THE GREAT COMMUNIST BANK ROBBERY
2005, 70 minutes
Purchase: $310 Classroom Rental: $125
In 1959, an armored car carrying 1.6 million Romanian lei (approximately $250,000 in 1959 US dollars) was held up in front of the Romanian National Bank in Bucharest. Within weeks, the police announced the arrest of six individuals, five men and one woman. All six were prominent members of the Romanian Communist Party. All six were Jewish.
In an effort to curry favor with the government and escape a death sentence, the group agreed to play themselves in a film reconstruction of the crime. Released nearly a year after the robbery, and titled Reconstruction (a scene from which is pictured above), the film depicted the six perpetrators as nothing more than petty gangsters, and played to spellbound audiences around the country. Once it was completed, the entire group was sentenced to death (during a mock trial that was also filmed and included in the movie), and with the exception of the one female member, whose sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, they were all executed.
Why did this group of Jewish intellectuals, high-ranking members in the Communist Party, commit this robbery? More than forty years later, director Alexandru Solomon deconstructs the reconstruction and discovers a fascinating tale of disillusionment, resistance, and government propaganda. Incorporating interviews with former secret police, prison cell mates, and members of the original film crew, and featuring a wealth of archival material, including scenes from Reconstruction, Solomon's striking documentary pieces together the incredible true story behind the greatest bank robbery that ever occurred in a Communist state.
Subjects & Collections
Festivals & Awards* Official Selection, New York Jewish Film Festival, 2007
* Official Selection, Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival, 2005
* Winner, Historical Documentary Prize, Pessac International Festival, France, 2005
* Winner, Best Direction, Hungarian-Romanian DokFilm Festival, 2005
* Official Selection, Minneapolis – St. Paul International Film Festival, 2005
* Official Selection, Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, 2005
Reviews"A scathing look at how politics distorts history.... a sort of Soviet-era real-life film noir." - Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
"A riveting documentary! Balanced and ingenious… An indispensable resource for those interested in crime, European studies, film studies, history, Jewish studies, and journalism. I highly recommend this documentary to all audiences." – Educational Media Reviews Online
"A moving, occasionally absurd, often riveting insight into life behind the old iron curtain." – Time Out (UK)
"The Great Communist Bank Robbery focuses on a highly sensational – almost inconceivable – bank heist… [an] intriguing western-like crime [that] occurred within the Soviet-dominated communist camp…. The film is thus, first and foremost, a documentary about individuals’ (in)ability to come to terms with the Stalinist past and the role they themselves played in the repressive machinery of the totalitarian regime. It is part and parcel of a new trend of investigating the communist legacy, bringing to light the moral and existential dilemmas posed by life under the totalitarian regime." - Slavic Review
"The only cops-and-robbers films allowed in 1950s in Romania were those screened to show the inevitable collapse of capitalism. However, Virgil Calotescu's Reconstruction was a markedly different proposition: a film that detailed the scandalous national bank robbery of 1959, using the real-life suspects and police to retell the story of the heist. Yet, as this troubling documentary shows, those executed for the supposed crime were more guilty of being Jews than being criminals, conveniently scapegoated at a time when the party was trying to eradicate high-status Jewish members." - Sunday Times
"A fascinating documentary!" - Portland Tribune