Edited entirely from restored archival footage of Stalin’s state funeral, this is a cinema of profound sadness and a towering achievement from one of the great screen chroniclers of Soviet history.
Plot: The enigma of the personality cult is revealed in the grand spectacle of Joseph Stalin’s funeral.
Awards: Official Selection (Venice & Toronto)
International Sales: Atoms & Void
Subject Matter: Moderate – Soviet history, Communism, Socialism, Stalin
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Arguably the finest screen chronicler of Soviet history working today, Sergei Loznitsa is one of Russian cinema’s best-kept secrets. His documentaries, composed primarily of archival material, are cinematic experiences in themselves.
And here in State Funeral, we see him working at the height of his powers. It is a towering achievement and essential viewing, if not to better grasp the human impact of Stalin’s death on the Soviets, then to experience a cinema of profound sadness.
You don’t have to be a communist to feel the immeasurable grief on display, as hundreds of thousands of people visit his body lying in state, or the millions more gathering with quiet restrain in countless towns and villages listening to overhead speakers broadcasting the affair. Of course, we all know that Stalin wasn’t a saint, but he was no doubt one of 20th century’s most iconic figures.
State Funeral is very much eye-opening, showing how a cult of personality can deeply embed itself into the psyche of the national collective. Loznitsa gives us an intuitively-assembled film that relies not just on the power of the restored archival footage but also a smattering of environmental sounds recorded as they were.
“Farewell, our teacher and leader, and our dear friend, Comrade Stalin!”
We get to see and hear how life was in the communist state in the early 1950s. There is no narration to distract, but simply the reliance on both diegetic and non-diegetic music from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and more that capture the sheer solemnity of it all.
The Midas touch by Loznitsa comes in his decision to alternate between black-and-white and colour footage, sometimes even within the same shot—you might think that this approach is going to be jarring, but it is a masterstroke.
As black-and-white footage gives way to colour and vice versa, we become intimately aware of history and the unfolding of history, which are essentially two different things, intertwined.
That is to say, as we contemplate cinema’s ability to record and present events of historical significance for posterity, the medium also affords us the power of immersion, to enter into the lived space and time of a specific moment. In this case, the moment was nothing short of momentous.