The scenes of German and Soviet soldiers recapturing Ukraine in Sergei Loznitsa’s “Babi Yar: Context” inevitably bring to mind the current Russian invasion of the country. For more than two decades, Loznitsa, a Ukrainian filmmaker who grew up in the Soviet Union, has chronicleed the past and present in Ukraine and Russia by revisiting historical events and depicting daily life in the grip of war and empire.
“Babi Yar: Context”, a documentary that opens on Friday at the Film Forum, recreates Ukraine during World War II through live archive images of Kyiv, where Nazis murdered thousands of Jews in one place, the ravine of the film’s title. In the fictional satire “Donbass,” Opening on April 8, Loznitsa re-establishes bizarre and disturbing episodes from Russian encroachment on eastern Ukraine in the 2010s.
Loznitsa, 57, recently received news when he left the European Film Academy due to a statement from the group about the Russian invasion which he considered “toothless”; then he returned to the headlines after being expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for opposing a boycott of Russian filmmakers. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky weighed in during an interview on March 27 with Russian journalists, saying of Loznitsa, “He is an artist who supports Ukraine.”
Loznitsa sees the conflict as “a European war, not just a Ukrainian war.” Speaking in Russian, with his producing partner Maria Choustova-Baker as interpreter, he told about his films and current events during a video chat from Berlin, where he lives. These are excerpts from our conversation.
Where were you when the Russian invasion began?
Vilnius. I’m finishing a new movie there. I was woken up by a text message from my friend, Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky. It said, “Forgive me. What a nightmare.”
Is it true that you helped your parents get out of Ukraine?
Unlike many others, I actually believed what the US intelligence service reported and what President Biden told the world. [that Russia had planned to invade]. I even guessed the dates correctly. My friend, Ukrainian co-producer Serge Lavrenyuk, helped me remove my parents [from Kyiv, three days before the invasion started]. This war comes as a huge shock to millions of people. My father was born in 1939, and he remembers very well his childhood and these horrors. My mother was born in 1940 and also remembers all the movement during the war. Now they are [in their 80s] and it’s the same circumstances!
How would you compare the situation now with the story in “Babi Yar: Context”?
The fundamental difference is that then it was a struggle between two totalitarian regimes. Now there is a totalitarian regime struggling with a country that is striving to become independent. At that time, large countries such as the United States and Great Britain also took part in the war. But today, the majority of countries that have the potential to stop this war have chosen this immoral position as spectators, out of non-interference. And the politicians of these countries have put their citizens in this immoral situation, because the only choice that citizens have is to observe online, in real time, how city after city in Ukraine is being destroyed.
It can be said that Putin is currently winning internationally, because the policies of world leaders are based on fear. They are not even capable of taking a fairly neutral step in imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Some worry that such a commitment would lead to escalation and nuclear conflict.
I do not think that is a valid excuse. Firstly, do these politicians have any guarantee that if – God forbid – Russia succeeds in swallowing Ukraine, they will not use nuclear weapons? Putin had no valid reason to invade Ukraine. So why do you think he would need a valid reason to use nuclear weapons? This can only be stopped by force. Sooner or later, NATO will have to get involved, and the longer they wait, the bloodier the resolution of the conflict will be.
“Babi Yar: Context” does not shy away from addressing the role of people in Ukraine in the massacre of Jews. Have you experienced any criticism about this?
There were people who criticized me in Ukraine for making this film the way I made it. The contemporary situation is completely different. And it is quite clear that everything that Putin is talking about, that there are Nazis in Ukraine, was just nonsense. At the same time, this issue of cooperation in history is very, very painful in Ukraine. Yes, I received harsh criticism.
Do you have relatives who were affected by the Babi Yar murders?
In “Donbass”, you take a different approach: dramatizing events based on actual cell phone videos. Why this form?
Firstly because I was fascinated by the amateur videos I found on the internet. Secondly, I wanted to create this grotesque form because I needed something to hold the film together and I did not want to use just one main character or a group of main characters. I wanted you to observe idiocy in all its forms and forms. This wonderful film by Luis Buñuel, “The Phantom of Freedom”, also uses this method.
One of the scenes shows Russians moving around artillery from place to place after firing on a civilian bus.
Yes, the most important thing for them was not to be identified. So that’s why they had to move from one place to another. And the killing that happens afterwards [in the film] because they wanted to get rid of the witnesses.
It sounds like a mafia movie.
Yes, in fact, these criminal gangs who took power in 1917 and who are in power today, there is no difference between them and any other mafia. Before this, the mafia covered itself with Soviet ideology. Nowadays, there is no ideology anymore. It’s just a mafia.
“Donbass” also portrays people hired to pretend to be witnesses to a staged explosion.
Yes, it happens all the time. This is the technology routinely used by Russian television, and surveillance teams were able to identify actors who play the roles of witnesses in various locations. So they almost have a cast of actors that they use to make fake news. There was an infamous TV report around 2014: a story about how Ukrainians crucify a Russian boy. This report was analyzed by professionals who proved that every single element was false, all staged.
When you grew up in the Soviet Union, was there a point where you became disillusioned?
In fact, the whole of the Soviet Union lived in this kind of double reality or multiple realities, and everyone was aware of it, but very few people actually questioned it. But I was a very bad student. [Laughs] I was a very good student when it came to school results, but I always questioned this double reality and asked myself: “Where am I and what’s going on?”
Today this criminal group [in power in Russia] has regrouped. They fixed the country’s economy a little. They upgraded their military force. And now they are ready to conquer the world again. [Laughs]
Nowadays, your movies can look like prophecies because of their familiar images of war.
The problems I talk about in my movies have been around for a long time. That’s why I wanted to do “Mr. Landsbergis” [a new film about Lithuania’s successful bid for independence from the Soviet Union in 1989-91]. For there is this unique and amazing and colossal experience of fighting the Soviet Union and winning.