The Stalinist Postscript

30 April, 2020

Sergey Loznitsa’s latest documentary arches over time, calling us to witness the apotheosis of the total art project which Stalinism wished to embody. By modelling the clay of images that were taken at the funeral ceremony of Stalin into a shapely dough, Loznitsa faces us with the ultimate demonstration of the cult of personality, rebuilding a maximalist ritual of worshipping that was as strictly organized as it was outright bizarre. In other words, on the one hand you have the infinite detritus of archives, composed of recordings shot by 197 cameramen who were present on location for those couple of days in 1953, destined to be part of a film that was finally never made; on the other hand, there is an implacable narrative, from head to toe – from the protocolary announcement of the leader’s death, to the laying of the final wreaths of flowers – in which the Eye of History no longer acts as a judge, but rather, watches on from the position of a passerby in the crowd, in a state of intrigue.

Crowds are the main topic here, as well, like in most documentaries created by this chronicler of the soviet and post-communist century, a cinematic counterpart of Svetlana Alexievich’s. The filmmaker’s documentary opus is a continuous, yet never definitive, analysis on the ways in which crowds of people gather around, for some moments, in the name of a common cause. What might be the most characteristic gesture in his films is the act of unveiling one’s head – masses of bald heads in the cold and slosh – in honor of the national anthem. As a worthy successor of Andrei Ujică, Loznitsa also peddles in unearthing the bodies of the past, and then scrutinizing them under a careful eye, from a distance, and turning them on all sides. However, he does not autopsy them: there is nothing more foreign to his archaeological endeavors than the attempt at guessing what was once plaguing the hearts of people, or the idea to include a voice-over that would explain things. Just as Ujică, Loznitsa has worked on a found footage film of a nineties revolution: The Event (2015), a profoundly unsettling documentary in which the crowds  lie in expectation, silent and beset by thoughts, not knowing what to reclaim, a depressing state of the matter that calls to mind the unfortunate events that were due to happen in Russia. In Loznitsa’s films, historical earthquakes reverberate way beyond the limits of the frame. Such is also the case of this film which never explicitly shows anything more than the passage from Gorbachev to Yeltsin, from the hammer and sickle flag to the tricolored one. Hors-champ, however, an entire world was falling apart.

State Funeral is the Ukrainian’s most ambitious found footage film. The death of Stalin calls the masses of people to the foreground: rivers and seas of people walk in front of the camera, in various states – either when they’re tamely waiting in a huge line to pass by his casket, or, conversely, when they’re listening to the stiff discourse of one apparatchik or another (Malenkov, Beria, Molotov…) that is speaking from a platform. Again and again, the camera quickly washes over the faces of the unknown. But this is just an illusion of spotlights, as the privileged status of certain images of this terrible show is reserved from the get-go: one must only take a look at the sequence in which, after an interminable waiting time, every citizen gets the chance to enjoy the sight of the dead dictator’s visage for a couple of seconds. It’s a surprising moment, since all these heads are turned, quickly gazing at something that lies outside of the frame, at a counter-shot that is systematically declined: we can infer the image of the father of nations in a casket, conducting the gestures of the nation even when he is no longer there, a heavy absence which only a cameraman from the USSR of those days could have accomplished.

State Funeral
State Funeral

Loznitsa has a large array of images to choose from, meaning hundreds of hours of footage, and the shots in the film hint at the fact that this event transcends geography and intimate histories, by uniting all members of the USSR in a cosmic vigil: from Belarus to the steppes of Asia, people are listening to the voices that are infinitely echoing from the speakers, recounting the medical report which details the cause of Stalin’s death, who proved to be a mortal, if anything . (“Image is the biological memory of time”, said Serge Daney at one point.) There is something arresting in the image of these bodies of long-lost anonymous people, caught on screen for a brief moment, in an act of stunned devotion. The dynamics of these people is reduced to a minimum, but their gazes – and that is something specific to documentary images – pierce through our own vision, turning the experience of grief into an historical fact. This is precisely what happens at the end when, once Stalin’s body is deposed in the Mausoleum, the whole world seems shaken: locomotive mechanics sound their horns, truck drivers pull up to the bumper, and one of the leader’s many portraits flies high on top of a high-altitude crane, under the gaze of construction workers that are frozen in place. Since this is an extremely visible event, the filmmaker is free to play around, uniting various moments and territories by the use of editing, using a classical structure of mainstream cinema. When the delegations of communist state leaders arrive to the Moscow airport, a (color) shot is quite “naturally”, as would be the case of a Hollywood movie, followed up by a shot from the opposite angle – this time, shot in black and white, by another cameraman. Loznitsa intervenes even more on the sonic frontier: the ceremony seems to be enveloped by an instance of Mozart’s Requiem that seems to arrive straight from heaven.

State Funeral continues in the footsteps of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The time hadn’t yet come for a popular uprising in 1953. But Loznitsa’s film belongs to the same cycle that is dedicated to the emblematic, yet apparently unapproachable figure of the dictator, for whom the entire world is but a directed play, and the show itself is sinister and megalomaniacal. Digging deep in the archives of the past century and following in the path of Andrei Ujică, Loznitsa rides up the river of forgetfulness, putting our relationship with history under tension and quite clearly speaking to us out of the present.

State Funeral was available online, as a part of the Visions du Réel festival. 

Avatar Victor Morozov
Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for the Dilema veche cultural magazine and collaborates with Acoperișul de Sticlă, Film Reporter, Ziarul Metropolis; enrolled in a Film Studies programme at Trinity College, Dublin.