Every May 9, countries, especially those formerly of the Soviet Union, celebrate Victory Day. This is the national holiday that commemorates the signing of the armistice treaty and the Soviets’ defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945 during World War II — or as Russians call it, “The Great Patriotic War.” In Russia, it is “the second most popular anniversary” after New Year’s Eve. Victory Day is even celebrated in Berlin, although it is contained to three parks: Schönholzer Heide, Tiergarten Park, and Treptower Park. The latter is home to a memorial honoring the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin. And it is at this memorial that Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa sets his observational documentary, Victory Day (2018), filmed on May 9, 2017, and showing this week as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real series.
Victory Day begins before the festivities and the crowds. Along a shaded path, boys in green army fatigues, black combat boots, berets and pilotkas practice their lockstep, marching toward the camera. “No use in yesteryear glory. Pick up your coat, let’s go home,” a hushed voice croons, a schmaltzy song heard on the soundtrack that blends in with the rhythmic clop, clop, clopping of the boys’ boots.
Once the celebrations begin, Loznitsa documents an assortment of proceedings that transpire at this self-contained event. There are the accessories carried by the revelers: flowers (particularly red carnations), the black-and-orange St. George ribbons, flags (especially the Soviet one), posters, and pictures of family members and loved ones. Getting into the spirit of the merriment, people play dress up, donning military costumes. There are folk and martial songs sung and danced to; speeches made; and grand ceremonies conducted, some of which don’t go quite as planned. A man, speaking German, persistently yet rather calmly talks about the continuation of fascism, that there was no reconciliation, and that “in Germany open dictatorship reigns disguised as a party democracy that isn’t in truth.” No one’s really listening to him; most of the people are just walking by. At one point, feedback drowns out the man’s voice, and he has to move away from the speakers. Later on, during a ceremony held in the rain, a boy plays a short tune (with a few bum notes) and the three kid soldiers seen at the beginning of the film stand in formation. The one in the middle recites the names of the Red Army soldiers who fell at the Battle of Berlin and are buried in the park. As he’s reading, one of the coordinators stands behind one of the other boys and physically and rather humiliatingly moves him into the correct position.
Keeping these awkward moments in the film reveals Loznitsa’s cynical and ironic gaze at this highly theatrical event. In this tone, it is similar to Austerlitz (2016), his film documenting the commercial tourism of the Holocaust memorial located at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienberg, Germany. Moreover, it isn’t the first time Loznitsa’s work has dealt with nationalist kitsch. He assembled a potpourri of it in Revue (2008), a film solely made up of archival footage of 1950s and ‘60s propaganda entertainment in the Soviet Union.
A fastidious filmmaker, Loznitsa spends a great deal of time composing and editing long shots. The precision of his work is perhaps due to his background; he graduated from Kiev Polytechnic Institute with a degree in Applied Mathematics in 1987. Sculpting space, he is able to fill or empty it, while working with the world around him as his matter. He engineered a film that is both detached — as if we’re looking at the people and the events in an aquarium or a fish bowl — and immersive as people linger and walk by, mere feet from the camera.
As Loznitsa depicts it, Victory Day looks rather innocuous, with mainly middle-aged adults and senior citizens still stuck in the glorious communist past. However, there’s a sinister undercurrent to the celebration with the presence of a body of people marked by their black leather clothing and boots: the Night Wolves. Once a biker gang that was the equivalent of the Hells Angels, the Night Wolves are now an ultranationalist paramilitary organization led by a man who goes by the name of the Surgeon (Alexander Zaldostanov) and are in the pocket of the Kremlin. They fought with the pro-Russia fighters against the European Union-supporting Ukrainians during the 2013–2014 Maidan revolution. Recently, the Night Wolves were in Bosnia, pledging support for Serb nationalists and creating terror. Vladimir Putin is a supporter and has ridden his three-wheeled Harley Davidson with them. In Victory Day, the black-clad bikers streak through the crowds.
Victory Day reflects Loznitsa’s enduring preoccupation with communities engaging with, or enmeshed in the creation of history. Warts and all, he captures a public memory that spills into the present, transformed into kitsch as people dress up, dance, and snap endless amounts of pictures. Supported by Putin’s Russia, May 9 is a carnival stoking nostalgia for the Soviet Union — and the people are along for the ride.
Victory Day screens at the Francesca Beale Theater at Lincoln Center (144 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on Saturday, May 5, at 6:45pm.