The subject of a 2016 IDFA retrospective and curator of its Top Ten, Sergei Loznitsa explains why he turned from maths to film
AMSTERDAM – Although he caused a splash on the international circuit in 2010 when his fiction feature debut “My Joy” was selected for competition in Cannes, Sergei Loznitsa has long been known in documentary circles, having made his debut at IDFA with the 1996 short “Today We Are Going To Build A House.” “ After that,” he recalls, “I did one film every year, all documentaries.” Although Loznitsa returned to fiction – and the Cannes competition – with 2012’s wartime drama “In The Fog”, he has continued to explore the real world, notably with 2014’s “Maidan,” which documented that year’s violent unrest in his native Ukraine.
Loznitsa arrived at IDFA for several reasons; the subject of a retrospective, he also gave a masterclass and curated a top ten of personal favourite documentaries, including films by Italy’s Vittorio De Seta, the U.K.’s Peter Watkins and Russia’s Dziga Vertov. The director then gave an extended Q&A after a screening of his newest film, the Venice entry “Austerlitz.” Perhaps his most spare and poetic film to date, this carefully composed monochrome film shows us scenes of modern-day tourists at Holocaust sites in German and asks troubling questions about man’s ability to consume and yet, at the same time, forget the past.
You make fiction films as well as documentaries – do you have a preference?
Sergei Loznitsa: No. For me, both genres are quite interesting, and I like them both equally. In feature films, I can do things that I’m not allowed to do with documentary. And feature films are more open for fantasy. With documentary you have more limitation – by, let’s say, life around us, which we can’t fix. You can’t always express yourself how you want. The rest is the same. I work with documentary and feature-film footage in more or less the same way. Documentary footage is something I do not influence. I don’t provoke the situation, it’s a pure observation. My only provocation is the camera. But with a feature film we provoke and we create. Another difference, of course, is the amount of people who work with you. With documentary cinema you are more free. You have four people on the set and that’s enough. You can travel and spend your time without thinking how much money every hour is costing.
Your background is in maths and science. Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
No, I didn’t think about that. When I studied mathematics I didn’t think about cinema. A few films that I saw changed my opinions about this art form, that made me accept it as serious art not just as advertising – “Le Bal”  by Ettore Scola and “8 ½”  by Federico Fellini. Two films, I remember, that made me think that cinema was also a possibility for me, maybe. But it was already late [by then], when I finished my maths-graduate education, and I started work at the cybernetic institute. But after that… It was a time when the Soviet Union collapsed, when there was the illusion that all roads were open and you could go right or left. I was quite young at that time. I was 25 or 26 and finally I found myself at film school in Moscow in 1991.
Although you studied mathematics, your films don’t seem to draw conclusions – they’re very open-ended. Is that a contradiction?
No, no, no! Every film is based on structure. There is a skeleton inside, there is construction inside, but after that, you make it invisible. Because, for me, a film, first of all, has to recreate or create emotion –for me, re-create – and it must give you a feeling of something. And leave open the possibility of self-discussion – a discussion with yourself – about this feeling. All these things you have to create with all the tools that you have, with style, with editing, with dramaturgy, with sound, all the possibilities that we call the language of cinema. You have to know how to select the material, because normally we stay in the world where the meaning of everything is the same. This process starts when you decide where to set the camera and you have to choose what kind of composition you would like. And why. So that’s based on science. But I don’t divide between the two. Nowadays they say that science is science and art is art, and they’re both on opposite sides of the street. But I prefer the time when it was the same thing. Leonardo Da Vinci was a scientist and a great artist.
Before your first fiction film, “My Joy,” you did something like 15 documentaries, long and short. Do you see that film as a departure?
I made this film when it was possible for me to make a feature, and I based it on stories I had seen or heard from my travels in Russia. [Laughs] It was based on real stories – if you think it’s surreal, it’s [Russia’s] relationship with the norm! But, of course, it’s a surreal society, and we now live more and more in a surreal world. It’s like a world that was described by [Franz] Kafka. I don’t think it’s that far from my previous documentaries – some of them also discovered the surreal, like my Russian propaganda film “Revue” .
What attracts you as a subject for a documentary?
Er… Life? [Laughs] Life. It works just like that. Different things impress you, and after that, you start to discover what kind of impression they make. Not so far from [Marcel] Proust. He showed the way.
Are your influences especially literary?
Yes. But cinema is a very young art form. Literature is much older than all of us.
After “My Joy,” the follow-up, “In The Fog,” seemed much more traditional. Would you agree?
Yes, it’s quite a traditional film. For me, it’s a tragedy, and I don’t see now, in the former Soviet Union, the possibility for making a tragedy, so I had to go back to the Second World War. Why? Because in that time there still existed a certain kind of person. Tragedy exists because of people, and people without a certain kind of personality cannot be a tragic hero. Another chance I had to make a tragedy was when I made “Maidan,” which was a tragedy because people made a decision to act, to set up Maidan, and paid for their destiny, for their dignity, a price – their life.
You now live in Berlin. Did you have censorship problems in Russia?
No. I don’t have censorship problems. But you know, now, censorship works in a different way. For example, in TV there’s also censorship. They call it “format” – 52 minutes. Somebody asked me if I had a 52-minute version of “Austerlitz”. How is it possible to have a version of an idea? Of course not! With “Maidan” there were only a few screenings in Moscow. And that was all. You could call that censorship, but it wasn’t forbidden.
Do you think that art has a chance to change the world?
No. [Laughs] No. But it can change us. The world we live in depends on us, and our way of thinking about the world. That way it can change the world
What are you working on now?
I’m close to finishing editing my new film. It’s about the present, but structurally it is… shall we say… good old cinema. It’s a fiction film, dedicated to the cinema that we remember. The big cinema! It’s a contemporary story about a Russian woman and the injustice around her. It starts when she receives a package from a prison. It’s a package that she sent to her husband in prison, and it was returned without explanation. So she tries to find out what happened to him. And after that? [Laughs] Welcome to cinema! It’s a drama, phantasmagory, grotesque, tragedy and comedy. You don’t know sometimes whether to laugh or cry. It’s a little reminiscent of “My Joy,” but at the same time how we tell the story is something new. It’s called “A Gentle Creature,” after a short story by Dostoevsky. But that’s just an inspiration. Because in my story she’s not so gentle.