War After War
March 31, 2022
SERGEI LOZNITSA, the prolific Ukrainian cineaste who has directed no less than twenty-six documentaries and five fictional features, remains too little known by general art cinema audiences, even after having garnered fifty-two significant awards at prominent international film festivals over his twenty-year career. In 2018 Loznitsa’s jet-black political satire Donbass earned him the prize for best director in the “Un Certain Regard” competition at Cannes. Three years later, also at Cannes, his feature-length documentary Babi Yar: Context won the L’Œil d’or as the best documentary of 2021. After circulating on the festival circuit, both films will premiere this month in the United States.
Babi Yar and Donbass could not be more dissimilar in their cinematic modes, moods, and strategies. And yet what unites the two films—aside from the essential collaboration of Loznitsa’s long-time artistic colleagues, Vladimir Golovnitzky (sound design) and Danielus Kokanauskis (montage)—is Loznitsa’s tragic and at times cynical vision of history and demagogic politics that converge in the violence of war and the ruin of innocent lives. Variations on this general theme emerged in many of the earlier scripts he had authored, but only now, perhaps, can viewers assess fully its flexible range, tenor, and depth.
Babi Yar: Context is a compilation documentary, a long-established genre in which filmmakers bring together found images from disparate sources to tell a story that differs from—indeed, sometimes tendentiously challenges—the intentions of the original makers. Loznitsa’s team mined archives in Germany and Russia to repurpose documentary and propaganda footage shot by Nazi and Soviet cameramen during World War II. Using these and some later materials, he reframes the background and aftermath—what Loznitsa calls the “context”—of one of the most unspeakable crimes of that global conflict: the murder of nearly 34,000 Jewish citizens of Kyiv at the nearby Babyn Yar ravine. Einsatzgruppe C, a Nazi extermination squad, and their anti-Semitic Ukrainian militia and police allies accomplished their assigned task in just forty-eight hours between September 29 and 30, 1941. In recent years, the massacre has become one of the most egregious examples of what scholars today call the “Holocaust by bullets.” The memorial site’s symbolic value is certainly why a Russian strike near it earlier this month received so much attention in Western news media.
An extraordinary selection of images conveys the massive scale of the war and its horrors. Loznitsa managed to discover unfamiliar, ghastly scenes from the pogrom conducted by Ukrainian nationalist forces in Lviv (aka Lvów/Lemberg), who wrongly blamed Jews for the slaughter of local citizens by the NKVD before Soviet forces retreated from the city. He also incorporates extensive footage of the Red Army’s carefully planned detonations of German-occupied buildings along Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, Kreshchatyk Street, which the Germans, again blaming Jewish perfidy, then exploited as a rationale for the Babyn Yar slaughter. At the film’s climax, the public hanging of twelve German perpetrators reveals the barbaric justice meted out by the victorious Soviets; even more chilling, perhaps, is the fact that more than 200,000 Kyiv citizens enthusiastically gawked at the event.
These images, most of which were shot without sound, are augmented by Golovnitsky’s sensual score, which combines scraps of noises ranging from explosions to barely audible murmured words and cries. The violence of the images is muted somewhat by their containment within a montage structure that one is tempted to call “neoclassical.” Episodes in the first half of the film are balanced by parallels in the second. The Wehrmacht’s initial onslaught on the USSR contrasts with the victorious return of the Red Army. In the opening minutes, Ukrainians don traditional costumes to salute their Nazi conquerors, offering bread and salt to visiting dignitaries like Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor-General of occupied Poland; these scenes are echoed later when, with much less enthusiasm, citizens greet the return of their former and future communist masters, most prominently, Nikita Khrushchev. Destroyed war vehicles litter the roads in both halves, as do the sprawled bodies of German and Soviet soldiers and the parades of astoundingly vast numbers of POWs captured from both armies.
Photographs of the massacre at Babyn Yar lie at this film’s still and virtually silent center. Loznitsa avoids simply showing the viewer masses of corpses, a numbing cliché to which so many Holocaust films resort. Instead, an amazing series of color images obliquely alludes to what happened. The victims, almost unidentifiable as such, appear as blots of dull color in the distant background of the opening shot. Quietly captured up close, however, are details of personal items they were forced to leave behind: clothes, shoes, toys, a wallet, even a prosthetic leg. What Loznitsa leaves unsaid conveys the fate of the dead all the more powerfully. Only the wind and chirping birds can be heard as the image sequence calmly unfolds.
Donbass is radically different. Its narrative is set in the vexed borderlands between Ukraine and Russia which, since 2014, have served as an incubator for Putin’s current war of aggression against Ukraine. The breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lukhansk devolved into self-proclaimed, deeply corrupt, supposedly independent states, ruled over by petty warlords. Their provincial towns became stages for the grimly comical or mortifying episodes Loznitsa scripts. When an inattentive official in one such town receives a group of well-meaning Western Ukrainians who offer relics of saints to encourage peace, the humor darkens before becoming farcical. He absentmindedly agrees, but then is aghast when he learns that they want several Mercedes limos and a large public ceremony to celebrate the arrival of these questionable artifacts. Farce reverts back to tragedy when a defenseless elderly operative of a “suicide squad” loyal to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv is captured, and the mockery of a crowd of leering and increasingly menacing local citizens rapidly turns to violence.
Loznitsa’s satire is anchored by a host of superb actors, whose faces and body types are Eastern European counterparts to those in a Fellini film. Many are clearly amateurs, but they are virtually indistinguishable from the professionals during the varied long takes devised by Loznitsa, whose subtly articulated camera movements and canny organization of the mise-en-scene impose their own careful structure amid the pointless chaos of war. In Donbass’s final, self-reflexive scene, the company of actors playing in a separatist-sponsored propaganda film are brutally executed by the very thugs they sought to serve. The abrupt end to the lives of these ordinary individuals, so fatally attracted to myths of ethnic identity that they became its victims, anticipates the Götterdämmerung rerun we have been anxiously watching for weeks since Russia’s foolhardy, bloody invasion of its neighboring state.
— Stuart Liebman
Babi Yar: Context opens at Film Forum on April 1 and Donbass will play at IFC Center from April 8 to April 14, both in New York.