Soviet-era propaganda was so thorough and effective that it created a small black hole in history, as the personal and psychological wreckage of Joseph Stalin’s regime (1927-1953) is still being sorted through by historians. Filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has made his modern career mostly on making found-footage documentaries that explore this period, with each film its own minor revelation as an act of archival record-setting. Setting aside any of their quality as works of film, they’re major historical works simply for existing as coherent modern visual documents of the things people usually read about in textbooks.
MUBI is currently hosting a short series of Loznitsa’s documentaries, the centerpiece being his most recent and historically explosive State Funeral (2019). In the film, citizens of various Russian towns are informed of Stalin’s death in 1953, and they later participate in an incredibly long procession to visit his body and pay their final respects during his three-day funeral event. And this is basically all that happens.
There’s a sort of irony to State Funeral’s existence, given the event was so widely attended because footage of it was too hard to circulate in Russia. During a time when television still was not a standard medium worldwide, the only means people had of verifying and processing Stalin’s death was to travel to Moscow and see it for themselves. Sorting through the visual detritus of modern streaming services, you can now participate in the funeral of one of history’s most famous villains from the comfort of your living room, as many people in Soviet Russia surely would have preferred.
But there is one major caveat that accompanies Loznitsa’s films— the footage he uses was originally taken by Soviet-approved cinematographers. To simply acknowledge these clips, all Russian citizens truly did grieve the death of Stalin, which is obviously only true insofar as these feelings were enforced by the state and documented in a tightly controlled way. In some capacity, State Funeral fuels this laser-focused worship of the regime, omitting the fact that many people actually died as a result of stampedes at the funeral.
Just as François Truffaut famously said there could be no truly anti-war film, perhaps the same could be said about propaganda. In order to present and understand what makes propaganda work, a film has to buy into the material’s seductions and risk perpetuating the same message. While Loznitsa can’t be accused of actually being sympathetic to Stalin, his hands-off approach creates a dubious final product.
A better use of this sort of found-footage neutrality is his prior documentary, The Trial (2018), which fares better as a human study by giving credence to actual victims of Stalinism. Taking place in Stalin’s earlier days of power in 1930, the film documents one of the Soviets’ infamous “show trials” where purported enemies of the state were purely put on trial for entirely trumped-up charges to demonstrate the state’s power.
Accused men gradually break down as even their attempts to agree with their own manufactured guilt prove not to be enough. Groveling, they create more and more extensive stories about themselves as subversive radicals, as they hope to save some face by actively prosecuting themselves and begging for forgiveness. The ultimate “success” of their patriotism is seen as convincing the jury of their predetermined guilt and being sentenced to the gulag.
The two films work in counterpoint. On one end, they characterize the gorgeous pomp and circumstance that fueled the most effective Soviet brainwashing; and, on the other, they depict the crushing psychological toll that public fealty to a malevolent dictator exacts on the average citizen. The Stalin regime created such a publicly deadly spectacle that there’s little to no sense to be made of the actual tragedy of rule, hence why Loznitsa’s films are content to just reproduce the period for study.
While State Funeral and The Trial are undeniably impressive acts of historical preservation, this quality is perhaps better suited for museums where viewers could engage with the pieces for five minutes at a time with contextualizing materials. As is, the films share a deadening quality, much like Stalin’s rule. Whether spending two hours marinating in that is worthwhile is up to the viewer to decide.
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