Issue 65 (2019)

Sergei Loznitsa: The Trial (Protsess, 2018)

reviewed by Oksana Sarkisova © 2019

protsessA lonely tram car is crossing Moscow in winter. A panoramic view of the Kremlin with busy passers-by on the snow-covered streets, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is looming over the riverbank. A horse-drawn sledge crosses the road. Trams, cars and horses sharing the streets mark the threshold of modern times, while the Shukhov tower in the background punctuates the landscape, making the skyline recognizably Soviet. The Kremlin chimes ring solemnly. Their sound rhymes with the bells of the House of the Unions (Dom soiuzov) announcing a grand performance: the so-called “Industrial Party” show trial. The defendants are driven in cars to the makeshift courtroom which has been set up as a grandiose stage. The title appears with the squeak of a closing door as the last defendant steps in through the back entrance reserved for the central actors of this unfolding drama. Thus begins Sergei Loznitsa’s latest found-footage film, The Trial.

For the most part, this compilation film uses footage shot at the trial between 25 November and 7 December 1930 by a crew headed by the filmmaker Iakov Posel’skii. The sound feature film Industry Party Trial (13 days) was released shortly after the court case to expose conspiracy in the highest circles of economic management and demonstrate the efficiency of the Soviet legislative system. This film, as well as the unused footage recorded during the hearings, is preserved in the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive (RGAKFD). The media attention that this court case received was exceptional, although its choreography followed the show trials of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party and the so-called Shakhty Affair in 1928. Developing technology and, most importantly, the introduction of sound offered new possibilities to enhance the impact of the recorded material and to teach Soviet audiences to accept, normalize, and interpret it as legitimate and just, thus serving as a training tool for developing the required visual and cognitive predispositions.

protsessLoznitsa undertook a careful digital restoration of the images and the sounds of the original footage. Slow-paced and abundant in details, his 125-minute version of the trial pursues a particular epistemological agenda investigating the performative mechanics of the show trial and its visual representation. The location for the trial was strategically chosen: the House of the Unions, formerly used by the Assembly of the Nobility, and its so-called Pillar Hall with 28 Corinthian columns which had served for balls, gala receptions, and concerts, was during the Soviet era used for public events, from congresses to show trials, as well as solemn funerary receptions for the highest party members. The account of the trial opens with the bell calling the public to take their seats, showing an empty hall gradually filling with people who are to take part in one of the grand spectacles of the Soviet regime. The secret police officers from the OPGPU show the visitors to their seats, the defendants pulling themselves together for the performance: a tie adjusted, a file consulted, an anxious look into the audience. The audience in the hall recalls of the cinema-goers in the opening scene of Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929); the episode highlights the role of the almighty Kino-eye in constructing and deciphering the world, while the viewers “sharpen their senses before the shining screen of Cinema” (Michelson 1984: 11, 18)

The Trial follows the director’s earlier works, which explored critical moments of Soviet history through the prism of found footage: the siege of Leningrad in Siege (Blokada, 2005), the self-referential language of Soviet propaganda in Revue (Predstavlenie, 2008), and the August 1991 coup as experienced in Leningrad (Event/Sobytie, 2015). In these films the evidentiary potential of the footage was enhanced by a constructed soundtrack which blurs the border between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The Trial adds a new dimension to Loznitsa’s signature method of working with archival material. While his earlier montage films relied primarily on immersive visuals with the help of minimalist reconstructed sound, here the director works not only with original image but also with the original synchronous sound recorded on one of the first Soviet systems developed by Aleksandr Shorin, which is complemented by additional sound effects. Without any expository commentary, Loznitsa uses the authentic, archival audio-visual material to plunge the viewer into the world of the Soviet “deep fake.” For those familiar with the history of the 1930s in the Soviet Union, the notorious roles played by the chief prosecutors Nikolai Krylenko (1929-31) and Andrei Vyshinskii (1931-34, 1935-39 for the USSR) in Soviet jurisprudence, and the overall choreography of the show trials, this film offers a unique insight into the mechanics of political repression and propaganda. For those (majority) audiences—both in Russia and around the world—who have little or no previous knowledge or vague understanding of the events unfolding on screen, it becomes a lived experience of the power of the propaganda machinery.

protsessThe defendants are men of status, knowledge, and power: Professor and Vice-Chairman of the Industrial Section of Gosplan, Ivan Kalinnikov; Technical Director of the Textile Rationalization Department of the Supreme Soviet of the National Economy (VSNKh, or Vesenkha), Sergei Kuprianov; fuel industry expert and member of the presiding board of Gosplan, engineer Viktor Larichev; Chairman of the Research Institute of the Textile Industry, Alexander Fedotov; engineer at the All-Union Textile Syndicate, Ksenofont Sitnin; and the “conspiracy mastermind,” engineer Leonid Ramzin, Professor of the Moscow Higher Technical College, Director of the All-Union Institute of Thermal Engineering, Member of the State Planning Committee (Gosplan) and Vesenkha. They all take turns to plead guilty and confess to the conspiracy, sabotage, and espionage as they publicly repent their activities to the court presided over by Vyshinskii. The Trial repeatedly highlights the performative character of the court procedure: pauses, posture adjustments, directions from the court president and responses to them. Close-ups and medium shots of the defendants and prosecutors allow us to follow their facial expressions and smallest gestures, from wiping a sweaty forehead to a shaking glass of water in the hand of one of the accused, confessing his wicked intentions to bring down the Soviet regime with the help of foreign intervention.

