PRINT May/June 2020



Sergei Loznitsa, State Funeral, 2019, 2K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

A MESMERIZING, two-hour assemblage fashioned from archival material intended for The Great Farewell, a never-released feature documenting the March 1953 funeral of Soviet maximum leader Joseph Stalin, Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral is both awesome and stupefying, conjuring the spectacle of a dead pharaoh laid to rest in a celluloid pyramid of his own design.

In making The Great Farewell, the filmmakers had access to film stock captured in Germany during World War II. Thus, the first thing that strikes the viewer of Loznitsa’s artful, dispassionately titled re-hallucination may be the glorious Agfacolor—Stalin’s sarcophagus is bright, carnation red. (Of course!) Second: the stricken expressions on the faces of the departed man’s subjects. “Millions swarmed on foot toward the center of Moscow,” Vasily Grossman wrote in his last novel, Forever Flowing (1970). “People seemed to march to their deaths in a state of hypnosis, in some kind of mystical Christian-Buddhist acceptance of doom.” Was it for him or for themselves that they cried?

As anticipated by the final scene of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), where a close-up of the tsar in profile is juxtaposed with a sinuous file of supplicants, an endless procession of dazed, downcast Muscovites, some holding children, trudge past the coffin nestled in its bower of flowers. Meanwhile, the huddled masses of snowy Novgorod and a gaggle of bemused kolkhozniks in sunny Tajikistan are transfixed by the radio broadcast emanating from the outdoor speakers. “We are all alone,” the radio mourns. God is dead.

Kremlinologists may be fascinated by those flashes of spontaneous disorientation that may be glimpsed amid the monstrously imposed order. Stalin’s top cop, the dreaded Lavrentiy Beria, is suspiciously jolly, not to mention imperious, as he issues signals with discreet hand gestures. Heir apparent Georgy Malenkov appears lost—or am I just extrapolating from Armando Iannucci’s black farce The Death of Stalin (2017)? (The prominence of these two—one exiled, the other executed—among other less drastically downgraded figures, was one reason why The Great Farewell could never be shown.)

Sergei Loznitsa, State Funeral, 2019, 2K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

Arriving from Poland, Finland, and China, the international comrades struggle to understand the protocol. Whom shall they greet first? Could it be that pained-looking if well-groomed stiff Nikolai Bulganin? And if so, what expression is correct to assume? That evil-looking gremlin Mátyás Rákosi, Hungary’s arch Stalinist, seems way too social. Spain’s Dolores Ibárruri (aka “La Pasionaria”) is a stony Our Lady of Sorrows, while her young comrade (is it Santiago Carrillo?) keeps bowing like a bobblehead.

The thirty-five hours of footage exposed for The Great Farewell also included material shot in Berlin, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Paris, as well as in China, North Korea, and Cambodia. Loznitsa excluded all of this. The former Soviet Union is, here, its own world consecrated to Stalin. Hopscotching from Riga to Vladivostok, the Altai Republic to Azerbaijan, State Funeral is the socialist-realist version of Dziga Vertov’s exuberant silent features One Sixth of the World (1926) and The Eleventh Year (1928). Identical images of the departed leader are ubiquitous.

The Russian masses keep forever flowing. The mood is rhapsodic. In addition to cleverly contrived ambient sound, Loznitsa uses music that was actually played: Mozart’s Requiem, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, funeral marches by Mendelssohn and Chopin. Shuffling like the workers of Metropolis (1927), some staggering under the weight of floral displays, the mourners stolidly climb the ornate staircase to the Hall of Columns at the House of Trade Unions, where Stalin lies in state, cushioned upon his blossomy bier. (“Everything” reported Komsomolskaya Pravda, “is drowned in a sea of living flowers.”) A few seem to be detached observers—bored or bemused, glancing curiously at the camera, thinking their own thoughts.

Meanwhile, Orthodox priests genuflect to the corpse. Artists are at work drawing, painting, and even sculpting the dead man. Pompous radio elegies boggle the mind as poets compete in mawkish exaggeration. “Our first day without Stalin,” one declares. “Death has come and we are all alone.” The rhetoric is laughably grandiose and pitifully obsequious. “So many precious thoughts were born in his genius brain,” another marvels. “Such a strong, noble, and honorable being as has never been seen in the history of mankind.”Could even the most abject slaves so fawn? “To add one minute to your precious life, we would have given all our blood,” someone swears. In fact, although there was a bit of human sacrifice, the film cannot show it.

