‘Stalin is dead. Long live Stalin!’ ‘Meduza’ reviews new documentary film composed entirely of archival footage from Joseph Stalin's funeral
State Funeral, a new film from director Sergey Loznitsa, is composed entirely of archival newsreels that depict the Soviet people’s last goodbye to Joseph Stalin. The film premiered on September 6 at the Venice Film Festival before returning to Russia for Artdokfest. Meduza’s resident film critic, Anton Dolin, reviewed this unusual documentary.
The Russian-language title Gosudarstvennye pokhorony is deliberately neutral, as though it has been scrubbed clean of political meaning. Even the English translation seems richer: State Funeral can also be back-translated as Pokhorony gosudarstva (The Funeral of the State), which lends itself easily to a wealth of interpretations. But Sergey Loznitsa does not make life simple for his audience. His habit of playing at objectivity and detachment is obvious in his documentaries, especially those with montage sequences at their core. The director’s distance from his subject demands a lot from his audience: active participation, frequent second-guessing, and intellectual and emotional labor. Then again, these films wouldn’t be interesting otherwise.
Like its title, State Funeral itself appears straightforward and impartial: For a little more than two hours, we simply watch archival footage of the USSR’s farewell to its beloved leader Joseph Stalin (though that footage is itself fantastical in every sense of the word). The film opens with the coffin being carried into Column Hall in Moscow’s House of the Unions, and it closes with the body being laid to rest in Lenin’s mausoleum as a grand military salute thunders through the entire country. There are no chronological shifts whatsoever in between, and there is also absolutely no commentary with the exception of a few dates and body counts for the Stalin regime that immediately precede the final credits. Even those figures are strictly descriptive. A devoted Stalinist could watch State Funeral with ease, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they would even shed a tear.
Tears here flow plenty enough. The mourners do not restrain their emotions, especially those who succeed at making their way to the coffin. Offscreen, Loznitsa underscores that emotion with a light, barely noticeable sneer by playing “Lacrimosa” – Latin for “weeping” – from Mozart’s Requiem. This is further developed with emotional works by Schuman and Tchaikovsky and the funeral marches of Mendelssohn and Chopin. The music is one of the few artistic devices Loznitsa openly employs in editing the film. A second device is the soundtrack, created here by Vladimir Golovnitsky with signature filigree precision; a third is the arrangement of scenes and shots. At the same time, the film’s vernacular of imagery is entirely composed of archival footage. Loznitsa’s Blockade, The Event, and The Trial were also made in this way.
People, frozen in place, listen to loudspeakers reporting the death of Stalin. They read newspaper editorials in all of the multi-ethnic country’s many languages, albeit with the same front-page photograph. Columns with wreaths stretch endlessly along avenues, streets, and city squares to the center of the world, where there stands the cherished coffin. They flow into Column Hall. An honor guard of top Soviet officials is stationed just by the throne. It’s a panorama of the entire empire: A montage displays grieving crowds in Tajikistan and Chukotka, in the Donbas and Latvia, on land and by sea, in snow and in fields. And so on and so forth.
This funeral is an outstanding production, a grandiose spectacle. Nowadays, we would say it is an immersive experience. The audience of the funeral in fact consists of fully-fledged participants in the spectacle; without them, this act could not take place. The audience in the theater where Loznitsa’s film is being shown is also immersed. Stalin has been turned into an artifact, on the verge of becoming mummified, soon becoming impossible to think of as a physical object, increasingly only imaginable as a symbol. Still, the people looking ardently at him are very much alive. We know nothing about them, but historical experience tells us there is no reason to doubt their existence. Their motives, however, remain enchantingly nebulous: What if they are not as a matter of fact grieving but rather rejoicing internally? And what if they bid farewell not to a beloved tyrant but to an epoch of tyranny that is finally fading away? Ultimately, we, too, are hypnotized by this unhurried action, this sacred ritual. We watch the watchers going, in the end, to stand in line. This is it, the Soviet rite of lining up one after another that Sorokin so glorified in his books, to wait on and on until we receive access to the thing we desire: from clothes, sausages, and Bogorodits belts to nourishment (whether earthy or spiritual), to a glimpse of the body of our deceased leader.
