It seems the right thing to do in the context of the Russian attack on Ukraine – to watch and discuss a film by Ukraine’s current high-profile filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa that illuminates the darker aspects of Russian history. State Funeral is a film using archive footage in colour and black & white of the announcement of the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 and the state funeral that followed. There are two immediate points to be made: the archive footage has been restored and looks stunning, but this film is 135 minutes long and much of the footage is repetitive. It’s not an easy watch because of the slow and deliberate pacing but it does raise many issues, some political, philosophical and historical and others about documentary practice and film history. I suspect that how it is read depends very much on the age and political background of the viewer. Loznitsa doesn’t add any form of commentary, only a few explanatory titles identifying locations or historical figures. But at the end of the film he provides three short statements about how Stalin’s hold over the Soviet Union has been re-assessed by historians and how the the Soviet leadership after 1953 moved to distance themselves from the Stalin era.
The Georgian, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1922 and after the death of Lenin in 1924 he gradually increased his own power so that by the early 1930s he had become the supreme leader of the Soviet Empire. A ‘personality cult’ was developed and by the time of his death he was a quasi-religious figure for many of the people of the Soviet Empire. His death at the age of 74 triggered an enormous propaganda exercise involving dozens of newsreel camera operators across the Soviet Union. They shot many hours of film that were intended to be used in the production of a film entitled The Great Farewell. This film was completed but only screened once and then quietly buried by the new regime. The footage remained in an archive and Loznitsa and his editor Danielius Kokanauskis have produced State Funeral from their own selection of material, following the coverage of events from the official announcement (radio broadcasts across the empire and newspaper reports) through to the lying in state and the funeral cortège to the Lenin mausoleum and the speeches by the collective party leadership. Apart from the few titles, the only added material appears to be some extra unobtrusive sound elements to bring scenes to life (i.e. ambient sounds). The music soundtrack may well be the music played during the funeral. There is a mix of black and white and colour filmstock, sometimes in the same location. Because of the set formalities of a funeral, Loznitsa and Kokanauskis have been able to create a seamless narrative. The Great Farewell was intended to be a propaganda exercise bolstering the myth of the great leader but State Funeral is edited without the same intent and raises a whole series of questions.
There are roughly five sections to a narrative covering four days of national mourning. The announcement of the death is represented by radio broadcasts via loudspeakers in public spaces and in work environments and by queues at newsstands to buy papers. These scenes are from across the empire – from the Baltic states to Central Asia and from the Arctic to the streets of Central Moscow. We see the arrival of foreign leaders from Eastern Europe and from neighbouring Finland. Harry Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain is joined by similar prominent communists from other West European nations including the exiled Dolores Ibárruri (aka ‘la Pasionaria’), leader of the Spanish communist party. Chou Ên-lai (later Zou Enlai), the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, was arguably the most high profile foreign representative. The ‘lying in state’ in the Pillar Hall of the House of Unions in Moscow is in some ways the centrepiece of the film because the cameras are able to capture close-ups of a variety of different groups of people as they climb the stairs and pass the open coffin nested amidst dozens of enormous wreaths and bouquets of greenery and red flowers. The cortège then moves slowly to the Lenin mausoleum with the floral displays now moved to an adjacent position. Finally the four organisers of the proceedings, who will subsequently jostle for power, make speeches from above.
