BY Sierra Pettengill in Opinion | 20 SEP 19

A Brutal New Film Reconstructs Stalin’s Infamous Show Trials

Drawing on raw archival footage from 1930, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa highlights the drama of dubious truths

BY Sierra Pettengill in Opinion | 20 SEP 19

In the winter of 1930, eight Soviet engineers and professors were accused of belonging to the ‘Industrial Party’ – an internal sabotage group purportedly conspiring with foreign agents to undermine Soviet industry and attempting to usher in the downfall of the state. The trial was filmed for a production called 13 Days, directed by the film collective Moscow Studio Soyuzkinohroniki. Nearly 90 years later, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa came across the raw footage and reconstructed it into a new film, The Trial (2018), which runs at more than double the length of the original. While Loznitsa’s oeuvre is prolific and diverse, spanning narrative fiction and various documentary forms, it has a common focus on the performance of state violence in the former Soviet Union and, in particular, on the historical leakage that permeates much of the present tense. In a Q&A session at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, following The Trial’s UK premiere at the 2019 Open City Documentary festival, Loznitsa summarized the impetus for the original 1930 production: ‘The idea was very simple: to resolve political problems through theatre.’

Sergei Loznitsa, The Trail, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Open City Documentary Festival, London 

In The Trial, Loznitsa constructs the film as a seamless courtroom drama, only revealing the very real circumstances behind the production in a set of brutal mic-drops just before the closing credits. He withholds the fact that this stunningly crafted archival footage – its striking cinematography bearing the hallmarks of socialist realism – is actually a record of one of the very first of Joseph Stalin’s infamous show trials. There was, we find out, no such thing as ‘The Industrial Party’. The accused, who we see plead guilty, served real (if reduced) sentences, but the testimony we hear from them is utterly made up. 

The Trial flips on its head the typical insistence on authenticity expected of archival footage. Whether grainy 35mm telegraphing a patina of the past or lo-fi video implying a warzone cameraman on the run, archival footage is typically used as an incontrovertible stamp of fact. In fiction films, it’s often included solely as a gut-punch of reality meant to provide terrestrial gravity to fictional – or fictionalized – narratives. (See the ending of Spike Lee’s 2018 BlacKkKlansman for a recent example.) In his archival films, Loznitsa does the reverse, crucially emphasizing the sources and the original intended purposes of the nonfiction material he’s working with. Rather than adding truth to drama, he highlights the drama constructed into delivering a dubious truth. 

Sergei Loznitsa, State Funeral, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Open City Documentary Festival, London 

In both The Trial and Loznitsa’s latest film, State Funeral (2019), which covers the funeral pageantry around Stalin’s death in 1953, the spectator is just as important as the performer. Each film opens with an extended focus on the audience. In The Trial, we see a wide sweeping shot of the empty seats in Moscow’s cavernous Pillar Hall as the public files up the aisles. Massive theatrical spotlights arc out over the audience, who shield their faces with pamphlets as if they were Broadway Playbills; later, when the accused men have their crushing sentences announced, the spectators jump to their feet in a standing ovation. State Funeral begins by location-hopping across the vast Soviet empire, closely scanning the faces of the diverse populations as they receive the news of Stalin’s death. Loznitsa is just as focused on the reception of propaganda as he is on the material itself: a nation’s viewers are the vessels that carry twisted manufactured narratives forward, serving as embodied transport systems for history.

Deragh Campbell and Sofia Bohdanowicz, MS Slavic 7, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Open City Documentary Festival, London 

Another film showcased in the Open City Documentary programme, MS Slavic 7 (2019), tackles this struggle between form and content in understanding archival materials through a documentary-fiction hybrid. Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s film dramatizes the process of archival research into the letters of Bohdanowicz’s real-life great-grandmother, the Polish poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, who was displaced to Canada as a result of the Holocaust. A character named Audrey, played by Campbell, undertakes a series of quiet archival research sessions in a facsimile of Harvard’s Houghton Library. Each ASMR video-worthy scene, with its paper shuffling and extreme close-ups on transparent sheets of delicate writing is followed by a series of staged monologues, in which Audrey drinks a beer and does a close-reading riff on the subjective process of understanding Bohdanowiczowa’s archives. She is focused on the materiality of the archival objects and of interpretation across time, context and language, but a Polish translator pushes back at her, arguing: ‘It’s the content that she’s writing that’s the meat of the letters.’ Audrey expresses her refusal to blindly take content at face value. Citing one of Bohdanowiczowa’s poems, she reads:

the urgent local appeal /
on the part of everything /
immersed in time to be reinterpreted

Archival filmmaking is always a potent act of reinterpretation, one all too rarely acknowledged. Films like Loznitsa’s or Bohdanowicz and Campbell’s that make that reinterpretation centre stage take us much closer to the truth. 

Main image: Sergei Loznitsa, The Trail, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Open City Documentary Festival, London 

Sierra Pettengill is a filmmaker and archivist based in New York.