Issue 24 (2009)

Sergei Loznitsa, The Siege (Blokada, 2006)

reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2009

What might be the strategies, aspirations and limitations for film directors’ manipulation of war footage? The alleged point of origin of this tradition may well strike us with its seeming innocence: “The first example of a battlefield reconstruction passed off as the real thing is probably the Vitagraph Company’s The Battle of Santiago Bay (1898). The cinematographer, Albert E. Smith, traveled to Cuba and shot some actuality footage, but when it was considered not to be dramatic enough Smith faked the battle using a water tank, cardboard ships and smoke from their cigars.” (Chapman 36)

blokadaCountless cinematic works have since confronted the multifaceted problem of the authentic representation of war. The problem has not diminished with time, and may be seen to form the underlying epistemology of Sergei Loznitsa’s much acclaimed film The Siege. In his case, however, the issue is complicated by an additional layer of ambiguity: as well as facing the question “what comprises the authentic representation of war?” Loznitsa must rise to the challenge of reconstructing historical events retrospectively, since his documentary film is made some 55 years after the fact. The director’s duel with history is complex: he must acknowledge the highly fragmented nature of material shot for the genre of kinosbornik in 1941-42, he must fight the totalizing desires of the ideological censorship of the Siege and, most importantly, overcome the conflicting urges of Siege memory—both that which insists on the erasure of traumatic images and that which requires a sense-making narrative that would impose an organizing frame of coherence on the fragmented manifestations of history.

Loznitsa’s The Siege presents a series of seemingly random episodes from the siege of 1941-44. The director found these materials dispersed and collecting dust in various Petersburg archives.[1] I would suggest that many of his findings chosen for inclusion are the censored remains of the Battle for Leningrad (1942), the main cinematic text of the official propaganda of the Siege. [2] We have a rare opportunity to follow the logic of the censoring machine’s mutilating work: the discussion of the Battle of Leningrad by the leaders of the Party government (Zhdanov, Popkov, Kuznetsov) has survived in a shorthand record. Тhe suggested areas for improvement, according to their highly influential opinion, were as follows. First, the lack of cohesion and absence of master-narrative: “Episodes of the film are cobbled together from all over the place. They want to show one location—the city being cleaned up—and they jump to another. It presents itself as one great hodgepodge.  The whole thing needs to be shaped into a system…currently there is no voice-over narration—a voice-over narration would explain a lot!”. Second, the redundancy of gruesome details: “As far as the corpses are concerned—where are they being driven? I don’t think it is necessary to show very many…It will result in too many difficulties. A ruined building, surrounded by fire, everything covered in ice, people scarcely able to move, and the armed resistance is not shown… The damage is overdone in the film.” And third, the “obsessive” interest in the suffering beauty of the city: “the question of monuments should be steered clear of—because it's not so much monuments that need to be shown as the living Leningrad.” (Fomin, 210-11).

Six decades after this trial and the censoring surgeries that followed,[3] Loznitsa has created a film that radically reverses the rules and expectations of the Soviet ethos of the Siege representation. His The Siege concentrates on the most unbearable topoi of life in the besieged city—corpse-filled streets, buses and trucks frozen into ice, Calvary Way-like expeditions to obtain bread and water; it also empathically follows the changes in the city’s image—the disappearance of monuments,  the embankments and facades “wounded” by the constant shelling and bombing.

blokadaAnd, most importantly, this film challenges the overpowering desire for а teleological master-narrative that would ascribe meaning to the hellish world of the Siege. The final version of the Battle for Leningrad was permeated by the consoling commentary of its voice-over narration, uplifting soundtrack, and the montage principle of organization took the Smolny Party headquarters' point of view on the Siege. Loznitsa's film, on the other hand,  works rather as a Siege diary, reflecting on the notions of limited space and the difficult progression of time. As would a citizen caught unawares in the besieged city, this film dashes from one impression, experience, and tragedy to the next. In a sense, Comrade Zhdanov was right: such an approach may well evoke an atmosphere of chaos: but it is the chaos of vision sharpened by disaster. Viktor Shklovskii had characterized such perception already in his Sentimental Journey, a work containing some of the most acute observations on Petrograd struck by siege (it was 1919, and the oppressing force then was General Iudenich's army). Shklovskii develops the idea of defamiliarization as a result of historical shift. He writes: “The main defining quality of the life during revolution is that now one feels everything. Life has becоme art.” (Shklovskii 383). During the Nazi Siege, life also became art, in Shklovskian terms—spectacular and merciless. Loznitsa shows us fire and shelling, protective dirigibles (known in the language of the Siege as “elephants”), scaffolding—all the novel and thus spectacular elements of the Siege “stage set”.

