The first Romanian fiction films are wrapped in an aura of legend.
An investigation regarding the beginnings of Romanian cinema, published in an insert of the newspaper Cuvântul (The Word) in December 1933, mentions that in 1911 an “arrangement of a play for the cinema”, Păpușa (The Doll), was produced by the cameramen Nicolae Barbelian and Demichelli in collaboration with the head of the actors’ troupe, Marinescu. At the same time, Victor Eftimiu, in collaboration with Emil Gârleanu, wrote a film script which they offered for free to a certain Georgescu. The resultant film, called Dragoste la mănăstire (Love in a Monastery) or Două altare (Two Altars) and shown only in 1914, played for just eight days. This was despite the fact that the film was composed merely of shots taken during two rehearsals for the role, attended by Tony Bulandra and Marioara Voiculescu, the rest of the film being taken up by intertitles and long letters.
The first Romanian fiction film was Amor Fatal (Fatal Love Affair), starring Lucia Sturdza, Tony Bulandra and Aurel Barbelian, actors from the National Theatre Bucharest. The film was directed by Grigore Brezeanu, a director from the same theatre and the son of the great actor Ion Brezeanu. The film played between 26 and 30 September 1911 at the Apollo Cinema.
On 7 November 1911, the film Înșirăte mărgărite… (Spread Yourselves, Daisies) premiered. It was based on Victor Eftimiu’s poem, and in fact showed scenes filmed in different locations in the country for the completion of the play with the same name that was playing at the National Theatre Bucharest. It was what today would be called a magic lantern show. Aristide Demetriade and Grigore Brezeanu directed and Demetriade also appeared in the role of Făt-Frumos. This film/theatre hybrid was well received by spectators of the day.
In December 1911, the theatrical magazine Rampa published a note under the heading “The Cinema in the Theatre” (signed by V. Scânteie) indicating that “The Maestro Nottara is in the course of making a patriotic work re-creating the Romanian War of Independence on film, so that today’s generations might learn the story of the battles of 1877, and for future generations a live tableau of Romanian bravery will remain”.
As a result, the director of the Bucharest branch of the Gaumont-Paris studio, Raymond Pellerin, announced the premiere of his film Războiul din 1877-1878 (The 1877–1878 War), scheduled for the 29th December 1911. A “film” made in haste, with a troupe of second-hand actors and with the help of General Constantinescu, who commanded a division at Pitești, from whom he had obtained the extras needed for the war scenes, “Războiul din 1877-1878″ was screened a day before by the prefect of the capital’s police, who decided that it did not correspond with historic fact. Consequently, the film was confiscated and destroyed, Raymond Pellerin was declared persona non grata and he left for Paris, while the “collaborationist” general saw himself moved to another garrison as a means of discipline.
On 5 May 1912, the magazine Flacăra (The Flame) brought to its readers’ attention the fact that “as it is known, a few artists have founded a society with the goal of producing a film about the War of Independence… Such an undertaking deserves to be applauded”. The initiators were a group of actors: Constantin Nottara, Aristide Demetriade, V. Toneanu, Ion Brezeanu, N. Soreanu, P. Liciu, as well as the young Grigore Brezeanu, associate producer and the creative force behind the whole operation. Since a large amount of money was needed for the production, they also brought into this effort Leon Popescu, a wealthy man and owner of the Lyric Theatre. The group received strong backing from government authorities, with the army and all necessary equipment being placed at its disposal, plus military advisers (possibly including Pascal Vidrașcu). The cameras and their operators were brought from abroad, and the print was prepared in Parisian laboratories. Could Grigore Brezeanu have been the film’s director? No source from that time gives credence to such a hypothesis. On the contrary, they present him as “initiator”, producer of the film, beside members of the National Theatre and Leon Popescu. Furthermore, it appears that it was he who attracted the financier of the entire undertaking. In 1985, the film critic Tudor Caranfil discovered among Aristide Demetriade’s papers his director’s notebooks for Independența României, unequivocally confirming that he was the film’s director. Thus, the film’s production crew was as follows: Producers: Leon Popescu, Aristide Demetriade, Grigore Brezeanu, Constantin Nottara, Pascal Vidrașcu. Screenwriters: Petre Liciu, Constantin Nottara, Aristide Demetriade, Corneliu Moldoveanu. Director: Aristide Demetriade. Cinematographer: Franck Daniau. Makeup and hairstylist: Pepi Machauer.
