Can the Archive Speak?: Sergei Loznitsa and the Sound of History

Two new astonishing archival docs from the Ukrainian director offer timely and form-bending history lessons.
Leonardo Goi

Babi Yar. Context

The most harrowing detail in Sergei Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. Context is not an image but a sound. Culled entirely from archive footage shot by Nazi and Soviet filmmakers, the film chronicles of one of the darkest chapters in World War II and Jewish history, the massacre of nearly 34,000 Jews in German-occupied Kiev in September 1941. But it opens with a tragedy from three months before, the pogrom that decimated the Jewish community in Lvov—now Lviv—a city in western Ukraine. It’s June 30, 1941; no sooner have the Nazis arrived in town than the local Jews are accused of working for Stalin’s secret police, and forced to exhume the bodies of fellow Ukrainians whom Soviet forces murdered and buried in the city’s prison. The corpses, mostly males, are brought out in the courtyard, and a small army of women (their mothers? Wives? Sisters?) rushes to identify their loved ones. They carry brooms, some made of bundles of twigs and leafy branches. And that’s when we hear it: the rustling the leaves make on those lifeless bodies as they’re wiped of blood and mud, a frantic, desperate cleaning that caroms off the prison walls. That sound, as with nearly all others in Babi Yar, was re-created through Foley wizardry. The footage is real, the sonic backdrop isn’t, but the alchemy between what you see and hear turns that sequence into something unbearably visceral. 

Speaking about his archival docs at the Central European University a few years ago, Loznitsa stated their overarching goal is “to portray the past as if it were the present,” to make history so vivid people “can touch it with their skin.” Anyone familiar with Loznitsa’s documentary work will recognize the feeling. His archive-based films aren’t caches so much as organic tissue. To be watching them is to witness something closer to a resurrection than an exhumation, where the past is interrogated and reassembled in provocative, often disturbing ways. But for all the tactility Loznitsa can imbue in his rescued images, it’s the sounds they emanate that turn them into living, breathing things. 

Loznitsa’s scrupulous Foley work can be traced back to his first archival doc, Blockade (2006), a chronicle of the Leningrad siege stitched together from footage of the 872 days the Germans took the city hostage from September 1941 to January 1943. Here too, the soundscape is thoroughly re-created, courtesy of Vladimir Golovnitskiy, the sound designer Loznitsa would team up with for most of his films. The siege’s journal is paved with unflinchingly brutal shots: bodies lying frozen in the city streets in winter, charred corpses extracted from burning buildings, others dumped in mass graves. But one wonders how those fragments would have registered without the noises that ricochet all through the film, not (just) the deafening bangs of houses collapsing and bombs exploding, but everyday sounds one is almost surprised to hear billowing from those black-and-white clips. The trudging of people on snow-covered streets. The sputtering of trams and cars. The sledges crossing a frozen Neva River. 

Blockade anticipates an interest Loznitsa would expand in his later Soviet-era docs, from Revue (2008) all the way to Babi Yar: a commitment to do away with conventional, top-down dramatizations of history, and to reconstruct it from the perspective of ordinary people and crowds. His docs have a horizontal focus: they center on individuals as they struggle to find the most appropriate response to the momentous events they witness. Take State Funeral (2019), Loznitsa’s entrancing retelling of the nationwide mourning that followed Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953. An assemblage blending monochrome and color glimpses of the pompous pageantry for the Soviet leader’s passing, the film features a handful of prominent faces (from Nikita Khrushchev to heir-hopeful Georgy Malenkov, plus a handful of guests from foreign countries). Yet its true protagonist are the vast crowds paying their respects to the nation’s Father, whether the downcast Muscovites shuffling past the coffin in the House of the Unions or the huddled masses from far-flung regions listening in a catatonic trance as the radio broadcasts the party-sanctioned litany: “the depth of misery has stricken our country.”

State Funeral

The material Loznitsa sews together is nothing short of gorgeous. The Agfacolor Soviet filmmakers worked with paints Stalin’s casket a bright crimson; its glass porthole turns it into a strange spacecraft drowned in a sea of flowers. But it’s the film’s extraordinary soundscape that makes those images gripping. Not the music that was actually played during the funeral, and which Loznitsa uses sparingly (Mozart’s Requiem, funeral marches by Chopin and Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony), but the quieter concerto of ambient sounds echoing from the background: a baby crying, people coughing, a soldier sneezing. Loznitsa’s painstaking efforts to reproduce those noises help nurturing a stupefying you-are-there feeling, which both blurs our distance from those events and heightens our emotional response to them. 

