Venice: State Funeral by Loznitsa
Sergei Loznitsa's latest feature documentary State Funeral explores the cult of personality that surrounded Joseph Stalin by concentrating on the death of the great dictator in 1953, writes Geoffrey Macnab.
The Ukrainian filmmaker has drawn on footage, much of it never seen before, of Stalin's funeral in 1953. He shows extraordinary scenes of mass grief in the Soviet Union prompted by the leader's passing - scenes which seem all the more incongruous given the devastation Stalin wrought on his own people.
This is material with a very personal resonance for Loznitsa. "My family suffered during Stalin's rule. My mother's family, a large Cossack family from the south of Russia, was almost entirely wiped out," he recalls of how Stalin blighted his own life.
He tells an extraordinary story about his mother and her father. As he discovered, the father (his grandfather) had been arrested and killed when his grandmother was pregnant. "His best friend [then] proposed to my grandmother and offered her support and protection. My mother grew up, thinking that he was her real father, and I have the fondest memories of this wonderful man, whom I also considered to be my real granddad," Loznitsa recalls.
The true story was only revealed by the grandmother days before her death. "The fear was so strong that until her dying day my grandmother was afraid to mention the name of her first, dearly beloved husband, and the father of her eldest daughter." What makes the story all the more chilling is Loznitsa's observation that this was just "a rather typical saga of an ordinary Soviet family." It wasn't much different from what so many others had in Russia also experienced under Stalin.
The footage used in State Funeral comes from the Russian State Film and Photo Archive in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow. Loznitsa had already successfully cooperated with the archive while making last year's The Trial, which likewise screened in Venice. His initial idea was to present the history of Soviet state funerals - from Lenin to Stalin, including the footage of the funerals of the Bolshevik elite - Kirov, Dzerzhinsky etc, some of whom were murdered by Stalin, as he saw them as potential threat to his rule.
However, when Loznitsa was discussing this idea during IDFA 2018 with the deputy head of the Krasnogorsk Archive (which was attending IDFA to present the reconstruction of Dziga Vertov's first film The Anniversary of the Revolution) she told him that they had 300 reels of footage of Stalin's funeral. Loznitsa's ear pricked up. He was fascinated and asked his assistant in Moscow to focus only on these reels. "We ended up with fantastic, very well preserved (because nobody ever used it) material, mostly in colour, which is very rare for the Soviet documentary of the 50s."
State Funeral is a companion piece to The Trial. The director describes the films as the first two parts of what may eventually turn into a trilogy. His aim, he says, is "to conduct a fundamental study of the Soviet regime - and these two films touch upon the foundations of Stalinism."
To Loznitsa's dismay, the cult of Stalin lives on. As he points out, "the contemporary Russian regime sees Stalinism as its ideal model, so it's hardly surprising that the authorities encourage this revival. They've started putting up monuments to Stalin and they praise him as an "efficient manager" and the winner of the Second World War. Nobody seems to mention that before he won it, he actually started it - together with Hitler."
Statistically, Loznitsa continues, "Stalin killed more people than Hitler. And he certainly killed many more Russians than Hitler did."
SEE NL Magazine #36 September 2019 / Locarno - Venice - Toronto - Netherlands Film Festival Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.