On 2 September 1912, at the Eforie cinema, the largest movie theatre in Bucharest, the premiere of Independența României took place. Despite all its shortcomings as the theatrical game of the actors, the errors of an army of extras uncontrolled by direction which provoked unintended laughter in some scenes and rendered dramatically limp those of the beginning, the film was well received by spectators, being shown for several weeks. Through this realisation, through the dimensions of its theme, through the distribution method chosen, through the genuine artistic intentions, through its professional editing (for the time), the creation of this film can be considered Romania’s first step in the art of cinematography.
And yet he who had realised this work, the man who kept the whole team together, the theatre director Grigore Brezeanu, was left disappointed. The press of the time made ostentatious mention of Leon Popescu, who financed the film and made sure to distance the other financiers, buying their part; no such praise was heaped on the artistic makers of the film. This caused producer Grigore Brezeanu to say in an interview given to the magazine “Rampa” and published on 13 April 1913: “My dream would have been to build a large film studio. I have come to believe that this is impossible. First of all, we are missing a large capital investment. Without money we cannot rival the foreign studios…A studio, according to our financiers, is something outside art, something in the realm of agriculture or the C.F.R. Hence I have abandoned this dream with great regret.”
But Leon Popescu, after the appearance of certain products allegedly of the Romanian cinema, filmed by the Pathe-Frères studio and featuring second-hand actors, in fact, these were a mixture of foreign films with scenes shot in which Romanian actors appeared (they were presented on the stages of movie theatres, in the form of theatre productions played by actors “in flesh and blood” coupled with filmed scenes of the same actors), known as “cinemasketches”, responded with a wide-ranging offensive plan, forming the Film de artă Leon Popescu (Leon Popescu Art Film) society in 1913.
Collaborating with the troupe of Marioara Voiculescu, which included actors sympathetic to Popescu (C. Radovici, Ion Manolescu and G. Storin), they managed to put on the market the following films: Amorul unei prințese (The Love Affair of a Princess) (1913), Răzbunarea (Revenge) (1913), Urgia cerească (The Sky-borne Disaster) (1913), Cetatea Neamțului (The German’s Citadel) (1914), Spionul (The Spy) (1914), with all but the penultimate proving to be well below expectations.
Notably, in 1913, there appeared another Romanian film, Oțelul răzbună (Steel Takes Its Revenge), directed and edited by Aristide Demetriade, who that same year directed another film, Scheci cu Jack Bill (Sketch with Jack Bill). The film was financed by the director, with substantial help from Professor Gheorghe Arion (8,000 lei). The 40-minute film received favourable reviews and enjoyed great success. Today only one reel remains at the A.N.F., taking up a minute of projection time, but happily, all the actors can be seen in close-up. The film’s producer was Gheorghe Arion and Franck Daniau was the cinematographer, and it starred along with Demetriade, Andrei Popovici, Mărioara Cinsky, Țacovici-Cosmin, Nicolae Grigorescu, Petre Bulandra and Romald Bulfinsky.
At the end of 1914, the Leon Popescu Society merged with the Cipeto society with the aim of importing small-sized projectors and at the same time of renting films produced by the Marioara Voiculescu company to third parties.
During the First World War, film production was mainly directed toward documentaries and newsreels. The few Romanian cameramen were mobilised, and during the retreat to Moldova all film cameras in the country were saved. His Majesty Ferdinand I was filmed on the front, together with the generals Constantin Prezan and Alexandru Averescu, while Queen Marie was filmed in hospitals, easing the suffering of patients. Few sequences remain of the thousands of metres filmed. Some of these were later used in the film Ecaterina Teodoroiu, produced in 1930.
After World War I, internationally, film production developed in accordance with the interest of businessmen in the new industry. New studios endowed with good equipment and specialists well trained in the new technology appeared, directors and actors known to the public at large were attracted to work in the new industry, as were renowned screenwriters. Markets were opened for finished film products, which through a market-tested formula managed to bring profits and finance new productions. Film industries with lavish financial resources came to dominate the market, decimating weak national cinemas.
In this context, an active Romanian film industry was but a dream. The approximately 250 movie theatres then in existence in Romania could not even generate the amount of money needed for one film, with profits out of the question. Specialist training for film crew members was non-existent, and Romanian actors were unknown abroad so their work could not be sold outside Romania. Neither did the state accord any attention to film production. Its only preoccupation in this regard was to collect the tax on screenings, which provided a fairly consistent revenue stream, its proceeds at one time amounting to 2/3 of total revenue derived from this type of tax. (This also happened in Communist Romania, when the tax on screenings, collected from the film distribution network, covered all the expenses of the Council of Socialist Culture and Education, including film production.)
