The Cinemateca Eforie in Bucharest
© Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

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Malmkrog is streaming on Vimeo on Demand and in virtual cinemas.

I was a lousy cinema-goer, first of all.

Cristi Puiu

I have some memories of some cinemas in Bucharest during the 70s, when I was young, but I cannot disassociate the theatre from the film. What I remember with precision are the films that changed me, together with the cinemas where I watched them.

The first was in the Romanian Cinematheque, in 1987 – I was 20 years old. [The film was] Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel [1962]. It changed my perception of cinema, because I was into painting and I considered cinema a vulgar art, for the people – that you go to a film like a football game. I had been going to the cinema for films that were spectacular, to see Star Wars [1977] and The Empire Strikes Back [1980] on the big screen – later they stopped importing these films from the West. So watching The Exterminating Angel I thought, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t imagine that cinema could do that.

And I didn’t decide to go there myself, one of my friends invited me. I came from a poor family from the outskirts of Bucharest, and it was quite a trip to leave my neighbourhood, about one hour to central Bucharest. Going there to watch a film, you had to be in love [with cinema]. And a lot of people were in love.

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

But for me, the problem was there was a sort of stratification of society. [There was] this culture, this attitude of bourgeois Cinematheque-goers [being] the high society of the film world. And it kept me away. I come from a proletarian family and there was a distance between me and the people I knew at the time with membership [to the Cinematheque]. And it wasn’t just a projection of my mind. It was the way people were talking: “Have you seen Seven Samurai [1954]? No? The shame! This is Kurosawa!”

So it was very difficult to make the first steps, but little by little I discovered cinema like this – my perception changed. You enter a cinema and you realise pretty quickly that no dogs are going to bite you, no monsters are hiding there.

Later at the Cinematheque I saw Look Back in Anger [1959] and An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano [1977] by Nikita Mikahlkov. These are the cinematographic experiences that changed my perception of cinema.

The fact is that the Cinematheque, especially during the Communist time, was always full. There were guys who would buy tickets then sell them at double the price, or even more. And people would buy them!

Stalker (1979)

It was a way of escaping the darkness. During the last years of [the dictatorship of Nicolae] Ceausescu, there was no functional heating system in winter. It was cold inside, and you’d watch the films in your coat with vapours coming out of your nose and mouth.

But it was also [full of] true cinephiles – including young people and students from the art school in Bucharest. During the Communist time, during the 1980s in Romania, the relationship between cinephiles and the cinema as a whole was really impressive.

You enter a cinema and you realise pretty quickly that no dogs are going to bite you, no monsters are hiding there.

I remember huge queues at the Cinematheque when they released Tarkovsky’s Stalker [1979]. It was very important to watch the latest Tarkovsky. It was like you had to stand up and be silent. He was the Pope of cinema in Romania in the 80s. So was Buñuel, and Kurosawa, and especially the Italian school – Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini. Not Hitchcock, though. Because Hitchcock – and I like and am very much attached to Hitchcock – was like a God, but still a human.

Today, Romanian audiences are mainly interested in blockbusters, like everywhere else, and the Romanian Cinematheque is almost empty. I don’t know what happened. [The audience] disappeared, or died, perhaps.

~

During the 90s lots of local entrepreneurs opened bars and restaurants.

There was a place on the roof of the National Theatre in Bucharest called La Motoare, [meaning] ‘the engines’, because there were some engines on the roof, and a nice guy who used to work for the Romanian Cinematheque worked there. He’d screen films on a big wall, like a cinema en plein air. During the summertime you’d watch films and drink and talk. It was a great moment in time, but the place doesn’t exist any more because they changed and reshaped the National Theatre.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

When I was in film school in Geneva there was a cinema called Grütli. Like in all Western [cinemas], there was a café within the cinema. It was funny, they used this traditional model of splitting the film in two parts, even if it was a 90-minute film. There was a pause in the middle of the film when you could go out for 15 minutes and talk or get an ice cream or smoke or have a beer. It was something I appreciated.

When I was in Geneva my film knowledge was bad. When I decided to switch onto film, I started watching about six films per day. There was this VHS store called Karloff, after Boris Karloff, and I would go there and take and watch six films at a time. I watched Barry Lyndon [1975] on a VHS and was amazed. A few months later it was playing in Grütli, but I was living in Lausanne. I thought, I’m going to miss the train back home if I go, [but] I’d better go and watch at least two and a half hours, rather than not going at all. Barry Lyndon is very dear to me. I have problems with the zoom, but still, it’s a great film.

When I went to visit my aunt in England in 2000 – she was living in the Midlands, about 20 minutes from Nottingham – there was a film rental store, and because I had read something in a book about Jean Eustache and The Mother and the Whore [1973], I rented the VHS. I still have it here at home.

La maman et la putain (1973)

Later, when I made my first film, the French ambassador in Bucharest, Henri Paul, created a programme of films where filmmakers chose a French film [to screen] at the French Cultural Institute. I asked for The Mother and the Whore and he brought it. When I watched it on the big screen it was a completely different experience. And the cinema was hyper full. There were people standing up. It was unbelievable.

