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Where Does Homeland Begin? Close-Up on Sergei Loznitsa's "Victory Day"

"Where does homeland begin?" asks a documentary on the annual celebration in Berlin of the Soviet defeat of the Third Reich.
Jesse Cumming
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Sergei Loznitsa's Victory Day (2018) is showing February and March, 2019 exclusively on MUBI as part of the series Berlinale Takeover.
Victory Day
May 8, 1945. Following the steady retreat of the Third Reich under pressure from Stalin’s Red Army, which eventually forces the Eastern Front back to Berlin, the German army signs their official surrender and effectively bring an end to the Second World War. Moscow, two hours and technically one day ahead, declare victory. 
May 9, 2017. Belarus-born, Ukraine-raised, and now Berlin-based filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa brings his camera to Treptower Park, in former East Berlin, to document the 61st celebration of Victory Day. What results is rich and knotty work of documentary cinema by one of the great chroniclers (and occasional critics) of 20th century Russian history. 
Victory Day had its premiere as part of the 2018 Berlinale Forum, the first of three features released that year by the prolific cineaste, followed by the narrative Donbass, a fictionalization of events in the titular Ukrainian region during its 2014 annexation by Russia, and The Trial, a historical documentary produced out of archival footage from one of Stalin’s first show trials in 1930. 
Each of the films adhere to the filmmaker’s overarching interest in not just capital-H History, but the ways in which histories are written, negotiated, and lived. The concern extends backwards to Austerlitz, from 2016, the closest spiritual and conceptual predecessor to Victory Day in Loznitsa’s body of work, in which the filmmaker turned his camera on a number of former WWII concentration camps turned into bustling destinations that welcome tourists from around the world. Shot in a series of long, wide takes, the film is an open-ended examination of the act of historical consideration and participation. 
While a prolific and somewhat protean filmmaker, with Victory Day one is increasingly able to identify and describe the formal attributes of Loznitsa’s contemporary documentary style. Like Austerlitz and Maidan (2014), the filmmaker’s on-the-ground documentation of the protests in the titular Kiev square, Victory Day plays out in a series of static, widescreen compositions that tend toward the planimetric. Often, though not always, such shots are held several minutes, allowing and encouraging the eye to wander with the ease of the figures that populate the frames. The cool distance of Loznitsa’s imagery is widened even further by the occlusion of any form of voice-over, instead privileging ambient sound and captured fragments of dialogue or—in the case ofVictory Day—song. (That said, one suspects a certain amount of artistic license in the deployment of the audio fragments, which don’t necessarily emirate from any onscreen speaker.)
Exceptions to the use of ambient sound includes the song that roll over the film’s opening and closing—a sombre Soviet folk ballad memorializing the end of the war in bittersweet terms, with lyrics referencing streets burnt to ashes and mothers mourning their lost children. In the first image we see of the film young soldiers (or young men dressed as soldiers) march on a nondescript path in Treptower Park, despite no real destination: theirs is neither a war to attend to nor one to return from. 
The films of Loznitsa turn frequently to memorial sites, and in particular to monuments, as if to challenge the ways in which episodes and narratives of history are assumed to be figuratively and literally set in stone. "How can we keep memory?" pondered the filmmaker, in an interview around Austerlitz, "Is it possible in general to share this memory?” In Loznitsa's documentary work—and in certain ways in his narrative work as well—memorialization is presented as an act to be performed, and while the films are intentionally open and ambiguous in their form, we’re left with the pointed suggestion that there exist “correct” or “incorrect” ways of doing so. 
Several of Victory Day's sequences take place in generally nondescript areas of the park, on paths and amid trees, while many others take place in or around different sections of the park’s gargantuan Soviet War Memorial, a monument of proto-brutalism erected and first opened on Victory Day 1949, in tribute to the 7000 soldiers killed in the Battle of Berlin. Loznitsa introduces details from the 16 stone sarcophagi that line the park as a recurring motif of the film, each covered with Stalin citations and patriotic relief carvings of battles, of armies, of mourning wives and children, and of Lenin.  
Like Austerlitz, with its occasionally distracted, iPhone-toting subjects that drift through the frame, Victory Day is complex palimpsest of eras and identities. For all of its formal precision and clarity, watching the film leaves viewers in a state of constant disorientation, with wide shots framing crowds dressed in styles that seem to extend from the Russian revolution through to the future (this being Berlin, after all). Spoken Russian overlaps with German, as popular Soviet ballads (occasionally sung by individuals who likely weren’t alive during the fall of the empire, let alone the end of the "Great Patriotic War") intermingle with more recent popular songs. 
Elsewhere, incongruous, anachronistic, and occasionally contradictory flags soar among the crowd, with the obvious hammer and sickle of the Soviet flag joined by flags representing nation-states (including Russia, Germany, Bulgaria, and Moldova, to name a few), political parties, and more. Enormous crowds have gathered, but who this celebration exactly is for is never clear. Instead it appears to exist somewhere between a Rorschach test and a near-blank canvas, which permits space any invested group or individual to project their specific concerns.
In Victory Day the questions regarding the practice of memorialization raised in Austerlitz are amplified and complicated by equally intricate provocations related to concepts of nationhood, identity, and explicit references to the re-emergence of a fascist right in Europe. “We’re German” is the first audible line of the film, spoken by one of the Victory Day attendees, in one of several declaratives regarding nationhood that ring throughout the film. Snippets of dialogue and the songs performed or played in the film which speak repeatedly of a united Soviet people echo uneasily from the vantage point of 2019, which has recently seen aggressive Russian expansion into its former republics. Such tension is most palpable in a sequence in which gatherers sing and dance to Oleg Mikhaylovich Gazmanov’s 2005 hit "I Grew Up in the USSR!”, a piece of nostalgic nationalism that triumphantly declares, "Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldavia, this is my country. Sakhalin and Kamchatka, the Urals, this is my country.” 
Watching Victory Day, for all the unease and underlying tensions that percolate, one is able to identify a certain optimism that underlies what remains a celebration, not simply of the Soviet victory over Hitler’s Nazis, but the beginning of a Pax Europaea that lasted for over 45 years. Tensions between individuals flare, with some caught on Loznitsa’s camera, but for the most part the heterogeneous mix of ages, fashions, flags, and national affiliations mingle with ease in verdant park of a once-divided city, on a sunny day in early May. 


Close-UpNow ShowingSergei Loznitsa
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