As a ‘documentary record’ of a major state event the film is extraordinary. With so many cameras being given privileged positions, the coverage is visually splendid offering both close-ups of mourners and panoramic views of the vast crowds in Moscow. I was also struck by the geographical spread of the coverage of the Soviet empire and the diversity of European and Asian faces. It occurs to me that this event was just a few months before the Coronation of Elizabeth II in the UK. I wonder if anyone has compared the two in detail? The Coronation in the UK was famously deemed responsible for the rise in interest in TV ‘outside broadcasts’ – and was also seen live through projected TV images. The resulting film documentary was later a big hit in cinemas. The Coronation film, A Queen is Crowned was shot in Technicolor. State Funeral was partially shot in what one reviewer suggests was Agfacolour stock captured by the Red Army in 1945. I found the use of the colour footage very odd. Most of the reviewers take the stance that the colour footage is ‘realist’ and ‘immediate’ and that the black and white footage (actually the majority of the footage used) is “easily relegated to the past, is a relic of times gone by” as Eye for Film’s reviewer puts it. As an older person I tend to have the opposite reaction. The black and white footage is what I expect of newsreels in 1953, the colour stock is a novelty, a fantasy. We have only got used to the colour footage of Second World War events over the last twenty years in TV programmes promising ‘something new’. But the colour in State Funeral is surreal partly because the authorities seem to have banned the colour blue. The mourners are generally in dark clothes and the wreaths are uniformly dark green and vivid red with splashes of white. I began to search for any blue shades and found only a few headscarves on women. The promotional material for the film presents only colour photographs but the trailer below does justice to the film albeit not to the range of footage from outside Moscow. I have taken some screengrabs from the trailer to use here. Stalin began to control all aspects of Soviet art, literature, theatre and cinema from the early 1930s so that ‘Soviet socialist realism’ became a new cinema aesthetic. It is ironic that at his funeral the state provided access to a group of portraiture artists who hoped to present depictions of the ‘lying in state’ of their leader, perhaps wondering what the new leadership would expect them to produce?
The major question posed by the footage for me is what, if anything, does it tell us about the 220 million people of the Soviet Union in 1953 who are shown in mourning? What were they feeling? Were they coerced, frightened, bored but wary or genuinely upset by the death of their leader? Their speech isn’t recorded but many of the women are seen crying. Women are rare among the leadership but visible as workers. Most people in the West had very little sense of what life in the Soviet Union was like in 1953. There are a few, but not enough glimpses here. One that has been picked out is the surreal image of a Stalin portrait suspended from a crane above the workers on a large construction site. It offers a pre-echo of Fellini’s later use of a statue of Christ flying through the air suspended from a helicopter in La dolce vita (1960): from Stalin as a communist saint to Christ as the symbol of economic development and consumerism?
I’m not sure a mass audience anywhere would sit through the film but I hope it is studied and discussed by film scholars and historians. Alex von Tunzelmann’s Guardian piece on the film is worth reading on this score. State Funeral is still available on MUBI in the UK and is also available from Apple and Amazon but I can’t find a DVD/Blu-ray which teachers would need. Tunzelmann recommends watching Armando Ianucci’s comedy The Death of Stalin (UK 2017), which I haven’t seen. The restored The Great Farewell is available on DVD.
Following the film streamed on MUBI is a recording of a conversation on Zoom between Loznitsa and the Italian documentary filmmaker (and recently fiction director with Martin Eden (2019)), Pietro Marcello. Loznitsa tell us that he believes the film is actually relevant to Russia now, revealing that when it was shown in Russia in 2020 it divided audiences with a ‘liberal’ segment taking a similar line to audiences in the West but many other audiences seeing it as a great tribute to a Russian leader – and ignoring what they saw as the “silly” statements at the end added by Loznitsa. Perhaps Loznitsa’s most striking assertion is that in the film we see masses of Soviet citizens. “Stalin is allegorical of all these people” as he puts it. They each have a little of Stalin within them and “together they act as little bricks making up this apparatus of totalitarian human destruction”. He even compares them to the mice led to their doom by a pied piper – they have an understanding of the nightmare but seemingly are without the capacity to resist it. Loznitsa says this of the Russian people we see in 1953. I’m not sure if the same analysis refers to the people of the 19th century Russian empire. It certainly sounds like it might refer to Russia under Putin.
Finally Loznitsa and Marcello agree on the teams of people who have helped make this film possible. Loznitsa refers to the 200 Russian camera persons (the camerawork is awe-inspiring), none of who me has met and to his major collaborators the editor Danielius Kokanauskis and the sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskiy, both Lithuanians. The post-production was mainly carried out in Romania. He confirms that there were three types of filmstock from the Russian State Archive. The black and white stock was Russian and there was Kodak stock and something that could have been Agfacolor. He praises the archive highly and says his dream would be to work with them on further films (this was his third(?)). He thinks he could produce two films a year from the archive’s material and that this would help others to understand what happened in the Soviet Union. He’s a remarkable film director and this is a remarkable film.