Interview: Sergei Loznitsa on Babi Yar. Context
This article appeared in the April 7, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, 2022)
Sergei Loznitsa’s a new documentary about the execution of thousands of people, most of them Jews, during the German occupation of Kyiv in World War II opened in American theaters on April 1. Exactly one month earlier, on March 1, 2022, a Russian bomb exploded at the site of the Babi Yar memorial in Kyiv, as the Russian army was trying to destroy a nearby TV tower. Looking at photographs of the aftermath of that explosion, or of the bodies of people executed more recently by Russian soldiers in the town of Bucha, it is difficult to resist the temptation to conflate the images of Ukraine now with those of the country during the Nazi invasion. Bearing witness to violence occurring in the same place again and again can create a potentially overwhelming feeling of anger and anguish. Recognizing and articulating the differences between historical circumstances—to better grapple with a traumatic legacy and defend the country’s future not only from invaders, but also from blind vengeance or despair—takes enormous effort.
This effort is something that Ukraine’s Film Academy seems incapable of: on March 18, the Academy expelled Loznitsa, citing his insufficient commitment to “his national identity” and refusal to indiscriminately boycott all Russian films. Undoubtedly, Loznitsa also offended many in the Ukrainian film community by including scenes of Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi forces in Babi Yar. Context, which is composed entirely of archival footage of the massacre and the events around it. Any mention of this past collaboration seems to be unacceptable at a time when Vladimir Putin is citing “denazification” as one of the pretexts for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Babi Yar. Context is not about present-day Ukraine, but it can still teach us how to look at the current war: how to process the images of suffering without being paralyzed by pain or consumed by uncritical hatred. Loznitsa’s own hope, as he told me, is that the footage in his forthcoming film about the 1946 “Kyiv Trial” of German war criminals (who appear in Babi Yar) might serve as a model for a future trial of Russian war criminals after Ukraine’s victory.
I spoke to Loznitsa about his epic reconstruction of a decisive historical moment in Babi Yar. Context, which arrives in the U.S. along with two other recent films by the prolific director: Mr. Landsbergis, an archival excavation of the collapse of the Soviet Union’s hold on Lithuania, received its U.S. premiere just weeks ago in March, while Loznitsa’s episodic, polyvocal narrative feature Donbass will also finally open in the U.S. on April 15, nearly four years after its Cannes premiere.
Are you filming the war in Ukraine?
Not yet. After all, films do not start this way. A film must germinate in your consciousness as an abstract idea first, and only then will you be able to execute it. What is important right now is to record everything that is taking place and to amass as much material as possible. And the method of working with this material will emerge later, out of the material itself.
And at the moment, I have other obligations: there are two other films I am working on. I have just completed The Kyiv Trial (Kievskij protsess), a film about the 1946 trials of Nazi war criminals. That grew out of Babi Yar. Context. I hope that a similar trial will be held after Russia capitulates, this time of the criminals in the Russian government who started this war—at least those who survive. That would be The Kyiv Trial 2.
I am also finishing On the Natural History of Destruction, a film about the carpet bombings of Germany and other countries during World War II. This work is an exploration of the practice of using aviation and carpet bombing against civilian populations, and the idea of exploiting civilians as a war resource. This happened in Chechnya—in Grozny—and in Syria, and now it is something that we are witnessing in Ukraine.
Your film The Trial (2018) is based on widely circulated footage of the 1930 Stalinist show trial of Prompartia (the Industrial Party)—hearings that became the model for subsequent mass trials. Looking at the footage from the 1946 Kyiv trial of the German war criminals—some of which is included in Babi Yar. Context—it appears that it, too, was intended to be shown to the public. Was that footage as widely disseminated as that of the Prompartia show trials?
It was not, and this fact is very poignant. That material was used for a carefully edited 17-minute film, from which any mention of the Jews was excised. Nothing more was shown from this trial aside from these 17 minutes. And naturally, all of it was accompanied by a predictable kind of commentary. However, thanks to my discovery of [Jewish survivor of the executions in Babi Yar] Dina Pronicheva’s testament, I was able to track down and find more footage of this trial, which was being held in the Krasnogorsk Film Archive in Russia. Without a doubt, this material is a real treasure, just like the footage of the Prompartia trial, which I also found there. So, I decided to make an entire film out of it.
