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Interview

Sergei Loznitsa: “Greetings from the middle ages”

We spoke with Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa about the war in Ukraine, propaganda, his relationship with Berlin, cosmopolitanism and the future.

Photo: Luca Gode

Well before many of his compatriots were forced to flee the war, Sergei Loznitsa had made Berlin his home. This city feels like an appropriate choice for a filmmaker whose work is so marked by history – be it the legacy of World War II, the collapse of the Soviet Union or, more recently, the war between Russia and Ukraine, a subject he’s been commenting on with films such as Donbas and Maidan. We met the Ukrainian filmmaker at a screening of his documentary Victory Day, filmed on May 9, 2017, in Treptower Park, where Berliners from former Soviet countries gather each year to celebrate the end of the so-called “Great Patriotic War”.

Victory Day is one of your only films that deals with your adopted city. You’ve called it a film about paradox. Can you explain?

Almost all the people who participate in the celebration of Victory Day here, in Treptower Park, are former Soviets. Can you imagine anywhere in the world where the former enemy would be allowed to celebrate their victory in the capital of the defeated country? The other day I saw [Russian] posters in the street with the slogan “We can repeat!” Repeat what? What do they mean? That they can come to Berlin and destroy everything again? This is the first paradox. The second one is that many of the people who attend are German citizens and still they celebrate “Victory Day”. It is strange for me how these two concepts exist in one and the same head.

You attended the event each year for three years prior to making the film. Do you feel the meaning of the event has changed over time?

Slowly, slowly. It’s been growing. And I feel how the Russian Embassy and the propagandists from Russia are spiralling their influence. The event has come to express military brutality. In my film, I show the [Russian motorcycle club] Night Wolves who come and imitate patriotism. I say imitate because I think this is very telling: when the Night Wolves arrived, they ascended the hill, but then they were just standing there. And later, after a moment, they started to sing. They did not have a plan. They just came to the hill to exhibit themselves. And the next thing they did, they started to take selfies.

Image: Victory Day

When you go there and see kids dressed up like during Soviet times with little flags and war medals, you think… it’s a kind of carnival.

After WWI, the Germans forbade Shakespeare, and the other side, the French and British, forbade Wagner to be performed forever. The same happens now.

In Russia, they recently published the updated numbers of the victims of WWII. Forty million Soviet people were killed. Four. Zero. A victory? The population of the Soviet Union was 190 million people. Every fifth person was killed, and that’s not counting the wounded and mutilated. Can you imagine what kind of tragedy it was?

So that’s what is strange about this carnival: how does such a tragedy fit with this type of commemoration? I do not propose to ruin this monument by [Yevgeny] Vuchetich – it’s a very good piece of art – but just clean up the event, remove the propagandists and let people come. If they wish to lay flowers at the monument, that’s fine. But what is this Witches’ Sabbath? If you look at the Soviet War monument from above, it is shaped like a sword directed to the centre of Berlin. There are Berliners who don’t even know what happens each year in Treptower Park. Some people who watched the film couldn’t believe it was shot in Berlin.

Before anyone knew what would happen, you were among the first to recognise what was going on in Ukraine. In 2014, you were on the Maidan as the events were unfolding.

As soon as we heard what was happening on the Maidan, me and my assistant grabbed the cameras and went there. We bought tickets via Istanbul and were in Kyiv right away.

And you knew, right away, it would be a film?

Yes, of course. If I start to shoot something, it will be a film. And I always have some spare footage for a future film.

How do you know where to start on a project like that?

It is a feeling inside. If you understand, you have an inside feeling to formulate your thoughts and to make a film.

It’s such compelling footage. There is no commentary and you use very long uninterrupted takes. It makes viewers feel as if they were actually there, like an immersive documentary.

To ban somebody, to boycott the possibility for someone to talk, that’s an act of aggression… what is the logic of that?

I like your definition of an immersive documentary… When I was young, Soviet state cinema produced a lot of documentaries. 95-99 percent were pure propaganda: with strong orchestral music and narration on top explaining what is right, what is wrong, what kind of behaviour was appropriate. My style is maybe a reaction against that. I wanted to remove the explanations. I’ve never used voice overs. Also, by shooting reality from the point of view of the spectators, I offer viewers the chance to uncover what has happened for themselves. That is my credo.

You trust the audience to figure it out.

It is impossible to talk to someone whom you do not trust. It makes no sense. You have to trust. Can you imagine a world where everyone saw things the way I do?

Image: Victory Day

It is very interesting how unsettling your films are, the viewers can choose what they make out of it. They are left to make their conclusions.

I made a State Funeral about Stalin’s funeral. And after the release of the film in Russia, some journalists asked the audience for their opinion. And the opinions were divided 50/50. Some thought these times were a horror. The others said Stalin was a great person, and what a shame he died and how good the film was. I am fine with this reaction. I do not want to push them. That would be propaganda, to change opinion in a direct way. I would like to nudge the audience to reflect. Maybe the same people would later watch this film and agree, yes, this was a horror.

You made a film about propaganda, Revue.

It was an experiment. I looked at Soviet propaganda films and interrogated the methods they used. Often, they were done absolutely beautifully – those films were shot by fantastic cameramen – but the content can destroy you. For me, it was a good exercise; I used imagery and revealed how propaganda works in order to fight it. It turned out really well. If you come across it, I recommend it.

