Victory Day review: Sergei Loznitsa eyes history’s motley parade

The prolific Ukrainian director’s latest crowd canvas studies a corner of Berlin that is forever Red – the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park – with his usual canny abstraction.

Reviewed at the 2018 Berlinale Film Festival.

Michael Pattison
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Commemorative marchers at Berlin’s Soviet War Memorial in Victory Day

Commemorative marchers at Berlin’s Soviet War Memorial in Victory Day

Sergei Loznitsa is, you might say, a man of the crowd. In a filmography now encompassing 22 titles across as many years, the prolific director (documentarian, ethnographer, storyteller, historian) has returned repeatedly to ideas and images of the collective: from early portraits of communities such as Today We Are Going to Build a House (1996) and Life, Autumn (1996) to playful experimental shorts such as The Train Stop (2000) and Landscape (2003), from his three found-footage historical narratives Blockade (2005), Revue (2008) and The Event (2015) to the street-level nonfiction protest epic Maidan (2014), here is a filmmaker fascinated with watching multiple human bodies in space, time and the cinematic frame.

Victory Day, as a strictly observational record of people engaging with a historical monument – in this instance, the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park – is most appropriately contextualised as a follow-up to Austerlitz, Loznitsa’s recent account of tourists in and around Nazi concentration camps. While the two are extremely similar in structure and approach, there’s a key visual difference: colour. If the earlier film’s monochrome palette worked to neutralise the many meanings (T-shirt slogans and so on) to be found at a fascist death site, here the almost-saturated grading places much emphasis on the banners, flags, costumes and excessive paraphernalia with which a Russian diaspora visits Berlin each year to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over the Third Reich.

Victory Day (2018)

The colours conflict and complicate: far from harmonious in its interpretability, history – to say nothing of the manifold identities that mobilise around it – is seen here as a hotchpotch. Loznitsa’s film might be read, in fact, as a document of historiographies made manifest, not just in its juxtaposition of various political affinities, but in its simultaneous focus on the memorial itself – which, among other things, celebrates the USSR in terms of a unifying self-image based on uncomplicated continuities (between Lenin and Stalin, for example, and between the state and its people).

Loznitsa observes at a distance. The flattened texture of these myriad faces that results from the director zooming in from afar approximates a kind of tableau effect: as in his short documentary The Old Jewish Cemetery (2014), about a centuries-old park in Riga that the Nazis used as a mass burial site during the Second World War, we must glean what we can from a deliberately fragmented viewpoint. Such strategies are nothing if not canny: they make the viewing process reflexive, they make us attuned to small details and narrative clues.

The approach also allows Loznitsa to eschew committing to a clear stance on the issues and themes that might emerge in the course of setting up a camera and bearing witness. The filmmaker simultaneously gives us everything and nothing: if not quite Rorschach tests, his nonfiction output tends to work its effects with equal power regardless of one’s political inclinations. While one faction might nod along at the idea of acting out one’s patriotism in ways respectfully chronicled here, another will assume their bafflement and disapproval are also the director’s own. Like retweets, observations are not endorsements.

Victory Day (2018)

Victory Day (2018)

There’s a legitimacy to this tactic – especially if you’re of a non-interventionist bent when it comes to meaning-making through artistic practice. But if the methodologies fascinate me, the durational qualities of the completed works do make themselves felt – and not always to the films’ credit (both Austerlitz and Victory Day run for 94 minutes). I admit to a vague enervation watching this latest effort, and to a nagging feeling that it’s the kind of film that the director can knock out between the proper stuff with his hands tied behind his back.

Prejudices declared: Victory Day’s press screening was held the day after I saw new works in Berlin by Heinz Emigholz and James Benning (uninhabited architectures, a landscape virtually devoid of human presence). Take it as an uneasy confession and obvious limitation on my part, then, when I say that on the day I’d have preferred to watch tripod-fixed long-takes of a Soviet memorial without any pilgrims busying the frame at all.

But this is to miss the point. It’s the combination of tight framing and the evident distance between the camera and its subjects that creates Victory Day’s spatial dynamic – its chief artistic attributes, that is, of intimacy and detachment. Such qualities are underlined most vividly by the film’s two striking aesthetic choices: its 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which gives the pictorial seas of people a wonderfully abstract quality, and the truly panoramic sound design, where unseen conversations are made extremely clear amidst an all-sides sonic muddle.

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