If there is a film that is important to me, I’m going to go and watch it in the cinema, no matter the size.

You can’t get it [The Mother and the Whore] on DVD or on Blu-ray. Apparently the family doesn’t want to give permission, which is really sad. So on one hand you have cinemas closing and on the other hand you have some people who are blocking films because of the money. I have it on VHS, but I don’t have a VCR any more, so it’s just an object.

Like I said, I never get attached to a cinema, but to the films I watched in the cinema. If there is a film that is important to me, I’m going to go and watch it in the cinema, no matter the size. The things that are important to me are those related to the film. The image and the sound.

~

During the Communist time, for political reasons they stopped importing films, but at the same time there was this boom in VCRs.

People had relatives abroad who could buy a VCR, and so inside people’s houses in my neighbourhood, you could pay 50 lei to watch five films in a row.

My uncle had a VCR, so in his house we saw [Monty Python’s] Life of Brian [1979] for the first time. These were films you couldn’t see on a big screen in the cinema – the films of Jarmusch, Almodovar, Spike Lee, Greenaway. But they circulated in this way.

Malmkrog (2020)

After the fall of Communism, they started turning a lot of cinemas into pubs, or other functions. We had 450 cinemas; now, including multiplexes, there are around 100 or 120. I think about 30 traditional [single screen] cinemas have survived. And I believe this happened because during the 80s people got stuck to the TV set, because of the VCR and watching films in a small format. Cinemas became places where you go and watch some kind of Korean or Chinese, Russian, Czech or Romanian propaganda films. You would go not for the film but to spend two hours in the dark with a girl or boy. Like in Cinema Paradiso [1988]. But for films, the VCR replaced the cinema.

I believe that there is a lesson here. [In Romania] we have Netflix, HBO, Mubi and a lot of channels. You can watch all the films on the planet at home with a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or beer. It’s comfortable, there’s good sound, it’s not noisy. In the cinemas in Bucharest people keep their phones on and they’re always ringing. I’m afraid that there is a pretty good chance that cinema will disappear. Maybe some will survive and become like the opera. It will go dead and [people will] only watch films from the past, as special screenings, in fewer cinemas, for those who can afford to pay.

~

After Covid, I’m optimistic, but I believe the world is going to change drastically.

We didn’t release Malmkrog in Romania, because cinemas are not open. I said to my wife [Anca Puiu, the film’s producer], “maybe it’s better to release it online” – which I don’t want, but I don’t care, because there are much more serious problems than a film being released.

My concern is that even if cinemas open, people are not going to step inside cinemas without fear. I believe that this period in time is a test for every one of us, but also a test for cinemas.

I don’t know. I’m very bad at predictions. Maybe it will take time, and in a year or two we are going to enjoy going to screenings in cinemas with our friends again. Theatre is older than cinema [and] people are still going to the theatre. You can still buy vinyl records in stores.

The instinct of adaptability is our friend and our enemy at the same time, especially in this situation. For example, you cannot imagine things that are not already here. Like [Jorge Luis] Borges said, all that is fantastic is built from elements that [already] exist on this planet, otherwise you cannot imagine them. Maybe the visionaries who are using their intelligence and talent and intuition and inspiration to shape this world will come up with something that will replace the cinema for the best. You never know, because what is the cinema hall – 100 years old, more or less? 100 years is nothing.

Malmkrog (2020)
Maybe visionaries will come up with something that will replace the cinema for the best.

Anyway, I come from [a background in] painting. I am not one of those directors who dreamt of becoming a director from a very young age. I discovered cinema little by little. I’m very much attached to cinema and I love what I’m doing, [but] I spent my youth reading books more than watching films. So I believe that what happens after a film is as important as what happens during the film. The cafés, the bistros, where people are able to talk, to discuss and debate, are very important.

The question I would ask myself would be: are the places where people meet going to be closed forever [as they are now due to Covid]? Will this culture disappear? The agora of the city, of the town – the piazza, the square, the market: is all this going to change? I don’t believe so. I think that it’s something that is in our DNA. Cinema is cinema plus the discussion about the film; a book is a book plus the discussion about [the book]. When I like a book, I go to the bookstore and buy ten, 20, 50 copies to give to friends as gifts so we can discuss it.

I’m optimistic. I believe that it’s very hard to break this [habit]. In every model of society, there is some kind of place where people meet, talk and exchange ideas, feelings and emotions. No matter how the society is structured, there are places like this, for the rich and for the poor. Even the theatre was structured like this, [with] places for the nobility and places for the poor. I think the inertia of this model is too big to fail. I don’t like that phrase, because of the 2008 [financial] crisis, but I believe it is not a luxury: it is ingrained in our most intimate structure. It’s a part of us.

  • Cristi Puiu was talking to Thomas Flew.

Further reading

Malmkrog review: Cristi Puiu convenes a big-house philosophical pile-on

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Malmkrog review: Cristi Puiu convenes a big-house philosophical pile-on

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Sieranevada – first look

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Sight & Sound Summer 2021

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