For the first years of his life in communist Romania, Radu Mihaileanu couldn’t understand why his grandmother, who lived with his family, prepared her own meals in her own pots and pans.
At 5, he suddenly understood.
His father, Ion, called the family together one day to reveal a family secret. The Mihaileanus were really the Buchmans, Ion was really Mordechai. The family was Jewish, the grandmother kept kosher and several members of the family had died in the Holocaust.
Mordechai Buchman, a journalist, had changed his obviously Jewish name to a typically Romanian one when he escaped from a labor camp in Nazi-allied Romania during World War II. After the war, he kept the adopted name — under Nazism and Communism, asserting one’s Jewish identity was not good for one’s health or one career.
That day when he was 5 colored the rest of Radu Mihaileanu’s life.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “It changed everything inside me.”
Now a resident of Paris and a successful film director, he has written and directed a series of films that center around the themes of lies and false identity, escaping one life and seeking another, humor and a Jewish point of view.
In “Train of Life,” the inhabitants of a doomed shtetl fake their own deportation in an attempt to travel to safety. In “Live and Become,” a young Ethiopian Christian boy pretends, at his mother’s insistence, to be a Jew in order to escape his poor homeland and immigrate to Israel.
Now, in “The Concert,” Mihaileanu explores a similar theme — a prominent conductor in Moscow who lost his job during Communism because he would not fire his Jewish musicians, reassembles them, pretending to be the Bolshoi orchestra, in order to play a concert in Paris.
Like his earlier films, he says, “The Concert” is not the linear story of Mihaileanu’s life, but an autobiography of his soul. “I’m a storyteller. I’m always hiding behind my stories,” he says in a telephone interview from Paris.
Always with some deception.
All his scripts, Mihaileanu, 52, says, are based on two lies — the lie about his father’s name and identity that helped save his father’s life; and the lie that helped Mihaileanu leave Romania in 1980.
An aspiring actor who had performed with the Yiddish theater in Bucharest, he was leading a clandestine play about a 15th-century king and queen that was a thinly disguised attack on Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the despised ruling couple who met their death at their countrymen’s hands when Romania’s communist regime was overthrown in 1989.
Mihaileanu’s play was the last of several, all anti-government, he had helped produce, he says.
In a police state, where criticism of the leaders was forbidden, it would be dangerous for Mihaileanu to stay. “You have to leave,” his father warned.
He would have left, “anyways,” Mihaileanu says. “I was not a hero. I needed to be free, it was not my way to shut up” otherwise, “I would find a prison.”
At 22, he applied for permission to go to Israel on a short visit.
The second lie — “I knew I would never come back.”
After a short time in Israel, he moved to Paris, studied at the Institute for the Advanced Cinematographic Studies, worked as an assistant for prominent directors, then began directing his own films.
Each of Mihaileanu’s films is influenced by a sense of outsider-ness. His father, who was a communist under Nazism and an anti-communist under Communism, was, the filmmaker says, “always on the wrong side.” And he himself — a dissident in his communist homeland and an émigré in France — easily wore an outsider’s clothes.
“In all my movies, people become imposters in some way, simply to survive,” he says. “All my movies are about escaping, surviving, fighting, searching for identity, racial integration.”
Mihaileanu walks, as a director, in the footsteps of Abraham the Patriarch, the first Hebrew, he says. Hebrew comes from the word for someone who has crossed over, who is on the other side.
Now, Mihaileanu says, he appreciates his days as an outsider. People who had to hide their true identity at one time “are richer,” more appreciative, more sensitive when they are free to be themselves, he says.
Hence, in “Train of Life,” whose depiction of Jews’ freedom exists in the narrator’s imagination, salvation turns out to be a fantasy.
“You have to be free,” Mihaileanu says, “even if in a dream.”
Optimist or pessimist?
“I am very sad but optimistic,” he says. Life presents problems, “but you can’t give up.” It amounts, he says, to a Jewish attitude. “I’m deeply happy to be alive.”
“The Concert,” like his earlier films, has elements of humor, sometimes mocking, sometimes bittersweet.
“I’m not a violent person … humor is the ultimate weapon I have against the dictators that have marked my life and the lives of my loved ones,” he said in a 2009 interview with the Cineuropa website. “I use it to battle barbarism and death, to show that we’re stronger than they are, that we’re still alive so we’ve won.”
His goal: “To make people laugh, to make people happy.”
His next film, about Arab women and their rights, has no obvious theme of Jewish identity.
“The culture is Arabic. The film is still me — Jewish, Romanian, French,” Mihaileanu says; some familiar references are sure to surface.
In Mihaileanu’s home, he says, there are no secrets. His children were raised with Jewish educations, with Jewish identities, with the family’s stories of name changes and hidden identities. “They know everything.”
Knighted in 2006 by Romania and in 2007 by France, Mihaileanu discusses all his movie ideas with his father, who has become a trusted adviser.
Mihaileanu has drawn criticism for using humor where some people think humor doesn’t belong, in productions about totalitarian societies.
His father approves all his films, he says, “He loves them. Because he is subjective. He’s a Jewish father.”