This should have been a celebratory time in Sergei Loznitsa’s life. After years in which acclaim for one of Ukraine’s most highly regarded directors came primarily from the international film festival circuit, two of his films have just been released in movie theaters across New York. Yet instead of being able to bask in his achievement, Loznitsa’s life has been in a tailspin in recent months: Not only has he witnessed his country being torn apart by a brutal war, but he has been the subject of heated arguments and polemic within the film industry.
The tailspin began in late February, when the European Film Academy issued a pledge of support for Ukraine following the Russian invasion. In response, Loznitsa issued a scathing open letter in which he railed against the toothless and neutral tone of the pledge. He criticized the EFA members for being “afraid to call a war a war, to condemn barbarity and voice your protest.” He concluded by exclaiming: “You state in your address that there are 61 Ukrainian members among your ranks. Well, as of today, there are only 60 of them. I don’t need you ‘being alert and staying in touch with me, thank you very much!’”
A day after his resignation, on March 1, the Academy announced that it would ban Russian directors from this year’s European Film Awards (the European equivalent to the Oscars). This not only failed to placate Loznitsa but incensed him even further. In a letter published in movie trade magazine Variety, he stated that he had no intention of promoting such a ban and criticized the decision to collectively punish Russian filmmakers. He noted that many of them are openly critical of Vladimir Putin’s regime, and that people should not be judged based on their passport.
'The timing is a coincidence. I didn’t plan to release the film now in advance'
Three weeks later, just when it appeared that the storm had died down, Loznitsa was expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy due to their outrage at his solidarity with Russian artists.
They wrote that Loznitsa “repeatedly stressed that he considers himself a cosmopolitan, ‘a man of the world.’ However, now, when Ukraine is struggling to defend its independence, the key concept in the rhetoric of every Ukrainian should be his national identity.” Loznitsa, who currently resides in Latvia, responded by writing that “unfortunately, this is Nazism. A gift to Kremlin propagandists.”
The whole controversy may have undermined the release of Loznitsa’s latest film, ‘Babi Yar. Context,’ but it served to direct international attention toward the stirring documentary and highlight its contemporary relevance due to the situation in Ukraine.
'Babi Yar. Context’ revisits the 1941 massacre that was carried out by Nazis and Ukrainian sympathizers near Kyiv, utilizing archival footage to reconstruct the events leading up to and following the atrocities. It offers a cinematic portrayal of the Nazi invasion of Ukraine, the fall of Kyiv, some locals cooperating with the German army, and the recapture of Kyiv by the Soviet Union. The film manages to create in the mind of the viewer a blurring between images from the distant past with similar – all too similar – images emerging from modern-day Ukraine.
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Loznitsa was in Israel this month to introduce screenings of his documentary at the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cinematheques. In a Zoom interview with him last week, the Ukrainian director highlighted the significance of the film being shown in Israel. “We must tell the truth [about Babi Yar, aka Babyn Yar] and it is particularly important for me to do this in Israel,” he said. “This event is traumatic for every Jew worldwide, and unfortunately only a small number of films have been made about the tragedy at Babi Yar – or in general about the ‘Holocaust of Bullets’ that took place in Soviet territories by shooting Jews – and some of them don’t reveal the real story. I have decided to reveal the whole truth in my film,” he said.
'After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet regime was never held accountable for the crimes it committed'
The truth doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, and the images reverberating out of Ukraine today charge the film with an added layer of significance. Loznitsa’s film is a masterpiece, assembling a collage of archival footage captured before and after the massacre at the Babi Yar ravine, where Nazi soldiers – aided by local Ukrainians – murdered 33,771 Jews on September 29-30. The massacre was part of the mass murder campaign directed at Jews (and others) by German occupying forces even before the Final Solution was enacted in the death camps.
“Babi Yar. Context” draws on huge amounts of archival footage to document the Nazi invasion of the region, how the occupiers were greeted with flowers and cheers by many Ukrainians, and the subsequent Soviet takeover of the region in 1943.
