The Belarus-born, Ukraine-raised, and now Germany-based filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has emerged over the past decade as one of the great chroniclers of Russia (and the USSR), in both documentary and fiction film. Having started out making dialogue-free, narrative-less documentaries, ranging in style from minimalist and observational to highly formalist, since 2010 he has made a successful move into fiction filmmaking without losing his documentarian instinct. Always visually arresting, his films often depict collective life in isolated rural communities, and highlight the other side of the post-socialist economic boom, while making a point of not romanticising the past. More than anything, his cinema has consistently set its roots firmly in the history, culture, and geography of the vast Russian lands.
The early days:
After initially gaining a degree in mechanical engineering from Kiev Polytechnic University, Loznitsa signed up in the early 1990s for a directing course at the legendary VGIK film institute in Moscow. Upon graduation, he travelled extensively across Russia, and began making independent low-budget documentaries in black-and-white, starting with his first film Today We Are Going to Build a House. A record of weary, aging builders over one day at a deserted construction site, it introduced certain recurring traits of his, particularly in its distant camera placement and use of post-synced sound effects.
His next film Life, Autumn was a widescreen paean to pastoral peasant life in rural Western Russia, portrayed with formal techniques that would be put to more potent use in later films. The soft-focus lens gave an incandescent halo to the black-and-white images; the timeless anachronistic feel (the scenes looked like they could as easily be from the 1920s), and inter-title headings (‘Morning’, ‘Winter’, ‘Life’) interspersing vignettes of the repetitive daily routines of the villagers, gave the film a cyclical rhythm; finally the lack of young faces amid these pre-industrial visions of a Russia slowly eroding on itself marked a requiem-like melancholy that would suffuse through much of Loznitsa’s work.
Of greater originality was his third documentary short, The Halt, a hypnotic 20 minutes inside the waiting room of a minor rural railway station, where travellers, perhaps waiting for the next morning’s train, huddled together and dozed off. The elision of any dialogue or narrative pushed more formal aspects to the forefront: the sounds of passing trains, chirruping crickets and dogs howling in the distance; the way static tableaux compositions of bodies sleeping and resting in this cramped shelter made the film a living, breathing (and snoring) painting; and once again the hazy soft-focus giving the visuals a fitting dreamlike quality. On a more implicit level, the questions induced by the film (What are these people waiting for? Where are they going? What are they dreaming of?) were pertinent to Loznitsa’s interest in the collective unconscious of the Russian people.
Consolidating on all his work thus far was The Settlement, his first feature-length film. At first seeming like a reprise of Life, Autumn with its scenes of everyday work on what appears to be a rural farm commune, it challenged our perceptions and preconceptions, by gradually revealing the setting to be a psychiatric institution, the peasants in fact patients and their daily chores a therapy programme. Without any dialogue, narration or on-screen text, its often static, distant long-takes were a test of observational patience but also a study in an abandoned community, stuck in the past, marginalised and forgotten by the new Russia.
His following two medium-length documentaries marked a breakthrough, establishing Loznitsa’s reputation for formally inspired and wistful depictions of provincial Russia. Portrait was built up of static, black-and-white long-shots of rural workers, peasants and various others encountered by Loznitsa on his roadtrips across the Russian countryside. Its gallery-like quality, framing its subjects in frozen poses with only a faint soundtrack of hissing wind and occasional dog howls, made it a visual census in the manner of the photography of August Sander in inter-war Germany. In bringing a similar taxonomic discernment to his camera, Loznitsa like Sander captured a social group in the midst of changing irretrievably, if not disappearing altogether.
Even more impressive was Loznitsa’s next film, Landscape. His first film in colour, it extended his formalist concerns through a series of virtuosic left-to-right pans around rural Russians waiting at a village bus-stop. The uninterrupted circular motion introduces the precisely choreographed camera movement which would become a trademark, but the most important novelty compared to previous work was that the people on-screen were now given a voice. A soundtrack of multiple conversations, chattering about variously grim topics from alcoholism to neighbours beating their wives, was juxtaposed over the images without us ever being sure who is speaking, giving a dizzying sense that these utterances are coming from nowhere in particular, or may be internal thoughts. Again, the lack of young faces in the crowd was a reminder of mass migration to urban areas in Russia, making Loznitsa’s formal tour-de-force a Bruegel-ian, even at times Bosch-ian, canvas of a marginalised social underclass.