Also, his editing keenly follows one element of urban life that many inhabitants of the city came to see as a crucial leitmotif of their existence in Leningrad both before and during the Siege—the streetcar, that for many symbolized the distinction between the “life” and  “death” of/in their city. If one were to seek unifying strategies in the fragmented body of Loznitsa’s film, one might claim that the streetcar becomes this film’s protagonist. Its task is to signify the flow of time in the city, where time, according to many diarists, was experienced as having come to a halt. We see the streetcar in October, stubborn and still energetic, we see it in November, as a suffering victim of dystrophy (its slow movement here might be explained by the constant possibility of sudden shelling), and then in January. By now the streetcar is frozen, covered with incrustations of ice, its function changed as well—now turned into an improvised morgue. The streetcar becomes the embodiment of the spectacle of the Siege, signifying both the memories of and hopes for the time without the Siege as well as the new meanings inscribed into the urban text by the reality of the Siege.

blokadaAnother aspect of the Siege site that interests Loznitsa is how people look at one another. The camera allows us to participate in the dramatic exchange of gazes between passers-by on Nevskii Prospect and German soldiers taken in captivity in the Fall of 1941. The faces of Leningraders express rage, disgust, and a certain disbelief – captive German soldiers were rare that Fall, when millions of Russian soldiers were taken in captivity. These gazes are active, almost material, weapon-like. They are markedly different from the gazes that Loznitsa studies in the episode depicting perhaps the most painful instance of the Siege existence—citizens walking by corpses in the centre of the city. Olga Berggol’ts, one of the most trustworthy voices of Siege culture, describes the eyes of the Siege victims: “empty, wretched and intent; a person saw something terrible and then it stayed right there with him” Berggol’ts 201). Passers-by—do they look or don’t they? And why do they look? And how? These are some of the central questions that we find in Siege diaries. For example, the writer Leonid Panteleev sees this moment (to look or not to look) as crucial to a definition of humanity during the Siege: as long as one possesses the spiritual power to heed the dead body, while one still makes the effort to look and not walk over the dead body—one remains humane.  This condition defines the tension of the episode: we, the audience, are horrified by the spectacle of corpses on Nevsky and along the Griboedov Canal, and equally we are petrified by the expectation—will the urban flow slow down for the dead? According to Loznitsa, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

One of many sensorial contradictions of the Siege was that though it established a new and poignant version of the urban spectacle, visibility was simultaneously severely compromised and consequently a unique auditory environment was created.[4] In a city robbed of electricity and where windows were blаcked out, people had to learn to interpret many layers of acoustic information. Besides the famous “voice of power” embodied by the Leningrad radio (and almost entirely absent in Loznitsa’s film), the system of sounds and noises of the Siege was dense and diverse; it was largely defined by the gripping contrast between the regular sounds of air-raid sirens, shelling and bombing (citizens learnt to define the location of bombing according to the intensity of sound, thus establishing a new kind of interpretive topography) and an unusual silence caused by the lack of cars and public transportation, the relative scarcity of people, and fading industrial activity in the city.

blokadaSince the actual “raw” footage material that Loznitsa used for his film had no sound, the director’s task was to recreate, to evoke, to invent the sounds of the Siege. Loznitsa comments on his decisions: “I didn’t want to use either music or voice-over for one simple reason—both disrupt the process of vision and fuse other means of perception.”[5] Instead, Loznitsa creates a realm of Siege sounds that form a peculiar relationship with each other, potentially reminding us of the sound orchestration of Aleksei German’s evocation of the fatal year 1953 in Khrustalev, My Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998). In Loznitsa’s film, sounds are also fragmented, superimposed over each other, disorganized; the director muses: “We made the dialogue indistinct…A series of distressing sounds were devised and interspersed: a cry of ‘Mum, Mummy!’, a phrase from a Beethoven sonata, the sound of women's high-heels, the crunch of vertebrae in the scene of a hanging, a cry ‘Oh, Lord!’ and so on.”.