Loznitsa shows the viewer how the Germans torched entire villages, how they gathered the tens of thousands of Jews in Kyiv, humiliated them and stripped them of their dignity and property, long before they carried out the eventual massacre, and how parts of the Ukrainian population not only did nothing to prevent the horror – but joined this orgy of violence.
The film’s second half shows the counterviolence – barely distinguishable from the initial violence – carried out by the Soviet army upon its retaking of the lands. The film shows the corpses and destruction, and you can almost smell the stench of death. It reveals what occurred prior to the massacre, and following it, but the mass murder at Babi Yar itself – the apex of these violent events – is not shown on screen. These horrific events were not captured on camera and their absence (other than one still photograph) only serves to highlight the horror.
‘Even Zelenskyy condemned it’
Speaking to Haaretz with the aid of a translator, Loznitsa explained that his connection to Babi Yar is woven into the fabric of his own personal history.
“I was raised in Kyiv since I was 6 months old and lived there until the age of 27,” he said. “I spent my childhood years in an area very close to Babi Yar – that is where I used to play as a kid – and gradually, with time, I learned about the history of the place and what happened there. This place was part of my own history.
'The subject was taboo in the Soviet Union for many years; you couldn’t discuss it'
“The subject was taboo in the Soviet Union for many years; you couldn’t discuss it,” he says. “The official narrative stated simply that Soviet citizens were killed in Babi Yar, and there was no mention of ‘Jews.’ Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union could historians begin to research what happened there.”
Loznitsa touched upon the Holocaust and World War II in his previous films, but he always felt the time would come when he would closely examine what happened in his old childhood stomping ground. A decade ago, he began researching in-depth the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar – an atrocity that first drew public attention in Israel and the United States in 1961, following the publication of Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar.” At first, Loznitsa wrote a script for a film he had planned to start shooting this coming summer. “Unfortunately, you can see what is happening now in Kyiv,” he said.
When he was approached by the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center two years ago and asked to do something with the archival material he had assembled, he accepted the challenge. The result is “Babi Yar. Context.”
What’s it like to be screening the film at a time when Ukraine is once again dealing with a Russian invasion and a bloody war?
“To me, what happened then, 80 years ago, and what is happening now in Ukraine is a terrible tragedy. It hurts me deeply. Of course, the timing is a coincidence. I didn’t plan to release the film now in advance. If I could, I would have made this film years ago. But I believe it’s important, even necessary, to discuss the tragic events of the past. There is no perfect timing – but it’s essential to do this because if we don’t learn the lessons of the past, there is a chance history will repeat itself.
“What we see depicted all over the news is a reality in which every Ukrainian faces the same situation as the Jews faced 80 years ago. The Russians see Ukrainians in the same way today as the Nazis saw the Jews. They represent exactly the same thing. The murder of Ukrainians just for being Ukrainian is the same as when Jews were being murdered by the Nazis just for being Jews 80 years ago.”
You speak of us learning from the mistakes of the past, but the images we see coming out of Bucha and the massacre there resemble the images seen throughout your film. Maybe this is just human nature?
“Nothing will change if we don’t learn from history. After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet regime was never held accountable for the crimes it committed; the extent of the crimes has not been fully exposed. Many people still claim that Stalin was a great Russian leader. How can anyone say that given what we know about the crimes committed by his regime? And yet, people still believe he was great. Maybe these people need medical treatment, but for me, this means that the task of the social elites – artists, scientists, historians, politicians, intellectuals – has not been fulfilled. Society has not yet internalized what happened, and so the pathology only gets worse and worse. I’m aware that what I’m doing is only a drop in the bucket, but I don’t make films to educate people or to make a political statement. I do it because this is my journey, this is my pain.”
