By Stanislav Menzelevskyi, Graduate Student, The Media School
Sergei Loznitsa is one of the most prolific and most recognized post-Soviet Ukrainian film directors. His feature fiction and documentary films are regularly screened and awarded at A-class film festivals around the world. Born in Belarus, he moved to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, where he finished high school and graduated from Kyiv Polytechnic Institute holding a degree in engineering and mathematics. Loznitsa worked at Glushkov Institute of Cybernetics from 1987 until 1991, when he decided to change his life completely and entered the Russian State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. Since 2001, Loznitsa has been living in Germany, co-producing his films with various European countries. In 2021 he finished his 23rd documentary project Babi Yar. Context, sponsored by controversial Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv and led by Ilya Khrzhanovsky.
The RSW presented Loznitsa’s documentary State Funeral (2019) as part of their Documentary Film Series Power, Poetics, and Play. State Funeral marks the director’s fifth, and so far, the longest of his attempts to deal with the traumatic Soviet past through the genre of compilation documentary. The documentary premiered at the 76th Biennale di Venezia, is a close follow-up of a momentous event in twentieth-century history—the death of Stalin and his subsequent funeral in early March of 1953. The passing of the 73-year-old communist leader not only shocked faithful believers but shook established post-WWII geopolitical hierarchies, giving the way to relative liberalization of the USSR.
State Funeral is based on the footage of one film, The Great Farewell, produced by six well-known and state-recognized film directors (Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei Gerasimov, Ilya Kopalin, Mikheil Chiaureli; during the presentation Loznitsa failed to mention Yelizaveta Svilova and Irina Setkina-Nesterova). It was no surprise that an event of such significance would be well documented by hundreds of cinematographers around the world. At the same time, administrative and logistic challenges triggered by the ambitious project itself were amplified by disorienting and chaotic signals from authorities. In April 1953, The Great Farewell (72 mins.) was presented to Kremlin officials. Despite generally positive feedback, the film was shelved for political reasons. It remained unknown until The Great Farewell was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato (one of the most influential European archival film festivals in Bologna) in 1992 and more recently on Russian public television. Moreover, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko used this footage in his fiction film, Stalin’s Funeral (1990).
Apart from The Great Farewell, Loznitsa had access to 10 hours of footage from China, Korea, GDR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Albania, and about 55 hours of footage by 191 (in some sources 193) Soviet cinematographers. Among the last were well-known war cameramen such as Kyivan Israil Goldshtein (contributed to Dovzhenko’s Ukraine in Flames (1940), Odessa native Roman Karmen (his Siege of Leningrad (1942) was used by Loznitsa in Blokada, and DOP Mikhail Poselskiy (son of the director Iakov Poselskiy, author of a propaganda film provided the basis for Loznitsa’s previous documentary Trial). The Russian State Archive of Sound Recordings provided Loznitsa with recordings of original radio broadcasts (funeral marches and requiems by Schubert, Mozart, Chopin, and Mendelssohn) and speeches from the meeting of Soviet writers.
The structure of State Funeral is relatively straightforward, following the patterns of a traditional funeral ceremony. Opening with Stalin’s body being brought to the Hall of Columns, the film ends with Stalin’s body being transferred to the Lenin-Stalin mausoleum. In between, we observe “ordinary” people across the Soviet Union learning about the leader’s death from newspapers and radio broadcasts, mourning the loss by laying floral tributes at Stalin’s monuments, and paying last respects to the deceased in a moment of silence. This episode marks Loznitsa’s first significant detour from The Great Farewell. Apart from demonstrating the universal grief of the Soviet people, the director interspersed speeches about Stalin’s death and his health issues as broadcasted tributes over omnipresent loudspeakers. As a result, for about eight minutes we observe an uncanny spectacle of thousands of people listening to a monotonous, bureaucratic, and seemingly meaningless monologue. The episode questions sanity of the cataleptic audience caught in this acoustic loop. Later I will come back to the reasoning behind this misguiding substitution.
The second area in which Loznitsa significantly altered the original footage is the use of the color in the film. While most of the footage in The Great Farewell is in color, State Funeral presents us a nuanced mix of black and white and color shots, often even edited together within one episode. In some cases, we even see one location or one person in both (black and white and color) versions. The effect generated by such juxtapositions is of alienation, rather than immersion. The director constantly compromises the convention of a seamless observation by standing out the vibrant red against mostly ashy, hueless background. There is not enough data now to speculate further on the issue, but at the same time, we cannot be satisfied by Losnitsa’s arguments about some random issues that happened during scanning and developing of the original footage. Indeed, the film stock is being scanned and developed by reels, up to 10-minute pieces, while Losnitsa’s manipulation with color usually happens within one reel.
