Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa once said that his films were about “the decay and disintegration of the former Russian Empire.” With 29 titles under his belt, ranging from fiction to observational and archival documentaries, Loznitsa demonstrates a keen interest in form, particularly in using fictional devices within documentary. He also opposes the recent tendency in Eastern Europe to frame histories with war and authoritarianism in heroic or rosy terms.
Sergei Eisenstein said that cinema is enchantment, and so is political theater. Loznitsa’s newest film, the documentary State Funeral (2019), analyzes how that theater is staged. It compiles footage from across the Soviet Union during the time of Stalin’s death and grandiose burial. When his death of heart failure on March 5, 1953 is announced, the word “heart” repeats in a hypnotic refrain. I was reminded of Dziga Vertov’s kaleidoscopic A Sixth Part of the World (1926) and its ambition to proclaim the young Soviet Union’s might. Loznitsa is instead ambivalent; ordinary citizens often appear stunned and muted rather than enraptured. In shots of multitudes funneling up a grand staircase to pay respects to Stalin’s body, some mourners glare at the newsreel cameras. The fourth wall breaks, and this outpouring of grief is shown as a carefully orchestrated spectacle.
These films eschew overt commentary. The Trial (2018) shows footage of the 1930 trial of a group of intelligentsia accused of treason during the Stalinist purges. But unlike, for example, Zuzana Justman’s A Trial in Prague (2000), about a similar event in Czechoslovakia in 1952, Loznitsa doesn’t inform us on the specifics, but instead immerses us in the atmosphere. He encourages the viewer to see the trial not only as a tragedy, but also a farce. A similar, subtler dark humor permeates The Event (2015), which features footage from the attempted 1991 coup to depose Gorbachev. As crowds pour into the streets, one shot shows a young Vladimir Putin on the steps of a government building.
Loznitsa shares some affinity with the Eastern European experimental documentary tradition, which includes filmmakers such as Poland’s Bogdan Dziworski and Wojciech Wiszniewski. Like them, he often layers additional sound over footage to enhance its emotion and visual rhythms. In Blockade (2005), which compiles found footage shot during the Siege of Leningrad, he deploys startling audio (a screech during a fire, a child’s cry) sparingly and precisely for added effect. Poland’s Warsaw Uprising (2014), by Jan Komasa, also depicts a besieged city, but it forces its archival material into a narrative arc. Loznitsa, by contrast, tends to avoid the spectacular. He portrays the siege as a multifaceted, sometimes oddly un-dramatic setting. Leningrad is a city of the living, its streets bustling with activity (it just so happens that the activity in question is a collective effort to survive). In this way, he avoids any feeling of military-based jingoism. Similarly, Loznitsa’s fictional war film In the Fog (2012) is in line with a number of other Eastern European dramas that take aim at glorifying military might, such as Alexander Sokurov’s Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2001), the younger Denes Nagy’s Natural Light (2021), or Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole (2019).
The farcical view of Soviet life (like in the 2017 fiction feature A Gentle Creature) in these films has also earned Loznitsa comparisons to absurdist Russian filmmakers such as Andrei Zvyagintsev and Yuri Bykov. He eviscerates the contemporary faux-populist use of nationalist emblems and war remembrance in his observational documentary Victory Day (2018), in which Russians in military gear parade at the Soviet World War II memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park. Austerlitz (2016), shot in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, is an urgent critique of the ways in which even the most horrific parts of the past can be commercialized and thus turned banal.
Additionally, Loznitsa is concerned with what cinema can’t express. In an online documentary class, he asks how one might depict mass hunger, pointing to suffering’s slow, inexorable accretion. In Maidan (2014), he depicts the idea of hope as waiting. In it, mass street protests erupt in Kiev against Russian military belligerence. The static camera shows the fervor in the streets, but also protestors laying down to sleep in communal shelters. Revolution accrues in many ways, even in a prosaic heap of carton boxes full of donated bananas or a tall stack of honey jars. The static approach reminds the audience that the camera can’t be everywhere. We’re far from Vertov’s kino-eye and its totalizing ecstasy. Loznitsa focuses on transience, capturing protestors walking in and out of the frame. The mélange of slogans on placards is absorbed into the city’s daily activity. Scenes of giant soup cauldrons being prepared in the streets evoke similar images in Blockade — a reminder that resistance is still possible.