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On Body and Soul: Sergei Loznitsa Discusses "State Funeral"

The Ukrainian director exchanges views on his monumental archival documentary that signals the end of Stalin’s cult of personality.
Hugo Emmerzael
Sergei Loznitsa's State Funeral is exclusively showing in many countries starting May 21, 2021 in MUBI's Luminaries series.
State Funeral
When the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 broke out in Kiev, Ukraine, Sergei Loznitsa was its most appropriate chronicler. For in the fifteen years leading up to the demonstrations that overthrew the Putin-friendly government of Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian director had already managed to examine many moments of conflict and hardship in the history of Soviet and post-Soviet states. Be it through fiction, observational documentary, or archival collage, his work is mostly concerned with the way individuals are usurped by the masses, and the way these collective bodies are being framed and reframed throughout history. So when history was being written in real time on the central square of Kiev, Loznitsa was there to record it and to reinforce his cinematic thesis that captured events will always resist a linear narrative.
Loznitsa avoids an overtly explicit approach to filmmaking. Fiction films like My Joy (2010), In the Fog (2012), A Gentle Creature (2017), and Donbass (2018) are murky narratives about the psychological and sociological aftermaths of war, punishment, and death. Their documentary counterparts refrain from voice-over commentaries entirely and never contain participatory scenes in which Loznitsa himself interacts with what happens in front of his camera. The director rather works in a stilted observational mode, dissecting from a distance—and only implicitly commenting on—the complex process of life unfolding before the camera.
Early black-and-white documentaries like Life, Autumn (1999), Portrait (2002), and The Settlement (2002) may give a somewhat timeless and apolitical impression of the common Slavic experience, but through their contemporary depiction of industrious peasants and rural labor, Loznitsa emphasizes how the weight of history has always unconsciously been carried by countless individuals who had more pressing concerns like scrambling for food and other essential resources. This awareness is also prevalent in his archival documentaries that capture the dynamic between the individual and the collective within the broader frameworks of history. Blockade (2006), Revue (2008), and The Event (2015) re-examine Soviet-era material and challenge us to reconsider how we should engage with what’s depicted on screen.
Blockade, for instance, resists a traditional top-down dramatization of the siege of Leningrad and instead opts for a radically sobering edit that focuses on how this gruesome period of military blockade has fundamentally affected everyday life. Loznita’s version of the material probes the many onlookers on the streets of Leningrad to see how they react to the presence of military fortifications, the hunger, the cold, and the growing number of lifeless bodies on the sides of the pavement. The grim conclusion combines celebratory fireworks with the public hanging of German soldiers. Leningrad, whose population was practically halved during the catastrophic 872 days of blockade, rejoices in the continuation of death and the obliteration of its oppressor.
If there is one recurring thread running through the oeuvre of this prolific director, it’s the prevalence of death, and the insistence that death amounts to more than a mere historical statistic. Our inadequateness to properly engage with this idea is captured most prominently in the static shots of Austerlitz (2016) that show droves of visitors to the Holocaust memorial at the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienberg, Germany. Do these contemporary onlookers have the tools to truly engage with the events that have occurred on a site like this? And can we, as witnesses of films like Austerlitz, perceive its constructed history not only through the lives depicted on screen, but also through the many deaths that remain absent in the image?
With these questions in the back of our head, State Funeral is the culmination of Loznita’s cinematic interests, a film in which the death of one has literally affected the lives of millions. Again, Loznitsa has found the material for this monumental archival documentary in the Russian State Film and Photo Archive in Krasnogorsk, where he also found the audio-visual proof of the infamous Stalinist show trials of the 1930s as depicted in The Trial (2018). For State Funeral, Loznitsa had access to approximately 300 reels of footage shot during the funeral service of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Supervised by six prominent Soviet directors and captured all throughout the Soviet Union, these images—many of them shot on gorgeous color stock with a splendid emphasis on the crimson Soviet reds—were intended for a documentary film called The Great Farewell, a film that only screened once in 1953 and was banned shortly after. Anyone who has seen Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin—also banned in present day Russian cinemas—understands that anything dealing too closely with the Generalissimo’s Cult of Personality was considered a dangerous taboo shortly after his passing.
