BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 01 JUN 15
Featured in
Issue 172

A History of Violence

Filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s exploration of the post-Soviet condition

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 01 JUN 15

If there were ever a competition for the bleakest depiction of what is going on in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Sergei Loznitsa’s film My Joy (2010) would certainly be one of the strongest contenders for first place. The central character is a truck driver who is making his way through a beautiful but disconcerting Russian hinterland. He appears to be a sort of post-Soviet everyman: a witness to prostitution, a target of overreaching authorities and, ultimately, a saintly fool who – in an increasingly elliptical narrative – becomes the victim of random acts of violence and abuse, while flashbacks connect those experiences to the region’s long history of bloody conflict, including the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

For Loznitsa, My Joy marked a huge step as a filmmaker. It was the first time he had ventured into fictional storytelling, even if some of the film’s most remarkable scenes – such as an elaborate pan across a town square filled with local people, portraying them as if they were a silent chorus of anonymous bystanders in a modern Greek tragedy – drew on over a decade of experience as a documentary filmmaker. Since then, he has made another fictional film, In the Fog (2012), about the struggle of local partisans against the German forces in Belarus during World War II, as well as a feature-length documentary that, partly due to its timeliness, was given a prominent slot in the programme of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Maidan (2014) is Loznitsa’s take on the Ukrainian revolt against the ‘pack’, the street term for the regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country when unfolding events threatened his life.

Biographical coincidence and astute career choices have rendered Loznitsa the most prominent filmmaker to emerge from the conflicted region that Russian imperialists consider an integral part of the motherland – the Ukraine and Belarus – while Ukrainian patriots, and to a lesser degree Belarusians, insist on their respective national histories and identities. Loznitsa was born in 1964 in Baranovitchi – then in the Soviet Union, today in Belarus. He grew up in Kiev, where he studied at the Polytechnic Institute, earning a degree in engineering and mathematics. It was only after a period spent working for the Kiev Institute of Cybernetics that Loznitsa realized he wanted to become a filmmaker, and successfully applied for a place at film school in Moscow. He spent most of the 1990s in the Russian capital, followed by a spell in St Petersburg, during which time he produced some of his most important documentary films. After 2000, Loznitsa relocated to Berlin, where he has been based since.

My Joy, 2010; Courtesy: Atoms and Void
My Joy, 2010; Courtesy: Atoms and Void

The documentary film Landscape (2003) is a good example of his combination of seemingly random material – here, eavesdropping on the casual conversations of people waiting at bus stops – with intricate camera work, in this case circular pans that build to create a panorama of the destitute realities of the Russian countryside. Alcoholism, unemployment, male violence and the harsh climate permeate conversation in this film, and seem to have marked the weathered faces of the people, who talk and act at times as if they have not been informed about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There is a certain detachment to the strategy Loznitsa employs in Landscape, but also a tenderness. While the images exude artistic distance, even formalism, the soundtrack creates intimacy. As viewers, although we are among these people, we are also invisible. This contradiction relates to the position of the artist in general society: Loznitsa doesn’t adhere to the idea of the engaged artist – the person who, by bearing witness (or, following Sergej Eisenstein’s lead, constructing dialectical montage), can help improve the lives of others – which is the communist conception of artistic responsibility. Two of Loznitsa’s seminal films use archival footage – often propaganda – related to the idea of overcoming obstacles (including artistic contributions to that effort), which was so essential to the Soviet experience: Blockade (2005) and Revue (2008). Blockade recalls the dreadful period, from 1941 to 1944, when German forces laid siege to Leningrad (contemporary St Petersburg), leading to the death of around 800,000 civilians from starvation. Loznitsa’s editing of the footage reveals the Soviet ideology of progress through sacrifice within which individual lives are considered expendable. This historical trope becomes all the more obvious in Revue, a film based on propaganda material from Nikita Khrushchev’s era. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, ‘Khrushchev’s Thaw’ allowed for a new period of Soviet optimism during the cold war with America. Revue explores the generation of people who were young at the time, who felt momentarily that history was on their side, even if the idealism of the stage productions documented in the film – which range from communal entertainment and uplifting dance performances to didactic theatre – now seems naive. It becomes clear that, as they have grown old, those who experienced that moment first-hand have come to live on ‘second-hand time’ – as the celebrated Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich termed it in the title of her 2013 novel.

Revue is crucial to our comprehension of Loznitsa’s work because, without having witnessed the high hopes of the early 1960s it depicts, the disillusionment of the early 2010s cannot be fully understood. What is left out in this perspective, however, is the massive rupture of 1991: the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet, this blind spot seems intentional: for Loznitsa, filmmaking is less about capturing the contemporary moment than about its build-up and aftermath. His prior experience as a scientist – imposing order on complexity – may contribute to the director’s resistance to immersing himself in the unfiltered present.

Maidan, 2014, film still
Maidan, 2014; Courtesy: Atoms and Void

Even Maidan, shot in the midst of chaotic circumstances, has an air of timelessness about it, looking at the upheaval from a historical point of view, as if it had already happened. Loznitsa’s film was not liked by activists in Ukraine, who felt it failed to adequately represent their excitement and energy. Indeed, apart from the ending – in which clouds of smoke billow from burning tyres – Maidan is a markedly composed film, which patiently registers many possible inspirations for a functioning civil society in Ukraine: here, people presenting a poem about their idea of statehood are given as much credence as Christian Orthodox clergy praying for the future of the nation.

Loznitsa is now at an important moment in his career. He has to resist the typecasting of a world-cinema festival circuit that would probably prefer for him to evolve his pronounced style of allegorical storytelling about the ‘bloodlands’ (as historian Timothy Snyder has described them) between Germany and Russia. On the other hand, Loznitsa is being offered commissions from around the world – in 2012, he shot The Miracle of Saint Anthony, documenting the ritual consecration of animals that happens every year in a village in northern Portugal and, last year, he made the documentary Reflections, one of 13 short films comprising the omnibus The Bridges of Sarajevo (2014), in which he superimposes black and white portraits from 1992 of fighters that defended Sarajevo during the city’s siege over images of the present-day urban environment.

Loznitsa is currently working on a feature film about the massacre of Babyn Jar, in which more than 30,000 Jews from the Kiev region were killed in 1941. (The film was due to premiere in Cannes in May but wasn’t finished in time.) He also recently received German funding for the development of Austerlitz, a ‘meditation’, as he has described it, ‘on the site of a former concentration camp’ that also appears in the eponymous 2001 novel by W.G. Sebald. Although Loznitsa has stated that his work will not be an adaptation of the book, there are strong resonances between his filmmaking and Sebald’s prose. With both of them poised between documentary and fiction, they may well turn out to be a perfect match.

Main image: Panoramic view of Kyiv in the winter. Courtesy and photograph: © Vadim Zabrodsky via Getty Images

Sergei Loznitsa is a filmmaker living in Berlin, Germany. Maidan was released in 2015 on DVD by Dogwoof. The seminal documentary films BlockadeRevue and Landscape are available as part of a compilation DVD of Loznitsa's work, released by New Wave Films in 2013.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.