protsessThe record of the unfolding trial not only physically exhausts the unprepared film audience with details, references, and clarifications that the defendants are eagerly providing, all the while emphasizing the act of the recording itself through camera panning, zooming, trembling image, light and sound adjustments, problems with the focus, and other signs of its presence. The room is filled with the signs of filming, from the microphones and cables to the large floor lamps which blind everybody in the hall, extending the stage and eliminating the division into spectators and performers. While the primary drama unfolds in the Pillar Hall, the streets are shown filled with people demonstrating in support of the prosecution and marching under banners inscribed “death to the enemies of the proletarian revolution”, “we demand execution by shooting,” “capital punishment for the saboteurs of the construction,” and other “demands” for a decisive and class-driven investigation. The trial’s impact is also shown reaching well beyond Moscow through radio broadcasts, emphasizing its broad outreach and its medial dimension.

Starting without any information on the trial or its background, the film opens multiple possibilities of audience response. Contrary to Posel’skii’s film, which advanced one unambiguous reading, The Trial exposes the choreography of the overall event, the logic of visual excess, the relationship of depth and surface. The nature of seeing and the status of the testimony are at the core of the film, questioning the nature of the events on record. The subtle allusion to Vertov is thus not an accidental reference. The camera, which Vertov perceived as a powerful machine that transforms perception beyond the “limping” human capacities, is an active agent which facilitates identification with the audience in the Pillar Hall and at the same time constantly reminds us of the mediated nature of the experience observed from the comfortable seats of the dark cinemas almost ninety years later. Apart from providing a point of identification, Loznitsa turns the audience who follows the trial in the floodlit hall filled with multiple watchful camera-eyes into one of the actors of the performance. Repeatedly returning to the people in the hall—among them prominent journalists, party functionaries, and delegates of multiple Soviet organizations—the camera pans over the crowd, while many cover their faces to escape from the bright lights and the inquisitive camera lenses.

protsessThe aural dimension – from the recreated sound of car engines and barking dogs to the digitally restored sync recording of the defendants’ statements and the prosecutor’s arguments – makes the viewing experience eerily immersive. The synchronous sound of the testimonies enhances the illusion of authenticity. The well-rehearsed testimonies construct a web of connections and the account of conspiracy that unfolds over most of the screen time with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The play is written and performed, and the defendants’ life is the price of their performance. Oscillating between the conventions of newsreel and those of courtroom drama, Loznitsa moves away from a chronological reportage towards anthropological research into the nature of systemic state violence, creating a reflexive film on the status of visual evidence. The trial thus emerges as a laboratory of vision where the audience—extended to the audience of the film itself—is as much part of the performance and the experiment as the accused and the persecutors.

Loznitsa gives the defendants and prosecutors ample screen time to make themselves heard. The verdict comes as a climax, but it is predicted and demanded by the marching crowds outside the courtroom. The film thus subverts the suspense which is the backbone of the legal drama genre. In the absence of the actual presentation of any proof of guilt beyond personal confession, the film invests the scenes where “nothing happens” with primary significance: the audience chatting in the break, the close-up of the guard on duty performing his best on camera, or the bored face of the prosecutor. Following the confessions, most defendants receive sentences of capital punishment, or, as Vyshinskii puts it, a “supreme measure of social protection—death by firing squad with confiscation of property.” The decision is greeted by the audience with unanimous enthusiasm and a lasting standing ovation. But the catharsis is postponed to the epilogue which breaks the painful news: the Industrial Party never existed and the case was orchestrated by the OGPU on Stalin’s orders.

The Trial closes with a brief summary of the protagonists’ lives. For most of the defendants’ the sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison; several of them continued to work in enclosed OGPU laboratories during their imprisonment. The sweeping purges among the senior management in other branches of industry followed suit. The instigators of the purges were not spared either: Krylenko himself was arrested and executed in 1938, falsely accused of belonging to the “fascist terrorist organization of mountaineers and tourists.” As the credits roll, the audience is left to ponder whether they have seen a careful documentation or an orchestrated performance and to evaluate not only the Stalinist purges as the experience of the past but the limits of trust in our senses, as well as the complicity of the image consumers today.

Oksana Sarkisova
Open Society Archivum, Budapest

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Works Cited

Michelson, Annette (ed.). 1984. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. University of California Press.

The Trial, Netherlands, 2018
b/w, 125 min.
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Editing: Danielius Kokanauskis, Sergei Loznitsa
Producer: Sergei Loznitsa, Maria Choustova 
Production: Atoms & Void, Wild at Art
Premiere: Venice, 6 September 2018

Sergei Loznitsa: The Trial (Protsess, 2018)

reviewed by Oksana Sarkisova © 2019

Updated: 2019