(Netherlands/Lithuania, 135 min.)
According to a survey done earlier this year by the Russian polling firm Levada, 70% of Russians are of the opinion that Josef Stalin’s rule was good for the country. To those in the West who equate Stalin with the likes of Hitler and Mao as men whose colossal crimes mark them as bloodthirsty tyrants and whose names are almost bywords for evil itself, this nostalgia is surprising, to say the least. It is somewhat less so to those reasonably familiar with the past thirty years of Russian history. Nostalgia for the USSR’s stability and its moves towards modernization and social justice is commonplace in documentaries, oral histories and academic studies of Russia. In a way, it’s not so hard to understand. The 1990s were, in their way, as major a disaster for Russia as Stalinism was; the social upheaval Russia has experienced under capitalism has arguably been more disruptive than anything since the Revolution and its immediate aftermath.
I say all this to contextualize Sergei Loznitsa’s latest film, State Funeral, which reconstructs the pomp and ceremony of Stalin’s funeral in one of his trademark styles—in this case, following on the techniques he used in The Event and The Trial, employing archival image and sound to build an immersive experience of a distinct moment in time. The temptation, in watching State Funeral, is to see the outpouring of popular emotion—most of the film consists of the shocked faces of members of the crowds who flocked to Moscow for the funeral—as distinctly weird, as symptomatic of a brainwashed population whose deliverance unto truth would come three years later with Khrushchev’s recognition of Stalin’s crimes. The ludicrous bombast of the eulogies at the end of the film, sure to elicit chuckles, certainly suggests that the whole thing is to be taken as a big weird joke.
I would like to suggest that something deeper may be at play. It may not be that the populace were entirely taken in by Stalin’s manipulative style, or by the theatrics of the funeral, or if they were, it may have been through some conscious credulousness. It seems to me that, rather as Russians today seem largely to view Putin favourably as a strong leader who brought the country stability after the disastrous 1990s, and never mind all the unsavoury stuff, Russians in 1953 saw Stalin as a champion of social justice and a war hero to boot, and never mind the gulags.
Two omissions are somewhat illuminating. The less important one is the well-known coincidence that the composer Sergei Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin, in his home near the Red Square. The crowds assembled for Stalin’s funeral meant that Prokofiev’s was somewhat derailed, with tragicomic results. More important is the omission of the deaths of around 100 mourners crushed in the crowd. (I don’t know about the 1500 massacred by the NKVD in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, a very funny film not overly concerned with the historical record.) I suppose there probably isn’t archival footage of either event so, per Loznitsa’s method, they could play no role in State Funeral. But more to the point, they might have distracted from the film’s real focus, which is not to present a fulsome narrative of the death and funeral of Stalin but rather to use those events as an occasion to meditate on the cult of personality.
Reviewed at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival