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.
Glasgow’s retrospective this year was ‘Are We There Yet? A Retrospective of the Future’ and amongst the many Hollywood films selected for this strand, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker stood out as something different. I don’t think I saw Stalker when it arrived in the UK, but I knew something about the film. I was therefore surprised that a 162 minute film which has baffled audiences for 40 years should attract a nearly full house in GFT1 (260 seats taken according to Festival co-director Allan Hunter). Admittedly this was a free show, like all the morning shows in the retrospective, but even so the turnout was impressive.
The starting point for Stalker was a novel, originally titled Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. There are numerous stories about the production of the film but most point towards Tarkovsky’s decision to use the novel only as ‘inspiration’ rather than to adapt it ‘faithfully’, although I think some have argued it is quite close to the novel (which I haven’t read). In addition, reported problems with the filmstock used and a dispute with the original cinematographer meant that Tarkovsky re-shot much of the film and there is a credit part-way through the Curzon DCP which announces ‘Part 2’ and therefore, I think, the new material.
If you haven’t seen the film, the narrative starts from the premise that after some kind of major incident (which in the novel is an alien visitation which the aliens treat ‘like a picnic’) an area of land is cordoned off and access is denied to the public. This is ‘the Zone’. A group of individuals have spent time trying to find ways into the Zone and these people are known as ‘Stalkers’. The narrative opens with a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) leaving his wife and child at home and meeting two men, the ‘Professor’ (Nikolay Grinko) and a ‘Writer’ (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) who will pay him to lead them into the Zone. Why do they want to go there? The local legend is that at the centre of the Zone is a building with a room in which anyone who enters successfully is able to have any wish granted. The Stalker tells them that the Zone is very difficult to navigate and that only he and his few fellows know the pathways and how to find them. He refers to the most famous Stalker who was known as ‘Porcupine’.
The film is divided into sections marked by the use of colour filters or distinctive palettes. The opening in the house of the Stalker and the bar where he meets his two customers is presented in a yellowish sepia, many of the scenes indoors/underground in the ‘Zone’ have a palette primarily of greys, contrasting with outdoor sequences in full colour dominated by the greens of vegetation. The final sequences set back near the Stalker’s home are perhaps again yellowish sepia. (I’m confused here since the many stills online don’t always match what I think I saw in Glasgow.) The film is presented in Academy ratio and there are two types of colour stock used as well as black and white according to IMdB.
Stalker has been described in many ways but like all films labelled as ‘science fiction’ it is about ‘now’ rather than anything futuristic. The film seemed to me to be primarily concerned with living in the USSR. This in turn requires entering a number of philosophical debates about how to survive in the society and what it is that keeps people going. We do find out what the Professor and the Writer are seeking but several questions are unanswered by the narrative. The most obvious is why the Stalker hasn’t entered the room and obtained his own wish – which might be for money to support his family or for a cure for the affliction which means his daughter has difficulty walking.
I should point out that I found the film very heavy going. Partly that might be because I was feeling under the weather anyway with a heavy cold but I think I stayed alert throughout the running time. However, I am now finding it difficult to remember some parts of the narrative. I saw my first three Tarkovsky films on release in UK cinemas, Solaris (1972), Andrei Rublev (1973) and Mirror (1980) and not only did I enjoy them but I found myself moved by them in different ways. When I watched Tarkovsky’s début film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) some years later on video, I was similarly knocked out. Why then did I not respond to Stalker? I don’t know. I was impressed by the camerawork and some of the ‘action sequences’ such as the initial breaking into the Zone, the walk across it and some of the sequences inside the buildings, but for some reason I wasn’t engaged. I wasn’t sure what to make of the opening and closing sequences with the Stalker and his wife and daughter. It may be that I just couldn’t tune into the religious and and more broadly philosophical questions – though these are also present in various ways in some of the earlier films. More likely, is that the narrative itself is much more abstract and though it isn’t difficult to see some of the links to a critique of Soviet society, I tend to enjoy narratives that are more materially, more sociologically grounded (or in the case of Solaris, couched in more specific generic structures).
There are many, many pieces written about Stalker from eminent film critics and scholars to auteur fans. There are also many attempts to explain the narrative. Stalker has become one of those films that are endlessly argued over. You can easily find many of these on YouTube and through simple searches. Perhaps I need to watch it again – or perhaps I should seek out his last two films? I’m pleased Glasgow screened it and I’m glad I saw it in what is now considered a large cinema. Here’s the trailer for a recent restoration of Stalker:
Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening a 35mm print of the 2005 restoration of this Soviet Classic. The screening is supported by the Cinema For All – Yorkshire (Group). This is a rare chance to see the film in its original form rather than just on digital. The screening will enjoy a piano score by Darius Battiwalla, an experienced accompanist who impressed audiences in the now sadly defunct National Media Museum ‘silent with live music’.
The Picture House, recuperated after the floods of 2016, now has a new 35mm projector. The introduction will place the film in the context of the seminal Soviet Montage Movement and, importantly, of the revolutionary society ushered in by The Great October Revolution, which Centenary occurred in the last few weeks.
Check out the cinema: http://www.hebdenbridgepicturehouse.co.uk/live-events/reel-film-battleship-potemkin
Check out the BFI restored print: https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-battleship-potemkin-bronenosets-potemkin-2/
(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)
King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil. Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.
It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.
Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.
Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin. At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements. Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.
Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.
Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise. After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.
Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.
The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:
Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog
This was one of several films commissioned in order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Great October Revolution. The most famous of these is Sergei Eisenstein’s October Ten Days that Shook the World (1928). Both films include sequences showing the storming of the Winter Place: in fact the filming of these sequences found the two productions ‘stepping on each others’ heels’.
However, Vsevolod Pudovkin, the director, has a different approach to drama and to ‘montage’ from Eisenstein. There are parallels between this film and his earlier adaptation of a Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother / Mat (1926). This film follows the experiences of a young rural worker who migrates to St Petersburg in search of employment. We follow him in a linear fashion as he experiences the exploitation of the proletariat in Tsarist Russia and he becomes politicised. The film includes very fine sequences showing the advent of war, the experiences of the Russian army and then the series of conflicts that led to the overthrow, first of the Tsarist regime, and then of its bourgeois successor.
Pudovkin, together with his script writer Nathan Zarkhi and the cinematographer Anatoli Golovnya, present the city, the social movements and its representative characters with a strong sense of the world they live in and of the historic events in which they were involved. Whilst Eisenstein’s film ends with the Vladimir Lenin announcing the start of Socialist Construction Pudovkin’s film ends on a quieter note, expressive of the victory but also of the cost it has levied.
Sheffield Showroom have a screening of the film this Sunday, October 15th. The screening uses the Contemporary Films 35mm print. Unfortunately this is copied form a 1969 Soviet re-issue where the film was reframed to accommodate a music track, and there is some cropping in the top of the frame. However, it will enjoy a specially composed musical score from the Harmonie Band: the score is excellent and works well with style and drama of the film.
This is fine film and a signal celebration as we approach the anniversary of the most important event of the C20th. Hopefully we can look forward to other significant dramas and records of 1917.
This Autumn is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of London’s independent cinemas are hosting a season of films by Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Shub – plus Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) based on the personal account of the events of the Revolution by John Reed. The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Rio in Dalston have screenings on alternate Sundays mostly starting around lunchtime/early afternoon. If you’ve never seen these Soviet classics, here is a great chance to catch up on an extraordinary period of filmmaking. Download further details here: Spark Programme.