2017 Film Essays

Hidden Gems of Soviet Cinema: On Sergei Loznitsa’s IDFA Top 10

(Image Credit: IDFA)

Some films don’t travel well. The high production values of Hollywood films have ensured since time immemorial that this has not been a problem for American films, while Western European Cinema has benefited from some combination of disproportionate wealth and a more closely shared history. America’s own roots, after all, lie in Great Britain. Africa, Asia, Latin America and even Eastern Europe are often too far, culturally and historically, for Americans to have the tools necessary for full appreciation. This has slowly changed over the past half-century, and there have always been exceptions (America’s occupation of Japan led to the “discovery” of Akira Kurosawa; Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky made films in a recognizable enough tradition to garner acclaim in the West), but a dive into the Czech New Wave or the Yugoslavian Black Wave sans context is ill-advised.

Other times, films do not travel at all. A repressive political state could put a film on the shelves for decades, and by then its cultural milieu is so dissimilar to Americans that a paradoxical tendency seems to operate: it is too distant to fully understand and appreciate, but it is simultaneously treated primarily as an historical artifact.

Consider the favorite films of Sergei Loznitsa, the director of the acclaimed Maidan and A Gentle Creature, which played Cannes earlier this year. Asked by the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) to program a “top 10,” Loznitsa picked, alongside a few recognizable titles, Fridrikh Elmer’s Facing The Judgment of History, Vladimir Denusenko’s Conscience and Yakov Poselsky’s ’13 Days. Industrial Party Process, among others — all of which are almost certainly unknown to anybody reading this who did not discover them through IDFA or, more recently, through The Metrograph, which brought the program to New York.

’13 Days. Industrial Party Process’ (1930)

On one level, Loznitsa’s titles give insight into the director’s own work. Also represented is the Italian documentarian Vittorio De Seta, who made several shorts depicting the life of poor Sicilians. The lack of dialogue in De Seta’s films, as well as the attention to the peculiarities of human behavior — the way one climbs a tree, or the procession of a caravan — echo in Loznitsa’s documentaries. Loznitsa also opted to screen Peter Watkins’ The War Game, a docufiction about nuclear war, on the same docket as the aforementioned 13 Days, a filming of a show trial that was used as propaganda under Josef Stalin. While Watkins’ film creates and documents a theater imagining the worst, Poselsky captures a moment at which theater and reality merge, with men confessing, apparently in full earnestness, to crimes they did not commit. Taken together, they exemplify the flexible boundaries of documentary that have allowed Loznitsa his cinematic freedom.

But the historical value of these films is matched by, even inseparable from, their aesthetic interest. Dziga Vertov’s Lullaby, a respite from the complex montage editing of his silent films, features a tug-of-war between the two. It was to be Vertov’s final film, and Stalin banned its exhibition despite the director’s staunchly pro-communist views. The film depicts a shared experience of motherhood across numerous satellite Soviet Republics, each of which has its own lullaby in the film (ostensibly representing local culture, but in reality, written for the film — a mirror, intentional or otherwise, for Russia’s relationship to its neighbors). Uniting these spaces is several sequences depicting Stalin, the most notable of which features several women caressing him. Was Stalin, a man with a keen interest in the arts in general and cinema in particular, afraid that this shot too powerfully distilled the essence of his regime, revealing a cult of personality as a substitute for unity? Was it so strident in its pro-communist view that its very existence signaled a burgeoning discontent among the Soviet people? There is no consensus, but since it forces us to grapple with the film in a way that we would not otherwise, perhaps that is for the better.

‘Lullaby’ (1937)

Equally notable in this regard is Elmer’s 1965 documentary Facing the Judgment of History, in which the filmmakers attempt to make Vasily Shulgin, a recently freed leader of the White Movement, repent for his past. The film was an enormous hit with audiences, but not for the “right” reasons: aristocrats had been entirely eradicated from the Soviet Union by the time of the film’s release, and citizens were interested in simply seeing how one talks and behaves — a fascination that led to the film being banned. But weaved into the conversation between Shulgin and an unnamed historian is archival footage, sometimes complementing, other times diverging, the verbal arguments. As Shulgin sticks to his guns and disarms his debate opponent early on, the behind-the-scenes tension is almost palpable, manifesting on-screen in a prolonged debate scene absent of archival footage that culminates with Shulgin attempting to differentiate the fascism of Hitler from the fascism of Mussolini. The U.S.S.R. held defeating the Nazis as sacred as the U.S. holds the “American Dream,” so this is a checkmate, and Elmer lingers on the aftermath extensively, not just taking pride in the outcome but reveling in having reclaimed his film. Rarely does a documentary foreground its own making and mission with such complexity, and even more rarely does that message get overshadowed by the details of performance. Like Lullaby, the very need for the film to exist signaled deep discontent on the precipice of economic stagnation and increased military presence under Leonid Brezhnev.

Conscience (1968) is another beast altogether. It depicts Soviet Resistance not as uniform and heroic, but punctured and hopeless. Production was permitted only because, as a student film, it was never expected to screen; indeed, it wouldn’t until Perestroika. The story is simple — in an occupied Ukrainian village, the Germans threaten to kill every inhabitant if they don’t reveal who among them is responsible for the death of a Nazi soldier — but the film is startling in its mix of realism and expressionism. In one static shot, people are pushed to their knees for execution and pushed into a ditch, one after another; in others, the music Krzysztof Penderecki intrudes as helpless observers, alternately washed out against an overexposed landscape and frozen in close-up, contemplate their fate. In these moments, it recalls Jan Nemac’s Diamonds of the Night, made four years prior, but where that film depicts an aimless journey, Conscience is an inevitable — and unforgettable — creep to a dead-end.

‘Conscience’ (1968)

Now free to travel, these films now face the trouble of traveling well. Perhaps because of limited access or historical knowledge themselves, critics often reduce a national cinema to no more than a couple directors — the Montage Theorists in 20s and 30s Russia, Bergman in the 60s for Sweden, and more recently with Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi in Iran or Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu in Romania. That some nations simply cannot devote much money toward publicizing their arts overseas certainly does not help. But the breadth both in time of production and style of the aforementioned films is a reminder that a trip to the arthouse theater, film festival or museum for something unknown is often worth it, if only we are given the opportunity in the first place. That question has its own geographical, and therefore financial, components. But that’s for another time.

Forrest Cardamenis (@FCardamenis) is a programmer and film critic based in New York. In addition to Vague Visages, his writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine and Indiewire, among others.