Life and Death in the USSR: Sergei Loznitsa’s “State Funeral”
In recent years, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has built up a strong practice of delving into Russian state archives to critically assess the former-Soviet Union’s historical events, crafting vérité-like engagements with found footage. Relinquishing film reels from their original propagandistic, newsreel purposes, Loznitsa embraces the fleeting moments once left on the cutting room floor, presenting them as documents of truth. It’s through these glimpses that the audience sees the manufactured image of the USSR begin to crack, especially as Loznitsa’s practice eschews modern-day talking heads, letting events speak for themselves. His archival-driven projects — including The Event (2015) and The Trial (2018) — are just one facet of his filmography, but equally address the concerns around the ephemeral and psychological remnants of the former-Soviet Union that punctuate his modern-day observational documentaries (2016’s Austerlitz and 2018’s Victory Day) and fiction work (2017’s A Gentle Creature and 2018’s Donbass). In his latest piece, State Funeral, Loznitsa assembles a wealth of unseen rushes from Joseph Stalin’s three-day long funeral procession in 1953, which — unlike Loznitsa’s prior archival delving — includes a large amount of color film stock.
Loznitsa’s assemblages often embrace the citizens whose gaze inadvertently or intentionally drifted towards the camera, or imperfect camera movements that the original filmmakers would have thrown away. Their employment places faith in our individual subjectivities, something so frequently lacking in generic documentary films in which archival material is used more fleetingly, such as to simply establish a location or time. The Trial’s unfolding of one of the famous Stalin show trials was imbued with a constant need to search for glimmers of truth amidst the constructed fiction, and that power can largely be attributed to Loznitsa foregoing modern-day talking heads and forced emotional queues in his work. In the complex and pre-existing schema of conspiracy theories and suppressed historical records, the men on trial become vessels for potential tell-tale signs relating to theories of drugging, hypnotism, and emotional abuse that still remain unanswered by official records. The proximity of the trial to Stalin’s political machinations fills that film with a sense of dread, and that fear spreads into far more corporeal grounds in State Funeral.
As his pale-white corpse is revealed in the opening sequence of the film, his coffin resting in the center of a tableau-like framing, surrounded by a plethora of bouquets whose reds and greens are thrust into overdrive by the Soviet color film stock and contrasted vividly against his skin, it can only feel like Stalin’s oppressive ghost is lingering over the viewer. Stalin’s own voice is hardly present in the film, but his maintained cult of personality spreads throughout it like a stubborn cancer, with Loznitsa employing a relentless torrent of propagandistic radio broadcasts to create a claustrophobic air.
Stalin’s haunting injects the celluloid with an uncanny dichotomy. On the one hand, the archival pieces present a view of the Soviet-constructed spectacle around him, but on the other hand, they also present something we might not find in state-commissioned coverage of national events elsewhere. In the UK, for example, recordings of royal and state happenings tend to focus solely on the figures of importance and the flocking of celebrity attendees. The everyday person is never really present in any individually-defined or memorable manner, lost within vast outdoor crowd shots. However, the Soviet project consistently focused on the doctrine of populism and in doing so inadvertently captured a comprehensive archival index of people that might not have been recorded otherwise. Many of the shots in State Funeral are of civilians, often in tight shots with two or three people in the frame, played out in Loznitsa’s application as an invitation for the viewer to consider each person’s story and identity. Their presence raises the question, “Are those individuals genuinely mourning under a shared belief in the USSR’s unification, or are their tears gleaned from them for show by the camera operators?”
It’s easy to forget, when we discuss the Soviet Union, that it’s more than just a few figureheads such as Lenin and Stalin. The size of the state, the amount of people it collected, as well as the various remnants that it has left across Europe is not to be understated. That’s why State Funeral’s index of everyday people is so important, because we can now witness a collected document of faces, one which includes indigenous and Romani people so regularly left out of the images that the state used to represent itself with due to the presumption that they wouldn’t conform to the sociological structure of Soviet society. Even in the confines of the Hall of Columns — where Stalin’s body was on display for three days — amidst official and military attendees, elements of truth jet out from individual members of the passing crowds. As army men march past in procession, some turn to look at Stalin, some seem hesitant to look at the corpse, and others seem well aware of the camera’s presence as they walk by. Arguably, the men who didn’t turn to face Stalin’s coffin, or those who broke the fourth wall by staring into the camera, wouldn’t have made it into any films cut for Soviet purposes, but Loznitsa uses them as necessary gaps that rupture the original discourse and bring us closer with the ephemeral nature of film as a record of the past — the human experience that ultimately sifts through ideological gaps. The power of these more intimate tableaus is only accentuated further by the expansive wide shots of crowds, often full of so many people that the medium and close-up shots almost feel like macro-photography.
The Frankensteinian assemblages that Loznitsa crafts are full of relinquished instances like these, where second-hand found footage is rescued from its original intent or from the cutting room floor. In The Event — concerning the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt — there’s a real-time shot that wanders through the crowd congregating on a street, with multiple people catching a glimpse of the roaming camera and shuffling out of its path. These newly resurrected moments bring the classification of “documentary” into question, given that their original newsreel purpose proposed a manufactured truth to viewers decades ago. Retrospectively utilizing those fragments in a far different project — one which has seen the course of history play out — allows a far more truthful character to come to light. The regained authenticity isn’t without discomfort, however. A sense of claustrophobia characterizes many of State Funeral’s scenes, especially in the cramped space of the Hall of Columns, where you’re often placed at crowd level, with people constantly walking by or shuffling around each other. Meanwhile, the staggering amount of USSR radio transmissions and speeches that play throughout the film force the viewer to engage with the contradictions of celebrating a man who was several years later denounced by the Soviet project, his body removed from the resting place we see it travel to at the end of the film.
As one of the most compelling directors using archival collections, Loznitsa’s history-exhuming projects exemplify the powerful work that can be done with celluloid imprints, grappling with past events through new frameworks in both a formal and sociological manner. The invitation is there for the viewer’s mind to wander, but the historical context also arrives as an uncomfortable spectre, and that’s exactly why State Funeral is such a memorable piece of found-footage filmmaking, and perhaps exemplary of where similar, history-focused efforts should head in the future.
Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.