Seemingly too clouded by Stalin’s omnipresence, the material didn’t resurface until 1988. A DVD of the original film now exists that gives away its propagandist qualities. Loznitsa has appropriated this ideologically colored material and turned it into a thought-provoking video essay that weaponizes the propagandistic imagery. Loznitsa’s edit not only reveals the highly constructed totalitarian symbolism, but also exposes how many people in the seemingly perplexed crowd participate in what best can be described as a form of performative, ritualized mourning. By shifting the original focus on Stalin’s image to that of the vast crowd of ordinary spectators, Loznitsa also shifts the meaning on what this historical event really captures. The endless stream of mourning bodies not only come to symbolize the death of Stalin, but also the moment the Soviet Union’s soul escapes its own body.
What remains of the Soviet Union in the decades after Stalin’s departure is a zombified state that still allows the massacre of a vast amount of its own citizens in horrifying pogroms. A case in point is that Stalin’s funeral also symbolizes the death of countless others that we don’t see, but can sense, the thousands of people that were trampled to death in these very same crowds. Loznitsa’s aim here is to not only acknowledge Stalin’s accountability in some of the most horrific events of the 20th century, but also that of his most commonplace followers. State Funeral ultimately depicts, as in all films by Loznitsa do, that the real course of history is not only shaped by the powerful few, but also by the countless individuals that were willing to follow in their lead.

NOTEBOOK: From the historical crowds in Blockade and The Event to the contemporary masses of Austerlitz and Maidan, your films examine how bodies of people engage with their shared histories. The masses of State Funeral are no exception, and yet these films don’t tell the same story time and time again. I’m wondering what you think of the overlap or difference in meaning between these formations of crowds throughout history.
SERGEI LOZNITSA: Let's say we start from 19th century. The most prescient mention of crowds in literature was made by Alexander Pushkin in Boris Godunov. There has been this tragic situation that involves the killing of a child. The finale depicts a large crowd that witnesses this horrific event happening on stage. In the last sentence Pushkin remarks that people are speechless. “The People are silent with horror.” Starting from this remark, I think we can have a perspective on various events throughout Soviet history. Let's say that from that time onwards, because we don't know for sure what happened before that, this observation still applies. Even until this day, people remain silent. They observe, they watch, and after that they follow orders. This is I think the main characteristic of the Russian crowd.
NOTEBOOK: But you’re very aware of how, despite their similarities, these crowds can take on a multiplicity of meanings. If we were, for instance, to take the confused protestors of The Event, they stand for something completely different than the ritualized mourners of State Funeral.
LOZNITSA: Of course, we can put these films on a timeline and perceive their differences. If we take The Trial, it shows the beginning of repression. We are witnessing how they find ways of accusing people, how they organize this legalization of injustice. It’s the end of morality in the Soviet Union. State Funeral already stands for the end of the Soviet Union. It shows the moment where the soul is broken. The Event is the moment where the actual buildings collapse and the structure caves in.
NOTEBOOK: Your archival films also show various degrees of cinematic control over the image. The tightly framed, almost homogenously choreographed shots of State Funeral can in no way be compared to the confused, improvised and almost vérité-styled cinematography of The Event.
LOZNITSA: I don't think that the cameramen who were involved in making The Great Farewell actually had in mind the task to achieve this homogeneous imagery. In fact, the quality of the material varied greatly. If I were one of the directors attached to this project, I’d have even asked some camera operators to do reshoots. So, of course, it was up to me to select the material that I considered the most appropriate for my film. Seen in this light, I influenced the style of the film by choosing the material that suited me. At the same time, it wasn't so difficult because, yes, in general there was a certain manner of cinematography that most of the operators adhered to. For example, there is a lot of shots from this low angle, which is very appropriate if you’re trying to make something look bigger than it actually is. Another factor that contributes to this impression that you have of everything looking the same is actually the poverty that’s visible. There’s this universal poverty that you can observe throughout the country. It’s visible in the places and in the people that crowd those places.
