Jean-Luc Godard once claimed that ‘if direction is a look, editing (montage) is a heartbeat.’ No doubt he would appreciate the work of Belorussian documentarist Sergei Loznitsa then, many of whose films make incredible use of archive footage from crucial periods of Soviet history. In recent years and after directing a dozen documentary features and short films, Loznitsa has turned his hand to fiction. His two features to date have proven to be just as harrowing as his documentaries and similarly well-regarded by critics, culminating in a FIPRESCI Prize win at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for In the Fog (2012).
Film-making may be Sergei Loznitsa’s vocation but it wasn’t his first choice of career. Born in Belarus, he and his family moved to Ukraine when he was a child, where he graduated from Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and, after a brief career at the Institute of Cybernetics, studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) from 1991. Although Loznitsa initially planned to make fiction films he started with documentaries, partly because he ‘didn’t really understand at the time what it was that [he] could make movies about, and what cinema itself was.’* The film he made for his diploma, Today We Are Going to Build a House (1996) set the aesthetic standards for his future documentaries; shot in black-and-white and without any narration or exposition, the documentary, based on a day on a construction site, relied on sound and image alone to convey its message.
Loznitsa was extremely productive in the decade after his graduation from VGIK, directing eight films between 1999 and 2006. The most striking of these are The Halt aka The Train Stop (2000), a short film that takes in the sleeping patrons of a train station at night-time, and Blockade (2006), a collection of archive footage that describes the horrors of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. Despite the modest running time of The Train Stop – only 25 minutes – it took over a year for Loznitsa to shoot it. The images consist of nothing more than a crowd of sleeping travellers yet it takes on its own peculiar rhythms, made up of the heavy-breathers, the snorers and the occasional clamour of a train speeding past. Even at this point in his career Loznitsa was redefining what documentary cinema was and what these films could be about.
Blockade remains one of the director’s most powerful films. Various archive footage from during the siege of Leningrad is assembled into a monochrome horror story. Once again, narration and dialogue is eschewed in favour of the sights and sounds of the besieged city, the cacophony of ordnance and buildings reduced to rubble, the gaunt faces of people starving to death and the bundled rags of those that do lying in the streets. History has never been more truthful. We are not told anything, only encouraged to witness it for ourselves. In Blockade are present all of the visual and auditory signatures that Loznitsa has used ever since Today We are Going to Build a House, refined and applied to a film that mourns human destructiveness as eagerly as that first film celebrated its creativity.
Several more documentaries – Artel (2006), Revue (2008), Sweet Sixties (2008) and Severnyy svet (2008) – led into the first of Sergei Loznitsa’s fiction features, My Joy (2010). A grim fable about the state of the former Soviet nation, the film has much of the ambiguity of his earlier documentaries and a learned cynicism that also carries over from his more upsetting non-fiction work. This would continue with his next film, In the Fog, another fiction, this time set in Belarus, about a railway worker who is wrongly taken for a Nazi informer and so forced to flee through the forest. It has the bare bones of a classic chase movie, but with that characteristic harshness and a muddy, foggy palette that renders the frame as colourless as Loznitsa’s documentaries.
These two films remain the director’s only dramatic features to date and although he is currently in pre-production on a work inspired by a Fyodor Dostoevsky short story, A Gentle Creature, Loznitsa has returned to the documentaries on which much of his career has been based. Maidan (2014) explored the ‘Euromaidan’ protests in central Ukraine, a conflict that led directly to the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and extreme tension between Russia and Ukraine. He then went on to contribute to an anthology film called The Bridges of Sarajevo (2014) alongside some of the most esteemed directors in world cinema, including Jean-Luc Godard, Ursula Meier and Cristi Puiu. Finally, Loznitsa’s most recent film, The Event (2015), has taken the director full-circle, back to the monochrome documentary form and once more interrogating the power structures of the former Soviet nations, past and present. As with Blockade, he takes archive footage and turns it into a story, this time concerning the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Russian Federation, and once again it is a story of people. Like Landscape (2003), Blockade, Maidan and others, It is about the crowd and the faces within it, those courageous enough to fight and those unfortunate enough to succumb. In his fascination with these certain points of his country’s history – and the part its people played in them – Loznitsa suggests that however much things change, they always stay the same, for better or worse.
*Taken from Time Indefinite: A Talk with Sergei Loznitsa on MUBI Notebook
In Blockade (2006) black-and-white archive footage is used to create a nightmarish account of the siege of Leningrad. Beginning with a tenuous sense of calm, the bombardment of the city by the Axis powers reduces everything to rubble and chaos. But it is the faces of Leningrad and the lengths that its people go through to survive that are so memorable. Characteristically for one of Loznitsa’s documentaries there is no dialogue or narration but here it is completely unnecessary. The frozen bodies in the streets and the desolated buildings tell us everything.
In the Fog (2012) – Sergei Loznitsa’s second fiction feature describes a grim pursuit through the woods of Belarus, as a partisan from a small town flees the Nazis to escape execution. It is morbid and gloomy throughout, yet utterly engrossing, a chase film in the classic tradition. Vladimir Svirsky delivers a dignified, shell-shocked performance as the escapee and throughout the film echoes of Loznitsa’s documentary work can be seen, in particular the rigid corpses that bear a striking resemblance to those that line the streets of Leningrad in Blockade.
Maidan (2014) – Loznitsa’s most widely distributed documentary yet, Maidan follows the unrest during the ‘Euromaidan’ protests in Kiev’s central square throughout 2013 and 2014. This is some of the director’s most urgent film-making as this revolution led directly into the annexation of the Crimea and the attendant conflicts. The camera is placed in the heart of the protests so as tensions increase we see first-hand the violence that inevitably breaks out. Journalistic film-making at its finest and a close cousin to Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2011).
If you’re a fan…
The Event (2015) sees the director returning to the monochrome documentary work of his earlier career, this time exploring the communist Putsch in Moscow in 1991, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Russian Federation. The lack of narration here renders some of the more intricate political movements inscrutable but scenes like the Russian tricolour flag being raised over the Moscow White House, in place of the Soviet red, make for powerful imagery. The studied close-ups of the gathered crowds show that it is still the people which so fascinate Loznitsa, however.
And the rest
A Gentle Creature (pre-production) (2017)
The Old Jewish Cemetery (2015)
Bridges of Sarajevo (2014)
Letter (short) (2013)
O Milagre de Santo Antonio (short) (2012)
My Joy (2010)
Severnyy svet (2008)
Sweet Sixties (2008)
Artel (short) (2006)
Factory (short) 2004)
The Settlement (2002)
Portrait (short) (2002)
The Halt (short) (2000)
Life, Autumn (short) (1999)
Today We Are Going to Build a House (short) (1996)
Years Active: 1996-present
Accolades: Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize (2012, In the Fog), Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Award (2014, Maidan)