Sergei Loznitsa’s multi-faceted filmmaking approach, these days focused on documentary, blend archival material and sometimes re-enactments with actors, resulting in unique insights and subtle visual commentary on the Soviet and ex-Soviet sphere. His latest nonfiction film, “State Funeral,” constructed from once-banned footage of the epic events surrounding Joseph Stalin’s death and funeral in 1953, is screening at Marrakech Film Festival following its debut in Venice.
In researching the project, the Ukrainian filmmaker and former mathematician employed his trademark precision and methodology in mining through 35 hours of material at the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive in Krasnogorsk.
“I constructed the film based on the actual order of the events during the period from March 6 till March 9,” says Loznitsa. “We begin with the scene when the coffin with Stalin’s body is placed in the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions and end with the moment when it is brought to the Mausoleum.”
In determining his structure, Loznitsa was faced with a common issue with his source material – determining how much of is was staged for agitprop purposes and how much is genuine grief for Stalin.
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“There are a lot of staged shots when you know for sure that people for posing for the cameras,” he says. “At the same time, there are a lot of scenes in which you see people in a state of grief, shock and hysterics. This was a case of mass hysteria.”
That blurry line is one of the more fascinating elements in the 135-minute assemblage of footage, which was clearly meant to convey epic loss deeply felt across the Soviet world.
“This is one of the most mysterious and most important aspects of this event,” Loznitsa says, describing footage that ranges from villagers in snowbound hamlets to mass processions at the Kremlin.
The state archives, opened after the Soviet Union’s collapse after decades of being sealed off from the public, contain a gold mine of material, Loznitsa says, and should be the source of several future projects.
“I intend to continue my cooperation with the Krasnogorsk Archive,” he says, “and I have ideas for new films, based on archive footage.”
Other archives also offer rich pickings for documentarians willing to immerse themselves in research, he says.
“I’m currently working on a short documentary based on the footage from the archives of the Opera de Paris. The film has been commissioned by the opera and I expect to finish it in January.”
In Loznitsa’s previous films, such as 2016’s “Austerlitz,” he examines people’s responses to former death camps, using footage he shot, while in 2018’s “Donbass,” for which he won the Un Certain Regard director prize at Cannes, he used actors to stage real, often gruesome events he found on YouTube surrounding the occupation of Eastern Ukraine by Russia.
As in those works, Loznitsa’s “State Funeral” eschews no rhetorical conclusions via voiceover, talking heads or even a clear investigative structure.
Still, some critics say “State Funeral” offers a cautionary tale on the dangers of hagiography and the construction of mythic figures based on half-truths and lies – a lesson that’s increasingly relevant in the West these days.
Loznitsa doesn’t feel it’s his role to sound alarm bells in such a reductionist way, he says. “It’s not really a warning but is rather about information. I believe that it is important to talk about the past, especially about those episodes of Soviet history that still remain ‘black holes’ in the minds of contemporary Russians.”
The state’s effort to keep the footage from the public after Stalin was denounced by his successor Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 is telling, he adds.
“The footage of the funeral was banned and remained classified for many years. By the time when the archives were opened – approximately 35 years after the event – and when the USSR collapsed, for some reason nobody was interested in going to the archive and presenting this footage to the world.”
It’s a mistake to let such embarrassing hero-building lie on archive shelves, Loznitsa argues.
“I believe that the film gives a spectator, and a Russian spectator in particular, a unique opportunity to experience the funeral as a ‘witness.’ The whole experience gives a profound insight into the nature of Stalinism.”