One of the central special effects in State Funeral is color; it turns out that official videographers captured a lot of color footage of the funeral. Especially impressive are the crimson drapery, banners, and arm bands alongside the innumerable crimson carnations. And inasmuch as the color film is interspersed with black and white, an uncomfortable feeling arises. It’s as if the people from 1953 are so entirely immersed in their black and white world that they entirely miss the crimson that is so conspicuous to us. As in horror films, blood appears on screen in bright and indelible spots, reminding one about the unstated, concealed foundation of these events. Indeed, the thousands trampled to death at Stalin’s funeral go unmentioned in the film—they didn’t make it onto the official newsreel. But the scent of blood is in the air, and its color sets the tone for the audience.
Something else is in the air, too – the scent of rotting flowers, in which the corpse of the generalissimo drowns. They are carried on and on to the coffin of this illustrious citizen of the Soviet Union. In that moment, people vanish entirely from the screen, and the surrealist landscape of Red Square consists totally of funeral wreaths. Here, the paintings of the Dutch masters involuntarily come to mind (one of the producing countries of State Funeral is the Netherlands). In their paintings, floral still lifes remind one about the transience of existence, about the inevitability of decay and death. However, the Soviet flowers are quite different: offscreen, the news commentator solemnly reports on the “wreaths of stainless steel, bronze, and brass.”
Stalin, like those wreaths, will never tarnish. The announcers appearing at the funeral repeat incantations about the immortality of the untimely deceased. “Stalin is dead; long live Stalin” — an absurd formula. When it concerns a king, subjects glorify the heir to the throne, the new king, but it is enough to take one look at Malenkov, the official reading a speech from the top of Lenin’s mausoleum, to understand that anyone who succeeds Stalin is only temporary, and the generalissimo is the true immortal, as in a frightful fairy tale. His death is concealed in some kind of magic egg that no one can reach.
State Funeral is not a response to Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Stalin’s Funeral or Aleksey German’s Khrustalyov, My Car!. It is far better interpreted as a response to the recent British comedy The Death of Stalin. That film was prohibited from Russian theaters, and the authorities never gave a single clear reason for the ban. It is obvious that laughter about Stalin’s death is the best confirmation of the fact of his death. It is just as unquestionable that a reluctance to hear this laughter is equal to a refusal to accept the fact of his death. Stalin will live eternally, as was said then in 1953.
One of the subtle authorial strokes in State Funeral is the inclusion of “Lullaby” by Matvei Blanter as the soundtrack’s closing number. This moving piece is based on a poem by Mikhail Isakovsky, and it is widely known in Russia, but few have heard it in its original version, which features the following lines: “He will give you strength, Stalin’s arm will show you the way…” It is impossible not to recall Dziga Vertov’s frightening masterpiece, Lullaby, which was filmed in the fateful year of 1937: There, innumerable cradles are rocked, of course, by the hand of comrade Stalin, “the best friend of youth” (an inscription from one of the funeral wreaths in the film). Censors deemed the image of the sole “father of the nation” embracing the mother and nursing the child to be too sentimental, and Vertov’s film was, at least de facto, banned from the screen.
Loznitsa hints that in the moment of Stalin’s death there occurred a wonderful transformation. From the symbolic father-god he turns into the “little sparrow,” the “little son,” the “dear small bell” from that lullaby. He is lulled by the Soviet people in the hope that the savior is not dead, only resting for a short time. As time passes, he will awaken without fail, like king Arthur in Avalon, and then he will save us from all misfortune.
Translation by Austin Wilson
With assistance from Hilah Kohen