Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Loznitsa’s State Funeral

You have truly never seen so many people pretending to be sad—out of fear of reprisals. It is a cast of hundreds of thousands captured on-screen, with millions mobilized nationwide to mourn Stalin. Even in death he inconvenienced his people. His cult of personality is on full display in the archival footage intended for state-sponsored but never released documentary chronicling the dictator’s grand ceremonial farewell. That might be why little of what Ukrainian documentarian Sergei Loznitsa unearthed from old Soviet archives (some of it in color) has been seen before. Ironically, the affair looks highly ritualistic, with frequent expressions of secular faith and obedience throughout Loznitsa’s State Funeral, which opens like a real movie this Friday in New York, at Film Forum.

Throughout the far-flung Republics, towns are assembled to hear the news of Stalin’s death, with cameras there to record them reacting with abject sorrow—or else. Yet, many of the more distant villagers look confused. One can imagine them thinking of all that they endured under his tyranny and wondering: “now what?” Soon dignitaries arrive in Moscow and the Party bosses give speech after speech. Even common people are expected to pay their respects, as part of the grand show the Party puts on.

State Funeral is long (two-and-a-quarter hours), but it functions like a time capsule of Soviet experience, at the height of its intensity. At times, there are also striking similarities between the long tracking shots panning the dutiful Soviets lined up to see Stalin laying-in-state and the Russians queueing up for basic staples in Chantal Akerman’s From the East. It is like the same grim people were still standing in line thirty-nine years later.

Loznitsa’s archival documentaries are exhaustive and sometimes exhausting. He never spoon-feeds viewers or forces them into neat narrative boxes. However, in this case, it is hard to escape the scope and reach of Stalin’s personality cult. It is also rather macabre to see the plasticized corpse continuing to tower over his down-trodden people.

Cineastes watching the sinister Beria and pompous Malenkov give their eulogies will be struck by how well-cast Armando Iannucci’s
The Death of Stalin was (even if the latter was played by the now disgraced Jeffrey Tambor). State Funeral is literally the flipside of that film, documenting everything the Soviets presented to their people and outside world, while chaos reigned behind-the-scenes. Yet, dogmatic fervor it captures is still embarrassing. Recommended for fans of Loznitsa and Stalinist deep-divers, State Funeral opens theatrically this Friday (5/7), at Film Forum.