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Interview'You don't need an artist's vision to see what is going on'

Ukraine’s most famous director ostracized for unflinching film on Babyn Yar pogrom

Last week, Ukrainian Academy Award winner Sergei Loznitsa was dismissed from his country’s Film Academy after making a film on the Holocaust. His work is taking the US by storm

  • Director Sergei Loznitsa at the 70th international film festival, Cannes, France, May 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
    Director Sergei Loznitsa at the 70th international film festival, Cannes, France, May 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
  • A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Babi Yar. Context.' (Courtesy Film Forum)
    A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Babi Yar. Context.' (Courtesy Film Forum)
  • A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Donbass.' (Courtesy Film Movement)
    A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Donbass.' (Courtesy Film Movement)
  • A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Babi Yar. Context.' (Courtesy Film Forum)
    A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Babi Yar. Context.' (Courtesy Film Forum)
  • A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Donbass.' (Courtesy Film Movement)
    A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Donbass.' (Courtesy Film Movement)
  • A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Babi Yar. Context.' (Courtesy Film Forum)
    A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Babi Yar. Context.' (Courtesy Film Forum)
  • A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Donbass.' (Courtesy Film Movement)
    A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Donbass.' (Courtesy Film Movement)
  • A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Babi Yar. Context.' (Courtesy Film Forum)
    A still from Sergei Loznitsa's film 'Babi Yar. Context.' (Courtesy Film Forum)

NEW YORK — If you live in New York City and are attuned to the programming schedules of local arts cinemas, there is a man who is noticeably having a moment: 57-year-old Sergei Loznitsa.

The fact that Ukraine’s most celebrated film director has so many projects coming to theaters right now is only partially due to the circumstances in his home country. (The IFC Center near New York University, for example, is offering a mini-retrospective.) The other reason is that Loznitsa, who works in both documentary and narrative film, is incredibly prolific, and the ebb and flow of international distribution sometimes makes for a logjam.

The prestigious Museum of the Moving Image just hosted the New York debut of “Mr. Landsbergis,” a four-hour documentary about post-Soviet Lithuania, and his surrealist tragic-comedy about war and disinformation, “Donbass,” which won a directing award at Cannes in 2018, will finally make its way to New York theaters on April 8.

On April 1, however, Film Forum in Manhattan will present “Babi Yar. Context,” a documentary crafted from seldom-seen archival reels concerning a terrible chapter in Ukrainian history wherein close to 34,000 Jews were killed during the Holocaust in just a few days. (In early March, it was believed that Russian bombs damaged the contemporary memorial there, but this turned out not to be the case.)

No recordings were made of the actual killings at the Babyn Yar ravine (though still photos — in color — of the aftermath were taken), but Loznitsa’s film has that second word, “Context,” in its title. What he has sculpted, without voice-over and just a few title cards, is a fly-on-the-wall look at the social changes in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation.

From the first tanks rolling in through Lviv to Soviet infrastructure literally covering up the spot where so many Jews were executed, Loznitsa, adding sound to mostly silent footage, shows what happened — and some of it (e.g. a lot of Ukrainians seemingly eager to welcome the Nazi regime) isn’t exactly going over so well at home.

A still from Sergei Loznitsa’s film ‘Donbass.’ (Courtesy Film Movement)

Which brings us to the next topical point. Last week Loznitsa, a six-time winner at the Ukrainian Academy Awards, was summarily dismissed from the Ukrainian Film Academy. Reasons cited include the accusation of being “too cosmopolitan.” Loznitsa, whose previous work includes “Maidan,” a celebration of Ukrainian independence in the face of corruption and Russian interference, commented in an open letter that the choice of words had an antisemitic aspect to it. (As far as I know, Loznitsa is not Jewish. I asked him directly, but he and his interpreter didn’t really respond, as you’ll read below.)

With all this, I had the good fortune to speak to the director, albeit briefly, from Berlin where he currently works. (A recent interview in the Washington Post details how he just got his elderly parents out of Ukraine via Poland.) Our conversation, which was aided by a translator, has been truncated and edited for clarity.

Prior to the Russian invasion, I read so many conflicting points of view from political experts, many of whom admitted they were shocked that Putin actually entered Ukraine. We didn’t hear too much from artists. I am wondering if you are surprised he did it.

Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa. (Courtesy)

It did not come as a surprise to me. One doesn’t need the vision of an artist to see what is going on. Back in 2007, at the Munich security conference, Putin made a speech where he made his intentions clear.

What surprises me is that the West did not draw any conclusions from this. The West continued its cooperation with the Russian regime and did not do enough to prevent this conflict.

