotterdam (1993) and the Amsterdam International Film Festival (2014) and has been classified “wertvoll” (of high artistic quality and social relevance) by the German Film Board. (Videograms)

3 “[R]evolution becomes something staged”, as Constantin Parvulescu puts it (Parvulescu 2013a: 368).

4 See, for example, Baudrillard 1994, Parvulescu a, and Young. This last researcher describes the revolution succinctly as “[p]olitics happening not just on TV, but for TV” (Young 2004: 251).

5 Katarzyna Ruchel-Stockmans thus writes that “[p]eople believed in the revolution because they immediately saw it being recorded and broadcast. Cameras triggered the progression of the events themselves, but, on the reverse side of that process, reality became theatrical” (Ruchel-Stockmans 2015: 18).

6 For a brief introductory survey of the relationship between the two media, see Pavis 1998.

7 The reference here is to the Facets Video edition of the film used for this analysis.

8 Some other dialogues in the film are equally circular. For instance, in the segment produced by a Yugoslavian broadcast company, the reporter asks an arrested man – suspected of belonging to the regime-loyal secret police – whether he is Romanian, in a combination of basic Romanian and English. The man answers: “I'm a Romanian from the Jui Valley”, which the reporter translates for the camera to Serbian in a line that the Facets Video edition of the film leaves untranslated into English: “There, one of them admits that he works for the Romanian police”. Moments later, we hear the same reporter engage in the following dialogue about the arrested man with one of the insurgents: “What he says?” / “He say that he's not terrorist.” / “And?” / “And he's terrorist.”

9 A well-known anecdote on the ruler's visit to the United States in the years where he had been enjoying the status of “the good communist” corroborates this hypothesis. Ion Mihai Pacepa, a high-ranking official in Ceauşescu's government, recounts the Romanian leader's astonishment with the wealth of merchandise available at New York's Macy's, the department store he visited during his visit to the United States, a sight to which he responded with the question: “How long did it take them to set up that show?” (Pacepa 1987: 77).

10 The fact shows further hermeneutical implications when Videograms is compared with Autobiography, as the latter film – contrary to its title – purposefully fails to emulate a “first person” discourse that is characteristic of the literary genre of autobiography and its equivalents in other media. Instead, it depicts Ceauşescu as a human being devoid of meaningful privacy and intimacy, a man whose entire existence can be regarded as a formality. But this exceeds the article's scope.

11 For similar assertions on different kinds of “technically flawed” imagery in Videograms, see Guerin 2012: 491-2, and Strausz 2017: 101. The same view is expressed with particular force by Eva Kernbauer: “Because we do not see what is happening, because the transmission is interrupted, these images assert their veracity” (Kernbauer 2010: 77).

12A different formulation of the same view can be found in Baudrillard 1994.

13 Political modernism is the term D.N. Rodowick uses to describe the high modernist artworks inspired by such leftist rebellions of the late 1960s as the May 1968 events in France and the associated theoretical frameworks. As one commonality pertinent here, politically modernist texts oppose illusionism striven for by conventional mimetic artworks, with the goal of promoting a detached, critical thinking about “form” and “content” of a given representation, and the connections of both to the political ideology dominant within the context of artistic production. For a comprehensive and insightful study on the subject, see Rodowick 1988.

14 Daniela Draghici, a participant in the BBC-produced TV show The Lost World of Communism (2009), testifies about her and other Romanians' multiple viewings of the scene, explaining that “We couldn't get enough of it.”

15 Critics have offered different interpretations of “videograms”. For Benjamin Young, the terms “invokes the transmission of images, as in the sending of telegrams” (Young 2004: 251), whereas Eva Kernbauer understands it to denote “automatic recording without interruption.” (Kernbauer 2010: 78)


Nenad Jovanovic is Assistant Professor of Media at Wright State University’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures, and the author of Brechtian Cinemas: Montage and Theatricality in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Peter Watkins and Lars von Trier (SUNY Press, 2017).


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Suggested Citation

Jovanovic, Nenad. 2020. “The Semiotics of Insurrection: Farocki and Ujică’s Videograms of a Revolution”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 10. DOI:


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