Power Has Collapsed

State Funeral


Power Has Collapsed

By Alexey Artamonov

An interview with Sergei Losnitza about his mind-boggling archival documentary State Funeral.

State Funeral and The Event screen at Metrograph December 14 and 18, as part of Kon Trubkovich’s series The Russians Love Their Children Too.

Sergei Losnitza
Sergei Losnitza

Sergei Loznitsa is one of the most important documentarians currently working in the post-Soviet space, a cinematographic explorer of its past and present. A significant chunk of his vast oeuvre comprises reconstructed footage, assembled from official Soviet archives: the documentary Blockade (2005) recreates the Siege of Leningrad during WWII; Revue (2008) uses newsreels, TV shows and films to evoke Soviet life during the 1950-1960s; The Event (2015) makes use of footage of the attempted 1991 coup d’état; and The Trial (2018) reworks show trials of Soviet engineers and economists.

Losnitza’s State Funeral (2019) continues this methodology, using recordings of the four-day funeral of Joseph Stalin in 1953, one of the biggest state ceremonies to ever take place in the USSR—effectively, the death of the personality cult playing out at spectacular scale. For this project, Losnitza made use of the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk, which houses footage that had been shot for the documentary The Great Farewell (filmed in 1953, but unseen until 1991), as well as sound recordings from Gosteleradio (State TV and Radio Archive). Following State Funeral’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, Alexey Artamonov spoke with the director about the apparatus of ideology, the psychology of the masses, and the challenges of working with such complex and long-buried source material.

Am I correct to think the images we see in State Funeral were taken, and then edited, entirely from the rushes of the documentary The Great Farewell?

This material was meant to become a film about Stalin’s funeral. It was shot at that time—Sergei Gerasimov, Ilya Kopalin, Mikheil Chiaureli, and Grigori Aleksandrov were all working on it together… What a collaboration between these four giants of Soviet cinema! I don’t understand how they could edit this picture eight-handed. That the film was quickly shelved begs a question. There is nothing incendiary in The Great Farewell, except that it glorifies Stalin, which means that the dear leaders of the country didn’t want to release the film, even though they hadn’t actually seen it (it was made fast and was completed by April)—a very interesting fact. I think that the film shoot was a large-scale action designed to ensure that, in the near future, nobody would guess that those same leaders would then attempt to pin the blame for their collective atrocities and crimes wholly on Stalin.

A considerable part of the archival material didn’t have sound, right?

Only newsreels had sound—and not all newsreels, some edited negatives were without sound, which meant they weren’t finished. There were also separate sound recordings of funeral speeches by [Lavrentiy] Beria, [Georgy] Malenkov, and [Vyacheslav] Molotov, which were recorded on audio tape in sync with the images. We couldn’t find these tapes, despite them being listed in the catalogue of the film archives.

Gosteleradio has 28 hours of live broadcasts of [the ceremony in] the Hall of Columns in the House of the Unions [where Stalin’s body was put on display for three days, before it was transported to Red Square, and then interred in Lenin’s Mausoleum]; some recordings even contain several takes; the speakers make mistakes from nerves, stumble, start again. These audio recordings are very curious documents. Some of the crying in the film is taken from them, as well as the atmospheric crowd sound.

There also exists a recording of the [eulogies read at the] memorial congress of the Writers Union, led by [Anatoly] Sofronov, from which we took a few fragments: poetry of Lev Oshanin and Konstantin Simonov; a text on Donbass by the Ukrainian writer [Oleksandr] Korniychuk, who once wrote, “Grey overcoats through the snowdrifts of Donbass…” Of course, I couldn’t not mention this right now; “Ukraine is reborn, hurry to help her”—a remarkable text! As we hear this, we see Lviv, we see hundreds of thousands of people arrive to circle Stalin’s statue, against the wonderfully Bruegel-esque landscape. There’s a wreath with an inscription in Ukrainian, I deliberately left it onscreen: “Thank you Stalin, the gatherer of Ukrainian lands.” There’s some truth in this, he did unify them.

Was the music we hear in the film [such as the funeral marches by Mendelssohn and Chopin] all taken from this live broadcast?