If I may bring up the Ukrainian Film Academy situation for a moment: Certainly, I understand this is a sensitive time, and I recognize the importance of presenting a unified message in a difficult period, but I can not imagine anyone watching “Babi Yar. Context” and not understanding that historical facts from Ukraine 80 years ago do not necessarily reflect Ukraine today.

Firstly, the decision of the Ukrainian Film Academy is not the opinion of the Ukrainian president or authorities. They have differing opinions.

More than anything, the decision of the Academy discredits it in the eyes of its own country and the entire world. In my opinion, it is hard to think of any other cultural figure in the international arena whose work has done more in recent years to defend the statehood of Ukraine and the independence of Ukraine than myself.

I regret that this decision was made so hastily, without any proper discussion, and not in a democratic way. I see it as their revenge, more than anything else.

My film “Babi Yar. Context” raises a very complex question which has been a taboo for a very long time. First the Soviet regime refused to discuss this topic, and in the new Ukraine this issue is still seen as highly inflammatory and highly problematic.

[My film shows] that the Holocaust and extermination of Jews in the territory of Ukraine was carried out primarily by German authorities and German Einsatzgruppen with partial participation of the population of Ukraine.

Of course, I agree with you that the Ukraine of 80 years ago is not the Ukraine we see now. They are two completely different countries. I find it very strange that the people who made this decision in the Academy failed to acknowledge this.

A still from Sergei Loznitsa’s film ‘Babi Yar. Context.’ (Courtesy Film Forum)

By my count, this is at least the third film you have made that touches on the Holocaust. There might even be more because I have not seen all of your short subjects. My understanding is that you are not Jewish, and correct me if I am wrong on that, but I am curious why you find yourself returning to this topic? It is unusual for a non-Jewish filmmaker.

I grew up in Kyiv very close to the Babyn Yar location. The horror of this tragedy penetrated into my blood, into my psyche gradually, the more I learned about the events.

Up until 1991, practically no one spoke about this subject, even though it is so huge, so important; it is impossible not to reflect upon it.

A still from Sergei Loznitsa’s film ‘Babi Yar. Context.’ (Courtesy Film Forum)

Watching “Babi Yar. Context” I thought about your earlier film “Austerlitz,” a document of tourists at Holocaust sites, which shows how people behave differently whether they are alone or in groups. “Maidan” is also all about group dynamics, how protestors gathered in the park. Looking through all this new footage, do you have any new insight into observing the individual versus the group?

A man on his own and a man in a crowd, their behavior is completely different. Think about Elia Kazan’s film “A Face in the Crowd.” More and more these days we seem to find ourselves surrounded by others, part of a crowd, whether it’s a physical crowd or a virtual crowd on the internet. Human behavior can become dangerous in these circumstances, and this is why I think it is important to study this, to find patterns and analyze them.

Actually, if you read the statement of the Ukrainian Film Academy, you will see that the decision is a group opinion opposing an individual opinion; against the rights of an individual to express his own opinion. So this is the center of the conflict, the mass and the crowd against an individual. The cost of an individual action is higher than ever. It is crucial to distinguish between the herd instinct and an individual’s statement.

There are some images in this film that are alarming. Images of corpses, of people dying horribly on the gallows. I’m curious what kind of philosophy you take in editing, about how far you can push that.

Dealing with images of graphic violence means being careful. You have to include them gradually, to prepare the spectator for what is coming. There is always a risk that if you go too far, the emotional impact is so strong the spectator is kicked out of the film’s narrative.

For example, the pogrom episode in “Babi Yar. Context” took two months to edit. For me, personally, the impact of the footage was so strong that I had to keep my distance. I would work on this section for a bit, then put it aside as a break, then get back to it. Another section, the executions at the gallows, yes, these images are shocking, but you can not possibly make this film and not show them. So I had to be very cautious, and I ended with the edit that we have.

A still from Sergei Loznitsa’s film ‘Babi Yar. Context.’ (Courtesy Film Forum)

It may sound like a silly question, but you work on these very serious films, your home country is under siege, how do you keep yourself sane? Jogging? Listening to opera? Heavy metal?

There is music inside my soul, an inner harmony. When you work on a film, no matter how shocking or painful the material is, every work of art has its inner harmony. Inner harmony, I believe, is also the force that is protecting me and keeping me sane. I preserve myself by being in touch with inner harmony.

“Babi Yar. Context” opens at New York’s Film Forum on April 1. “Donbass” expands from a Montreal run to additional North American select cities beginning April 6. New York’s IFC Center will show “Donbass” as well as the award-winning documentary “Maidan” and Dostoyevsky-inspired narrative film “A Gentle Creature” starting April 8.

Many of Loznitsa’s previous films are streaming on Mubi.

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