However much you think you know about modern Lithuanian history, you’re almost certain to leave wiser after digesting all 248 minutes of “Mr. Landsbergis,” an exhaustively detailed but engrossing documentary study of the Baltic republic’s hard-won battle for independence from 1988 to 1991. That the film is both intricately researched and archivally rich comes as no surprise considering it’s by Sergei Loznitsa, the sharp, scholarly and impossibly prolific Ukrainian filmmaker whose gift for spinning art from raw archival material has been repeatedly proven — most recently in this year’s Cannes selection “Babi Yar. Context.” Less expected, perhaps, is that a four-hour record of dense political negotiations and standoffs, braided with one extended talking-head interview, should go by as quickly as it does.
By no means easily achieved, the film’s balance of monumental historical heft and strong narrative drive secured it the top prize at this year’s edition of IDFA — the first stop in what is sure to be a long festival tour. Beyond that circuit, the project’s prospects are less sure, given a daunting run time that is likely to deter theatrical distributors, though specialist streaming platforms may be more accommodating. Either way, “Mr. Landsbergis” stands as a major achievement in a career not given to slightness of subject or form.
Though not a biographical documentary per se, “Mr. Landsbergis” is unusual within Loznitsa’s oeuvre for tethering its sprawling examination to a central figure: Vytautas Landsbergis, a founding member of Lithuania’s pro-independence Sąjūdis party, and the country’s first head of Parliament after its separation from the Soviet Union. (His son and namesake, Vytautas, is a co-writer on the doc.) A significant presence in the archival footage presented here, he also serves as the film’s guiding voice via an extended present-day interview with an unseen Loznitsa, crisply shot on a balmy day in a verdant garden — a pointed contrast throughout to the chaos and conflict seen unfolding in an embattled Lithuania three decades earlier.
A wry, unassuming personality who began his career as a music professor before pivoting to politics in his mid-50s, Landsbergis admits that he would rather have remained “an ordinary person” if Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika movement of the 1980s hadn’t spurred a band of Lithuanian intellectuals to probe the potential it presented for liberation. Driven by a desire for what Landsbergis describes as “a more truthful life,” Sąjūdis was established in 1988. That’s where the film’s overview also begins, with striking footage of assorted public protests against Lithuania’s Soviet occupation and rallies for victims of Soviet terror.
We segue from these demonstrations of mass sentiment to the less rousing nuts and bolts of political process, as Loznitsa secures filmed observations of early Sąjūdis conferences in Vilnius, moving on to various Moscow-based sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union, where Gorbachev and his supporters are brusquely dismissive of Sąjūdis’ ambitions. Dominated by progressively more heated formal debate and discourse, the film’s first hour is its most challenging, laying the groundwork for what soon escalates into an altogether less civil, more urgent fight for freedom.
The pace and pulse quicken with Lithuania’s declaration of independence in March 1990, a brash move to which Moscow initially responds with haughty denial, ruling the declaration to have “no legal authority.” That swiftly shifts into more aggressive opposition, with the Soviet army taking over Lithuania’s government institutions and the attempted enforcement of an economic blockade.
Pulling from a wealth of sources, Loznitsa and his regular ace editor Danielius Kokanauskis’ evocation of this ugly period in history is astonishingly vivid, climaxing with devastating footage from Vilnius’ “Bloody Sunday” of January 1991. Soviet troops encircled the city’s TV tower, firing ammunition and driving tanks directly into civilian crowds, killing 14 people. It’s hard to imagine any reconstruction matching the blood-freezing shock of the panicked, end-of-days footage shown from this tragedy, countered by the moving, barely contained calm of Landsbergis’ direct-to-camera plea to Gorbachev to “look at your hands and look into your heart.”
If Loznitsa isn’t inclined toward dull heroes-and-villains framing, “Mr. Landsbergis” is nonetheless notable as a cinematic rebuttal to the popularly held view of Gorbachev as an imperfect but noble statesman. It certainly makes for contrasting viewing to a recent pair of Gorbachev-oriented docs, Werner Herzog’s strangely fawning “Meeting Gorbachev” and Vitaly Mansky’s “Gorbachev.Heaven,” which was more circumspect than Herzog’s film but far less damning than Loznitsa’s.
The Gorbachev we see here is at times stunningly callous and bloody-minded in his resolve to keep the USSR together, not least in footage of him condescendingly meeting with aggrieved Lithuanian citizens. “I’ve read all your slogans — you can relax,” he says to them airily. Earlier, he tells a Lithuanian protester addressing him as “Mr. Gorbachev” that he has “never been and never will be a ‘mister'” — a statement against individualism that “Mr. Landsbergis” drily and tacitly counters with its title. That Loznitsa finds room for such incidental, character-revealing details on a vast, rubble-strewn canvas is his great gift as a doc maker. Even at four hours, his latest never feels like an information dump, but history reassembled with a critical, discerning, scorchingly angry gaze.