The scenes of German and Soviet soldiers overtaking Ukraine in Sergei Loznitsa’s “Babi Yar: Context” are inevitably reminiscent of the current Russian invasion of the country. For more than two decades, Loznitsa, a Ukrainian filmmaker who grew up in the Soviet Union, has chronicled the past and present in Ukraine and Russia by revisiting historical events and portraying everyday life in the throes of war and empire.
“Babi Yar: Context,” a documentary opening Friday at Film Forum, recreates Ukraine during World War II through vivid archival footage of Kiev, where Nazis murdered thousands of Jews in one place, the ravine of the film’s title. In the fictional satire “Donbass”, which begins on April 8, Loznitsa reenacts bizarre and disturbing episodes of the Russian raids on eastern Ukraine in the 2010s.
Loznitsa, 57, recently made headlines when he left the European Film Academy over a statement by the group about the Russian invasion that he found “toothless”; then he returned to the headlines after being expelled from the Ukrainian film academy for opposing boycotts of Russian filmmakers. Even Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, weighed in with Russian journalists during a March 27 interview, saying of Loznitsa: “He is an artist who supports Ukraine.”
Loznitsa views the conflict as “a European war, not just a Ukrainian war”. In Russian, with his production partner Maria Choustova-Baker as an interpreter, he spoke 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 making a new movie there. I was awakened 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 to get out of Ukraine?
Unlike many others, I actually believed in what US intelligence was reporting and what President Biden was telling 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 his youth and these horrors very well. 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 conditions!
Now how would you compare the situation to the history in “Babi Yar: Context”?
The fundamental difference is that at the time it was a battle between two totalitarian regimes. Now there is one totalitarian regime fighting with a country that wants to become independent. At the time, the major countries such as the US and the UK 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 of spectator, of non-interference. And the politicians of these countries have put their citizens in this immoral situation because the only choice the citizens have is to observe online, in real time, how city after city of Ukraine is being destroyed.
You could say that Putin is currently winning internationally because world leaders’ policies are based on fear. They are not even able to make a rather neutral move by introducing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Some fear that such involvement would lead to escalation and nuclear conflict.
I don’t think it’s a valid excuse. First, do these politicians have any guarantee that in the event – God forbid – Russia manages to gobble up Ukraine, they won’t use nuclear weapons? Putin had no valid reason to invade Ukraine. So why do you think he needs 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 criticized this?
There were people in Ukraine who criticized me for making this film the way I made it. The current situation is completely different. And it’s absolutely clear that everything Putin is talking about, that there are Nazis in Ukraine, was all nonsense. At the same time, this issue of cooperation in history is very, very painful in Ukraine. Yes, I got a lot of criticism.
Do you have any relatives affected by the Babi Yar murders?
In “Donbass” you do it differently: dramatizing events based on real cell phone videos. Why this form?
First, because I was mesmerized by those amateur videos I found on the internet. Second, I wanted to create this grotesque shape because I needed something to hold the film together and I didn’t want to use just one main character or a group of main characters. I wanted you to observe the idiocy in all its forms and forms. This wonderful film by Luis Buñuel, ‘The Phantom of Liberty’, also uses this method.
One of the scenes shows Russians moving artillery from place to place after firing at a civilian bus.
Yes, the most important thing for them was not to be identified. Therefore, they had to move from one place to another. And the murder that takes place after [in the film] is because they wanted to get rid of the witnesses.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
China and the war. The European Union called on China not to support the Russian war or undermine Western sanctions against Moscow, during the first summit between the two sides in two years. China is keen to maintain its trade with the bloc, but without disrupting its relations with Russia.
That sounds like a mafia movie.
Yes, in fact, these criminal gangs who came to power in 1917 and who are in power today, there is no difference between them and other mafia. Before that, the mafia covered itself with Soviet ideology. Today there is no more ideology. It’s just mafia.
“Donbass” also portrays people hired to pretend to witness a staged explosion.
Yes, it happens all the time. This is the technique routinely used by Russian television, and control groups were able to identify actors playing the role of witnesses in various locations. So they almost have a cast of actors that they use to fabricate fake news. Around 2014 there was an infamous TV report: a story about how Ukrainians crucify a Russian boy. This report was analyzed by professionals who proved that every element was fake, all staged.
Was there a point where you became disillusioned growing up in the Soviet Union?
The fact is that the entire Soviet Union lived in this kind of dual reality or multiple realities, and everyone was aware of it, but very few people really doubted it. But I was a very bad student. [Laughs] I was a very good student in terms of school results, but I always questioned that dual reality and asked myself, “Where am I and what is going on?”
Today this criminal group [in power in Russia] has regrouped. They have restored the economy of the country a little bit. They improved their military might. And now they are ready to conquer the world again. [Laughs]
Today, your movies may look like prophecies because of their familiar wartime images.
The issues I talk about in my movies have been around for a long time. That’s why I wanted “Mr. Landsberg” [a new film about Lithuania’s successful bid for independence from the Soviet Union in 1989-91]† Because there is this unique and fantastic and colossal experience of fighting against the Soviet Union and winning.