Despite having more than 10 hours of footage from socialist bloc countries and even footage shot in capitalist countries, Losnitisa limited the international dimension of the funeral by including “friendly” delegations arriving in Moscow and moving past peculiar and yet ubiquitous obituary flower arrangements with Stalin’s body hovering in the center. Keeping in mind Losnitsa’s treatment of the Soviet experience as a disease, it seemed logical to localize the communist “plague” within the USSR. Instead of admitting the global scale of the event, it was easier to disregard the complexity of the international agenda.
The film ends with eulogies presented by top-Soviet officials (Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrentiy Beria, Nikita Khrushchev) that frame the whole ceremony, accompanied by a recording of Matvey Blanter’s Lullaby—a clear reference to Lullaby (1937), a documentary film made by Dziga Vertov and Yelizaveta Svilova—initially dedicated to his own son Vladimir.
The post-screening Q&A session with the director (moderated by Joshua Malitsky (IU), and Lilya Kaganovsky (U. Illinois)) touched a lot of sensitive topics, posing questions regarding the limits of compilation and observational documentaries, traumatic past and its representation, realism, authenticity, authorship, and the directors’ ethical responsibility.
State Funeral is not unique, neither in Loznitsia’s filmography nor in the broader cinematographic tradition he works within. Loznitsa is a profound anti-Soviet critic, consistently addressing the Soviet past (or Sovietness in the post-Soviet present) in many of his films but doing so in completely opposing ways. While his representation of the Soviet ethos in fiction features is marked by excessiveness and extravagance, Loznitsa’s approach to documentaries presents a consistent aesthetically minimalist method that did not change much since Blokada (2006), his first full-length archival documentary.
All his archival compilations Blokada (2006), Revue (2008), Event (2015), Trial (2018) are slow-paced observations that avoid abundant narrativization and dramatization. In an attempt to distance himself from the depicted events, Loznitsa rigorously limits his visible presence, making his own interventions subtle. Following observational tradition, he usually neglects didactic voice-over and direct narration, non-diegetic sounds, and illustrative music. He succeeds in taming expository temptations and giving his audience more autonomy, but fails elsewhere. While the initial pathos of observational cinema aimed to reduce the influence of the cinematic apparatus on people and events in front of the camera, the same strategy looks a bit irrelevant in Loznitsa’s reediting of existing footage. His aesthetic decisions serve another goal. Since Blokada, Loznitsa describes the spectatorial experience he wants to create as immersive, encouraging spectators to feel and know what it would have been like to be there. For that purpose, a lot of postproduction efforts are aimed at hi-res scanning, color correction, and other doctoring procedures designed to remove all archival artifacts, presenting a non-mediated form of the historical world. Just as he created sounds of everyday life to give an experience of the wartime city in Blokada, Loznitsa uses diegetic sounds (urban noises, people chatting, sniffling, and sobbing) in State Funeral to reconstruct a sonic space of Moscow on March 9, 1953.
Ironically, the model of invisible authorship practicing by Loznitsa in his anti-Soviet documentaries was pioneered by Esfir Shubʼs Soviet compilation film The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) and praised by her contemporaries and film scholars as the ideal for a socialist film director. Shub’s aesthetical choices and professional method—approaching directing as a collective effort of anonymous industrial producers rather than a manifestation of individual genius—aligned with the Soviet cultural agenda of the time. However, unlike Shub, Loznitsa falls into the ideological trap of objectivization, despite asserting in one of his early texts The End of the Documentary Cinema that he opposes the realistic tradition in documentary filmmaking. He writes, “I have a big doubt that when we watch any documentary, we are dealing with ‘objective reality’ … The footage is preselected, edited… at every stage we [cinematographers] intervening into the footage.” In other words, realism creates an illusion of historical events unfolding without any technological mediation and the author’s interference. Amusingly, this is exactly what happens in State Funeral—the film that presents the subjective director’s sentiments against Soviet people as objective historical truth.
