Saturday, May 09, 2009

Loznitsa at AFA: Blockade

The early 1940’s were not a fun time to be Russian. Even if you survived your own government, there was still a war going on with Germany. From September 9, 1941 to January 18, 1944, the National Socialists had what was then known as Leningrad effectively cordoned off in hopes of starving out the city. Life was indeed hard for Leningraders, as can be seen in Sergei Loznitsa’s Blockade, which screens at the Anthology Film Archives next week as part of a retrospective dedicated to the director.

Eschewing many of the traditional techniques of documentary filmmaking like voice-over narration and interview segments, Loznitsa assembled Blockade entirely from clips of rare Soviet films languishing in the vaults of the St. Petersburg Studio of Documentary Films. Although all the footage was originally silent, Loznitsa created a soundtrack designed to recreate a sense of life at that time, under those circumstances. It was not always pretty.

While Loznitsa starts with scenes of the fortification process, we soon see more disturbing sights, including the parading of German POW’s down Leningrad’s boulevards to facilitate their public humiliation. As the siege continues, corpses become a common sight, literally piling up in the street, necessitating disposal in mass graves.

Even in this scarcely seen footage unearthed by Loznitsa, the aesthetics of Soviet propaganda remains pervasive. The average Soviet Russians are frequently seen dramatically dwarfed by the Soviet monuments, military hardware, and the ever-present propaganda posters. Of course, there is a war on, so most of the diminutive figures we see are the stereotypical matronly Russian women and withered old men.

Blockade is an eerie film of starkly beautiful images. It conveys an impressionistic sense of a city enduring conditions of war, starvation, extreme need, and bitter cold. While it might have been a miserable time for the individual, it proved quite amenable for an oppressive regime whose authority could not be questioned. It screens at AFA as part of their Loznitsa retrospective from Wednesday the 13th through the following Tuesday.