To all these were added two other catastrophes, Leon Popescu died in 1918, after which his “studio” (in fact some improvised sets in warehouses) on the grounds of the Lyric Theatre burned down and miraculously, of all the films, only one was saved, a copy of Independența României (this being incomplete, with about 20 minutes missing). According to other versions of the story told at the time, suffering from a crisis of nerves brought about by his films’ failures, Leon Popescu set fire to his own storehouse of films and died shortly thereafter.
In 1920, a film studio, Soarele (The Sun), began producing Pe valurile fericirii (On the Waves of Happiness), which starred the Hungarian actress Lya De Putti, and the Romanian actors Maria Filotti, Ion Manolescu, Gheorghe Storin, Alexandru Mihalescu and Tantzi Cutava-Barozzi. It was directed by Dolly A. Sigetti and the script was based on a play by K. Williamson. The film was never completed. Nevertheless, a few sequences were shown in the form of a trailer.
The year 1921 marked the production of the first Romanian animated film, more precisely of the first Romanian animated cartoon, conceived by Aurel Petrescu and called Păcală pe lună (Păcală on the moon). Surprisingly, all the animated films of this director and artist, which he was producing into the sound era, are lost. Showing foresight, Aurel Petrescu created an album with about 80 stills, today owned by the A.N.F. and from which we can get an idea of the techniques used by Petrescu in animating. Some stills have on their edge the black strip denoting recorded sound, which has led researchers to confirm that in his last phase, Petrescu produced sound cartoons.
Jean Mihail also entered the turbulent milieu called the cinema at this time. He was one of the pioneers of Romanian cinema and began his career through his participation as assistant director under the German Alfred Hallm, director of Țigăncușa din iatac (The Little Gypsy Girl in the Bedroom). The film, shot on locations such as Mogoșoaia Palace, Pasărea Monastery, and Minovici Vila, was based on a script by Victor Beldiman, in turn written after a novel by Radu Rosseti. It was a Spera-Film Berlin and Rador-Film Bucharest co-production. It starred Dorina Heller, Elvira Popescu, Ion Iancovescu, Mitzi Vecera, Tantzi Elvas, Ecaterina Vigny, Leon Lefter, Petre Sturdza, Petrescu Muscă and premiered on 30 December 1923. Sadly, the film is lost today.
The lack of a steady supply of financial resources was the constant obsession permanently plaguing Romanian film directors. The absence of a “Leon Popescu”, a wealthy man ready to invest his earnings in film production, caused directors and the few actors passionate about the new art to seek financiers who were equally passionate. This is how the young actor-director Jean Georgescu found a retiree in the year 1925 who, for more or less artistic reasons, invested his savings in the production of a film called Năbădăile Cleopatrei (Cleopatra’s Caprices). Ion Șahighian made his directing debut on this film, which starred Georgescu, Ion Finteșteanu, A. Pop Marțian, Alexandru Giugaru, N. Soreanu, Brândușa Grozăvescu and others. In the same fashion, Jean Georgescu produced the film Milionar pentru o zi (Millionaire for a Day) (1925) in a Bucharest cabaret, since the owner wanted to advertise the building.
Jean Mihail directed Lia (1927), on a screenplay by Mircea Filotti financed by a German businessman who wanted to fulfill the wish of his wife, well-known actress Lilly Flohr. Likewise, he made Povara (The Burden) at Vienna in 1928 with the money of a lady who wished to see her name listed in the credits as production director.
At the request of a firm that sold coffee, radios, etc., Marcel Blossoms and Micu Kellerman directed the film Lache în harem (1927) (The valet in the harem).
On other occasions, due to lack of money, film enthusiasts would form a cooperative where one would contribute the camera, the other the laboratory, the other the script, the other the direction and the actors were easily obtained due to their desire to see themselves on screen. Finally they had to find a creditor willing to lend them some money on the assurance that it would be returned to him after “the great success of the premiere”. This is how there appeared under Jean Mihail’s direction Păcat (Sin) (1924) and Manasse (Manasseh) (1925). The actor Ghiță Popescu directed Legenda celor două cruci (The Legend of the Two Crosses) (1925), Vitejii neamului (The Bravest of Our People) (1926) and Năpasta (The Calamity) (1927). Jean Georgescu directed Maiorul Mura (Major Mura) (1928), financed by collecting money from friends.
