Column lidokino: black pictures and swan lake

Sergei Loznitsa reassembles archive material from the time of the coup against Gorbachev. He is concerned with confusion, not heroism.

Sergei Loznitsa at the Venice Film Festival. Photo: dpa

While the competition is tough, documentaries presented out of competition are compelling. Ukrainian, Berlin-based filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, whose documentary "Maidan" is currently playing in German theaters, travels to the Lido with "Sobytie" ("The Event"). Here he continues the method he tested in earlier works such as "Blokada" (2006) of remounting archive material and combining it with an elaborate soundtrack.

In "Blokada" they were images from the time of the German siege of Leningrad, this time they are black-and-white shots taken in August 1991 on the streets and squares of the same city, in the days when communist functionaries putsched against President Gorbachev and imposed a state of emergency in many places of the Soviet Union.

Loznitsa punctuates the black-and-white images with radio broadcasts and speeches by politicians and protesters. Sometimes the texts run free, detaching themselves from what you see, and then you don’t know exactly who is speaking and in what context they are doing it. Black images serve as caesura, and excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake" are heard again and again. This is not done on a whim, but because the stations that were under the control of the putschists broadcast recordings of productions of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Leningraders gather in the square in front of the Hermitage or in front of the City Hall, sometimes filmed from a higher vantage point, sometimes the camera roams through the crowd, noticing faces, the fear and helplessness in them, the fatigue, but also the anger.

Uncanny harbinger of new repression

It is a situation that can only be understood and interpreted, if at all, in retrospect. At the moment of its occurrence, it is confusing and confused. Who is acting why and in what interest cannot be seen through – which does not slow down the crowd’s thirst for action. Collectives are formed spontaneously, and barricades are erected.

Loznitsa is concerned precisely with this confusion, not with heroism. At the end of the first Leningrad film, "Blokada," there are no images of triumph from the city, finally no longer encircled, but shots of the execution of those identified as collaborators. Towards the end of "Sobytie," men on the roof of the town hall take down the Soviet flag and hoist the Russian tricolor in its place. The square in front of the building is now almost empty, people have gone home.

Shortly before, the mayor Anatoly Sobchak gave a flaming speech condemning the coup. For a moment, on the speaker’s podium, you can also see Vladimir Putin, who was Sobchak’s associate at the time. From today’s vantage point, it is difficult not to see him as a sinister harbinger of new repression.

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