WHAT IT’S ABOUT: In 1953, the Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin died, and the whole country was mourning. Public grief ceremonies were held at factories, organizations, and institutions, while the body of the supreme leader lay in repose in Moscow for the locals and visitors to pay their respects. Sobbing, despair, trite speeches about “the death of our best friend comrade Stalin” were omnipresent. Sergei Loznitsa’s film is an accurate chronological recreation of the events. It uses footage from the Moscow proceedings, along with the video of the mourning elsewhere in the Soviet empire, from the far north indigenous regions to Central Asian republics.
WHO MADE IT: Sergei Loznitsa is a Ukrainian film director, who is best known for his documentaries that together form an interesting view of the Soviet and post-Soviet space. He’s done films about Stalin’s era show trials, the 1991 Soviet coup d’etat, as well as contemporary history in the region. “State Funeral” is his most sprawling film to date that delightfully covers the abundance of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, the mourned body at the center of the narrative, was the Soviet Union’s ruler throughout the victory in World War II, whose historical heritage remains a contentious issue for many.
WHY DO WE CARE: Joseph Stalin is enjoying a revival right now back in Russia. It’s becoming increasingly common for political groups, both ultra-right and ultra-left, to embrace his image, and his historical portrait is the subject of wild speculation. This is perhaps due to the fact that unlike Hitler, Stalin never got the accountability analysis he deserved. After all, the dismantling of the “personality cult” during Khruschev’s reign had its political motives, and only added space for further ambiguity. Even though “State Funeral” never touches upon the actual history of Stalin’s era, it’s the portrait of the crowd in mourning that makes the viewing so interesting. Rumors of people persecuted for not reacting to Stalin’s death properly are still prevalent in the post-Soviet territory. “State Funeral” allows the viewer to make the assumptions for themselves, as they ponder whether they see genuine grief in the people’s faces, or PTSD, as we’ve been taught to approach this subject.
On the one hand you have poorly dressed people placing potted plants on the deceased overlord’s memorials, and large amounts of indigenous people made to comply with the Soviet uniformity. On the other, there are rich white women in lavish furs at the Moscow event and a distinct hierarchy in how the local enforcers and foreign dignitaries are received. Stalin’s USSR was many things, but we’re far yet from seeing it objectively.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: Because it’s fascinating. The strikingly beautiful restored footage in the film shows the events that are undoubtedly Soviet, with cotton-stuffed peasant jackets and felt valenki in almost every frame. And yet, the ritual of mourning a leader at the center is timeless. It’s something that you’d expect to observe in ancient Rome, and absolutely at odds with the technology that floats in the background: oil rigs, heavy machinery, radio transmitters. “State Funeral” is a meticulously crafted, incomparable account of a space and time so fiercely debated it’s become part of mythology even though it happened less than a century ago. And it’s a time and place still bound to be reexamined because it’s so close to us, and the way we explore it will be dictating the way we move forward for generations to come.
However, Loznitsa’s film might become difficult viewing for someone who is not familiar with Soviet history. There is no captioning given, and some nuances might go over one’s head. They would go over mine, too, if I weren’t watching with my dad. He was born a decade after the event but grew up in its’ slow-burning aftermath. He pointed out Dolores Ibárruri, the Spanish revolutionary, and various key figures of the Soviet party and from abroad in the mourning processions. We guessed at locations together, too. If you don’t have a post-Soviet dad, I would recommend arming yourself with the Wikipedia article, which describes the events.
State Funeral (Государственные Похороны), 2019
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
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