Almost all of it. At times we used a different performance. For instance, when the coffin is carried across Red Square. The quality of the original recording was poor, so we had to find ways of creating a richer sound.

How many hours of material did you uncover in the end?

In total, we had 30-35 hours, Vladilen Vernik who worked in the archives will know exactly. There were 117 reels, and we transcribed every frame with my editor. It was a huge task, it took three months. The edit took four months, which is a lot for me, I normally edit fast. As far as I understand, that’s not even all the material that was shot… I would be so curious to find someone who could describe the history of these film shoots. I read somewhere on the internet that it was the NKVD [the interior ministry of the Soviet Union] who ordered the filming… We tried to learn more but we couldn’t find anyone who knew the particulars.

“I didn’t want to use candid shots that show weeping because they begin to destroy everything. The original material contains these moments, and it’s unclear whether they are acting or not."

What formal goals did you set for yourself? The first thing I found striking is that you kept the events in chronological order. You built a vast geography, and yet you also keep returning to the Hall of Columns footage, which works as a through line in the film.

When you approach an archive, it’s hard to define precise rules according to which the film will be structured. I know exactly what I won’t do, but how things will come together is mysterious. I didn’t want to use candid shots that show weeping because they begin to destroy everything. The original material contains these moments, and it’s unclear whether they are acting or not. Although I don’t really believe that. I talked to an enormous amount of people who remember that period; a lot of them were sincere, they experienced a sense of ecstasy, and I wanted to convey this emotion. They only questioned themselves about why they behaved in this way later, when they were able to look at themselves from the outside.

Actually, the editor Danielius Kokanauskis was seriously involved in the making of the film. We have worked together since 2010, and certain parts of the film are totally his work, I only guided him a little. It is difficult to edit such an intense current with four hands; a high level of concentration is required when you need to edit two hours of footage down to six minutes. He also astutely found the melody to underscore this—Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. It has a motif of a wave, which corresponds to the montage: we wanted to get to the emotion little by little, then to ebb away. The motif of approaching and receding, followed by a restrained climax, like a fractal, is present in various episodes of the film.

I knew how I would open the film—with the radio announcement. We tried to edit it so that it would repeat again and again, but this turned out to feel like a joke that didn’t suit the material. In the end, we played the announcement in its entirety. We just needed to follow the events. I knew I had to introduce the city. There was a wonderful moment when people snap up newspapers. The episode was edited in a way that is similar to the arrival of the leaders, who also had to be introduced. There’s irony there, including the music choice—it seems to be a piano trio by Schumann, performed by an orchestra. It has a strange sound, I didn’t recognise it at first.

I had to show the queue. Not everything can be clearly seen in the shots, but they have a certain feeling; once you disrupt their order, you immediately get the sense something is askew. After the first attempt at editing the movement of the crowd, Danielius identified where each shot was filmed, and we totally reconstructed the order of the crowd’s movement across Moscow to then be able to edit it chronologically.

Finally, I had to represent the country. At first it was three episodes, then five. Then five or six workers’ rallies. I had to return to the Hall of Columns three times. The first time to show the children, because for them it’s a personal tragedy—it’s evident looking at Stalin’s son Vasily and [his daughter] Svetlana Alliluyeva. The second time, the official delegation; the third, the people. My logic was that we had to have some development if we were to enter the Hall three times. For me, the final episode with the people is the culmination. As they pass, you begin to empathise, and to experience their emotions together with them. This is the climax of the film.

The film seems to be a continuation of The Trial, thematically and conceptually; while watching, you begin to ask yourself what’s behind the representation onscreen?

For example, in the scene where we see the army of sculptors, artists and camera operators in the Hall of Columns

who are all taking part in the making of this spectacle—who have created the representation of Stalin’s dead body, the body that, like that of a king, had become a symbol of sacred power—you begin to grasp that this is a film about the mechanisms of power. It no longer belongs to one particular person, it has become a palpable function, the empty space around which unfolds this whole incredible machinery of mourning.

