The Kiev Trial: another chilling war-crimes documentary from Sergei Loznitsa

Loznitsa’s fourth documentary in two years, this follow-up to last year’s ‘Babi Yar: Context’ uses archive footage to explore the 1946 trials of German officers prosecuted for atrocities committed on Ukrainian soil.

22 October 2022

By Jonathan Romney

The Kiev Trial (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Venice International Film Festival.

The Kiev Trial is the latest archive documentary by Ukraine’s Sergei Loznitsa, a filmmaker for whom the word ‘indefatigable’ seems comically inadequate. Loznitsa has recently premiered archive films on Lithuanian’s secession from the Soviet Union (Mr Landsbergis, 2021) and the Allied bombing of Europe in World War II (The Natural History of Destruction, 2022), and in Cannes last year he showed his film Babi Yar: Context, about the notorious massacre of Jews by the German army in 1941, an episode that the director has identified as essentially the Nazis’ rehearsal for the Holocaust.

Premiered in Venice this autumn, The Kiev Trial is a follow-up to that film, covering the January 1946 hearings that have been called ‘the Kiev Nuremberg’. Various members of the German army, of different ranks, were prosecuted for their part in atrocities in Ukraine – some at the Babi Yar ravine itself, but also in different cities and villages. In Babi Yar: Context, Loznitsa built up to the events at the ravine, and delivered a certain amount of critical commentary, unusual for his usually detached archive work: notably, inserting a lengthy text by the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman on how Ukraine had wiped out its own Jewish population (Loznitsa’s pointing to some Ukrainians’ complicity in the Babi Yar massacre is no doubt one factor that has contributed to his controversial status in his home country at the moment).

The Kiev Trial, by contrast, is without commentary, except for titles identifying the specific soldiers and witnesses seen in each piece of archive footage. An opening sequence sets the scene, with shots of a half-destroyed Kyiv in the snow (a city that, unlike Berlin or Vienna, we’re not used to seeing in its immediate post-WWII state). As one would expect, the film, which comprises official Soviet footage, recounts unimaginable atrocities – but relies on us to imagine them. Unlike Babi Yar: Context, which gave us documentary footage of the killings, The Kiev Trial follows the Claude Lanzmann principle of recounting rather than showing horrors – apart from the final sequence, which shows the actual hangings, in front of a Kyiv multitude, of the German officers.

Loznitsa adopts a detached approach. The prosecutors’ questions are translated into German by interpreters, and we then hear the German defendants reply in their own language – but it’s not until their answers are translated back into Russian that we are given subtitles, meaning that we experience the trial in the real time of each section, just like the public audience in the courtroom. It’s a film about how justice works in the context of the Stalin-era legal system, and as such makes a contrast with Loznitsa’s 2018 archive documentary The Trial, about 1930s Russian show trials. There, prepared testimony was given by defendants whose job in court was to incriminate themselves as enemies of the people, no matter how absurd the claims. That earlier film was about the state imposition of lies; this one is about the attempt, within the same official apparatus, of revealing and establishing truth.

Also remarkable are the differing styles of narration adopted by the various parties. The German officers tend to deliver their testimonies in a shouted formal manner, almost like a parody of what we think of as the declamatory Nazi style. By contrast, the various Ukrainian witnesses, some of them survivors of terrible ordeals, give their answers in a way that suggests prepared, rehearsed response, but with a degree of nervousness, hesitation, with repetitions, tics, involuntary ‘tells’ – like an elderly man who digresses into an incongruously farcical story about a naked, drunken German officer breaking up a wedding party. The contrast in style suggests two entirely different types of theatre: for the defendants, formal melodrama; for the witnesses, naturalism.

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