Berlin Film Festival 2018:
Sergei Loznitsa’s Victory Day
by Clara Miranda Scherffig
In southeast Berlin, close to the Spree River and hidden by thriving sycamore trees, lies one of the most spectacular spots of the city, unknown even to many local residents. It is the Treptower Park Soviet War Memorial, built in 1949 to honor the 7,000 Russian soldiers who lost their lives in the Red Army's victory over Nazi Berlin during WWII. Its understated, unexpected entrance—an ascending promenade surrounded by willows—leads to a monumental display of architectonic craft: two colossal red granite flags loom, at half-mast, over statues of grieving soldiers, and in the far distance a geometrical Italian-style garden opens to a gigantic sculpture of a soldier. He is standing on a swastika with his sword unsheathed; the podium to the statue is a small, erected crypt. Marble bas-reliefs all around the garden depict the story of the Soviet people.
“For me death is total symmetry,” Sergei Loznitsa told me about the architecture featured in his previous documentary, Austerlitz (2016), shot in the concentration camp-turned-tourist attraction in Sachsenhausen, Germany. With his new film, Victory Day, the Belarus-born, Ukrainian-raised director continues the research started with Maidan (2014) and developed further with the found-footage masterpiece The Event (2015) and most recently, Austerlitz. Loznitsa is an assiduous practitioner of observational cinema. One may even argue that his nonfiction filmmaking is to the study of spaces charged with political memory what Frederick Wiseman is to the exploration of institutions. For the first time, Loznitsa focuses on his adoptive city, Berlin, and yet does so by concentrating on a very Russian event, the 9th of May or Victory Day—when Germany declared its surrender in 1946, still a celebrated date in many countries of the former Soviet bloc and once a holiday in the GDR. Today it is the Soviet Memorial that attracts visitors from all over Berlin and beyond. Just like for Austerlitz, Loznitsa allowed himself just one day of shooting, to record the mundane passing of time in a place whose main duty is to precisely behold history. Here, again, meticulous sound recording and mixing confuses the crowd’s voices in favor of faces, letting the viewer wander through the images as though she or he were also a visitor. Different types of commemorations initially unfold as though part of a scheduled dramaturgy, even if it’s later clear that Loznitsa has constructed it this way, repeatedly cutting to certain scenes for rhythmic effect. As people move en masse toward the crypt, three young girls dressed in brown army costumes pop out like disoriented members of a time-travel expedition. The red carnations carried by many attendees sparkle among the gray crowd like lanterns of a lost epoch. At moments, it feels like rather than the audience, history itself is observing.
“Why are we German? I’m Russian and German,” asks a faceless voice several minutes into the film, a hint of Europeanism that is soon counterbalanced by the rhetoric of old-school nationalism. Regardless of whether it comes from the far-left Staatenlos—the “stateless,” who claim Germany is still a Nazi country—or it’s embodied by tough-looking bikers paying homage to the bravery of Kazakh soldiers in WWII, one wonders: is there any acceptable modern form of nationalism? Before we start taking that question seriously, it has already transfigured into confused nostalgia. “Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Belarusians all fought together next to each other during the war!” shouts someone into a microphone, just as the camera lingers on a man wearing a T-shirt with a Men in Black-like portrait of Putin in sunglasses that reads “Mr. President.” In the performance of Treptower Park, patriotism itself speaks English.
Victory Day evinces a lighter approach than Austerlitz, as the occasion clearly allows for some humor. Unlike that film, Victory Day is in color, better to highlight the cultural emblems against the dark palettes of the monument. The video texture is dense, porous—rich despite the grey sky and the uniforms—saturated just enough to deceive our sense of the present. Two young men dressed up as WWII soldiers stand parallel to a third who reads aloud the names of those fallen in battle. Rain pours down. Suddenly one of the organizers steps onstage and brusquely moves one of the soldiers to the left, as though he’s a child or animal that won’t behave in a group photo. The absolute symmetry that Loznitsa says he associated with death in regards to Austerlitz is now mocked, rather sympathetically, as the fourth wall breaks both for the participants of the commemoration and the viewers of the documentary. Evidently, the obsession with composition that inspired the Soviet architecture of the memorial informs not only the choreography of the event but also Loznitsa's recording of it, in what might be a rare, probably incidental, act of self-consciousness. Normally a filmmaker so rigorous in building the mise-en-scène (for instance fixing the focus on architectural elements instead of visitors at Sachsenhausen's concentration camp, or in Maidan, framing barricades, people and buildings in hierarchical layers), Loznitsa here sometimes gives in to his camera’s fascination with the crowd. Close-ups of the bas-reliefs depicting Stalin or the achievements of the Soviets in strict perspective are frequently juxtaposed with messy ensembles of people drinking, dancing, waiting—images without geometric order or architectural detail. In these, Loznitsa’s gaze appears to be charmed by human figures, thus losing control over the space, a temporary infatuation with public demonstration of cultural identity that briefly allows us to relax and enjoy the view.
Among the crowd,some groups attract the camera more than others. Women with traditional headscarves perform the popular song “Katyusha,” singing and dancing with each other, drawing invisible lines with the graceful movements of their heavy, aging bodies. Everyone is captivated: the viewer, the audience, even Loznitsa. The subjects/observers of this improvised show are tourists, Russians, random visitors, all holding their phone cameras toward the dancers. Loznitsa’s gaze is no different in its compulsion to record. On the other side of the crowd we catch a glimpse of the crew: one cameraman and a sound recordist. From Kiev’s main square in Maidan, to St. Petersburg’s streets during the 1991 attempted coup in The Event, to Sachsenhausen's sinister stream of tourists in Austerlitz, Loznitsa has favored places where it was possible to “camouflage” the equipment and the ethical dilemma it produced. To reveal himself here—the film filming itself—is a spontaneous rather than radical move. Editing remains Loznitsa’s signature. Shortly before the end of the documentary, we see a child forced to wear the traditional army uniform—the same spotted at the beginning on the young girls. His parents insist; he bursts into tears. In the background, drunks loudly begin to gather; techno turbo-folk replaces traditional music. The kid, finally wearing his costume, walks around reluctantly while other visitors line up to be photographed in front of the sculpture of Mother Homeland. Older generations still believe in symbols of national identity, but younger generations are firmly opposed to them. At the same time, both act in near obedience to the space, if only for the sake of the performance. At least that’s what Loznitsa’s chronology of the events suggests. We are left with the freedom to decide whether it reflects the true course of things or if it is just one reading among many.