Power has collapsed, all of it. And at this moment, they rescue it. How very important this whole ceremony is for all those leaders who are standing near the open casket! They have to demonstrate firmness, resolve for action, to present their new pakhan [Soviet term for a powerful patriarch with a criminal undertone, à la ‘godfather’]. All these people look to us like gangsters, especially Beria—he dresses like a mafioso and acts like the head of a gang. Their spectacular faces! Their unblinking eyes that express an absolute presence, fulfillment of duty, of ritual—and behind them that terrible fear. That silence, concealing a colossal tempest. And all of it is being captured on film. We can’t see it for certain, but we can feel it, in these microgestures, micromovements…

There’s an episode when they are following the coffin, and Khruschev walks behind Beria, and then Beria makes this gesture—I have watched it many times, frame by frame. He turns, mutters something, and with a heedless motion orders Khruschev to walk by his side. It’s only a brief moment, his fingers move so quickly that I had thought something might have been cut… but Khruschev obeys without hesitation, and it’s immediately clear who is who here.

State Funeral

The viewer is left trying to guess what the point of this ceremony is. We know that the 20th Party Congress, the dismantling of the cult of Stalin followed shortly after [in 1956], and it’s clear these images capture the end of a long and bloody era. Yet all the participants of this funereal mystery play are working towards the realisation of the existing performance, the existing structure of power—despite the fact that they are about to radically transform it.

The thing is, at the time it wasn’t clear who could become a comparable figure [to Stalin]. And it wasn’t clear what to do with all the others. Khruschev’s report [a speech made to the 20th Party Congress titled ‘On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences,’ though often referred to as the ‘Secret Speech’] was presented three years later. Why was that report only read out at a closed meeting at first? This suggests that there was great fear over taking this step. Also, they only carried Stalin out of the mausoleum in 1961—five years after the take down of the cult of the personality of the chief—which suggests the gravity of the danger that these men felt themselves to be in. And where was the threat coming from? The people, who were consumed by the cult. Whether this was an echo of ancient religions, or whether this cult had an altogether different nature, I do not know. Nonetheless, it was a cult. One could not simply come out and state that [Stalin] was a tyrant who had caused great suffering for all.

For me, this is a film about how the apparatus of power overrides that of any one individual. It isn’t possible to change a system without mastering the apparatus.

It is an ocean, yes. It was not created by any one person, the whole population participated.

And why, would you say, do all these people cry? Is it over one guy, the world that is ending with him, or over comrade Stalin’s gift of their happy childhood?

I think that there isn’t just one cause. Rather, we need to talk about the psychology of the masses. There’s theories on this that go back millions of years. Man is a herd animal, we cannot forget this. The Spanish professor José Delgado conducted an experiment where he introduced an electron into the part of a monkey’s brain that is responsible for fear and hysteria. He learned that even one such manipulated monkey was enough for the whole herd to grow hysterical within just ten minutes. I don’t know whether we can draw a parallel between this experiment and Stalin’s funeral, but in a large crowd such things do spread quickly, and if a certain environment is created, the crowd can fall into ecstasy. When the right conditions enable millions of people to mourn and grieve collectively, it’s difficult to restrain oneself..

One has to be a singular personality—for example, [the writer Joseph] Brodsky, who did not cry on his knees alongside everyone else at his school. He has an excellent essay about this, and I think he told the truth: they truly, sincerely, wept over the death of the tyrant, and most likely there isn’t another tyrant for whom so many genuine tears have been shed, or at least judging by what written history we have. In his attempt to get to the core of all this and explain it, Brodsky circles the topic; I feel he’s not clear in the end. That’s why I made this film. I understand it, although it is still not all clear, if I may put it like that—how this character managed to mine from the human ore, what exactly was this ore, how he reformatted the Russian empire… It remains a mystery. We continue to live in the environment Stalin created, that is why this whole song is about him.'

Alexey Artamanov is a film critic and curator from St. Petersburg, and the program director of the New Holland Island International Debut Film Festival.

This interview first appeared in Seance in October 2019. It has been translated from the Russian by Alena Lodkina, and printed with the author’s permission.

State Funeral