Q&A with Filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa
Published on January 19th, 2012 | by Ryan Wells0
Cinespect recently spoke with the Russian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, whose documentary films “Blockade” and “Revue” are screening at Anthology Film Archives as part of The Compilation Film series. The series, with Andrei Ujică‘s magisterial “The Autobiography of Nicholae Ceauşescu” as its centerpiece, explores the aesthetic approach of constructing an entire film from archival historical footage. (Or as Ujică has called it, “historical nonfiction” cinema.) Film scholar Jay Leyda originally sketched out the film style in his seminal 1964 text “Films Beget Films.”
These films of Loznitsa’s are perfect gems in this rediscovered canon: they’re honest, historic, slightly didactic, and endlessly fascinating, if at times tough to stomach given the subjects of choice. Loznitsa, who made the gloriously fun and brutal “My Joy” and who is currently working on his next feature project, is a filmmaker of extraordinary talents and reach. He’s someone to watch out for.
In your documentary films “Blockade” and “Revue” your focus moves to Russia’s political past. Why the focus here in these films? Also, discuss the sound design work a little.
I would not say that the focus of these films is on politics. The films address our recent past, our historical and anthropological experience.
In “Blockade” my aim was to recreate the atmosphere of the besieged city as closely as possible and to plunge the spectator directly into this atmosphere. One has to bear in mind that the siege of Leningrad lasted for 872 days, and during that time 1.5 million people starved or froze to death inside the city. When I saw the footage for the first time, it was a shock, and, of course, it took me a while to detach myself from these images emotionally and to begin the process of constructing a film. There was no sound, so my sound designer, Vladimir Golovnitski, reconstructed the sounds of the city–at every stage of its life and death.
In “Revue” my aim was quite different. I wanted to experiment with different types of propaganda material and to see how the impact of these images can change if we change the quality of the sound, for example, or if we use montage. “Revue” is constructed out of the archival news propaganda reels which were shown in the Soviet cinemas in the ’50s and ’60s. And like any newsreels they contain all sorts of fascinating footage of the daily lives of ordinary people–workers, farmers, scientists, students–all of them Soviet citizens. So I stripped some of these images of their sound–usually thick dollops of propaganda–and used different sounds, which, of course, changed the atmosphere and the meaning of the images.
Thus, one can see how propaganda works and one can reveal the mechanism of our perception. One can see how effective this brainwashing tool can be, especially if it is in capable hands. There are still a lot of people in Russia who regard “Revue” as a nostalgic piece, celebrating the Soviet past. It is purely a matter of representation and perception, of course.
How did you find this material? What kind of state of quality were they in?
The material was shown to me by the archive curator of the St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studio, Sergei Gelver. I am tremendously grateful to him for this. Even though the storage conditions at the Studio were quite poor (and, unfortunately, the situation is even worse today), the material was in a reasonably good condition. And it was lying there unwanted and unseen for many years.
Aesthetically speaking, what were you exploring in your own style in these films?
I think it is not quite appropriate for me to comment and deliberate on my own aesthetics. I would rather leave it to the critics and the spectators. All I can say is that every film is–first of all–an idea. First one has an idea, a statement one wants to make. And then one has to start looking for a form to manifest the idea, to embody it. Every film is constructed as a representation of a thought.
Should found footage be weaved into fiction filmmaking? Or be a separate entity that works as a historical film/document? How does it affect your fiction work (i.e., “My Joy”)?
I do not see any problem with editing archive footage together with fiction material. Again, it all comes down to the ideas and purposes of the filmmaker. If you know exactly what you want to say, and if you need to mix archival and fictional material in order to project your idea and to articulate it clearly–this is absolutely fine. In fact, I now have an idea for a documentary film which would have some archival and photographic material together with “ordinary” documentary footage. But at the moment it is just a project which is at an early stage of development.
You moved to Germany from Russia a few years ago. How has this impacted your filmmaking?
I moved to Germany because there was a possibility to find financing for my films there. I had an offer from a German producer, and together we made several documentary films, and he has also produced my feature film “My Joy” and is now producing “In the Fog.” The state system of cinema support in Germany is one of the most efficient in Europe. I have been given opportunities that would have been impossible in Russia.
As far at the subjects of my films are concerned, I have made all my films in Russia or about Russia. I shot my feature films in Ukraine and now in Latvia, because it was possible to find co-producers there. However, both my feature films as well as my documentaries speak about Russia and the post-Soviet territory. It’s the material which is the most familiar to me, and it’s the territory which I care about and think about.
Tell us about the next project you’re working on (“In the Fog”).
“In the Fog” is a feature film based on a novel by the Belarusian writer Vasily Bykov. It’s a World War II story and the action takes place on German occupied territories. An innocent man is wrongly accused of being a collaborator, and two partisans arrive from the forest to kill him. In a way, it’s a story of punishment without crime. A story of a man who is overcome by circumstances which are beyond his control, the circumstances when it is very difficult for one to preserve one’s dignity. And it’s a story of human perception and human interaction. “Eyes and ears are poor witnesses for those men, whose souls are of barbarian nature,” said Heraclitus. This is what my film is about.
We shot the film in eastern Latvia, very close to the Belarusian border. I have been very fortunate to have a great team working with me: the DP Oleg Mutu, the sound designer Vladimir Golovnitski, the costume designer Dorota Roqueplo. We had people from eight countries working on the project, and they were all brilliant. We are in post-production now and I expect to be able to finish the film this spring.