Issue 67 (2020)

Sergei Loznitsa: State Funeral (2019)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2020

state funeral posterA versatile filmmaker, Sergei Loznitsa continues the work of restoring archival footage started not just with last year’s The Trial (2018), but even earlier, with the montage films on the Leningrad siege (The Blockade/Blokada, 2005), on 1950’s propaganda (Revue/Predstavlenie, 2008), and more recently on coup of 1991 as seen in Leningrad (The Event/Sobytie, 2015). If the earlier films turned to the unseen pages of history, in The Trial and State Funeral Loznitsa takes on the Stalin era. He restores and edits footage hitherto unseen for a variety of reasons, partly technical (for example, the use of Pavel Tager’s sound system (Tagefon) in The Trial, or the use of Agfacolor film stock in State Funeral), and partly political (the fear of showing the original recording of one of the earliest show trials and the concern over revealing too much detail with the footage of Stalin’s funeral). Moreover, with this focus and detailed attention on the acoustic recordings of the trial, including the voices of the accused, and the visual details of Stalin’s funeral shot from different cameras, reveal insights into the use of media by a totalitarian regime, less for propaganda purposes and myth-making, as Jonathan Romney argues, “Loznitsa’s essay raises questions about the nature and ideological mechanisms of totalitarian myth-making, and the nature of public grief as propagandist display” (Romney 2019), but much more so for fear of disclosing the mechanisms of a totalitarian regime threatened by instability following the death of the leader and for threat of exposure of its mechanisms of governance. Indeed, we should remember that the extensive footage shot between 6–9 March, between the day after Stalin’s death and the state funeral, was edited but never released, as the screening permission was withheld on the grounds that the cameramen and the editors would show the “wrong” figures, as the Soviet leadership was beginning to reshuffle its power, with Lavrentii Beria’s arrest (and later execution) on 26 June 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev replacing Georgii Malenkov as Secretary of the Communist Party on 14 September 1953. 

The filmed footage had been edited to make a 65-minute film with the title The Great Farewell (Velikoe proschanie, aka Great Mourning, 1953) by Sergei Gerasimov and Il'ia Kopalin, assisted by Elizaveta Svilova, Irina Setkina, Grigorii Aleksandrov, and Mikhail Chiaureli. This film used 2,003 of the over 10,000 meters of footage and was never released; instead, the censored version (46 minutes) was aired on Russia’s Channel Kultura in 2012. Great Farewell contains footage from several factory sites (Bukhtarma Hydro Power Station in Kazakhstan; Mingachevir Dam in Azerbaijan; miners in Donbass; people in Alma-Ata; kolkhoz workers in Tajikistan; mourning citizens in various Soviet towns, in China and North Korea, in the capitals of Eastern Europe as well as Berlin. The film also shows Party officials and international statesmen filing by Stalin’s body lying in state in the Hall of Columns, including delegations from the Soviet republics; foreign delegations from Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Mongolia and India; delegations from the Communist Parties of France, Italy, Great Britain, Austria, Spain; Finland’s PM Urho Kekkonen; and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. The film ends with speeches of State and Party leaders on 9 March: Khrushchev, Malenkov, Beria, and Molotov; and the installation of Stalin’s coffin in the mausoleum, and a final parade on Red Square.

I think that the filming was a massive operation of cover-up, so that nobody would guess that in what was to come everyone would try to lay the blame for the whole tragedy and the crimes they committed all together onto Stalin. (Loznitsa in Artamonov, 2019)

state funeralAlthough the film had been edited by the top filmmakers and editors of the country, and in record speed— following requests for chronicles of the funeral from Western countries, by April 1953 the edited (65-minute) color version had been readied—, the material was shelved by order from the top for fear of those responsible that signs of the above-mentioned power struggle could be detected by viewers both at home and in the West. Loznitsa gives a fine example of such a scene in an interview:

There is an episode where they follow the coffin, Khrushchev follows Beria, and Beria makes a gesture. I looked at it lots of times, frame by frame: he turns round and mumbles something, and with a sloppy gesture shows Khrushchev that the latter should walk next to him. It’s just one moment, and his hand moves so fast that I first thought there was a cut somewhere… then [Khrushchev] obeys and it is immediately clear who is who. (Loznitsa in Artamonov, 2019)

