State Funeral observes a period of mourning for Stalin

Sergei Loznitsa uses archival footage of the Communist ruler’s funeral to examine the (perhaps performative) public grief of Soviet monomania.

20 May 2021

By Nick Pinkerton

Josef Stalin’s corpse on parade in State Funeral (2019)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ State Funeral is available on Mubi and in UK cinemas from 21 May.

The ongoing project of the prolific Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s nonfiction work, continued in State Funeral, might be described as one of bearing witness to people bearing witness to history – observing the manner in which individuals strive to find the ‘appropriate’ response to the import of a historical moment, and in the process making a viewer aware of the limitations of what can be understood of people’s interior lives through the camera’s scrutiny. In 2016’s Austerlitz, the subjects are tourists filing through Nazi death camps; in 2018’s Victory Day, it’s visitors, mostly from the former USSR, to the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park near Berlin, commemorating the anniversary of the unconditional surrender of the city to Soviet occupiers. 

The abovementioned films are made of original footage, largely taken from a distanced, fixed perspective that recalls the framings of the Lumières. State Funeral, like Loznitsa’s 2018 The Trial, his film of the 1930 Moscow Show Trials, is built from archival footage of historical events – in the case of State Funeral, the nationwide mourning, hysterical eulogising and morose pageantry that followed the death of Joseph Stalin, filmed in black-and-white and colour. 

State Funeral (2019)

Each of these works gives an impression, not entirely unfounded, of ‘objectivity’; there is an absence of contextualising voiceover commentary, an abundance of teeming crowd shots in which the undirected eye may wander as it sees fit. But even when arranging material shot by long-dead state media newsreel photographers, Loznitsa’s organising intelligence is, quietly, in evidence. The sonic backdrop of State Funeral, as in his other films, is a scrupulously designed foley falsehood which serves to emphasise the ceremony’s lugubrious, dreary air, as when the endless procession of mourners filing past Stalin’s lying in state corpse is accompanied by a concerto of creaking stairs, squeaking shoes and trudging footfalls.

To call the film monotonous is not necessarily a knock, as the monomaniacal mantras of authoritarianism are nothing if not monotonous, and the monotony of Stalin’s apotheosis is very much the point. It’s a film about the weight of history, and the wait of it – after a while, you wonder if they’ll ever be done flaunting the old boy’s cadaver. Almost anything that happens once in the film happens over and over again. There is the heaping on of wreaths, the artillery salutes, the memorial speeches broadcast from oil rigs in Azerbaijan to the city centre of Khabarovsk to a dingy village in Tajikistan, speeches that hammer home the same phrases, the same points: reminders of the dead man’s genius; assurances that though Stalin’s heart has stopped beating, that genius will live on; descriptions of the terrible grief that crowds are assured the whole of the “vast, multiethnic state” now suffers.

It’s a film about the weight of history, and the wait of it – after a while, you wonder if they’ll ever be done flaunting the old boy’s cadaver.

Against this official narrative of mourning is set a sea of faces, some indeed distorted by sobs, others grimly stoic, many simply opaque. For more than two hours, men and women listen to droning encomiums and shuffle past the dead Stalin, and in this time the viewer may scrutinise these men and women, and in doing so perhaps understand something about the cult of personality that arose around the individual who, in Norman Mailer’s phrasing, had turned the USSR into “a charnel house for human rights”.

But unlike, say, Matt Loughrey, the Photoshop artist who recently landed in hot water after slapping smiles on to Khmer Rouge prisoners awaiting death, Loznitsa is not out to give us a past with a more familiar, more approachable look. His films offer a kind of understanding of the past, yes, but it’s precisely an understanding of what we can’t understand, even or especially through the testimony of the filmed image, for the ‘truth’ told by a camera is distorted by an infinity of variables, not least who is holding the camera, and what the person in front of it believes is expected of them. 

State Funeral (2019)

Look closely at the apparent tedium of State Funeral and you will discover several distinct, slyly constructed movements – as when, for example, a series of shots of mourners filing up the stairs of the Hall of Columns to view Stalin’s body, throwing nervous glimpses at the camera, is followed by shots of passing visitors taken from a perspective that approximates that of the deceased’s bier, tiny amidst the heaps of flowers. In drawing an association between the camera-eye and the all-seeing eye of Stalin himself, Loznitsa throws the veracity of the documentation that he has assembled into doubt, for how can you hope to compensate for observer effect when the parties being observed are accustomed to fear of the gulag? 

How can you hope to compensate for observer effect when the parties being observed are accustomed to fear of the gulag?

State Funeral doesn’t endeavour to succinctly explain how the USSR moved from the spectacle of lamentation it depicts to the disavowal of Stalin a few short years later, but it allows a kind of gentle guidance in sorting through the dossier of visual evidence that it lays out. Loznitsa’s film is hardly a laugh riot, but looking at the frail carcass of Stalin, I was curiously reminded of a hysterical newsreel-style skit by the Canadian television sketch comedy group The Kids in the Hall, in which the question of God’s existence is definitively settled with the discovery of his surprisingly tiny corpse. Concludes the narrator: “God did exist, he died, he was very small.”

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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