tv & movies

In ‘State Funeral,’ filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa examines the personality cult of Joseph Stalin

Set against one of the pivotal moments of world history, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary flips through pages of the past to map the present

On March 5, 1953, the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was announced to the people by Yury Levitan, a Soviet radio announcer who was active during and after the Second World War. Reading from the communiqué, it was reported that Levitan announced that the “Father of Nations” was dead. A state funeral was given to Stalin and four days of national mourning was declared.

On March 6, Stalin’s body was displayed at the Hall of Columns in the House of Trade Unions, where it remained for the next three days for hundreds of thousands of mourners, mostly clad in black, to pay respects to their revered leader. The proceedings witnessed at the funeral are now part of history, but the idea of Stalin and the near-pompous show put on by his comrades-in-arms, is the subject behind Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary State Funeral (2019), which will be available on Mubi starting this Friday.

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A significant moment in Soviet history, Sergei’s initial idea was to document the ritual of state funerals in the Soviet regime, which began with Vladimir Lenin in 1924 and ended with Stalin in 1953. “It’s a well-known fact that there was a power struggle within the regime after Lenin’s death, and it took Stalin almost a decade to consolidate his power. I was convinced that this ritual [of state funerals] was one of the fundamental pillars of the regime’s ideology, especially bearing in mind that many of the members of the Soviet political elite, who were given by Stalin the most pomp and opulent funerals, were assassinated on Stalin’s orders,” says Loznitsa, in an email interview.

A still from ‘State Funeral’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He began working on the research when he discovered what he calls a “treasure chest” containing 40 hours of never-before-seen footage of Stalin’s funeral. “It was most fascinating. At that point, I decided to change my plan and worked only with the footage of Stalin’s funeral, which represents the climax of his personality cult.”

By doing this exercise: re-examining events of the past to map what and where we went wrong — like, in State Funeral for instance — Sergei says the larger motive was to invite the audience to reflect and analyse. “My films are never about the ‘past’. They are about the way the past is connected to the present,” he says. Excerpts from an edited interview:

Your films seem to reflect a post-Soviet society and like you mentioned, it is a recurring theme. What’s your experience growing up in Soviet Russia?

I didn’t grow up in Soviet Russia but in Ukraine. At the time both were part of the Soviet Union. The reason why I think it is important to study this experience is because the criminal and barbaric regime that the Soviet Union was, is still very much alive. That is because its history hasn’t been sufficiently studied and understood.

For example, even today, 75 years after the Second World War, the Russian people still know very little truth about it. They are still fed by propaganda and lies.

How difficult was it to form a narrative based entirely on archival footage?

We had about 40 hours of material, which was condensed to a two- hour-long film. So, the only problem I had was the abundance of material. My editor and I had to select the most expressive and interesting shots, still leaving a lot of precious images out. We built the narrative in a chronological order — from the moment Stalin’s death was announced to the people gathering at the Mausoleum.

When you work with archival footage, does that limit your visual scope?

Every archive footage film has its own unique visual scope and that is its beauty. Like in State Funeral or in my previous montage documentary, The Trial, which was edited from the black-and-white footage on one of the first show-trials, organised by Stalin in 1930, known as the Industrial Party Trial. We also work a lot on image restoration and colour-grading thus achieving a remarkable quality of image. As far as State Funeral is concerned, I heard a lot of people saying that they felt they were in 1953 while watching the film.

A still from ‘State Funeral’  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

How much freedom do you have as a filmmaker when working on a sensitive subject about a cult leader, given that some of the Russian films are still funded by the State?

Artistic freedom is my credo. Every contract I sign with a producer states that I have the right to final cut and also that I have to right to choose all the key creative team-members, department heads etc. I do not tolerate censorship of any kind. Perhaps, that is why I haven’t applied for any funding in Russia for a number of years now. My films are funded by the Dutch, German, Lithuanian, French, Ukrainian, Latvian film funds and also privately.

At the same time, I think it is important not to confuse censorship and “self-censorship”. It happens sometimes when filmmakers try to be over-cautions when working with sensitive subjects and “censor” their own work. In reality, the only fundamental rule in documentary [just as in fiction] should be to tell the truth.

Talking about the difference between documentary and fiction, you had said in an interview that “documentary is the opposite way… it’s closest to fiction”. Can you explain this a bit?

In both genres, there is no such thing as “objectivity”. In a certain way, documentary can be even more manipulative and more “fictional” than fiction. Cinema is first and foremost an art form; it is a subjective creation of an artist, an author. It always represents his or her point of view. Nothing else.

Filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What are you working on currently?

I am finishing a documentary with archive footage about the Holocaust titled Babi Yar. Context and also working on a documentary about the first President of independent Lithuania, Professor Vytautas Landsbergis. I also have two more documentary films in production and I am prepping for a fiction.

We were supposed to shoot the fiction film last summer in Ukraine, but due to the pandemic the shooting was postponed. It seems that it would take a while for our industry to recover, and I very much hope that this recovery — whenever that is — happens very fast.

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