For my history themed week, I’m focusing on a couple more films which are somewhat tangential to history, both made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The Trial takes footage from the 1930s and uses it to make a point about the way that events are manipulated by the (state-controlled) media, whereas Victory Day is about the way that history informs the present, specifically World War II, taking a celebration of Soviet victory over Germany, but as it unfolds at a monument in Berlin itself. These are slow, self-effacing documentaries that nonetheless reveal something fairly interesting about the ways we relate to history, and the way it can be used.
День Победы Den’ Pobedy (Victory Day, 2018) [Germany/Lithuania]
Watching this makes me wonder how much sense is made by many of those collective celebrations that each of us, in our separate countries and cultures, celebrate on a regular basis. People throng about, waving flags, doing celebratory dances, singing nationalist or patriotic songs, and it really, at a very deep level, makes so little specific sense, while also being broadly understandable. This documentary is an observational exercise, largely just watching people at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin — a detail I really didn’t pick up on for much of the film, assuming this was very much a Russian event. There are all the flags, including burly lads dressed in the Kazakh flag, and the folk dancers and the songs, and I had just assumed this was indeed somewhere deep within Russia. I drifted off a little early on, but the songs and the camaraderie kept me going — the people-watching, in short. There’s a lot of people-watching, and depending on how you feel, it may either be sustaining or deeply soporific.
Director/Writer Sergei Loznitsa [or Sergey Loznitsa] Сергій Лозниця; Cinematographers Loznitsa, Jesse Mazuch and Diego García; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 12 September 2019.
Процесс Protsess (The Trial, 2018) [Russia/Netherlands]
It almost goes without saying that this is fairly dry stuff — two hours of archival footage from a 1930 Soviet show trial — but yet it also exerts the compelling pull of history. It helps that the footage is so well preserved, though clearly some digital trickery has been applied to smooth it out and clean up the sound (surely an example of very early sound technology in the USSR). Primarily, though, we get to reflect on the spectacle that is the news, news as propaganda (for isn’t it always), as a means to prove to the people that actions are being taken against the lamentable intellectual traitors to the proletarian classes. And so we get these men, members of a shadowy “Industrial Party”, step up to the camera (its lights so blinding that members of the viewing public shield their eyes when it turns towards them) and the enormous microphone, to read out what are presumably carefully rehearsed speeches of guilt. The details, in all cases, have been previously laid out in closed sessions — so the accused men recount — but each wants to just sum up briefly what makes them so guilty, though they are pretty short on narrative detail meaning it’s never quite clear what exactly they’ve done, aside from a sense that the people with placards protesting into the evening, demanding blood for this betrayal, have a right to their anger. Still, these scientist men sell it well, so after the summing up and the verdict, the film’s final series of title cards come as a hollow laugh. Don’t believe anything the politicians tell you, and always question what the news is trying to sell you. It comes slowly here, but it has a hypnotic quality.
Director/Writer Sergei Loznitsa [or Sergey Loznitsa] Сергій Лозниця; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 September 2019.