While creating a disconcertingly ambivalent “dialogue” between the background “white” noise of the Siege and ambiguous solo sounds, Loznitsa highlights  meanings and sensations by exaggerating volume. In episodes depicting explosions and fires, the sound becomes overwhelming; the rawness of destruction emerges even before its visual counterpart: we hear death before seeing it. Тhese focal points of aggressive loudness, punctuate a soundtrack that arcs  from the cheerful chirping of birds and streetcars in September 1941 to the fading auditory environment, the deadening silence of winter and then again—to the peals of military salute in January 1943. Loznitsa moves rapidly from the worst months of winter to the triumphant moments of the breach of the Siege, from the ultimate “low” to the ultimate “high” of the historical experience that, according to his vision, is comprised of flashes of consciousness rather than homogenizing continuities.

The final episodes present us with two radical species of the war spectacle that can be united under the thematic rubric “retribution”: showers of light from the salute, at first indistinguishable from the fires of the earlier air raids, are followed by the spectacle of the public execution of German soldiers in а square crawling with people. Victory can be both as sublime and bloodthirsty as the Siege itself. Victors rejoice and condemn, looking intently at the symbolic representations of their triumphant survival, as if trying to define the shapes of their own future. Meanwhile, deceivingly a-personal cameras look at the people of Leningrad whose humanity for long years to come will evade any attempts of abstracting historicization.

Polina Barskova
Hampshire College (MA)

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1] Author’s interview with Sergei Loznitsa, 15 May 2008.
2] Though it was not, naturally , the only film about the Siege made during the war. There also were other documentary (e.g. Velikaia pobeda pod Leningradom (1944) and fiction (Dva boitsa (1944), Zhila byla devochka (1944) films.
3]For more information on the conceptual strategies of re-editing of the Battle for Leningrad, see the memoirs of Roman Karmen, the cameraman who was invited from Moscow in Spring 1942 to edit with his credentials of politically correct hand footage shot by the local cameramen during the fall and winter of 1941-42, and the diaries of the poet Vsevolod Vishnevskii, the author of the original script, and who left production when pressed to implement the ideological “improvements”. See Karmen, 107-128 and Vishnevskii, 121.
4]For the well-informed account of the smells of the Siege, see Lapin.
5]Author’s interview with Sergei Loznitsa, 7 February 2009.

Works Cited

Berggol’ts, Olga, “Dnevnye zvezdy,” Vstrecha, Moscow: Russkaia Kniga, 2000.
Chapman, James, War and Film, Trowbridge: Cromwell Press, 2008.
Fomin, V. (ed.), Kino na voine: dokumenty i svidetel’stva, Moscow, Materik, 2008: “Stenogramma obsuzhdeniia fil’ma Oborona Leningrada, sostoiavshegosia u sekretaria TsK VKP(b) A.A. Zhdanova. 17 April 1942”, pp. 210-211.
Karmen, Roman, No Passaran: gody i liudi, Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1972.
Lapin V., Peterburg: zapakhi i zvuki, Saint Petersburg: Evropeiskii dom, 2007.
Shklovskii, Viktor, Sentimental'noe puteshestvie, Moscow, Gelikon, 1923.
Vishnevskii, Vsevolod, Leningrad: Dnevniki voennykh let vol. 1, Moscow, Voenizdat, 2002.

The Siege, Russia, 2006
Black&White, 52 minutes
Footage: N. Blazhkov, A. Bogorov, Ia. Blumberg, A. Bystrov, V. Valdaitsev, N. Golod, B. Dementiev, N. Dolgov, S. Ivanov, O. Ivanov, L. Izakson, A. Klimov, A. Ksenofontov, R. Karmen, L. Levitin, E. Leibovitch, V. Maksimovich, S. Maslennikov, L. Medvedev, A. Nazarov, P. Pallei, F. Pechul, A. Pogorelyi, G. Simonov, B. Sinitsyn, Ia. Slavin, B. Sorkin, V. Stradin, K. Stankevich, V. Sumkin, G. Trofimov, E. Shapiro, B. Sher, G. Shuliatin, E. Uchitel’, S. Fomin.
Sound: Vladimir Golovnitskii.
Producer: Viacheslav Tel’nov
Distributor: Deckert Distribution

Sergei Loznitsa, The Siege (Blokada, 2006)

reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2009

Updated: 27 Mar 09