Don’t Let Them Deceive You: Sergei Loznitsa’s "The Event"

"The Event" might be understood as a people's history of the final days in which the Soviet Union collapsed.
Michael Pattison

Sergei Loznitsa's The Event (2015), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from August 4 - September 3, 2017 as a Special Discovery.

 “Questions are only dangerous when you answer them.”

—Toby Esterhase, Smiley’s People

“Resign! Resign! Resign!”

—St. Petersburg crowd, 19 August 1991

19 August 1991. Sergei Loznitsa is packing his bags in Kiev: having recently left his job at the city’s Institute of Cybernetics, he is about to enroll at Moscow Film School. The phone rings; it’s a friend. Loznitsa, at his pal’s suggestion, turns on the television. All four state channels, interspersed with news flashes, are broadcasting the same thing: Swan Lake—on repeat. Updates come through haphazardly. In Moscow, there are tanks in the streets. By noon, there is something resembling a clearer picture: Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, on vacation in the Crimea, has taken ill. A state of emergency is declared. 

Loznitsa walks for forty minutes into Kiev’s center. And sees: public transport, shops, schools—all open or operating as normal. Next to the Republican Stadium, a group of around 500 people has formed. The topic of discussion—if it is a discussion—is Ukrainian independence. Every now and then, someone stops to listen to their Walkman—to radio missives from Moscow. Loznitsa walks home. Less than a week later, Ukraine will declare its independence: without bloodshed. Fourteen years later, Loznitsa tells me, with sarcasm: “This is how I participated in the revolution of 1991.” 

As is now well-known, Gorbachev hadn’t taken ill. The Russian President and his family, holidaying while parliament was in recess, had been placed under house arrest. The command came from within the ranks of his own bureaucracy: eight men—political, military and KGB officials—led by Vice President Gennady Yanayev, had formed the so-called State Emergency Committee. They were staging a coup. 

The title of Loznitsa’s The Event, which reconstructs from archive footage a more or less linear timeline of this historic episode, is ironic. In an age of fake news, it even seems presciently satirical. The coup was abortive; ill-planned and characterized at every turn by indecision, it lasted 61 hours. Implying a spectacle of some kind, Loznitsa’s eponymous “event” is defined by absence. Doubly so, in fact: all of his material, recorded on 35mm by eight cameramen, was shot not in Moscow—where the action was (or, indeed, wasn’t) happening, but in the streets and public squares of St. Petersburg. As such, we might read it as a people’s history of those few days in which the Soviet Union finally did collapse. 

Every edit in The Event is the filmmaker’s own; which is to say, formally, it is an achievement in itself. To have cut and shaped this narrative with such skill, from raw material shot by others, Loznitsa drew upon his experience in making his two previous archive-based pictures—Blockade (2005), compiled from footage of the Siege of Leningrad, and Revue (2008), which is made from soviet propaganda reels from the 1950s and 1960s—and Maidan (2014), his grueling two-hour observational documentary, about the massive anti-government uprisings in Kiev during the 2013/14 winter. 

An extension of each of these works, The Event unfolds in what has become—across 21 films of varying length made in the course of as many years—Loznitsa’s typical style. In all three of his archive works, the material must speak for itself: eschewing any explanation or context, the filmmaker’s directorial command is displaced into a kind of self-veiled editorial mode. In films such as Maidan and last year’s Austerlitz—in which he observes, for long stretches, tourists engaging to differing degrees with the Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, in Oranienburg, Germany—there is a similar lack of context.

The Event

In many ways, Loznitsa’s body of work embodies a certain detachment: intelligently composed, his images often resist interpretation. Or rather, they prompt and satisfy several at once. Theses are laden with ambiguity. I am here reminded of David Walsh’s response to Revue: “Absent a commentary or explanation that might shed new light on things, the viewer will naturally categorize the material according to his or her existing views on the USSR. Anti-communists will see the absurd, self-deluded propaganda and be confirmed in their convictions. The pro-Stalinist may see the valiant effort of the Socialist Motherland to develop and flourish, under trying conditions. Elements of the contemporary Russian population will burn with indignation over the bureaucracy’s stupidity and oppressiveness; some others may long for the relatively stable economic and cultural conditions on view.” 

At any rate, in both material and abstract ways, history shapes us. (And we shape it: Michael Sicinski interprets Loznitsa as an investigator of historiography.) As Chris Harman wrote in A People’s History of the World: “History is the story of how we came to be ourselves. Understanding it is key to finding out if and how we can further change the world in which we live.” In The Event, we see the unravelling of a history recent and significant enough to be of intense fascination (the sharp, monochrome cinematography also lends a certain vérité urgency to the narrative). Loznitsa structures his film, without voiceover, so that his audience must glean what information it can as and when it comes. First the confusion (“Is Gorbachev dead?”), then the organization (placards: FASCISM WILL NOT PREVAIL! DOWN WITH LENIN!). But the confusion, etched onto the faces of many here, persists. 

Loznitsa also trusts his audience in other ways: to pick, for instance, between the political nuances of the moment. The botched standoff in Moscow—between a kind of zombie Stalinism on the one hand and a disastrous embrace of free enterprise on the other—offered, in reality, very few options to the Russian people. In 2015, the filmmaker told me: “For me it’s a film about lost hope, about the incapability of people to change things. They’re not just incapable of action, but also of understanding. Looking back at events 25 years on, we can say how easily they were tricked.” 

Does The Event capture such stakes? Considering its structural limitations, can it? Given that, for Yanayev and his fellow coup plotters, the priority was less to strangle Gorbachev’s efforts to drag the country into world capitalism than to thwart the increasing threat of anti-government sentiments from below (which had grown steadily in response to diminishing living standards resulting from Gorbachev’s project), Loznitsa’s interpretation of working people—incapable of understanding the historic task before them and incapable therefore of enacting change—reveals simultaneously a disillusionment with regard to social change and a deep-seated hatred for the powers that be. Never mind that it was because of mass protests that the coup, admittedly weak in delivery, didn’t gain further traction. 

Cometh the hour: in The Event, late on, one speechmaker addresses the masses gathered outside the Winter Palace, and appeals for them to stay loyal to the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin. Untouched by the coup, and true to the opportunism that had come to define the political class of the dying soviet bureaucracy, Yeltsin was able to present himself as Gorbachev’s savior. Loznitsa, burdened (or enlightened) with hindsight, cuts to a woman holding a placard, which reads: My Long-Suffering People, Don’t Let Them Deceive You. Though the sign likely appeals to fellow protestors in solidarity against the coup itself, Loznitsa’s decision to splice it in during a speech in support of Yeltsin comes cannily close to something resembling an opinion on the filmmaker’s part. 

Power plays and puppetry. For Loznitsa (born in Belarus, 1964), Russia is characterized by a top-down rottenness, one which has persistently failed its people. No wonder the director emphasizes (incorrectly, we must note) the ideological and methodological continuities between the Bolsheviks in 1917, Stalin and his successors in the middle of the twentieth century, and the country’s present-day leaders. Tracing lineages—the germs of what was to come—one brief scene here shows Anatoly Sobchak, the St. Petersburg mayor, being escorted into a car. It’s a blink-and-miss moment, in the heat of all the commotion, but the face of one of Sobchak’s aides is eerily unmistakable—a casually suggestive revelation: Putin.

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