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MIFF2020 Film Review: State Funeral (dir. Sergei Loznitsa)

State Funeral screened as a part of the Melbourne International Film Festival's 68 ½ virtual festival of 2020.

State Funeral is film made entirely out of archival footage from over 65 years ago, and yet its message could not be more of a pertinent reminder for modern audiences. Sergei Loznitsa’s 135-minute triumph is a beast of a film and one with its roots firmly in Soviet documentary (it was, after all, resurrected out of scraps of a different film). A herculean effort of archival dumpster diving that is something of a prequel to Loznitsa’s potent fall-of-the-USSR doc The Event (which I listed as the 7th best documentary of the decade) from 2015, State Funeral proves even more so than before that this Ukrainian filmmaker who oscillates between non-fiction and dramatic fiction is surely our finest purveyor of humanistic rituals of congregation whether it be the absurdity of hordes of selfie-taking tourists at a Holocaust memorial in Austerlitz, the abuse of a bystander in Donbass, or the media circus revelry of The Trial.

The death of General Secretary Joseph Stalin in 1953 was the impetus for a state funded procession of propogandist pomp and ceremony across the entire Soviet Union with guests from China and Poland. The footage, which shuffles from black and white to colour—amid the sombre grey tones of 1950s Soviet Union, the stunningly vibrant greens and reds from the flamboyantly over-the-top memorial bouquets are its most striking recurring visual motif, captured on Agfacolor 35mm—has been adroitly assembled to maximise the maximalism of Stalin’s memorial. The footage here captures everybody from the upperclassment of the Soviet system (the very sorts who Armando Ianucci spoofed and satirised in The Death of Stalin) to the indigenous people of Siberia, and emotions run from black-faced to hysterical expressions of grief.

The only moment Loznitsa allows for direct contemporary reflection (there are no talking heads or narration) is a brief film-closing caption that makes note of the many millions that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of. It’s an obvious sting in the tail, but one that really underlines State Funeral’s modern relevance however accidental it may be. The video here of Soviets crying and mourning when paired with our now-understanding of the layers to Stalin’s reign really does recalls the celebrity-like worship of today’s politicians who commit class warfare upon the very people who they claim to serve. Politics really is a pendulum that swings between liberalism and progressivism (albeit a severely uneven one, especially in Russia) and one only needs to observe the cult of personality that surrounds the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte and others like them to see how easily it is for civilisations to succumb to brutalism from the hand of their leaders as long as there is an enemy to focus their attention on to.

As groups of beleaguered from across the Soviet states (many of which are now functionally independent countries) huddle around speaker systems in town halls and factories to hear of the many ailments that lead to their leader’s demise, many will make the trek to the capital, delivering wreaths. Others line up to paint, draw and sculpt in the room that Stalin's body sat propped. It’s remarkable to see, but clearly tinged with tragedy. Especially as we know many of these people will not survive to see their lands released from the clutches of the USSR’s communist state. There was still more than three decades to go before that, the events Loznitsa showed us in The Event, but the images look the same, which is its own form of commentary that only really comes to the fore once you’ve seen both the films. And like The Event, State Funeral is a mammoth, an engrossing and impeccably made work of documentary.


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