When the Ukrainian Film Academy announced that you were too “cosmopolitan” for them, and that today Ukrainians should put their national identity first, you responded by calling this “Nazism.” You used a loaded term.
“Ukraine is a multiethnic society, many different nations live there: Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Romanians, Tartars, etc. Which of these would you say represents the national identity? They used the word ‘cosmopolitan’ in a very specific context – the same as Stalin, who was the first to use it in this way after [World War II]. In Stalin’s discourse, the word ‘cosmopolitan’ had a very specific connotation, referring to Jews. It became a central term in Stalinist propaganda in 1948, after an antisemitic campaign aimed at encouraging pogroms was launched.
“So in this specific context, the academy’s demand reminded me of the past. Having said that, they do not represent the whole country, and even the Ukrainian president [Volodymyr Zelenskyy] condemned their declaration afterward.”
A regular at Cannes
Loznitsa, 57, studied mathematics at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, working as a systems developer – including for artificial intelligence – for a few years afterward. He only changed course at age 27, enrolling in a film studies degree and graduating top of his class. He started out making documentaries, but eventually shifted to feature films and has moved seamlessly between the two throughout his career. He relocated with his family to Germany in 2001, and achieved international recognition in 2010 when his film “My Joy” was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
He has been a regular on La Croisette since then, having four films accepted over the past decade. These included “In the Fog,” his 2012 feature about a man accused of collaborating with the German occupiers on the Russian front in 1942; “Donbass” (2018), set in eastern Ukraine during the civil war (Loznitsa won best director); and ‘Babi Yar. Context,’ which was praised for its editing and for “carefully weaving a lost part of history into the collective memory.”
In these times, when you screen films around the world about Ukrainian history that correspond with contemporary events, you have become an ambassador for your country despite yourself.
“When I speak to journalists about the situation, the only responsibility I feel is the hope that my words will help the world understand what is happening in Ukraine, in a way that brings the war to an end as quickly as possible and stops the killing. I hold some hope that this will encourage politicians to work harder and faster. I mean those who are able to do something to stop the war but for some reason choose not to – mainly the leaders of large and powerful Western countries, like the United States and others. Of course, everything I say is just my private personal opinion.”
When Claude Lanzmann decided to make the documentary “Shoah,” he avoided archival footage because most of it was made by the Nazis and he didn’t want to adopt their perspective. But in your film, you use material filmed mainly by the Russians and the Nazis.
“I don’t see the problem. What matters to me is the overall effect of the film. Every shot reveals only what it contains, what the camera captured. The montage – the manner in which the director combines and relates the shots to each other – is what creates the overall effect, the intention, and that’s what I think is more important.
“There is a classic anti-fascist documentary called ‘Ordinary Fascism’ [aka ‘Triumph Over Violence’] which Mikhail Romm made 60 years ago using German propaganda material. After he showed it at a special screening for the Soviet authorities, Mikhail Suslov, chief ideologue of the Soviet regime, asked him a rhetorical question: ‘Why do you hate us so much?’ This despite the fact that Romm used German propaganda films to criticize the Third Reich. But in the way Romm used this material, it was clear his film offered a critical take on any totalitarian regime in general. If you want another example of propaganda and the way it operates, you can take a film like ‘A Sixth Part of the World’ by Dziga Vertov, or Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘October’ and ‘Battleship Potemkin.’ These are all propaganda films but also great works of art.”
In “Babi Yar. Context,” you avoid using spoken commentary, even though its absence may make the film harder for the viewer to follow.
“I have never used voice-over in my films, mainly because if you use commentary as a cinematic technique, it creates the effect of an omniscient narrator, someone to protect the viewer from the images they see. It creates a buffer between you and the images. In my opinion, this buffer is not needed, and it actually prevents you from directly experiencing what you see on the screen.
“In this film, like in my other films, the idea is to project the viewer into the scene, into the events, to allow them to experience things directly – and then they can analyze themselves what they saw and reach their own conclusions.”