Over the course of more than two decades Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has quietly established himself amongst the great political filmmakers of the 21st century. More recently his work has provided an increasingly vital perspective on the Soviet Union and its eventual demise, as well as contemporary Russia and its annexation of Crimea–a situation the director does not hesitate to call a war.
Across a rapidly expanding oeuvre (18 features and counting), Loznitsa has shown an adeptness in both fiction and documentary filmmaking but he is perhaps best known for operating in the grey area between–often re-editing and adding new audio to found material. With his latest, State Funeral, the director was given free reign on a vast archive of largely unseen footage that had originally been shot to make Sergei Gerasimov’s The Great Farewell, a propaganda documentary on the funeral of Joseph Stalin that never saw the light of day.
Loznitsa came to the Marrakech film festival in early December to present the film, ahead of a release by MUBI this May, and it’s there we found him in what we are told is a characteristically jovial mood.
The Film Stage: I’m obliged to ask, have you seen The Death of Stalin?
Sergei Loznitsa: Yes yes yes, I have seen.
How do you feel about it? I must say I found it helpful while watching State Funeral, even just to know the characters involved.
It is a very good genre film. Of course it’s a very funny film, but it describes the idea of soviet power; not the situation. Also, this is the easiest way to show this idea for a big audience, and even a Western audience. From that point of view it’s a very good film but it’s not fitted at all to this atmosphere; it’s a little bit simplified. If you look at the behavior–even in this funeral procession–you can understand how hard life is. It’s not so funny. And I don’t have the [desire] to stay around all these people because I don’t like to even touch them. [Laughs.] It’s an infernal world and you just see it. All of them are gangsters, it’s written on their faces.
You once said that most, if not all, Soviet propaganda films are fictional.
[Laughs] Quite a lot.
How do you go about finding the truth in them?
Footage is footage. Film is film. And the most important is not what you shoot; it’s what you make from this footage. In 2008, for example, I made one film named Revue and I used footage from a propaganda magazine. You can imagine [laughs] this is super propaganda footage. And I cleaned the sound and afterward edited and made it into an anti-propaganda film. It is my decision how I edit and during the editing I create the meaning. And I can show how propaganda works and I can make, you know, a reasonable film.
To what extent do you think the original footage that was shot for The Great Farewell was “directed,” so to speak?
It was of course directed, but in any directed footage you can find elements of grotesque. This is what I did with Stalin’s funeral because it’s ridiculous when people in the forest are standing with sticks and this cutting machine and paying tribute to Stalin. [Laughs] It is ridiculous, but I put it in the right context and it turns this pathos another way. So this is the same as with language, because some words are created to fix some meanings for propaganda but you can destroy these words with poetry.
Well, there are many examples. Russian anti-Soviet poetry, like these modern writers and poets who have to work with this kind of bureaucratic language. All these super good Russian writers use this bureaucratic language as a plateau; they use it and they transform it and change the meaning of these words. More or less it’s the same what I try to do with images.
You’ve spoken a lot about the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov. What influence did he have on the film?
You have to see The Lullaby, because the key for my film is Dziga Vertov’s Lullaby. I have some rhyme with this–this kind of reflection. I don’t know if Dziga Vertov will agree with me or not. [Laughs.] It’s difficult to ask him, maybe spiritual séance? But when I made this film I started from Lullaby, from his film. And somehow I reflect that. It’s another style, another way, but with similar dramaturgy.
How did Vertov survive the time?
When we look to that time we always have a black-and-white picture; it was more sophisticated, more nuanced. First of all, he was a communist and he shared that, and he made some very important films. Because he was so famous, probably, they didn’t touch him. And after Stalin burned his film he was very angry and he tried to write some request about why it happened but after that he made only newsreels. He made maybe a few other films, but later. I don’t remember properly but most of the time he was just busy with the news, they didn’t give the possibility to make films. I met in my life one director and when we started to talk about Russian cinema he told me a story about how he met Vertov at one festival in the ‘30s.
Who was it?