The attraction of the screen and the real desire to make a name for oneself in the new art led to the foundation of several film schools where students’ tuition fees paid for the production of certain films. Of course, the students were unpaid actors, which allowed for widespread distribution. The Clipa-Film studio produced, with this form of financing, the films Iadeș (The Wishbone) (1926), Iancu Jianu (1927), Haiducii (The Haiducs) (1929), Ciocoii (The Boyars) (1930) and, later, Insula Șerpilor (Snake Island) (1934), the penultimate one featuring an attempt at sound, and the last one being a talkie.
On the other hand, a film production society called Soremar, generally specialising in documentaries and newsreels, produced the 1928 film Simfonia dragostei (The Symphony of Love), directed by Ion Șahighian. With the director Niculescu Brumă they produced the film Ecaterina Teodoroiu, in which there appear clips filmed during the First World War of the great personages of the time with the mother of Ecaterina Teodoroiu appearing as herself. These films were produced in Vienna studios.
Other films from this period include Gogulică C.F.R. (1929) (unfinished), and Haplea (The Dullard) (animated by Marin Iorda in 1928), the first Romanian animated film preserved archivally.
From a technical point of view, making these films was very difficult. If a film camera could be obtained from newsreel photographers, the print was prepared with them also. The problem of finding a set to use was very difficult, with the director searching for a set among all nearby warehouses, granaries, stables or dance halls. Sometimes filming was done in different apartments or in homes owned by those willing to help. Lights were usually gathered up from photographers’ studios. Often, due to overcrowding in residences, films would accidentally display a light or the cameraman and his camera reflected in a mirror or a piece of furniture. The best locations were those offered by various theatres on occasion that work take place at night. Another solution was for them to shoot interiors outdoors. They built their “interiors” on sets exposed to sunlight (thus eliminating artificial lights) and built on a platform that could be rotated and thus make full use of sunlight. The technical crews, in contrast to those found abroad, had to be jacks-of-all-trades, yet ultimately workmen. The cameraman would also prepare the print in the laboratory, the director might be a make-up artist as well, the producer a prop-man, an actor an assistant director. As for distribution, this depended on the actors’ willingness to work for free. To all this was added the fact that negatives were scarce, meaning that sequences were filmed in one take only, regardless of the quality of the outcome.
The lack of innovation in the field, due to a lack of materials and sometimes of information, caused these suffering devotees to play things by ear, with many films showing weak artistry.
Even if the conditions in which these people worked and created did not allow them to reach a level equal to wider contemporary standards on a technical level, they still managed to record a pretty page in the annals of Romanian film history, despite all the inherent artistic lapses at the beginning.
On the other hand, the intellectuals of the day still considered cinematographic art to be a lowly sideshow, not according it its due importance. It is true that the specialty press was also rather thin on content and sometimes uninspired. In 1928 Tudor Vianu wrote in the article “The Movie Theatre and the Radio Broadcaster in the Politics of Culture”: “The cinematic press [was] created first of all in order to sustain the interests of cinematographic capitalism…There is no actor, no matter how mediocre, not to have been proclaimed a first-rate star by the cinematic press and there is no film, no matter how boring or mundane, not to have been declared an incomparable achievement”.
At the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, cinema entered the consciousness of certain Romanian writers and cultural figures, such as Tudor Vianu, Liviu Rebreanu, Victor Eftimiu, Camil Petrescu and Dimitrie Gusti, who all became aware of this new mode of expression and culture. As Rebreanu observed in 1930,
“ …In the great haste toward the realisation of the art, of a true cinematographic art, Romanian efforts cannot be futile. As much as our material and technical means have not permitted us to participate in the peoples’ race toward the new art, I think the moment must come when we bring a Romanian contribution as well…Romanian talent would have a large possibility to manifest itself. ”
In this period the film critic and theorist D. I. Suchianu made his debut, first in newspapers, then in 1929 in radio. A member of the film censorship committee from 1929 to 1941, he held courses on cinematography and promoted the discipline through several books (Curs de cinematografie, 1930; Cinematograful, acest necunoscut, 1973; Nestemate cinematografice, 1980). For a decade, he wrote the film column for România Literară.
Later on the critic Ion Filotti Cantacuzino also started broadcasting.
It is worth noting what the princess-poet Elena Văcărescu (the princess who would have become Romania’s first native-born queen had King Carol I not forcefully intervened to stop her idyll with prince Ferdinand) said in 1930 about the importance of the seventh art: “Having great power at its disposal, the cinema should work hard…toward the greatest good of peoples and what brings them together, that is, toward peace”.