Sergei Loznitsa is becoming more well known in the film world for his foreboding dramas with two excellent feature films currently under his belt. In the Fog (2012) and My Joy (2010) are strong dramas, highlighting the emotional turmoil of war in the former and solitude in the latter. This release sees three of Loznitsa’s documentaries being released by New Wave Films, all of which go some way to highlighting the director’s areas of interests and feed in well into his feature films.
The trilogy have some basic ties in that they all look into the ethnography of the Russian people and how elements of this society have formed and act. All three approach these aspects in very different, almost polar ways and could easily be by three different directors. Loznitsa’s approach is specific and calculated, very rarely using music and creating a pure form of cinema. Two of the documentaries are put together using archive footage (some of which is unseen before) while the final one is a full Loznitsa created project.
It’s worth looking at the documentaries, not in the order they were released, but in the order of which the footage is originally shot. This puts 2006’s Blockade as the earliest film which is built up from footage of the siege of Stalingrad or, more specifically, the preparations before the siege began. The footage is visually startling, being highly contrasted and showing all sorts of textures; both in what is filmed (snow, rubble etc) and in the actual grain of the film itself.
Blockade is preoccupied with these siege preparations and only briefly towards end shows the beginning of the attacks; the documentary builds to something it never ends up showing. In this sense, the film is refreshing as it shows the aspects often overlooked in other documentaries that focus on the horror rather than the simple logistics. It seems far more humanistic because of this. Loznitsa seems more in curatorial position for Blockade and Revue (2008). His precision with how the archive material is used is perfect but the sense of his directorial role is hard to grasp when he really has no control over exactly what was shot.
These two documentaries in particular stand out, simply for their openness and honesty in terms of cinema. No musical score accompanies the films, with only the real sound of Revue and some sound for Blockade adding to the movement of the visuals. Some of this footage will have no doubt made its way into series such as The World At War (1973) but Loznitsa trusts the visuals far more than such documentaries, allowing the footage to breath and not to be dictated or affected by emotionally guiding music.
Revue is in itself an interesting collection of snapshots and propaganda. In some ways it seems like the Russian equivalent to Humphrey Jennings with an optimistic strive at its core. Loznitsa seems to have got past some obvious brave facing on show in Revue with some witty editing, putting most of the sickly communist propaganda together meaning it becomes ironic, especially in the context if viewed after Landscape (2003).
This minimal aesthetic is carried over for Landscape; the oldest of the documentaries in a technical sense but youngest in terms of footage. Landscape is digital and makes a stark contrast to the grainy, physical nature of Revue and Blockade. It carries on its role of ethnographic study but concentrates on the older generation (i.e. the same generation who were probably in the older footage of Revue) as they wait for a bus.
The camera is constantly moving in a circular motion with some clever cuts to allow a movement to a new place or scenario, recalling the circular movements in Laura Mulvley’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), coincidently also being released on the same day. The camera captures hints and snippets of conversation, some being almost too characteristic to seem real. Landscape isn’t specifically about a geographical landscape but a social one, summing up a number of pressures on the older generation.
As the bus arrives, visual and audible chaos ensues as people fight to get on it. This vehicle’s presence seems almost mythical and is the only thing to disrupt the film’s constant tracking. For the most part, it seems a gentle nudge at the issues underneath the conversations and situation but it is never addressed (aptly so as both of the other documentaries shy away at the final moment from the main historical events).
All three hint at that observational style of the likes of Dziga Vertov though rarely take the visual plunge and risks that films like Man With a Movie Camera (1929) show. Instead Loznitsa shows himself to be a trusting, far more minimal director with an eye for cinematic rhythm and a strict sense of purpose.
Blockade, Landscape and Revue are released on the 23rd of September.