Which brings us back to Babi Yar. Though much commemorated, the 1941 massacre is still a contentious issue in Ukraine, and the film ends with what’s possibly its most haunting image: in 1952, the ravine where thousands of Jews were killed and hastily buried was turned into a lake and filled with industrial waste. When authorities finally deigned to honor the victims, the monument they erected was dedicated to “the Soviet people who perished”—the word “Jews” is a glaring omission. Seen in this light, Babi Yar doubles as a revindication, a corrective to an instance of historical amnesia (and in that, it harkens back to Loznitsa’s 2015 short doc The Old Jewish Cemetery, a look at Riga’s 300-year-old Jewish graveyard, which the Nazis turned into a mass grave for over a thousand Jews they killed in the city’s ghetto in the 1940s, and the Soviets then razed and renamed “The Park of the Communist Brigade” in the 1960s). Some of the things we’re shown are almost unspeakably terrifying; Loznitsa himself confessed he chose not to include a few shots of the Lvov pogrom—they were so shocking “that as soon as you see them, you’re outside the realm of art.” But the chilling images that did make the cut beg a few questions. Who shot them, exactly? Who did they film for, and why? You could ask the same about all of Loznitsa’s archive-based works, but the director is just as interested in questioning those behind the camera as the people watching several decades in the future. That’s the reason behind their disquieting power; to wade into Loznitsa’s journeys through the horrors of History is to confront one’s relationship with them. Is our empathy contingent on how those grotesque spectacles are presented—on how real they look and sound?

Loznitsa’s refusal to weigh in on his found-footage—notice the absence of contextualizing voiceover commentary, the little (if any) background information we’re given—lends his archival projects an impression of objectivity, a detached gaze. And yet all of them are rooted in what’s ultimately a pedagogical concern, a plea to understand the horrors of the past and the factors that made them possible, so as to prevent history from repeating itself. It’s a warning that, in the midst of today’s Russo-Ukrainian war, feels timelier than ever. And nowhere does it echo louder than in Loznitsa’s latest, the towering Mr. Landsbergis, a four-hour documentary dedicated to and centered around the man who helped his native Lithuania break free from the USSR in the early 1990s. A music professor-turned-statesman, the titular Vytautas Landsbergis was already a prominent politician when the country began fighting for independence, a blood-stained process that kicked off in the late 1980s and culminated with Vilnius’ Bloody Sunday on January 13, 1991, when Soviet troops attempted to stage a coup, killing 14 civilians and injuring over 140. They failed; a few months later, Lithuania celebrated its independence, with Landsbergis as its Head of Parliament. 

Mr. Landsbergis

Formally, Mr. Landsbergis heralds a few key ruptures. It marks the first time Loznitsa’s voice can be heard in his films, and the first time one of his archival docs features a talking head. Sitting in his summer house, Landsbergis recalls those tumultuous years, and his musings intersperse the mélange of black-and-white and color clips the director assembles from Soviet and Lithuanian sources. Even so, these changes in documentary approach ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Yes, this is, ostensibly, a portrait of an individual (and one Loznitsa is unmistakably in awe with—for good reasons). But the film’s focus is still on the collective: the crowds who took to the streets in and beyond Vilnius, and—like those seen in 2014’s Maidan, the director’s account of the Kiev uprising that led to the ousting of Kremlin-backed former president Viktor Yanukovych—put their lives in danger in the name of a greater good. As for the interview itself (which took two weeks to shoot) Landsbergis’ thoughts do provide more contextual knowledge than any other Loznitsa Soviet-era doc before. But far from plucking us from the heat of those years, or jeopardizing the immediacy radiating from the archival footage, the goateed 89-year-old only fosters our connection with them. Landsbergis’ presence, the living archive he embodies and the battles he took part in, enable abstractions like revolution and independence and dignity to become not only incarnate, but grounded in the memories of real-life struggles. Odd as it may be to see Loznitsa revert to a more “conventional” mode of storytelling, the interviews fall in line with his overarching project: to demystify and humanize history, to make the past tangible, closer

And what’s closer to the Russian invasion of Ukraine today than the sight of Landsbergis arguing with Soviet leaders in the early 1990s? “Your country is headed to an abyss,” he warned then-USSR-leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “and it could bring the whole world with it.” The parallels between the ways Landsbergis and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy must fight for their nations’ right to exist are eerie, and the heated debates drench the film with a life-or-death energy. There are moments when Mr. Landsbergis seems to unspool as a courtroom drama, scenes where its protagonist and other Lithuanian politicians argue against Soviet rivals, wrestle with intramural feuds, rally others to their cause. People talk and strategize at length, but the stakes are real. Gorbachev (who, lest we forget, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just a few months before) wouldn’t let Lithuania break free without a fight, and in the film’s climax, on that fateful January 13, 1991, Landsbergis finds himself locked inside Vilnius’ parliament building with a handful of civilians, as Russian tanks close in on them, and soldiers shoot unarmed Lithuanians just outside. Someone swears in the parliament’s anguished crowd and pronounces them soldiers. There aren’t enough weapons. There’s no way of knowing if they’ll live to see the next day. The footage is astonishing, and Loznitsa’s collage of those clips makes for an engrossing experience, a tour-de-force that brings to mind Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Lithuania survived, the USSR didn’t. Mr. Landsbergis tells a thirty-year-old story, but with their meticulous reminiscing, the film’s director and its star turn those days into something other than a distant memory. Here as in every other archival doc Loznitsa has crafted, the past is dramatized in the present tense, and haunted by a future that looks and sounds all too familiar already.

Sergei Loznitsa's Babi Yar. Context and Mr. Landsbergis show at First Look, running March 16 - 20, 2022 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens,

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