History may be, as Napoleon wrote, the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon, but national histories in the 20th Century left behind something they couldn’t in earlier eras: a fatal evidence trail of cinema. Whatever the propaganda message and temperature, state actors would nearly always film everything, film too much, and therein freeze themselves and their efforts at self-justification in nitrate amber forever. Needless to say, the rank odor of guilt and complicity and self-delusion becomes unmistakable given a little time passing, a fact that found-footage films — in the original, avant-garde-film meaning of the term — have been exploiting and exploring since Bruce Conner first reused atomic bomb footage in 1958. History can’t escape judgment when it’s been nailed by a camera.
Arguably the most ambitious, and historically conscientious filmmaker from the ex-Soviet regions at work today, Sergei Loznitsa has always had a jones for the revealing hypocrisies of old footage, to resurrect and reconsider the deranged visual legacy of Communism and Fascism over the last 100 years. His newest film, State Funeral takes a gargantuan reappraisal of a gargantuan event: the 1953 public funeral rites for Joseph Stalin, a kind of sleepwalking mass madness that exploded all over the empire, from Tallinn to Minsk to Azerbaijan to Krasnoyarsk. Whether in his documentary mode or not, Loznitsa is no hand-holder, insisting that we join this trudging mass for reasons we must arrive at on our own; he doesn’t even drop the revelatory fact that he’s repurposing footage, half black-&-white and half lushly Sovcolor, shot specifically for a propaganda epic to be titled The Great Farewell — which in effect made the entire republic a film set, and the huge nation-wide mourning ritual a staged mega-drama. There were, apparently a number of high-profile auteurs helming the shoot, including die-hard vet Grigori Alexandrov, Dziga Vertov’s wife and cine-partner Elizaveta Svilova, and Sergei Gerasimov, who’d make Quiet Flows the Don a few years later. The film they thought they were making was never completed or released — the anti-Stalinists were gaining force by then, and it’s rumored they may have hurried the world-class liquidator to his death bed. In any case, Khrushchev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin came less than three years later, so the yen for a big-screen hagiographic send-off may already have seen its day come and go by the time Uncle Joe shuffled off for good.
The long-neglected footage was cobbled into a modest video release in 2013, intended for Russophiles, but for Loznitsa that was hardly sufficient — his film is over an hour longer, all the better to mutely eyeball this massive orchestration of meta-bereavement at disheartening length. There are no set-pieces, just staggering but dumbly repetitive parades of Soviet citizens queuing up by the tens of thousands at a time, hefting a zillion wreaths and potted plants to the coffin side and various designated shrines, with the implacable demeanors of unhappy movie extras. This, despite the radio speeches we hear constantly describing the “joy” that Stalin brought to his people. (It occurs to you that the millions’ lack of animation is another reason why The Grand Farewell might not have made it to the finishing line.) The bouts of tear-wiping look genuine, and Loznitsa includes them for ambiguity’s sake — how much of this colossal foolishness is movie-making coercion, or brainwashed derangement, or the mere madness of crowds?
Then there are the speeches, with Loznitsa turning a weird and contrived spectacle about mass obedience into an overt, and droning, public con job, almost exactly the way Triumph of the Will helplessly transforms itself from a giant map of human menace into a litany of weaselly rhetoric. You can hardly walk away without wondering about the Russians’ capacity for collecting into monstrous, orderly hordes on command, as well as their tolerance for snowballing bullshit. Ultimately, the experience of Loznitsa’s film depends upon one’s appreciation for Communism’s ceremonial absurdity – your mileage may vary. The filmmaker only nods toward his intentions with the final title card, reminding us of Stalin’s mass-murder scorecard of upwards of 42 million deaths. With that as context, the whole, exhaustive film replays in your head as a farce without laughs. ❖
Directed by Sergei Loznitsa
Opens at Film Forum on May 7