THE TRIAL: Secrets and Lies
When a colleague from Moscow told film director Sergei Loznitsa a few years ago that there existed abundant footage of the Stalin trials from the 1930s, and that it was available to the general public, he could hardly believe it.
“I have a lot of experience of working with the Russian archival footage (I made Blockade, Revue and The Event), and I know how difficult it is to approach the archives and to access the material,” Loznitsa remarks. “For example, when we were working on Blockade , we wrote numerous letters including the KGB archive, requesting permission to view the footage related to the siege of Leningrad. We never received any replies.”
Loznitsa was therefore delighted to discover that the Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk had hours of unedited materials, documenting a number of trials which were organised by Stalin from the late 20s to the late 30s.
“One of the most difficult tasks for me was to choose one particular topic from this vast ocean of precious material. In the beginning, the idea was to use footage from different trials, and also to incorporate the footage from the official state funerals of the Soviet leadership, Stalin’s closes associates – Vladimir Lenin, Sergei Kirov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, some of whom were assassinated on Stalin’s orders,” the director says. “I wanted to create a monumental picture of the first years of the Stalinist regime... In the end, I decided to focus on one trial only.”
The Trial, supported by the Film Fund, aims to give spectators the sense that they are actually in Soviet Russia, experiencing the Stalin terror just as it is unleashed for the first time in earnest.
Ask Loznitsa why he wanted to make a film with this material and he turns the question on his head. Why on earth, he asks, hasn’t anybody done it before? It’s almost incomprehensible that throughout the 90s, when Russia experienced a relatively “liberal” moment, and there was almost no censorship, and there were hundreds of books written of the history of Stalinism and Stalin’s purges, there were hardly any films made about this period,” he says.
In the way the Stalin trials distort natural justice, they make anything written by Franz Kafka seem halfhearted. “We are witnessing a bizarre situation in which everybody – the judges, the prosecutors, the witnesses and the accused – are telling lies. It’s a paradoxical situation – we are faced with documentary footage, in which nothing which is being said is true. We see how the regime manipulated its subjects and how fear penetrated into the brains and souls of every Soviet citizen.”
I ask him if he has contacted any of the families of the victims of the trials. It’s a redundant question – or maybe one too easy to answer. The relatives of the victims are everywhere. “According to estimates (precise statistics do not exist), approximately 60 million Soviet citizens were victims of Stalin’s regime – some were executed, some died in labour camps, some spent dozens of years in prisons and labour camps. From this point of view, every Russian family has an ancestor or ancestors, who perished under Stalin.” Russian audiences will have the chance to see The Trial when it premieres at the Artdocfest Festival in Moscow in December 2018.
It goes without saying that Loznitsa sees parallels between the Soviet Union in the period of The Trial and the Russia of today, where political trials are still held. “As you can see in the case of Oleg Sentsov, no efforts from the international community, no appeals for mercy, seem to be successful,” Loznitsa notes of his fellow film director who is still in captivity. “The world is watching in despair at how the regime is trying to kill yet another innocent victim.” Geoffrey Macnab
SEE NL Magazine #32 September 2018 / Venice, TIFF & NFF Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.