MUBI's retrospective Film Is a Theorem: The Documentaries of Sergei Loznitsa is showing January 16 - March 15, 2017 in the United Kingdom and many other countries around the world.
“Film is a theorem that has to arrive at a final point.”
It’s something of a critical cliché to say that a film or filmmaker is fixated on the notion of time; but there aren’t many contemporary filmmakers who fulfill that description as well as Belarus-born director Sergei Loznitsa. Although best known for his recent work—a trio of documentaries, Maidan (2014), The Event (2015) and Austerlitz (2016)—and a brief foray into fiction—My Joy (2010) and In the Fog (2012)—Loznitsa first started out with a string of documentary features and shorts, five of which are part of MUBI’s ongoing retrospective: “Film is a Theorem: The Documentaries of Sergei Loznitsa.” With a methodical, almost scientific rigor (indicative of Loznitsa’s background in applied mathematics and artificial intelligence), these early films lay the groundwork for the Ukrainian director’s enduring, uncompromising style and provide a key to understanding his distinctive body of work.
Take The Train Stop (2000), for example, a twenty-five minute short shot over the course of a year at an elektrichka station between Moscow and St. Petersburg. With only ambient sound and consisting almost entirely of shots of exhausted passengers, filmed with their heads bent down or thrown back in unsteady repose, the film is emblematic of Loznitsa’s overall approach. First, the location or subject is set down (via a series of establishing images); next comes an elaboration of that subject that constitutes the bulk of the film (varying and all but silent shots of the people waiting, exhausted); a very brief “climax” towards which the runtime builds (the roaring sound of an arriving train), follows; finally, there's a return to the holistic subject (an outside view of the train station). Immediately striking are the film’s formal qualities—a sharp sense of duration, intriguing compositions that occasionally take seconds before recognition sets in, various reversals of light and shadow—which all work to convey the primary physical sensation of its subject. Impressive, too is the way such a simple concept achieves a multivalence of meaning. It’s almost impossible to see the film without thinking, at least briefly, of the Lumière brothers’ L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895), particularly in the way that Loznitsa substitutes movement for, as the title suggests, a kind of stasis, a moment frozen in time. The shots are closer to still photographs, with only hints of motion throughout—a fidgeting hand or the rise and fall of a child’s stomach. (It’s enough to make one wonder how different or similar cinema would be if it had begun with something like this.)
Loznitsa’s approach, at least as applied here, isn’t unfamiliar in the realm of non-narrative cinema. But what sets it apart is the specificity of place and time—here, a poorly planned train station the post-Soviet era—and the extent to which Loznitsa applies the approach to a range of subjects of varying scope and scale. Compare this film to Portrait (2002), which follows a similar progression—bookending establishing shots of the Russian countryside, images of the local inhabitants, a brief shift into abstraction—but achieves entirely different effects. Whereas in The Train Stop, the absence of movement was an extension of location, here it becomes a conscious act of resistance. The title, after all, prescribes a restriction of the natural flow of time: the ambient sounds of the wind, the motions of the fog and rustling leaves, even the lateral movements of the camera that trace the stark countryside. And the inhabitants’ choice to be part of the project is a knowing acceptance of that. Existence becomes an act of defiance.
When discussing his films—particularly his documentaries—Loznitsa has said: “What interests me is the possibility of realizing thoughts with the resources that make up cinema. The rest is secondary… First an impression, then reflection, then realization.” The absence of dialogue in these early documentaries means that the focus is placed on the physical stuff that makes up their images—chiefly, a location and its occupants. That’s true of both Train Stop and Portrait, which both manage to elaborate on an implicit political dimension by their focus on sheer, sensory physicality, but is even truer of Factory (2004), a thirty-minute plunge into the rhythmic machinery of its title location. A worker emerges out of metal chute; the incandescent glow of molten steel lights the frame; fiery reds, sci-fi greens, and rusted metal creates an otherworldly air. Its two sections (”Steel” and “Plaster”) are characterized by a hypnotic repetition, human movement subsumed into steady, clockwork rhythms (and the implications of such). A rare moment of frustration—a woman sighing in irritation—offers a glimpse of elided humanity, but the wheel continues to turn; fragmented movement resumes anew.
With a focus on the material (and materiality) of its subject first, and its implications second, Factory operates in a manner that anticipates the projects of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab. A setting that is conceptually familiar—a steel and plaster factory, here; the fishing industry in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012); the railway network in J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014)—is made foreign. Perspectives become unmoored.
Extending that alienation of perspective is The Settlement (2002), an immersion into a rural mental institution over the course of a single day. Dark fog rolls over the side of a mountain; the call of a bird mixes with a metallic clang and the patter of a horse’s hooves; men move bales of hay from location to location with a kind of Sisyphean regularity. But this isn't institutional documentation à la Wiseman. Facets of banal existence don't contribute to a greater whole so much as become atomized into frames of movement, which flow into each other over the course of the film's somewhat attenuated 77-minutes. It closes with an emphatic affirmation of humanity: portraits of the settlement’s inhabitants, accompanied by an atypical use of music; then the fog rolls in once more, and the margins of existence disappear from sight.
If film is a theorem, then on the basis of these films, a location and its attendant politics are corollaries. Spatial exploration is orchestrated with a mathematical precision, every motion considered and meaningful; human presence is added, subtracted or scaled as required; always, the land endures, the relentless flow of time. The quintessential Loznitsa film, then, is probably the aptly titled Landscape (2003). The camera surveys a rural space, panning from left to right in a circular arc, the crumbling red-brick walls and snow-laden roads stitched together into one continuous movement. Eventually, the camera settles on a bus stop and potential passengers milling about the station. A confluence of individual paths becomes a layered, entropic mass of motion—an absent bus is the defining connection. As the sounds of the square mingle with snippets of conversation, Loznitsa’s roving camera moves across the growing number of waiting figures, its focus shifting throughout, cuts bridged by flashes of color. Demonstrating his talent for capturing masses of people, Landscape is the film that most keenly anticipates later works such as Maidan, structured as it is around similar parameters, though on an entirely different scale (a local, emblematic rift as opposed to a national, unquestionably political one). It culminates in a grand stylistic flourish—a concatenated blur of color and motion; the stasis of the previous fifty minutes gives way to a rush of movement. Then the moment is over, and all that remains is the landscape set against the waning light of day—the essence of time.