NOTEBOOK: I want to challenge this notion of universal poverty a little bit, because I can see a clear hierarchy in the images that you present. When we’re in Moscow, in the Hall of Columns in the House of the Unions, where Stalin’s open casket is presented, the film stock has a high fidelity with beautiful, vibrant colors that capture all the colorful flags, flowers, and bouquets. Scenes in Siberia or in the Caucasus or at the eastern outskirts of the Soviet Union are usually shot on way cheaper black-and-white stock.
LOZNITSA: This is indeed one of the direct consequences of this hierarchal, authoritarian system: the more central you are, the more resources there are at your disposal. This doesn’t only apply to film stock, but also to food and other materials. By the way, in The Great Farewell, they also included some episodes in black and white, but they colored them with red paint.
NOTEBOOK: I was wondering about that film and how you tried to distance State Funeral from The Great Farewell. When you make use of the same raw material, do you find it challenging to construct a different narrative out of it?
LOZNITSA: Not at all. My film is not about the greatest genius in the history of mankind, it’s about the people. I use this event as an opportunity to show the people at that specific moment in time. This is in fact why the image of Stalin himself appears quite infrequently throughout the film. Of course, his image exists, but it's kind of spread out in the space. In The Great Farewell, there are many more episodes and shots of Stalin in his coffin. The ultimate goal of that film was to glorify Stalin.
NOTEBOOK: There were multiple directors attached, including some well-known Soviet filmmakers. Are you aware under which conditions they had to shoot? Did you for instance find any director notes or a state authored briefing of how they had to approach this project?
LOZNITSA: The Great Farewell was actually banned after just one screening. Afterward, all these film directors were probably too embarrassed about the fact that they participated in this project. So the general idea was to forget about the film. Perhaps the material you are talking about was hidden away or even destroyed. I haven’t come across it. You have to realize that this footage was banned until 1988. All directors attached to this project passed away by then. However, I did find some moments where directing and manipulation is visible. I include one of these moments in my film where a soldier is laughing about something and the operator tries to intervene and restage the scene. More proof of the artifice of the material is that some of the scenes were still shot on the 19th of March. They buried Stalin on the 9th. So ten days later, they’re still shooting.
NOTEBOOK: Why do you think six directors were attached to the project?
LOZNITSA: The directors were probably invited by the KGB to work on this project. Maybe it was made some kind of protection for the individuals, because they had a shared responsibility. Maybe it was also just a guarantee for a good film, because they invited all these different branches of Soviet cinema from around that time. You have a commercial Soviet film director like Grigorii Aleksandrov, who worked with Eisenstein, and then you have someone who makes let’s say the Soviet equivalent of arthouse films, which is Sergei Gerasimov. VGIK, the film school in Moscow, is also named after him. Then you have a documentarian like Il'ia Kopalin. Mikhail Chiaureli made The Fall of Berlin in 1949, which has Joseph Stalin as one of the leading characters. So, you know, you have all these districts of Soviet cinema united.
NOTEBOOK: With State Funeral we can clearly see a pattern in the kind of archival films you want to make. I have to ask: what has been the returning motivation to go back to the archives and explore history likes this?
LOZNITSA: My biggest motivation… When you find a treasure trove like this, you never ask what motivates you to work with it. I found some treasure!  That is the motivation. A better question is: why is it treasure? Because it shows a significant moment in the history of our country that nobody has seen like this. You know, people didn’t know about this moment, me included. So it was very interesting for me to try find some answers to my central question. When you just look at it, you can feel it; you can read the behavior of the crowd, you can see the looks on their faces. These are valuable moments for me.
NOTEBOOK: What would you say is your central question?
LOZNITSA: How did it happen? All this terror, how was it possible? Why did citizens in this country kill more than twenty million of their own? It’s a kind of colonization of the interior. So what was inside that made all these people do these kinds of things? You’ve seen it now. The answer for me is very simple: a lot of people in that country were the same as Stalin. You know, they were Stalinists. It doesn’t clarify everything, but it helps to explain a little bit of what they did it: they were like him. The thing is of course that he helped to create them. He just completely destroyed their morals, morals that were already quite shaky.
