Detailing Lithuania’s attempts to break away from the Soviet Union, from protests in 1989 to Vilnius’ Bloody Sunday in 1991, when Soviet troops attempted to stage a coup, Sergei Loznitsa became interested in the man in the midst of it all: Vytautas Landsbergis, the first Head of Parliament of Lithuania after its independence declaration.
“I started this project with a simple question: ‘Why nobody in Lithuania filmed him before?’ He is such a great man, great storyteller,” says the helmer. “Mr. Landsbergis” was crowned as best film at IDFA, with Danielius Kokanauskis awarded for editing.
Recalling his 2015 film “The Event” on the 1991 August Coup in Moscow, Loznitsa argues that he doesn’t feel like “a foreigner” in Lithuania, the first country that took serious steps to destroy the Soviet Union. But a foreigner can sometimes say things the locals cannot, he observes, also because they haven’t noticed them.
“I was born in the Soviet Union. I am not telling this story from a colonial point of view, I have it in my blood. My life also changed after 1991 – in ‘The Event,’ I already reflected on that. That’s when I enrolled in film school and I could feel that something was changing. In Lithuania, they announced their independence and moved towards achieving it. This story is one of the most important of that time.”
“Mr. Landsbergis” marks the first time Loznitsa’s voice can be heard in his films, although he never appears in them and still doesn’t intend to.
“I decided to do it because of him. He is a miracle,” he says about his protagonist, now 89 years old. “Whenever I could remove my question, I opted for intertitles instead. As for the rest, well, it was important to ask about the tragedy in Vilnius on January 13, 1991. Maybe next time I’ll do the entire voiceover, explaining everything, and people will say that Loznitsa has finally made a ‘normal’ documentary. I hope not.”
Apart from the lengthy interview with the politician, one that took two weeks to shoot, the Ukrainian helmer – also behind “Babi Yar. Context,” awarded IDFA’s special mention for best creative use of the archive – decided to use archive footage again, including materials shot by complete amateurs, excited to document what was happening.
“I already combined black and white and color footage in ‘State Funeral’ [chronicling the days leading up to the funeral of Joseph Stalin] and it worked very well. When you use different materials, or when you see someone in one shot and then again in a material coming from a different camera, it feels like a game.”
Such a wealth of material proved illuminating, also when it comes to known historical figures, from Lithuanian dissident Antanas Terleckas (“Many finally realize he was a serious politician, not some court jester”) to the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.
“My impression of Gorbachev has changed completely. I used to think: ‘Oh, Gorbachev, such a brave leader who enabled democracy.’ Now, when I was listening to what he was saying… It’s ridiculous. What a demagogue,” says Loznitsa, who had to deal with prejudice himself when the project was first announced.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some forces made sure to destroy the reputations of the politicians they deemed dangerous. When the Lithuanian Film Centre decided to grant us support, a very negative article came out. Some directors were quoted saying that when you film one person sitting in a garden, you should get less money, they criticized me and professor Landsbergis.”
The latter’s popularity suffered because of the Soviet economic blockade of Lithuania. Later, Algirdas Brazauskas, who used to be the leader of Lithuania’s Communist Party, came into power.
“If you ask Lithuanian people, part of them will say that ‘Landsbergis destroyed kolkhoz’ [a collective farm in the Soviet Union], that he was a bad politician. To many, this made up slogan still applies.”
Still, when addressing the United Nations in the film, Landsbergis himself observes that “oppression and lies exist, but they are temporary.”
“As a politician, he delivered exactly what he promised. It doesn’t happen that often. In that sense, we could say there is a happy ending to this story,” says Loznitsa, voicing a concern that certain characteristics of that time seem to be coming back.
“We will see how it develops, but that’s up to the new generation that doesn’t seem to realize their freedom and all these opportunities didn’t just fall from the sky. It was a long fight. These people, they did what they could.”