Funeral Rites

At first you might miss Stalin in the sea of white flowers and crimson satin; then you spot his waxy dead man’s face, the black moustache that Mandelstam famously, fatally compared to a cockroach. The cadaver turns the heads of a torrent of mourners. Some are in tears, some look anxious or horrified, some wear an expression of awkward indifference, some might be suppressing a smile. There is never any question about what they’re looking at, even when the body is out of sight.  

Faces and crowds are the substance of the Ukrainian-Belarusian director Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral, a 2019 documentary created from 1953 footage for a documentary called The Great Farewell. Squelched by the first spasms of de-Stalinization, the original film was a collaborative effort by six eminent directors, including Grigorii Aleksandrov, an early collaborator of Eisenstein’s who became famous for 1930s musical comedies, and Elizaveta Svilova, who helped create the Soviet montage documentary with her husband, Dziga Vertov. Loznitsa has already made several laconic, lyrical documentaries from archival Soviet footage: 2006’s Blockade (the siege of Leningrad); 2015’s The Event (the August 1991 putsch attempt); 2018’s The Trial (a 1930 show trial). His oeuvre, which also includes four dramas and several non-archival documentaries, centres on the Soviet experience, the Second World War, and post-Soviet identities. The archival documentaries are his strongest work, remarkably delicate and subtle despite their proximity to historical episodes of extreme violence and suffering. For State Funeral, he was working with high-quality material whose poeticism, angularity, and fine attention to mundane detail were the work of gifted eyes, product of decades of Soviet artistic experiment.

The victorious Soviets had seized large quantities of Agfacolor film stock from Germany in 1945. About half of the footage in State Funeral is in this strange, erratic colour, rose-red banners cutting across monotone building façades, oil rigs, and snowy expanses. Sometimes the same footage flickers between colour and black-and-white, as if the past is coming in and out of focus. Crowds in Moscow, Donbass, Latvia, Tajikistan, and Chukotka gather around their local Stalin statues, listening as an echoing voice on a loudspeaker details Stalin’s final illness. People stand on street corners, plucking newspapers from stands or looking over shoulders at Stalin’s printed portrait; we watch as a woman replaces a poster promising a lecture on ‘THE REACTIONARY NATURE OF SEMANTIC PHILOSOPHY’ with Stalin’s image.

Lines wrap around Moscow’s Hall of Columns, where Stalin’s body lies in state; immense crowds justify the breadth of Moscow’s central streets. Men in leather trench coats arrive bearing immense wreaths, the leaves an Agfacolor kelly green; it seems that all the flowers in the Soviet Union have been cut for this occasion. Ordinary and not-so-ordinary people trudge up broad stairs, waiting to say goodbye or simply to see the corpse with their own eyes. Women in furs, women in aprons, women in cheap padded jackets. Delegations from the Soviet Socialist Republics and from other socialist countries and parties move in clusters, stand in rows. (Loznitsa omits The Great Farewell’s footage from other countries, including China and North Korea.) Dolores Ibárruri, one of the only female dignitaries present, looks grim, almost aghast. The camera lingers on the hapless Vasily Stalin as he takes long, shuddering breaths; Marshal Rokossovsky’s cheeks shine with discreet tears. Artists sketch the corpse from life. At the end Stalin is carried away in a coffin with a ballooning front window, as if in a submersible.

In The Great Farewell, a traditional voiceover orients the audience, while a classical soundtrack instructs the viewer on how to feel. State Funeral, by contrast, provides no helpful captions, voiceovers, or talking heads. Places and people are not identified. Instead, we watch a kind of historical ballet. The first impression is of unexpected discovery, or of being thrown into another time. But where does found footage end and where does Loznitsa’s intervention begin? The crowd scenes at Stalin monuments suggest that the whole Soviet Union was wired with speakers, that faceless voices of authority could ring through the street at any moment, even in the tundra. But in 1953 film sound still had to be added in a studio. These tinny, echoing, omnipresent voices are Loznitsa’s additions. The same is true of the shuffling of feet, the rustling of winter coats, the intermittent sobs. Chopin’s funeral march in B-flat minor, which John Williams has burdened forever with the memory of Darth Vader, adds a whiff of irony. A huge Stalin portrait swings in the air, suspended by a crane, before the creak and clank give way to silence and darkness. The Sith Lord is dead at last.

There is an eerie sense of voicelessness to State Funeral; no vox populi interviews here. (‘Will you miss Stalin?’) A viewer familiar with the literature of the Soviet era will be reminded, however, of the numerous descriptions of Stalin’s death and its aftermath from Soviet and post-Soviet novels and memoirs (notably those of Evgenii Evtushenko, who later wrote a 1990 film called Stalin’s Funeral). Viewers not born in the USSR may recall Aleksei German’s gruesome, hallucinatory Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998) or Armando Iannucci’s slapstick satire The Death of Stalin (2017). These external intertexts substitute for the testimony of these oddly quiet crowds. Footage of crowds moving helplessly sideways evokes the now-familiar story, suppressed in Soviet times, of the funeral stampede that killed dozens or even hundreds of people.   

State Funeral’s refusal of commentary reduces the quarrelsome Politburo members to a kind of anonymity, too. The dumpling-faced Khrushchev introduces Malenkov, Beria and Molotov before they deliver their ineloquent speeches on Red Square – but this scene comes only at the very end of the film. Until then, the viewer must rely on her own powers of recognition. If this were a film made primarily for post-Soviet audiences, we could assume that Loznitsa is trusting, as post-Soviet intellectuals still do, in the universal recognition of certain faces, verses, songs. But Loznitsa is now based in Germany, makes his films with Dutch partners and shows them at film festivals around the world. Is he suggesting that characters like Beria and Molotov are of little ultimate significance, that Soviet history can be reduced, in the end, to the one dead face that everyone on earth can still recognize? If so, why did he resist the urge to put Stalin’s name in the title? Silence, absence, redaction: more than Beria or Molotov, these are the stars of this film.

Read on: Sophie Pinkham’s deft analysis of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU, the controversy-courting product of Russian oligarch largesse.