Sergei Loznitsa’s state funeral, streaming on MUBI, hypnotic postmortem from Stalin’s personality cult-Entertainment News, Firstpost
“Once meant to be an aesthetic deification of Stalin’s legacy, the tribute now looks like a startling satire on the doctrines of socialism.
When Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin died in 1953, motion picture cameras were deployed by the Communist Party to “capture” its grim funeral event in Moscow and the collective outpouring of grief in the country’s fifteen republics. The mandate was clear: to frame the death of man to define his immortality. The makers hardly suspected that their aesthetic deification of Stalin’s legacy would not be revealed until nearly seven decades later – without losing its cultural symbolism altogether. Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (In the fog, Austerlitz) restores long-lost images to create State funeral, a ghostly and daring 130-minute “documentary” composed entirely of archival footage. The story is in the way he tells.
Remarkably, Loznitsa’s dry assembly of visuals remains more or less faithful to the initially planned vision of his shoot. Gloom descends in the middle of winter, adult men and women cry, the citizens go numb, the ministers have pale faces, the silence in the streets is deafening, the processions are robotically reverent, the posters are spotless and the loud- Speakers sing sad phrases from Stalin’s “greatest genius in the history of mankind”. There is also no sign of the thousands of people being trampled to death during the mass sighting of his coffin. Mozart Requiem marks the mounting of his hearse which approaches Lenin’s mausoleum. The overall effect is haunting – and the overwhelming evidence that perhaps the only way to charge the story is to reveal its language.
As a result, what was then a sincere homage to posterity now wears the robes of a startling satire on the doctrines of socialism. The irony of time is not lost on Loznitsa. The “kind” of State funeral remains open to interpretation in 2021. What today’s Putin’s Russia might consider a serious and heartfelt film is, to the democratic world, nothing less than a hypnotic exploration of Stalin’s cult of personality. For some this film is a tragedy and for others it is a sharp parody.
Consequently, State funeral is both a museum and a work of art, both a fact and an artefact. This is conveyed by the film’s disorienting fusion of black and white and color sequences. The monochrome plans describe the composition of an earth, the color makes a statement on the landscape: the reds of the Communist USSR shine in the little saturated palettes. By showing us what the regime wanted to portray, the documentary uses hindsight to hint at what the regime hoped to hide. We now know that the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union in 1956 dissolved its cult of personality – shattering the glamor of its divine status and breaking the spell that its rule cast on an entire generation of brainwashed citizens. State funeral displays this brainwashing in its naked glory, lending sight and sound to an atmosphere of suppressed submission.
Much of the film features commoners in various modes of distress, almost as if they are struggling to exist without being told how to do so. A prolonged stretch shows hundreds of mourners queuing to spot the open casket. The camera remains on their despondent faces as they pass, but a few quick glances suggest that the shock is not so much from the sighting of the corpse as from the small size of the body itself. Some of them can’t even bear to watch, lest they be even more disillusioned with the pathetic physicality of the man for want of perceiving his image. You can almost hear them thinking, “He’s watching nothing like the man on the banners ”. Others notice the cameras filming them, visibly fearing that they will be seen as anything other than painful. The sheer whiteness of these faces allows for a curiously insightful study of the relationship between authority and obedience.
The only proof of State funeral being a “ modern ” portrayal of historical propaganda presents a sneaky insertion of moments that might never have reached a 1950s cut. For example, during Vice President Lavrentiy Beria’s public speech, we see a ephemeral photo of a minister on the podium unable to suppress a yawn. Earlier, we see curious locals retreat from their walk and look into the camera, probably wondering if this is a new method of surveillance. Then there is a section dedicated solely to the arrival of international leaders on the airport tarmac. Some of them seem a little unsure of the correct etiquette, resisting a confident or upbeat handshake when greeted by solemn Soviet officials. In these difficult times, it’s almost as if the filmmaker winks an eye and pulls us out of the trance, lest we misunderstand his purpose.
Above all, the deep dissonance of State funeral is the consequence of two things. The first is essential and entirely incidental. It’s rooted in the performative paraphernalia surrounding a high-level burial seen in a time torn by a pandemic where humans are denied the ritual dignity of dying. It is strange and disturbing to see millions of “ victims ” openly mourn someone whose deportation could have better deserved the ruthless apathy of the Covid protocols.
For Indians in particular, the lavish scale of funerals attended by poor citizens is tantamount to seeing a billion dollar vanity scheme being built in a country’s capital while its citizens are at the end of their rope.
The second, however, marries context and form. State funeral is technically a documentary, but it is inherently a dramatization built into the narration of the truth. It is the shooting of the culmination of a feature film. After all, a dictatorship often adopts the anatomy of storytelling. The staging of the fiction is indisputable. Soviet citizens are the extras conditioned to act for the cameras and fill the frames. At one point, dozens of workers are clearly being asked to stop work and respectfully remove their hats to synchronize with the sounds of a cannon salute. The other leaders of the Communist Party are deputy directors and production designers, trying to inspire the show to continue. Because the director, Joseph Stalin, is dead. If you listen very carefully towards the end, you might even hear a “CUT!” echoing in the Soviet sky. Production is at a standstill. Soon the storyline will be rewritten.
Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
State Funeral is now streaming on Mubi