Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has been a Cannes regular for the past decade, with three fiction features selected in Competition — My Joy in 2010, In The Fog in 2012 and A Gentle Creature in 2017 — while Donbass played Un Certain Regard in 2018, winning him the directing prize.
Loznitsa is also a renowned documentarist, and his latest archive film, Babi Yar. Context, premieres in Cannes’ Special Screenings section on Sunday (July 11). It examines the background and aftermath to a notorious event of the Second World War: the massacre in Kiev in September 1941 of nearly 34,000 Jews who were killed over three days by the German army.
The film was commissioned and financed by the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kiev, and produced by Atoms & Void, the company run by Loznitsa and producer Maria Choustova, which is also handling the film’s sales.
Two years ago, you announced a fiction project about Babi Yar. Is this film related to it?
I had been collecting documentary footage to use in a fiction feature. Last year, when lockdown happened and the film had to be postponed, I decided to use the footage to make a documentary. At the same time, the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center approached me to make a film. This doesn’t replace the fiction feature, it complements it. I hope to shoot it next year.
Why is Babi Yar important to you, and how is it remembered in Ukraine and Russia?
This September will mark the 80th anniversary of the massacre. There have been some documentaries and TV films made, but there still isn’t a film that reflects the complexity of this tragedy, that really tells the truth about what happened. The subject of Babi Yar represents a kind of frontline in the war of memory — the war between groups with conflicting opinions about how this event should be remembered. I don’t take sides in my film, I don’t offer any interpretations. I present the events chronologically and allow the audience to work out what happened.
While Babi Yar has been much commemorated, the historical details are not so well known. Is that what you’re trying to provide, as suggested by the title and the word ‘context’?
In the Soviet era, a monument was erected on the site of Babi Yar — a monument to “the Soviet people who perished”. What’s missing is the word “Jews”. Babi Yar launched the Holocaust, in a way; the Holocaust really began in the USSR. Jews, Ukrainians and Russians had co-existed in the territory for centuries. Then suddenly, one group started killing another. It’s very important to know exactly what happened, because even 80 years on, we cannot be sure the same will not happen again.
What was the footage that most surprised you?
The images of the pogrom in Lvov. I didn’t use all of this material, because there were images that were so shocking that as soon as you see them, you’re outside the realm of art.
You include footage of the Soviet hearings held after the massacre.
That was shot for Stalin, he was intended as the first viewer. The Nuremberg trials were being prepared, and the Soviets wanted to have their trials first; they wanted to beat the Americans. In general, everything that was shot in Soviet times had one purpose: propaganda. Stalin had this opportunity to blame everything that happened on Hitler. There was also a newsreel showing episodes from this trial, and all mention of the Jews was edited out. The witnesses never mention who was killed, they always say it was “the civilian population”.
What sources did you use, and what kind of restoration work was involved?
We used German archives — the Bundesarchiv, regional and private archives — as well as Russian and Ukrainian archives. I was surprised how much German material there was. The most interesting material I found was shot privately by German officers, chronicling daily life. There was a substantial amount of restoration, we worked with wonderful restorers in Lithuania. Most of the sound was designed specially. The only synch sound we had was from the courtroom trials, and a speech by [post-Stalin Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, but that’s all. We dubbed some dialogue. I would lip-read what people were saying.
What are your next projects?
I’m in post on a documentary about the Lithuanian struggle for independence in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s called Mr Landsbergis, after Vytautas Landsbergis, the first leader of independent Lithuania. Then I’m doing another film for the Babi Yar Memorial, and we’re starting a documentary about Germany in World War Two and the Allied bombings of the German cities, based on WG Sebald’s essay On The Natural History Of Destruction. After that, I’ll make the Babi Yar fiction film. We’re still looking for some finance.