Voice of America and Radio Free Europe in ‘Closer to the Moon’ movie

By Ted Lipien
Closer_to_the_Moon_Romanian_PosterCloser to the Moon” (Romanian: Mai aproape de lună), a 2013 Romanian-American-Italian-Polish-French co-production comedy-drama film includes several references to Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE) American-funded radio broadcasts to communist-ruled Romania during the Cold War. VOA and RFE are described as sources of much sought after information which the communist regime tires to distort or suppress. There is also a reference to VOA broadcasts being jammed in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.

Romanian filmmaker Nae Caranfil, who had lived under communism in Romania, wrote and directed the film. Films based on historical events often simplify and distort history, but Nae Carnafil managed to deal with the delicate topic of Jewish communist functionaries in the post-World War II Eastern Europe and the subsequent purges against them accurately, objectively and with humor. Starring Vera Farmiga, Mark Strong, Harry Lloyd, Joe Armstrong, Tim Plester, Christian McKay, and Anton Lesser, “Closer to the Moon” is based on the true story of the Ioanid Gang which allegedly carried out a daring bank robbery in Romania in 1959. The accused bank robbers were six Jewish Romanian intellectuals and Romanian Communist Party members. One of them, Alexandru Ioanid, was a colonel in the Romanian secret police agency Securitate.

Reasons for the alleged robbery, which apparently resulted in executions of five of the six participants were never clearly established. They may have been disillusioned communists who wanted to make a political statement. Some speculate that the robbery never took place or was staged by the authorities to justify an anti-Jewish purge in the Securitate ranks. Another theory is that the participants were blackmailed by the authorities to carry out the robbery and enticed with promises that they would be allowed to emigrate.

Monica Sevianu, the only woman in the Ioanid Gang, had her sentence commuted to life imprisonment because she was a mother. Released from prison in 1964, she emigrated to Israel in 1970. In 1960, the Romanian government issued a propaganda film for Communist Party members only, Reconstituirea, which was a reenactment of the robbery. Members of the Ioanid Gang were forced to act out their own roles. The official propaganda line was that the robbery was a Zionist plot designed to smuggle Romanian Jews to Israel.

The names of the actual robbery participants have been changed in the movie. The the Ioanid Gang is called the Rosenthal Gang. In “Closer to the Moon,” Virgil, played by Harry Lloyd, is a young camera assistant hired by the Securitate to film the reenactment. He becomes romantically involved with Alice Bercovich, played by Vera Farmiga. As the action unfolds, Virgil is a boarder at the apartment of the old Romanian Jewish couple Moritz and Sarah Zilber.

In the first scene in which the Voice of America is mentioned at the beginning of the film, Vigril is eating a meal with the Zilbers. Before the meal, Moritz Zilber says a prayer which shows that many East European Jews had no love for communism imposed on these countries by the Soviet Union:

Lord, in Thy great bounty, screw the Bolsheviks, give them every disease in the world, ruin them, burn their houses, and send them back to Moscow.

Moritz Zibler then explains that he had bought his mentally handicap certificate ten years ago. “They can’t touch me anymore.”

The film has a lot of good East European Jewish humor.

The best lines in the movie are from Moritz Zilber, including this one:

On the official [Romanian communist regime] station, my dear boy, even Brahms becomes propaganda.”

I transcribed the film’s references to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

“Closer to the Moon” is available on Netflix.

“Closer to the Moon”

Frances Cuka as Sarah Zilber: It drives me mad seeing him there all day with his ear glued to that rattling old radio.
David de Keyser as Moritz Zilber: She’s so sweet. It’s called the Voice of America and it’s jammed by the Bolsheviks.
David de Keyser as Moritz Zilber: Oh, the Rosenthal gang. I know all about it.
Harry Lloyd as Virgil: How did you know? That’s a classified secret.
David de Keyser as Moritz Zilber: Oh, big secret. Shshsh. The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe have been talking about it for months.
Harry Lloyd as Virgil: They can’t have.
David de Keyser as Moritz Zilber: Oh, yes they can. Believe me.
VOA Radio Announcer: This is the Voice of America. Now we broadcast Symphony No. 3 F major by Johann Brahms.
Harry Lloyd as Virgil: Mr. Zilber.
David de Keyser as Moritz Zilber: What?
Harry Lloyd as Virgil: If you like listening to classical music so much, why do you listen to it on Voice of America with all the static and the noise? Why don’t you listen on our official station.
David de Keyser as Moritz Zilber: On the official station, my dear boy, even Brahms becomes propaganda.
David de Keyser as Moritz Zilber: When the Rosenthal gang attacked that bank car, the Voice of America said they were all wearing Patriot Guard uniforms.