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Sergei Loznitsa is a nimble chronicler of Soviet and post-Soviet society, making fiction and non-fiction films alike, often to the point where such neat distinctions blur. His cinema serves social commentary with gallows humor. His work has an immersive you-are-there vérité aesthetic that can transform into a grotesque spectacle in the following scene. Ever the workaholic, he’s made 14 features and short films over the course of this decade, three of which premiered this year at major festivals: Victory Day in Berlin, Donbass at Cannes, and The Trial in Venice. Audiences in New York City will get to see the latter two when they screen at the Museum of the Moving Image’s eighth First Look festival. They’ll get to see the different sides of Loznitsa, working with different methods for each film, examining past, present, and where they intersect.
With The Trial, Loznitsa showcases his skills as a found-footage filmmaker. In the past, using archival material, he spotlighted the mechanical culture generated during the ‘50s and ‘60s with Soviet propaganda films, TV shows, and newsreels in Revue (2008). In The Event (2015), he used handheld shots of bystanders at the time, replicating the end-of-an-era, in-the-moment feel of the August 1991 demonstrations in Leningrad after the failed coup by the Communist party which was supposed to signal the start of a democratic Russia. At 127 minutes, The Trial (2018) is Loznitsa’s longest archival-based film to date. His raw material was a 1930 show trial (one of the first and a precursor to the Moscow Trials) in which a group of scientists and engineers from the old technology intelligentsia were tried for plotting to overthrow the Soviet government with the help of French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré. They all pleaded guilty — but it was all a lie. There was no conspiracy; the men were merely scapegoats for the Soviet Union’s first recently implemented and failing five-year plan.
Seamlessly cutting the footage together, Loznitsa creates a single Frankensteinian document of what’s known as the “Industrial Party Trial.” Naturally, organically, he arranges it in linear order: opening statements, witness testimony, closing statements, and verdict. The film plays like a classic Hollywood courtroom drama, however with the uncomfortable mood, the interstitial tedium, and the long-winded responses included. All the players involved in this performance put on a stoic demeanor, and hairline cracks, revealing an underlayer of emotion, only become visible when the defendants deliver their final words to the judge.
The visuals used in The Trial are historical records documenting a fiction, which is further distorted, or perhaps highlighted, by Loznitsa’s streamlined reconstruction. In the US, it calls to mind the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the ‘40s and ‘50s, as well as the constant congressional hearings taking place during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Distortion is a key theme in Donbass (2018), a roundelay of rage set in that titular region of eastern Ukraine scarred by the five-years-and-counting conflict between Ukrainians and pro-Russian seperatists. The film opens with a group of haggard actors preparing in a trailer and then trotted out to the scene of a wrecked tram by soldiers and wranglers, where they act as bystanders and witnesses, even giving TV interviews to reporters on the scene. “It all seems unreal,” a lady “eyewitness” tells the camera crew. Elsewhere, people get out their phones to take selfies and record videos of a Ukrainian soldier being publicly beaten. And in a later scene, a man with a deer-in-the-headlights look shows an obliging camera around a dank, dark subterranean bomb shelter full of people. The film is full of these episodes — seguing into each other, such as a person in a scene initially appears in the following one before dropping out of the film completely in this protagonist-less work. At first it hints at, then bursts with violence, wave after wave, which are recorded, disseminated, and manipulated for ideological gain for the separatists.
Not all of the moments in the film have the ripped-from-the-headlines feel. (Loznitsa has said that he based the events in the film on incidents he heard or saw on YouTube.) In one of Donbass’s more blunt symbolic gestures, a garish wedding between Mr. and Mrs. Fried-Egg roars on in occupied eastern Ukraine in the name of Novorossiya.
What Donbass does convincingly is synthesize the carnivalesque horror show of My Joy (2010) and A Gentle Creature (2017) with the immediacy and actuality of his more non-fiction oriented works, like Maidan (2014). It is an angry film casting a light on “Europe’s forgotten war” — a war with more than 10,000 casualties so far. The Trial, on the other hand, unearths a piece of Soviet history that resonates with the memes, fake news, and trials of today. Moreover, Loznitsa is deepening his use of archival footage. With both works, you’re seeing a filmmaker growing in deftness with using the tools that he has.