Issue 62 (2018)

Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day (Den’ pobedy, 2018)

reviewed by Ivan Chuviliaev © 2018

Time Loop

Films by Sergei Loznitsa are quite unique because of his “mixed identity:” a filmmaker born in Belarus, living in Germany and working in Ukraine, making films with Russian-speaking characters. Nevertheless, his films—both fiction and documentary, from My Joy (Schast’e moe, 2010) to Donbass (2018) and from the short Portrait (Portret, 2012) to the two-hour long The Trial (Protsess, 2018)—all speak about modern, post-Soviet Russia.

victory dayLoznitsa is one of the strongest voices in post-Soviet culture. He may be the last to use Russian as lingua franca, a universal language that helps natives from Uzbekistan, Lithuania, and Georgia to understand each other. Russian was such a language during the Soviet era and after, for the last 20 years after the fall of the empire. In the bookshops of Minsk, Kiev or Tbilisi we find the same novels by Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, Liudmila Petrushevskaia and Liudmila Ulitskaia, and only one or two shelves with books published in the national language. Loznitsa’s early films were of the same nature: pieces of art, comprehensible to any audience in any part of the former Soviet Union. My Joy, his first feature film, and all his documentaries were about any place between Vilnius and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and the people who lived there.

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine changed the role of the Russian language and the topicality of Loznitsa’s films. Russian is no more a post-Soviet lingua franca. You no longer find Russian novels in the bookshops, even in Minsk; rather, they are Polish books by Ryszard Kapuściński and Czesław Miłosz. A 2014 discussion on social media amongst Ukrainian intellectuals—including Serhiy Zhadan and Yuri Andrukhovych, both writing in Ukrainian, and the poet Boris Khersonsky, writing in Russian—was the most obvious sign of these changes: they disputed whether it was still acceptable to write fiction and essays in Russian. Loznitsa didn’t participate, but, as a person living in a Ukrainian cultural context, he had to give his own answer to this partly rhetorical question. His first film after Maidan (2014), a chronicle of the Ukrainian revolution, was The Event (Sobytie, 2015), a chronicle of the Soviet coup d’état and the events of August 1991 in Leningrad. Thus, he gave his answer. His films are in Russian, about Russian issues and for Russian-language audiences.

Although the subject of Victory Day is the celebration of 9 May (the day of the capitulation of Nazi Germany), the film is not about the past: its essence is in the present. The very title of the film is of current interest: Victory Day used to be a significant date for generations of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian citizens; not merely a holiday but an intimate memory ritual dedicated to those who remembered the war, suffered from the war or participated as soldiers. It was quite impossible to imagine an elderly person who didn’t remember the war and hadn’t suffered because of it. But this time has gone. Now, 73 years after the Victory, only a few of those who lived through the siege of Leningrad or survived the Holoсaust or fought during WWII are still alive. They have perished, but society cannot simply break away from the ritual, which therefore needs to be replaced with something else. Modern Victory Day is such an “ersatz:” a celebration of a victory (not in a war, but like in a football match) with parades, biker runs, and concerts; and without the major component—intimacy, personal attitude.

victory dayThus Loznitsa has made a very topical film about the present and modernity, whilst at the same time dealing with the past. A key image of the film is a panorama shot of the pathetic, low reliefs and silhouettes of soldiers and workers on the Soviet Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park. Like Sergei Eisenstein in his notable shots from October (1926), Loznitsa alternates images of dead, artistic matter and of living people. But, unlike Eisenstein, Loznitsa shows the aliveness, sentimentality and humanity of the dead matter, and the deadness of those who are alive.

Victory Day is full of notable, bright images: for instance, we see a truck with portraits of Stalin harnessed with two fox terriers carrying flags of Lugansk and Donetsk proto-states. Nonetheless, the most important part of the film is the music. Loznitsa has built a dramatic structure through the use of Soviet songs. The film starts with a very sentimental and intimate song, titled “Take Your Overcoat, Let’s Go Home” [Beri shinel’, poshli domoi] by Bulat Okudzhava, which represents the monologue of a soldier addressed to his dead friend. As the film progresses, more official songs dominate, singing about Stalin, the motherland, and so on. Even “The Cossacks Ride Through Berlin”, a 1945 song about soldiers from the Don meeting their compatriot girls in Berlin, sounds quite inappropriate here: in Victory Day we see modern bikers singing it. An old sentimental song becomes an “imperial march”, an anthem for those who say “thanks to gran;” it commemorates not soldiers but politicians. Finally Victory Day’s soundtrack turns into a playlist of Soviet and Russian pop-songs associated neither with war nor with memory: people in Treptower Park are dancing and singing “Kalinka-Malinka” and such fare. At this moment the celebration turns into a retro-party: a woman is dancing in the crowd and a Caucasian guy accompanies her, the Russian folk dance turns into a traditional Caucasian lezginka. Patriotic music becomes white noise. After this disco-party, the intimacy of “Take Your Overcoat” during the final titles sounds even more distinct than in the beginning.

victory dayThe artistic manner of Loznitsa, his tendency to make static, melancholic shots and long panorama shots, is much relevant in Victory Day. We see the events closer, more detailed than we would see it when looking ourselves. We see how a Russian mum puts a Soviet uniform on her little son; he doesn’t want it, of course—he wants to play with his mates. Moreover, we see the very essence of certain events and phenomena: Loznitsa makes them visible. Girls come to Treptower Park—in army uniforms, with huge bows in their hair and with side-caps between them. This image concentrates sexual fantasies, the hero-schoolgirl-soldier, Lolita and Soviet pioneer-hero at the same time. One of my colleagues, a feminist film critic, pointed out that there is a slang term for the military side cap, which is “cunt cap,” and that’s why this kind of uniform is so fashionable in the modern culture of Victory Day celebrations.

But the most unusual and surprising in Victory Day is the film’s intonation. Loznitsa has the right to present this celebration as a party of drunken gangsters. But he is much more noble and generous: the conflict in Victory Day is not between good art and bad people (that would be the take of Aleksandr Sokurov), but between a clear past full of heroes and feats, and an uncertain present—without ideals or rituals, and even without its own music, art and language. Those who we see in Victory Day are the victims of a time loop: they are inside it. We can only blame them for one thing: they don’t understand their own tragedy. Loznitsa may be the only artist who does, but he can also explain it.

Ivan Chuviliaev
St Petersburg

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Victory Day, Germany, 2018
Languages: Russian, German, English
Documentary, 94 min
Director and Scriptwriter: Sergei Loznitsa
Director of Photography: Sergei Loznitsa, Diego Garcia, Jesse Mazuch
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Sound Design: Vladimir Golovnitski
Producers: Sergei Loznitsa, Imperativ Film; Andrey Mikhailov, Taura Ltd.
Premiere: Berlinale, February 2018

Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day (Den’ pobedy, 2018)

reviewed by Ivan Chuviliaev © 2018

Updated: 2018