As for why this material was abandoned—I’ve encountered a lot of reels that were simply left to collect dust on a shelf, without anyone ever returning to look at them. However, in the case of this footage [of the Kyiv Trial], I think the reason it was abandoned has to do with the frequent mentions of the murders of the Jewish population of Ukraine. Among other facts, it contains a mention of the killing of 3,000 Jewish children born to mixed marriages in Mariupol. However, the footage might have also been shelved because Stalin lost interest in it. He organized the Kyiv Trial as an attempt to anticipate the Nuremberg Trials. And once Nuremberg happened, it eclipsed all the Soviet trials, so the desire to publicize these crimes dissipated.
On March 18, the Ukrainian Film Academy issued a statement expelling you from their ranks for being a “cosmopolitan” and for not emphasizing Ukrainian identity sufficiently. Could you tell me what happened?
I do not know what happened. One fine day I learned from the press that I had been expelled from this wonderful academy for being a cosmopolitan. This is all very funny, of course. But I think that the main reason for this decision was my refusal to boycott the Russian film directors who have consistently opposed Putin and his regime. I don’t support either a wholesale boycott of Russian culture or cultural war in general. Such boycotts are meaningless: they do not help anyone, and bring nothing but harm to all. Waging a war against culture is tantamount to waging a war against wind or ocean––it is impossible, for culture permeates everything. Culture is far bigger than any film. And waging a campaign against the films that are seen by 0.5, or, at best, one percent of the world’s filmgoers is especially absurd.
I will give a simple example. My friend Askold Kurov made a film about [Ukrainian director] Oleg Sentsov called The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov (2017). He took a great personal risk while working on it––I know this for a fact. And yet, he completed and toured the entire world with it. The Ukrainian Academy supported him. And now, according to their logic, we should boycott Kurov for being Russian and refuse to screen all of his films, including the one about Sentsov. This is simply amoral. I categorically oppose the boycott.
I suspect that the Ukrainian Film Academy wants to clean up its ranks during the war and to get rid of all dissenting opinions. They claim that all their members should be upholding Ukrainian national identity, but they have yet to explain how they understand this national identity, given that Ukraine is a pluralistic country. We all are Ukrainians. All the people in the world are Ukrainians right now, as long as they feel and sympathize with Ukraine’s pain.
I’ve received an avalanche of letters from my friends, acquaintances, and people completely unfamiliar to me, asking me what happened and whether the position of the Ukrainian Film Academy coincides with the position of the Ukrainian state. And I explain to everyone that it does not––this is not the position of the state or of President Zelensky. It is simply a position of a separate, specific group of people on the board of this organization. The poor souls!
As far as I understand, there were two stumbling blocks: your refusal to boycott all Russian culture on the national principle, and the fact that Babi Yar. Context displeased many members of the Ukrainian film community by showing the collaboration of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists with Nazi forces
I made an absolutely honest and sincere work about a subject that was suppressed during Soviet times and that has remained under-studied and under-researched during the last 30 years of Ukraine’s independence. All the best, most candid books about the Holocaust in the territory of the present-day Ukraine have been, by and large, by Western scholars: Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and The Reconstruction of Nations, Karel Cornelis Berkhoff’s works, and John-Paul Himka’s recent book about the participation of Ukrainian Nationalists in the Holocaust––note that he refers not to the entire Ukrainian nation, but to a very specific group of people in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
I made a film about the circumstances that accompanied the tragic and horrific execution in the Babi Yar [ravine]. For some reason, some people today decided to identify themselves with those Ukrainians who do not appear in the best light in this film. They, for some reason, think that this film is about present-day Ukraine, when Ukraine today is radically different. In any case, contemporary Ukraine is not, or at least is not yet, dominated by the ideas of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
So yes, Babi Yar. Context was met with resistance in Ukraine. This film was criticized and deemed inappropriate. But such topics are never appropriate or easy. I have been researching the history of Babi Yar and the Holocaust in the territory of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic since 2012. I even wrote a script for a feature fiction film on the subject. It just so happened that the pandemic gave me time and an opportunity to finally do a thorough search of the archives and to complete a documentary film. The fact that the release of the film coincided with what is happening now is a complete accident. Still, what matters is that the film already exists. Think about it what you like, but it exists––as a fact of art and a phenomenon of cinema.