NOTEBOOK: Which you examine in the The Trial.
LOZNITSA: In that moment morals still existed. But after the civil war that ended in 1921 and after the other events in the 1920s, it was a repression already. The people have in memory this endless stream of dark episodes.
NOTEBOOK: This question of how could it happen, is that what you apply to all of your archival films and other film practices?
LOZNITSA: I always want to know what I'm dealing with. What it is that we’re facing and where am I positioned in all of this? I’ve asked myself these questions since I was a child. When I was about four or five years old, I already felt like I somehow had ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Something was wrong in the world around me, but I couldn't quite work out what it was. Ever since, I've been trying to work that out. This eventually turned me towards filmmaking. When I start a new film, I always start from point zero. The premise is that I know nothing and that I understand nothing. I’ll try to look at a specific phenomenon, an event or a moment, as if it has never happened before. And somehow through the textures of the image I try to arrive at the meaning of this phenomenon and then we’ll have a frame of reference. 
NOTEBOOK: In films like The Trial or Donbass you consciously show how a form of reality is constructed, it’s basically pure ideology, performed as if it is reality. Could you say that your films investigate how we try to enact a certain kinds of history?
LOZNITSA: You’re absolutely right. I’m fascinated by how performativity interferes with us and changes our mentality. It’s not a secret that all politics is like a theatre, with the world as its stage. There’s this kind of global performance which continuously takes place and carries on into the future. In Donbass we see people that don’t really understand that they participate in such a performance. In The Trial this is very evident for every party involved. This is the main difference between the two films, but topically they’re still very close. I’d say that Victory Day and Austerlitz are also about performing and about restaging a specific historical place.
NOTEBOOK: These films show that the further we’re removed from historic events, the more difficult it becomes to get a hold of the essence of those events. Would you say that in the present it’s impossible for us to understand truly capture what happened in the past?
LOZNITSA: There are two general directions in my films. When you create history as I show it in Maidan, people are active. They participate in some form of performance, because their demonstration looks like a big celebration or folk festival. It’s a celebration of trying to find freedom when the state is at the verge of destruction. Austerlitz challenges the notion that a historical event or place can truly transform people. People in this film are passive. They only receive information. Like in State Funeral, they’re observers. They are an object of history in Austerlitz and a subject of history in Maidan.
NOTEBOOK: Something that’s maybe not touched upon enough is that your films also frequently have this absurdist streak. It’s especially present in fiction films like A Gentle Creature and Donbass, and even in the archival footage of the The Trial.
LOZNITSA: The Trial is very absurd. I think you can say the same thing about the grotesqueness of State Funeral. This specific moment tells us so much about this country, its people and their social fabric. It shows how all these systems are built and glued together. Thank god I’ve found this footage, because the 66 years of distance have been quite enough to see what happened there. Every new ruler that comes to power sees it as his duty to rewrite history, but when they rewrite that history the only thing that they're actually concerned about is how they will be perceived in the future.
NOTEBOOK: For me, Maidan and State Funeral are also very much connected because they show this interior destruction of the state, but both crowds have a very different momentum and energy behind them, which comes down to a different perspective on the future.
LOZNITSA: Every new president in Ukraine will remember that people can come to the streets to take away his power. What I specifically show in State Funeral is what power looks like, this pure phenomenon of power, something that is actually quite difficult to present as an image. But If I show millions of people coming over to bow down and pay respect to their god, this is a really a strong image that will show you what power looks like. And it’s true that in a way a similar kind of force has removed the Ukrainian president at the time of Maidan. So when we see what’s going on in Moscow during the days of Putin, we have to realize what the foundation of his power is. I think it’s wrong to say that the system is only based on this cruel tyrant that can exercise his power through sheer terror and force. When we talk about Stalinism we only ever blame Stalin, as if only he was evil and nobody had a choice but to follow him. State Funeral, and the whole event it captures, demonstrates that this is not true. His power was based on the support of this vast amount of people that treated him with this level of admiration, love and respect. So we need to talk about those individual people, these Individual cells in the fabric of Stalinism. If you confront Stalin’s power, you should also confront theirs. 


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