Indeed, the fight for power had already begun, as is evident in the footage, which highlights  the secret fear among the leadership of doing something wrong and making a wrong move, giving an unnecessary or involuntary hint: “These blinking eyes express an absolute presence and execution of duty, of a ritual, hide a terrible fear. This silence, behind which waits a tremendous storm. And all this is recorded on film.” (Loznitsa in Artamonov, 2019)

state funeralApart from the political issues with the editing and subsequent shelving of the original footage, there were technical issues: a first problem with the State Funeral was the restoration of the footage, partly shot in color on Agfacolor (trophy film stock, so of limited availability at the time); and partly on black-and-white stock. A second issue arose with the absence of sound, as Soviet cinema hardly ever recorded sound on location but added the soundtrack in post-production in the studio. Loznitsa used the music originally played during the processions in the Hall of Columns for the official farewell, including the funeral marches of Chopin and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Mozart’s Requiem and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, as well as sound recordings found in the archive of Gosteleradio of several radio broadcasts and other meetings held at other locations during the funeral wake, including readings by the poets Vera Inber and Ol’ga Berggol’ts, as well as writers and officials Sergei Smirnov and Konstantin Simonov (see Maliukova 2019). For the musical part, Loznitsa also made the addition of a recording of the “Lullaby” (Kolybelnaia) by Matvei Blanter to the lyrics of Mikhail Isakovsky, in the original version, including the words “Stalin will give you power and show you the way with his hand” (Dast tebe silu, dorogu ukazhet Stalin svoei rukoi…) in the performance of the tenor Sergei Lemeshev. As Anton Dolin points out:

Loznitsa alludes to an amazing transformation taking place at the moment of Stalin’s death. From the symbolical God-Father he turns into a “little sparrow,” “sonny,” “our little bell” from the song. The Soviet man is rocking him in the hope that the savior has not died, but just gone asleep for a while. (Dolin 2019)

state funeralA further problem that Loznitsa faced was the organization of some 70 hours of footage, which often repeated the same scene (often recorded in black-and-white and in color), and forming a composition that would obviously want to follow a broad chronology of the events between 6 and 9 March. In her review, Larisa Maliukova has suggested a five-act division, wanting to impose a classical dramatic structure on the film. She separates the film into Act 1: Bad News; Act 2: Gathering; Act 3: Queues; Act 4: Column Hall; and Act 5: Red Square (Maliukova 2019). This structure works to some extent, on the assumption of a tragedy that is unfolding. It defines the different stages of the funeral, but ignores several peculiarities in the structure, such as the curious beginning. Loznitsa’s film begins with color and black-and-white footage of the coffin being taken into the House of the Unions, underlining a key principle for Loznitsa’s repetition of footage, which appears to serve less the purpose of enhancing a certain absurdity (Romney 2019) than to authenticate the footage shot from two cameras, one loaded with Agfacolor and the other with plain black-and-white stock. This approach asserts that the scenes are not staged (not fake), the footage is not doctored, and often allows a fluid transition from color to black-and-white and back. At the same time, the performativity of the whole event is borne out by the carefully choreographed and managed processions, highlighted by frequent shots of guards who serve as “choreographers,” and people who look straight at the camera: they are certainly not caught unawares, but they are parading in front of the camera, aware of being filmed and ready to have their grief and tears documented; or they turn away, trying to hide their faces (and emotions). One woman is captured crossing herself; a soldier on guard sneezes: these small “accidents” are clearly not staged. As the mourners ascend the staircase to the hall where the Stalin lies in state, they look at the corpse and at the camera. Their gaze is not (no longer) returned by the leader, and there is no enlightenment on their faces, as is typical for Stalinist musicals of the 1930s, where the visual encounter with Stalin causes “understanding” (to speak with Marion Dixon from Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Circus) of the socialist cause and the Soviet regime.

state funeralThe second aspect of the choice of sequences for the opening scene in Moscow asserts the subsequent de-centering of the documentation, which stands in sharp contrast to Soviet cinematic narratives of the time that follow a centripetal movement, underlining the vertical construction of power with a clear center (or what Vladimir Paperny called kultura 2). Thus, by focusing on footage from Novo-Demidovo in the Ukraine SSR, from the Lenin kolkhoz in the Tajik SSR, from an oil rig in the Azerbaijan SSR; of people gathering in the Altai Mountains and in Kharsain in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, Loznitsa dwells on the impact of the event on the periphery before it seemingly reaches (at least visually) the cities—Leningrad, Khabarovsk, Tallinn, Riga, and Moscow. Only gradually Iurii Levitan’s voice with the radio report announcing the leader’s death and a detailed anamnesis of his illness is replaced by newspaper headlines from papers being sold at kiosks and posted on walls. The film shifts from the “illiterate” periphery to the literate urban centers, with theatres instead of union houses as meeting places.