What does the film teach us about being Soviet? How authentic are the masses grieving for the deceased tyrant? Despite all affects, what if we are witnessing just a staged performance? The liberal viewer struggles to believe in the sincerity of people’s grief, interpreting the spectacle of mass mourning as the state-orchestrated and curated initiative. But Loznitsa believes in the inadequacy of Soviet humans sincerely grieving for a tyrant in the momentum of mass hysteria. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between humanization and dehumanization strategies/impulses. Trying to understand the historical logic of the depicted events we should not consider the mass grief as forced or staged, but also attribute it to the tragicomic dogmatism of brainwashed communists.
Let us not forget that the archival material Loznitsa worked with was shot within a certain cinematic genre—obituary—with its own logic and visual rhetoric. Although many consider Lenin’s Funeral (1924) (by the way shot in the same Hall of Columns) as the canonical film of the Soviet state obituary, such tradition is rooted in the pre-revolutionary imperial chronicles. The Christian funeral, similar to the “secular” Soviet ritual, has always been a scripted and staged synthesis of personal experience and mass orchestrated spectacle. From that perspective, State Funeral is not unique. Obviously, there are staged episodes in the film. In order to discard all the illusions of spontaneous observation, one has only to think how much production effort it took to film in the remote regions the film covers. Not by his own will, the welder interrupts his work to honor Stalin with a minute of silence. The giant portrait of Stalin is flying over paralyzed workers just for the same reasons. However, due to the ambivalence of the funeral ritual’s structure, these staged episodes don’t deny but rather imply the counterbalance of a wide range of genuine emotions. Some of these are easy to read, some are too complicated; the majority serves rather as a screen for our own projections.
Among those crowded in lines (stretched at some moment for six miles) in front of the Hall of Columns, there were many who did not mourn for Stalin. Let’s ask ourselves what motivated these people, and many others, to freeze in queues, to die in padlock just to see Stalin’s dead body on their own eyes? Loznitsa’s retrospective argument concerning the communist “disease” and mass hysteria doesn’t help us much. I would like to recall a historical anecdote from a book by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Once Stalin scolded his son Vasily for exploiting his father’s name: “You’re not Stalin and I’m not Stalin. Stalin IS Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, no not even me!” This story not only outlines the completely different media environment people existed in during Stalinism but also illustrates the paradoxical nature of any absolute power. When Stalin has embodied Soviet power, he “lost” his material body in favor of transpersonal representation. For most Soviet people, he always existed as an omnipresent gestalt in portraits on the walls, photographs in newspapers, voices on radio, and moving images in films. Stalin’s death changed this disposition, reducing the gap between Soviet citizens (at least Muscovites) and their sovereign. Neither the opportunity to approach the sacred body, nor to witness this epoch-making event is an apparent pleasure for the audience. The uncomfortably long and detailed description of the causes of Stalin’s death (“the heart of Joseph Vassarionovich Stalin… had stopped beating”) served not only political purposes (convincing the non-violent nature of death) but also emulated accessibility of the sacred body for those who were far away from Moscow… The Great Farewell was supposed to do the same.
Despite the declared immersiveness, State Funeral’s intention is not to get closer to but rather move the audience away from the understandings of the Soviet people. Instead, Loznitsa proposes an immersive historical attraction of preinstalled archival orientalization and suspicion towards the Soviet past, masked as objective observation. Sergei Loznitsa is too good as a director not to understand the problematic nature of this approach.
However, only an experienced spectator can recognize such delicate positioning of the viewer. Otherwise, the Liberal audiences see an orchestrated version of the exotic Soviet past, while a conservative viewer sees State Funeral as a nostalgic panegyric praising a great and charismatic leader. According to the director himself, this is exactly what happened in the film’s Russian reception. In Russia to this day, approximately 50% of Russians are ready to justify Stalinist repression era by the man’s historical accomplishments. If we remove the final title describing the horrors of Stalinism, then the difference between the propaganda in The Great Farewell and its deconstruction in State Funeral becomes invisible to the general audience. Loznitsa dismisses this matter with a joke, saying that he has no influence on viewers’ “brains”. This answer seems a little insincere as this is exactly what the film director is doing by juxtaposing color and black and white images, sidelining international footage, failing to mention victims of the gridlock in Moscow, and broadcasting decontextualized speeches via loudspeakers.
Editing, as a primary tool of breakdown and re-signification of propaganda, fails in a situation when you “borrow” your perspective from aesthetically, stylistically, and ideologically coherent Soviet newsreels. The observational documentary method fails there, too. Aiming to expose the horrors of Stalinism, Loznitsa rather succeeds in reinforcing the narrative of a strong and charismatic leader, crucial for Putin’s cultural hegemony.