Manuel Oliviera. He remembered Dziga Vertov. It means Dziga Vertov was at the festival, where he presented a film. And festivals, there were not so many.
Had to be Venice?
Probably yes. Because they represent films from this kind of so-called now fascist countries. In that time it wasn’t like that, there was another definition; but totalitarian regimes like Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, they were somehow similar.
Was there anything from the footage of State Funeral that you actively left out?
Quite a lot, because it was many famous people that came. Like a delegation from France; from Italy; from Great Britain, from the United States; also all these famous Soviet artists, writers, scientists. What I didn’t include, and it’s very interesting, they shot also in Berlin, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest; in Beijing–Peking, in North Korea, in Cambodia, in Paris, in all capitals. This footage I did not include because it somehow destroyed the Soviet world. They are not like Soviet people where you can see in their eyes quite a lot of fear. And you can understand for some of them it’s the apocalypse, and they don’t know what happens next. This is a feeling which I get immediately when I watch this footage. I could probably make this film like five hours, but who would stay? Two hours, it can be a little bit less probably, but I enjoy this footage. Time, this is what you need to be deeply inside, to feel it.
You mentioned this apocalyptic feeling. You also once said that people cheer when the death penalty is given in your previous film The Trial because it’s a “sacrifice.” The language is all very religious, no?
I can say one secret: all states are based on religious rituals. We just believe that freedom is a symbol; we believe that property is untouchable; we believe that money will work everywhere; we believe that we have a president and the president represents us. We believe that we make this kind of election and the president will do what we all want. This is a matter of believing and this is why it’s necessary for all the leaders, all parties, to have this propaganda machine because they need more believers. And after that they transform this trust of the people to trust for the companies; transform this to money that they will distribute how they want. They give you so much as they need to keep power.
What about the cult of personality?
But the cult of personality is from one side; it was one of the ways society can exist. I didn’t say it is good or bad; let’s look at why it happened. Why people choose this form for society.
Are people still choosing it now?
People are ready to trust this kind of promise and are ready to share responsibility for this kind of action; like I described in my film The Trial. They are ready to eat this kind of stuff and to live in this kind of society because when it’s normal–let’s say normal exists–that somebody in the crowd is happy that somebody will die in next week, what will you say about this society? This is very important to understand, that these people in Soviet Union–maybe not all of them but quite enough–were ready to hear that. Stalin and all these Bolsheviks are very smart, they just organized common meetings in each factory and they make a resolution and everybody looks to each other and [raises hand]. It is somehow sharing responsibility with all these people. And if we come back to our time, just look to the Russian election. The Russian president invites all these representatives from society–artists, scientists, important people–and he expects from them this hand, this support. This kind of: it’s not my fault it’s you also. You also did it and you share with me. It’s more complicated than Macbeth’s situation because they all are Macbeth.
Speaking recently about the situation in Brazil with Bolsonaro, the filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho said that it’s like a Monty Python sketch but devoid of humor and just the absurdity. Do you find an absurd comedy in all this?
In different countries–like in Brazil or the U.S. for example, and in Russia also–the political stage is more theater. It was always theater and performance but now this performance is a lot of entertainment and less information. We also understand we’re different from the age where only Caesar understands what happened and all the peasants had to dig in the ground. We now also understand what happened and our request is: please share what you are talking about and what you’re preparing for us. This distance between bureaucracy and people will grow bigger and bigger and the conflict will be between a class, which manage everything in the country, and the population which are out of that [class].
And where does that lead?
This is kind of like management inside the banks. They use some element of technology where they remove personality from some decisions, like whenever possible just remove people from the place where they have to make decisions because they can influence with emotion and the bank loses money. These places for bureaucracy will be less and less. [It] will be like the uprising in France and these kinds of workers will fight against computers and all these programs and I think the future will be very interesting. And all these important people will lose importance. It will be another revolution, but with the robot–[laughs] I hope–not people.
State Funeral screened at the Marrakech International Film Festival and will open at NYC’s Film at Lincoln Center on May 1 and arrive on MUBI on May 24.