Sergei Loznitsa, State Funeral, 2019, 2K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

THE GREAT FAREWELL was to be the official account, airbrushed to dazzle. The actual story of Stalin’s funeral is more chaotic. The future art critic Igor Golomstock recalled climbing to the tower of the Vysokopetrovsky Monastery to survey the scene—“black ribbons of people, like the tentacles of an octopus, thronging to Stalin’s coffin from all sides of the city.” Descending to the boulevard, he discovered piles of abandoned galoshes, some even hanging from the trees—“relics,” he surmised, of “the hundreds of people who were crushed in Trubnaya Square.”

The young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko actually was in Trubnaya Square, where “the breath of tens of thousands of people pressed against one another rose up in a white cloud so thick that on it could be seen the swaying shadows of the leafless March trees.” The poet described the crowd as “a monstrous whirlpool,” a human tidal wave that smashed people into any impediment that lay in its path.

I was being carried straight towards a traffic light. The post was coming relentlessly closer. Suddenly I saw that a young girl was being pushed against the post. Her face was distorted by a despairing scream which was inaudible among all the other screams and groans. When I looked again the girl was no longer to be seen. The crowd must have sucked her under. 

Yevtushenko felt something soft under his shoes. “It was a human body. I picked my feet up and was borne along by the crowd.” Worthy of the tyrant, none of this is visible here.

Suddenly, the coffin is on the move, shouldered by the surviving leadership, who seem momentarily off-balance. Again, Beria appears to be cuing his accomplices. The slow procession through Red Square is replete with aerial shots of geometric formations, a kind of movie within the movie. The leadership gives a last round of speeches, with Nikita Khrushchev acting as master of ceremonies. Then the body is deposited in the mausoleum, where Stalin’s name has already been engraved below that of Lenin. A forty-gunshot salute, augmented by factory and train whistles, is heard throughout the Soviet Union, followed by tolling church bells.

I can’t think of a more dramatic instance of totalitarian cinema since the Museum of Modern Art, New York, created a shortened, annotated version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) in the early 1940s. State Funeral is terrific and troubling. Understandably, some fear that, just as The Great Farewell intended, Loznitsa’s version will whitewash Stalin or naturalize his rule. Here, as in his other documentaries, such as The Trial (2018), drawn from newsreel footage of a 1930 show trial, the filmmaker tends to let his material speak for itself—his editorializing is subtle, a matter of sly sound juxtaposition or found metaphor, as when Stalin’s pallbearers appear to stumble under the weight of his coffin or an unsteady crane hoists one more portrait of him.

Triumph of the Will is a love letter to Hitler; State Funeral may not be a hymn to Stalin, but it depicts one. Is there a difference?

André Bazin recognized long ago that Stalinist cinema is inherently religious: “The only difference between Stalin and Tarzan is that the films devoted to the latter do not claim to be rigorous documentaries.” Triumph of the Will is a love letter to Hitler; State Funeral may not be a hymn to Stalin, but it depicts one. Is there a difference? (Perhaps, for a necessary demystification, just as viewing the rally scene in The Great Dictator [1940] serves to desecrate Leni’s Triumph, State Funeral should only be shown with The Death of Stalin.)

With its masterful editing and orchestration of sound, State Funeral is a belated contribution to Soviet montage cinema. Indeed, the finale evokes Vertov’s last, most scandalous work, Lullaby (1937), a celebration of Soviet motherhood, banned in its time, that hysterically pivots into an outrageous paean—and inadvertent homage to the call-to-war climax of the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup (1933)—with women of all Soviet nationalities spontaneously mobilized to stride, bike, ski, or ride a camel to the Kremlin. (Many mothers; one Father.)

State Funeral ends, as though comforting a child, with Matvei Blanter and Mikhail Isakovsky’s Stalinist lullaby, a cooing injunction to “sleep tight my sparrow” in the knowledge that one’s future will be “guided by Stalin’s almighty hand.” Loznitsa saves the body count (twenty-seven million murdered, executed, tortured to death, imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or deported; fifteen million starved to death) for the kicker.

Perhaps, as has been demanded, the litany of Stalin’s crimes should have been the film’s lede. As presented, State Funeral conjures a vision of gaslighting on an unimaginable scale—impossible to consign to history’s dustbin. It’s no stretch to imagine Vladimir Putin running a print for his BFF Donald Trump, the two of them munching buttered попкорн (they should only choke on it) and singing “Those Were the Days.” 

J. Hoberman's books include The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism (Temple University Press, 1998) and most recently, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (New Press, 2019).