History written not in lightning but in shivery, flickering nitrate,
Blockade brings to mind the old saw that movies about the past are essentially science fiction. Except the surreally stark rubblescapes of Sergei Loznitsa’s film are no CGI simulation: They’re images culled from Soviet archival footage of the barbarous 1941–44 siege of Leningrad, where the Nazis attempted (and failed) to starve the city into surrendering over the course of almost three grueling years. Unthinkable even by the collateral- damage standards of modern warfare, the siege produced a death toll of more than 600,000 from cold and hunger—some 200,000 of whom died during an especially bleak two-month stretch in the winter of 1942.
Loznitsa doesn’t adorn the eerie footage with talking heads and factoid title cards. What narrative there is, along with a sense of incrementally mounting horror, emerges unbidden from the images—teeming streets that gradually thin, bundled proles panning for filthy water in potholes, stick-thin pedestrians stepping matter-of-factly past wrapped corpses. The movie is a tone poem of attrition. Early on, a sickly manatee of a dirigible floats across the skyline; as the siege progresses, relentless snowfall turns stalled streetcars into Pompeian fossils. Because there’s no central figure, no point of identification, the viewer becomes a detached spectator observing daily rituals of numbed survival.
The movie’s sole questionable addition is a constructed soundtrack of street noise and sound effects. The sounds can effectively underscore a detail on screen, as when an amplified cough startlingly isolates an individual within a marching crowd. But they also add a distracting layer of faked realism—a quality at odds with the footage, which scarcely needs embellishment. Even so, Blockade avoids the first-person-shooter sensationalism that creeps into life-during-wartime docs. It seems even more impressive playing at Film Forum alongside the zoom-and-pan Ken Burns–isms and incongruously bouncy music of Irina Gedrovich’s 26-minute Amateur Photographer, a determinedly ironic study of a German army shutterbug whose hobby eventually caused him to atone for his war crimes—which included killing the sort of Soviet partisans shown hunting for scrap wood in Blockade. No matter which side of the camera they stand on, in the unstable war zone of these films, anyone can be shot.