Monday, May 11, 2009

Loznitsa at AFA: Revue

Much of the old school 1950’s Soviet propaganda could be called timeless, because it is as convincing today as when it was first broadcast—not very. Yet, it had a distinct aesthetic which continues to inspire misguided alternative rock bands to this day. Russian documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa returned to the vaults for his latest film, Revue, which cannily juxtaposes clips of Soviet-era propaganda films, while prompting little nostalgia for the system that produced them. This shrewd window into the age of glorious five-year plans begins its premiere New York run this Wednesday as part of the Anthology Film Archive’s Loznitsa retrospective.

Like Loznitsa’s previous film Blockade, Revue avoids telling viewers what to think through either narration or talking head interviews, striving instead to recreate the milieu of a certain historical experience. While Blockade might have had a troubling moment or two, it is in fact a respectful portrayal of the conditions endured by the people of St. Petersburg, who unquestionably suffered and died during the War. In contrast, Revue is much more subversive in its approach, evoking the experience of consuming images scrupulously selected and carefully refracted through a political prism to serve the interests of the Party.

Loznitsa’s editorial decisions clearly illustrate the fleeting and contradictory nature of these party-line films. Obviously, the official imprimatur would expire for comrade Khrushchev’s address shortly after it was filmed. At different times, we also hear of two recognized community leaders both described as take-charge kind of leaders. One is a private citizen, likened to the Czar for his supposed arrogance in a woefully didactic stage play. The other is a policeman, celebrated as a hero for the same qualities of intelligence and decisiveness in a state news broadcast. In a glaringly unfortunate scene, he takes an accused criminal into the Katyn woods of all places, to give him a good talking to.

In Revue, Loznitsa shows a fondness for footage of traditional folk music troupes, which still have a certain charm, and highly politicized theater productions, which remain largely unwatchable. The exception is the finale: a huge, bombastic production of the glorious revolution lumbering across the stage like a Communist version of Les Miz. At least that was a real show.

Loznitsa’s archival films are intriguing time-capsules from a dark period in history. While Blockade has the more dramatic imagery, Revue is a more inventive work, attempting to deconstruct Soviet propaganda with its very words and images. Both films should fascinate Russophobes and Russophiles alike, during AFA’s Loznitsa series starting Wednesday (5/13).