For the next phase of his career, Loznitsa recorded the lives of various communities in minimalist, observational films, each immersive, dialogue-less and deliberately bordering towards banality. In Factory, the working men and women of an outdated metal factory were depicted, amidst furnace fires and industrial noise, as mechanised cogs rather than the once-sacred heroes of the Soviet revolution. For Artel and Northern Light, Loznitsa travelled to the far north, filming isolated communities of fishermen and villagers persisting with their traditional and tough daily routines. (Loznitsa once remarked: “Ten years from now there will be no villages in the traditional form. The way of life is changing. That is why documentary filmmakers are in a hurry to capture this process.”) The cinematography of Artel, shot in black-and-white, particularly stood out with its beautiful, bleak theatre of arctic landscape in static long-takes, punctuated by fade-outs.
With Blockade, Loznitsa shifted towards the archival documentary mode, editing together previously censored footage of St Petersburg’s devastating 28-month siege during WW2. Looking beyond the mythology of resistance and courageous suffering, the incredible historical material shows us a city slowly dying, its citizens barricaded in and starving, those still alive barely more than desperate ghosts numb to the corpses lying on the streets around them. An episodic structure also covers the army’s defensive measures, the aerial bombing of the city, and ends with the liberation parades and fireworks – bitterly undercut by the ensuing mass executions of German soldiers. Attentive to the potential of sound as ever, Loznitsa used state-of the-arts technology to record brand new audio tracks of noises and sound effects, and sync them to the images, providing an eerie immersion into this past brought back to life.
Expanding on this ‘found-footage’ approach and tackling themes hinted at in The Halt, Revue was another investigation into how history has shaped the Russian psyche. Television programs, newsreels, and propaganda films of the 1950s and ‘60s were treated as raw material to map an inventory of the collective memories of Soviet life, and compiled alongside archival reportage showing the bleak realities in the fields and factories. Without any voiceover, the gap between the Soviet project’s vision of itself and the actuality of things was demonstrated, and shown to rely on the performative element dictating the everyday lives of people forced to display a happy face for the gaze of others. Loznitsa’s raid on the old Soviet vaults rescued footage from oblivion to form a time-capsule, both frightening and oddly funny, confronting history’s clichéd stereotypes and handed-down memories.
The move to fiction film:
After a decade establishing himself as an innovative and formalist documentarian, Loznitsa made his long-planned fiction debut, My Joy. A wickedly black-humoured take on the road-trip genre (an ill-fated taciturn trucker trekking across the Russian backroads and hinterland of Loznitsa’s earlier docs), it catapulted his reputation by making the official selection at Cannes, where most critics read it as a scathing state-of-the-nation attack on Russia today (although a couple of flashbacks to WW2-era USSR are clearly there to deter from ‘rosy-past’ nostalgia). More fascinating however, and elevating the film beyond political criticism, were its cinematography and approach to narrative.
Having found a perfect collaborator in Romanian DP Oleg Mutu, Loznitsa’s eye for structured imagery was in full flow, intertwining complex tracking shots and widescreen multi-plane compositions (including one shot from a truck’s windscreen telling at least three stories simultaneously) with an intensity-heightening long-take tempo. His interest for the collective over the individual translated over from his documentaries into a digressive storytelling style, as Mutu’s camera shifted attention from our central (but de-centred) trucker, onto random passers-by unconnected to the plot, taking in their stories, before later looping back to our protagonist. One scene in a crowded marketplace, recalling the mobile long-takes of Landscape, sees the camera take on a mind of its own in search of a new character to follow. Creating ethical and philosophical ramifications, this was fiction-film inflected with Loznitsa’s formalist and innovative non-narrative-film affinity. Few films manage to be as morally pessimistic, and yet as artistically and aesthetically impressive, as My Joy was.
For his second fiction film In the Fog, Loznitsa turned to a literary giant from his native Belarus, adapting Vasil’ Bykau’s WW2 novella into an atmospheric depiction of the moral quandary of ordinary men trapped within extraordinary conditions. A three-flashback structure, reminiscent of the wartime flashbacks in My Joy, fleshed out the arc of a stoical railway-worker wrongly accused of being a Nazi collaborator in a narrative that debunks as myth such deeply-held notions as partisan heroism and martyrdom. Resistance fighters were shown to be motivated by the pettiest of impulses, and survivor’s guilt as the most grimly consuming of fates. Loznitsa’s once-again meticulous attention to sound design, the long-take mise-en-scene and Mutu’s photography (including a brilliant opening tracking-shot) meant the film captivated long after its fog-enshrouded finale. However, as a contemporary response to older Soviet classics about the Nazi occupation by the likes of Larisa Shepitko, Elem Klimov, and Aleksey German, it was inevitably more conventional than Loznitsa’s fiction debut.
A return to history, past and present:
Loznitsa then returned to his documentary roots, beginning with Letter, which directly linked back to his earlier films like The Settlement, conflating the Soviet past with the post-socialist present by presenting once again a psychiatric institution marginalised out in the depths of the countryside. Visually it also referred back to Loznita’s first films with its soft focus, blurred edges, and long shots, but without particularly adding anything groundbreakingly new.
Maidan however felt like taking old interests (the collective, the march of history) into a new direction. Shot with a digital camera over three months at Independence Square in Kiev during the winter of 2013/14, it was an immersive chronicle of the populist movement by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians against the pro-Moscow President Yanukovych’s decision to discard negotiations with the EU, in favour of closer ties with Russia. What begins as peaceful, civil demonstrations during the first 45 minutes of long-take fixed-camera shots, later turns into mobile, immersive footage of riots and police attacks with rubber bullets and smoke bombs. Finally, the film ends with a look back at the price paid fighting for society’s fight for freedom, with shots of the makeshift memorial services for those who lost their lives during the protests. Throughout, the emphasis was on the collective, the wide-shots taking in a sea of faces or an array of people moving in and out of frame, and never singling out individuals; this was the unified action of a people as one, a collective organism struggling together at the central square of the capital city, the heart of the nation.
Documentarian, fiction filmmaker, and on-the-ground chronicler; Loznitsa’s various guises already attest to the versatility of his career, which nonetheless forms a consistent body of work with themes and concerns which echoing and informing each other across many films. His future projects show no sign of him shedding his ambition, nor his interest in the past, with a fiction film about the 1941 Babi Yar genocide of Ukrainian Jews announced as his next feature.
Loznitsa’s films can be classed alongside such ambitious and intellectually serious Russian art cinema as the films of Aleksei German, Kira Muratova, or Andrey Zvyagintsev (who has expressed his admiration for My Joy), while In the Fog showed he was clearly aware of a heritage of Soviet/Russian war films. His recurring collaboration with DP Oleg Mutu and actor Vlad Ivanov suggest he may well be an admirer of the recent Romanian ‘new wave’.
For someone whose work is so full of carefully composed cinematography and visual texture, particularly in the early use of black-and-white and soft focus, photography (Sander, the Bechers) and perhaps painting are clearly points of reference. However, his primary source of inspiration seems to be the Russian people, their collective history, and the way their past manifests itself in the present. It is tempting to link his documentary work to the lengthy tradition in Russia and the USSR stretching back to the 1920s, including Esfir Shub’s early compilations of historical stock footage, as well as his Ukrainian predecessor Alexander Dovzhenko, who made several films about disappearing communities in a time of growing industrialisation.
In more contemporary terms, it may be useful to compare his documentaries with the formalism of someone like James Benning or the meditative, observational work of Wang Bing. He also shares an affinity, and has collaborated with, some Lithuanian and Belarussian directors from his own generation, such as Šarunas Bartas, Audrius Stonys, or Viktar Asliuk.
An introductory spree of The Halt, Landscape, Revue and My Joy could be an ideal primer for getting to grips with Loznitsa’s style and thematic sensibility.