Having established (or re-established) the difference between center and periphery, which seems to have been industrialized through factories, oil-rigs and radios but is clearly not educated, Loznitsa challenges the grand narrative of socialist achievements: the only tangible achievement is a unified dress code where the colors gray and brown dominate (and I wonder about the need for the color stock, when the only necessary color is red—ironically not just the color of blood and of the Soviet regime, but the technically the most difficult one in different color processes!). In various locations we see the same monuments to the leader and the same wreaths, with a slight variation only for the portrait of Stalin used for the official display.

state funeralLoznitsa mentions another dimension that motivated his organizational principle and that introduces what did not exist in the USSR: class. “I had to enter the Hall of Columns thrice: the first time to introduce the children, because for them this was a personal tragedy, which is obvious from Stalin’s son Vasilii and Svetlana Allilueva. The second time with the official delegations; and the third time with the people” (Loznitsa in Artamonov, 2019). Loznitsa divides the mourners into three groups: family, officials, and the common people. Even though they often enter together or simultaneously, they are separated through the editing and thereby a leveling of society is suggested. This is also highlighted by the focus, in the opening and closing sequences of the film, on workers across the Soviet land, and on “uncivilized” peoples of the North, living with reindeer rather than modern means of communication, but all equally moved (or ossified) by the news of Stalin’s death and their grief.

With his montage, Loznitsa shows less the fakeness of the ritual than the genuine grief of the people who mourn for a leader, a father, a god. And that god must surely be immortal. Therefore Loznitsa seems to repeat some sequences or overlap ending and beginning of shots: to reveal the authenticity of the emotion that is formalized and choreographed on such a scale that it seems fake and artificial. We have here, in a sense, the result of an excess of documentation, which goes so close to the original that the camera captures what is invisible to the human eye: the seemingly performative in the authentic. In this close view and the immersion in the world of the mourning people—from bottom to top, from worker to statesman—, Loznitsa manages to highlight at the same time the struggle for power among the few (at the top) to govern the people (at the bottom) and lead the collective literally (and symbolically—through the choreography and the collective unconscious) into another (comatose) historical period.

State Funeral is a research into the phenomenon of the link between terror and illusion, of an unachievable, frenzied tie to the tyrant, the mechanism and magnetic force of myth-making. The readiness of the collective unconscious to participate emotionally into the ideological order. (Maliukova 2019)

state funeralAs the film moves from periphery to center and back to the periphery, it breaks Stalinist conventions by shifting away from the center at the end, as the radio transmission of the funeral meeting and the speeches by Malenkov, Beria and Molotov are broadcast across the whole country. However, the film closes with a final sequence on Red Square a few days after the funeral, drawing the spectator back to Red Square, this time changing the sound from funeral marches to a lullaby that seems to cradle the leader to sleep, annulling his death.

This staging of the funeral (arranged by Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov and Molotov) draws a curious parallel to the staging of another funeral, namely in Disney’s spectacular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)—a film upheld as a production model for the Soviet animation industry but released in the USSR only in July 1955: the use of a coffin with a glass case for Snow White, and for Stalin, both immersed in flowers. Such a parallel in the mise-en-scene seems to suggest that Stalin could wake up after a long (and, one wonders, poison-induced?) sleep; such a reading would be enhanced by the lullaby that suggests sleep rather than death, once the doors of the mausoleum (as a conservation rather than burial space) are closed in the final frames of the film.


Birgit Beumers

Images courtesy of Atoms & Void, and special thanks to Sergei Loznitsa and Maria Choustova.


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Works Cited

Artamonov, Aleksei. 2019. Interview. “Sergei Loznitsa: Ia namerenno ostavil v kadre ‘Spasibo Stalinu, sobirateliu ukrainskikh zemel’’.” Séance 18 October.

Dolin, Anton. 2019. “Spi, bogatyr’, spi.” Meduza 6 September.

Maliukova, Larisa. 2019. “Krasnym po chernomu. Kak Segrie Loznitsa Stalina khoronil.” Novaia gazeta 16 September.

Romney, Jonathan. 2019. “‘State Funeral’: Venice Review.” Screen Daily 6 September.


State Funeral. Netherlands, Lithuania. 2019.
Color and B&W. 135mins
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Editor: Danielus Kokanauskis
Sound: Vladimir Golovnitski
Archive research: Vladilen Vierny
Producers: Sergei Loznitsa, Maria Choustova, Uljana Kim
Production: Atoms & Void, Studio Uljana Kim, nutprodukce
Premiere: Venice IFF, 6 September 2019 (out of competition). Screened at Toronto IFF; Artdokfest in Latvia and Russia; Listopad (Minsk); IDFA (Amsterdam).
Release: MUBI

Sergei Loznitsa: State Funeral (2019)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2020

Updated: 2020