Did you discover anything completely unexpected and surprising during your time at the archives?
I discovered, to my great surprise, the parade [of Ukrainian nationalists carrying Nazi flags] in Stanyslaviv (now Ivano-Frankivsk) that took place in October of 1941. It wasn’t filmed for the purposes of propaganda; this footage was made by an amateur. I was astonished to discover not only that such a parade took place, but that it was filmed. Moreover, this parade occurred after a mass execution of the Jewish population in Ivano-Frankivsk—nearly 15,000 people were killed there.
I also found the footage of the Lviv pogroms of 1941. It is astonishing and terrifying, and I have collected all of it. I discovered the footage of the explosion that took place in Kyiv during the first days under Nazi occupation—this is absolutely unique material that I discovered in a private collection in a local, regional archive in Stuttgart. And then, again, the Kyiv Trial material, and some of the material that was filmed for Alexander Dovzhenko’s Ukraine in Flames (1943).
I’ve collected a wealth of archival material, much of which I haven’t used yet, but which may be included in my future films. For instance, I discovered unique and very strange footage of people exhuming and burning the bodies of dead German soldiers in Russia. This is astonishing material that I do not know how to even begin to interpret. It is some very strange ritual. Or, for instance, the executions: I gathered footage of all the executions that were documented during World War II, and this, too, could be developed into a film. But this is a task for another time. Right now, other questions are more important.
One of the themes you return to again and again in your work is the analysis of mass behavior, of the ways in which certain forces–religious feeling, political enthusiasm, or collective hysteria–animate society. I get the sense that your broader project is driven by an ambition to think seriously about the irrational inertia behind social phenomena.
I agree with you. I will attempt to describe our predicament: without realizing it, we are living inside conglomerates; our world has transformed into an existence within separate masses. Even when you are sitting alone at home, you just have to log into your social networks to feel the pressure and the inertia of this collective movement. I believe that our global civilization is organized by certain laws that influence our behavior. These laws should be studied, for they can be quite dangerous. I investigate precisely the events that are born out of such mass movement. But I didn’t begin to do this deliberately. I simply noticed that my films never have heroes. Instead, they show people. There is a lot that we can learn about society when we create distance from personal opinion and begin to observe the movement of large numbers instead. And subjective opinions can prevent us from recognizing the general.
Both perspectives—the point of view of an individual subject and the point of view from a distance––are very important. One of them has already been thoroughly explored: we are very familiar with the forms of dramaturgy that exist in documentary as well as in fictional cinema that are constructed around a hero. The second perspective is far less common. The very first film in which the hero is removed is Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). Another film without a hero is Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929)—it contains a central figure, but it doesn’t have a hero––and, later on, his Lullaby (1937). I have predecessors––some great predecessors. I hope it will be impossible to boycott them, for they are part of our shared world culture.
Do you know anything about what is happening to Ukrainian film archives now? Are they safe? Is there anything that the Western film community can do to help preserve their holdings?
I don’t think that saving film archives should be the first concern for Western society. Cities are being destroyed and people are getting killed. Western society should first of all demand to close the sky over Ukraine and supply the country with weapons to shoot down Russian missiles and planes. As for the archive: it is still standing, and I hope it won’t get bombed because, of course, what it contains is history. Although part of the Ukrainian film archives were moved to the Krasnogorsk archive, the film archive in Kyiv still contains parts of Ukrainian history.
What are we at risk of losing, should anything happen to it?
We are at risk of losing the works of Ukrainian film directors who worked during the Soviet period. We are at risk of losing Ukrainian newsreels. We are at risk of losing everything it contains––and that includes the material I used in Babi Yar. Context and The Kyiv Trial. I strongly hope that we will be able to defend the archive. Yet, I repeat, our primary task should be protecting the people of Ukraine. We must do everything to save the people and to put an end to this nightmare.
Translated by Anastasiya Osipova
Anastasiya Osipova is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Colorado, Boulder.