What do you think about the calls from some Ukrainians not to engage with Russian culture anymore, not to screen Russian films?

It is not new. Do you remember Stefan Zweig’s memoirs which he wrote in 1939? There is a chapter about World War I, when he describes the same situation when Germans forbade Shakespeare, and the other side, the French and British, forbade Wagner to be performed forever. The same happens now. It is just the same stupid things people do. I can understand why because they feel pain in the face of the horror of what Russians are doing, and people equate Russian authorities with Russian culture. It’s pure ignorance. They blame Russian cultural leaders and artists and composers and writers as if they had created the circumstances for barbarism to grow. Recently a choir who had fled from Mariupol performed songs in Berlin, both in the Russian and the Ukrainian language. And some Ukrainians who always lived here and had never even been to Mariupol under shelling started fighting against this choir, saying, ‘How did they dare to use the Russian language?’ What idiots.

In February, you resigned from the European Film Academy when you felt they’d failed to properly condemn Russia’s invasion. Then in March, you were expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy, which called you a “cosmopolitan” filmmaker. Do you feel caught between the two sides?

I looked at Soviet propaganda films – those films were shot by fantastic cameramen – but the content can destroy you.

The folks in the Ukrainian Film Academy who made this decision to expel me, obviously don’t want to be a part of the EU – because the idea of the EU is a cosmopolitan one. These people prefer to have their national identity. But I think the actual reason was my public stance against the boycott of all Russian filmmakers and all Russian films. I said this ‘carpet bombing’ against all artists was stupid. Russian soldiers killed, looted, raped: they are barbarians. But to answer that barbarism with an attack on people in culture would be another barbarism. To ban somebody, to boycott the possibility for someone to talk, that’s an act of aggression – and it’s coming from people of culture against their brothers in the profession… what is the logic of that? Russian [Uzbek-born] director Askold Kurov made a film about [the Ukrainian and activist film director] Oleg Sentsov, who had been jailed and tried. He took great personal risks to shoot it. No Ukrainian director had made the film. And now you say I need to boycott him? Sorry, I won’t. It is dangerous. It reminds me of Soviet times.

Photo: Luca Godec

You’re a Russian speaker born in the Soviet Union who lives in Berlin. Do you feel Ukrainian?

I am a cosmopolitan. I did a DNA test and realised that my ancestors are buried in Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Scythia, Greece and the Balkans. I do not know who I am, because I have blood from so many places. I connect with the entire world. I feel very well in Berlin, in Venice, in Paris, in Kyiv. In Cannes! (laughs)

Your new film which premiered in Cannes this year takes its title from a work by W.G. Sebald On the Natural History of Destruction. It is about the bombing of cities…

I started working on this film in 2017. Can you imagine? It was not meant to comment on this war. This documentary is about the Allied destruction of German cities during WWII. And about the concept of terrorising civilians, killing and causing mass destruction as a weapon of war. This concept still exists. Over 80 years, very few intellectuals have reflected on this idea. That is why the title was borrowed from Sebald’s book.

Sebald writes about the near-impossibility of describing devastation on that scale. And also about the strange silence about it in post-war German literature. In Germany that shift of perspective on WWII – from perpetrator to victim – is still controversial…

Well, I am not afraid of that because I am a foreigner. I can make mistakes. I would like to help. And that is how I show my gratitude. In this way, I can express my gratitude to Germany.

You’ve made a lot of films using archive material. You said State Funeral showed the roots of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Do you see the roots of another collapse today – of another dangerous empire?

What I see is a problem which I think can be defined as chronological. We think we all live at one time, but different territories live in different eras simultaneously, and different cultures exist at different times simultaneously. One person lives in the Middle Ages, the other in the 19th century, and some – in the 22nd century. All at the same time.

You think there are multiple times overlapping with one another?

We don’t realise because we are globally interconnected, but some parts of the world are in the 19th century: Putin’s speeches are 19th-century speeches. For them it works, but it is ridiculous for our times. The documentary I made about Victory Day is a film about identity, you see how, when the people come inside the “altar”, they cross themselves. But this is an atheist monument! It’s like they believe in multiple gods at once. They think they are Christians, but they’re pagans.

I use this Soviet song “With what does motherland start?” This is about identifying as a victim. The Soviet War Memorial is a mass grave, where a lot of unknown people lie. Why is it important that they’re unknown? Because the bones could be yours. This is a common grave that looks like that of an emperor and, viewing it, you can become an emperor. This moment contains a kind of mythology and mysticism.
I believe in progress. But the war happening now is a complete regression. Who wants to fight? Who wants to die for a piece of earth? What is the reason to attack? Why do Russian people need Mariupol? Do they really need the Sea of Azov? It’s from the past. They’re sending greetings from the Middle Ages.

BIO: Sergei Loznitsa was born in the Soviet Union, in today’s Belarus, but grew up in Kyiv. In 2008, he came to Berlin, using his Wilmersdorf flat as his base when not travelling to look through international archives or attending film festivals. His feature films have competed for the Palme d’Or and the Berlinale Bear. He has made a series of archival documentaries on subjects such as the Siege of Leningrad, Soviet propaganda, Stalin’s funeral and the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar in Kyiv. In May 2022, his latest film – On the Natural History of Destruction – premiered at Cannes. In his 2014 documentary Maidan, he captured some of the most remarkable footage of the protests which brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovych.