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Director Sergei Loznitsa on digging through Soviet archives and the challenge of dissecting the past

With his blend of archive footage and self-shot film, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s tireless documentary work examines the past from both sides of history. He sat down with The Calvert Journal to discuss the challenge of re-examining the Soviet Union’s psychological fallout, and why he believes the likes of Stalin and Hitler will rise again.

24 September 2019

For Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, documentary film is a tool to pick through the shrapnel of the Soviet Union. His 2018 offering, The Trial, uses archive footage to excavate the former empire’s psychological leftovers, scrutinising the performative heart of Stalin’s early show trials. So does his 2015 film The Event, which splices together old rolls of film to embed the viewer in the crowds that thronged the Soviet Union’s failed 1991 coup d’état. Other films rely on careful observation: in 2016’s Austerlitz, Loznitsa observationally examines the tourists visiting former concentration camps, whilst Victory Day (2018) applies the same methodology to the Victory Day celebrations in Berlin, where former Soviet citizens descend on a monument to celebrate the defeat of Germany at the end of the Second World War. It’s an approach to filmmaking that favours wandering minds, as well as our own willingness to hunt down parallels between the present and past as a way of potentially understanding events that still feel oblique in the historical ledger.

Following the UK Premiere of The Trial at London’s Open City Documentary Festival, Loznitsa sat down with The Calvert Journal to discuss his documentary work, piecing together communist archives, and why Soviet history still has so much to tell.

As told to Andrew Northrop

“The remnants of the former Soviet Union have always appeared in my films, but the problems I deal with exist in [Western] Europe too. The idea that some people know how others should live — and the fact that those people will try and force others to live that way too — still exists. The idea that a society is divided into a majority and a minority, and that the majority is always right, hasn’t gone anywhere either. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were just the extreme manifestations of these ideas, and ones that I’m sure will reappear in the future. That’s why I try to go back to the past — because we can be impartial and look back at what really happened.

I also try to examine how we relate to our history in the modern day. My film Austerlitz, for example, focuses on former concentration camps. There’s a big problem with how we preserve the memories of those events and present them to the people of today.

For a long time, it was the role of religion to preserve the memory of the past, and to conduct a discourse around those events. Traditionally, a place where a massacre or great crime took place would be marked by inserting a cross, or perhaps by building a church. Religion has now stepped aside for science, but science isn’t suited to talking about the meaning of life.

“Our civilisation does not know how to approach death in the metaphysical sense.”

Science is very good at creating catalogues. At these memorials, you can learn, step by step, how each concentration camp was created. You find information about how many people were in that camp, how many people died and what they did. But there’s no ritual we can use to engage with these memories, like there would be in a church or a temple. We miss the most important thing of all: the opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of life and death.

It’s this mystery that attracts people to these places where a lot of people died. The two most visited locations in all of the camps where I filmed at are the gates — the gates to hell — and then the crematorium, where the bodies were transformed into ashes. A lot of people take selfies of themselves in these places. I’m sure that if I asked people why, they wouldn’t be able to explain what compels them to do it. Our civilisation currently does not know how to approach death in the metaphysical sense.

I use self-shot footage and archive film to jump into the past — but they both require very different methods. Sometimes, when I’m working for myself, I’ll just shoot whatever I find interesting, then construct something out of that material. Sometimes, I know from the start what I want to do and film exactly that. I try to repeat certain visuals, something that will ultimately form the skeleton of each piece. With Austerlitz, I knew that I was going to start with the gates and finish with the gates. The people who enter and the people who leave are in very different psychological states. Those coming in are a little bit worried and cautious; those who leave are usually quite happy. Perhaps they’re relieved that they were able to escape the place at all.

Archival film is a very different process. When working with archives, I am limited by the footage I have at hand. I’m making a collage of what’s on offer, creating a narrative that will lead both myself and the viewer to some kind of meaning.

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Some of the most interesting moments are hidden in the clips that would have originally been left on the cutting room floor. For The Trial, there were bits of footage which weren’t originally used originally because there were technical problems, like the camera shaking. If I were editing this film in the 1930s I would have had to take those parts out, but they work in a very different way now. Now, more than anything else, these imperfections are almost a confirmation of the material’s authenticity.

We’ve been able to use this footage since 1991, when the USSR collapsed and they opened to the public, but very few directors are actually going to look for this kind of material. I work with the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive is Krasnogorsk and it’s a very rich source, a real treasure chest: they have thousands of hours of material and it’s preserved very well.

The quality of the footage from Stalin’s state funeral, for example, for my upcoming release, State Funeral, was amazing. For many years it was banned; it was shelved and there was no access to it until the 90s. But after that, it’s amazing that no one went there to take a look. As to why it was left untapped for so long: that’s a question that other directors should be answering.”

State Funeral is currently showing at film festivals across the globe and is set to premiere in the UK in 2020.

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