Framing Babyn Yar | J. Hoberman

What do moving images reveal and what can they remember? These are questions that Sergei Loznitsa’s new documentary, Chapter Now. Contextwonders both the viewer and himself.

Loznitsa is Ukraine’s leading filmmaker, as well as the most outspoken. Having left the European Film Academy over the organization’s lukewarm response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he too was recently expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy after expressing his support for anti-war Russian directors. Loznitsa has done some notable feel-bad comedies; more recently, donbass (2018), a brutal and prescient farce about the war in eastern Ukraine, but is most notable for his work with archival footage. The proof (also 2018) reconstructs a show trial from the early 1930s; state funeral (2019) is based on material intended for a never completed official feature documenting the funeral of Joseph Stalin in March 1953.

Neither film has a voiceover; there are occasional intertitles, but the footage itself is allowed to stand as evidence. state funeral has been criticized, most strongly by Masha Gessen in the new yorker, for waiting until the final titles to draw attention to the magnitude of Stalin’s crimes. But hiding this information reflects the veracity of the stupefying spectacle that preceded it: the mourning crowds did not know or did not care to know the truth. The same goes for the story of Babyn Yar.

Babyn Yar, or Babi Yar, is the name of the arid, sandy ravine outside kyiv where, over the course of two days in September 1941, the German army massacred more than 33,000 Ukrainian Jews. (After this baptism in Jewish blood, the ravine served as an extermination camp for tens of thousands of Jewish prisoners of war, guerrillas, Roma, and more.) Never filmed and therefore impossible to show, the initial atrocity occurs halfway through. Chapter Now. Context. He can only be represented by the events that preceded and followed him, therefore Context.

Comprised of some two hours of material drawn from Russian, Ukrainian, and German archives, Yar Chapter it is as strategically taciturn as Loznitsa’s previous documentaries. The footage is largely silent, but the film is not. Loznitsa makes occasional use of radio broadcasts, but more often orchestrates a carefully timed, ghostly sound accompaniment that includes a subtle mix of ambient explosions, crowd noises, screams and, thanks to adroit lip reading, even dubbed commands. This is a risky strategy that makes the images more or less natural, in a way comparable to 3D movies. It also adds a dimension of immediacy that makes the documentary feel less like a recording than a broadcast. While the intertitles provide dates and locations, a source for the images is never provided, leaving the viewer to decipher which footage was taken from official Nazi or Soviet newsreels and which was taken by German soldiers, some of whom were amateur photographers. assigned to Propaganda. Units.


Sergei Loznitsa’s photo Chapter Now. Context2021

The film begins with bombs falling from the sky over a bucolic landscape; they are followed by the arrival of the German army, burning villages and decomposing corpses in the fields. The muffled, distant sound suggests a Martian vision of war that could almost be science fiction. The same applies to images of what might be called everyday occupation, although some images are not so everyday, like the orchestrated enthusiasm with the German conquerors that is received in Lviv and later in kyiv.

Shocking as it may be to see jubilant crowds welcoming the Nazis with victory hail and bouquets of flowers, it is useful to know that Lviv (formerly Lvov and formerly Lemberg, a then mostly Polish Habsburg city with large Jewish and Ukrainian minorities) was part of Poland until the Soviet occupation of 1939: for some inhabitants, the arrival of the Germans meant throwing off the Bolshevik yoke. Other information withheld: Further east, nearly four million Ukrainians had starved to death during the Soviets’ forced collectivization and subsequent famine of 1932-1933.

Amateur filmmakers in Germany document a Ukrainian militia rounding up Jews and staging a pogrom, as well as bizarre footage of barefoot Ukrainian women digging trenches. Are they preparing mass graves? A large holding area, packed with prisoners, suggests an outtake of Cecil B. DeMille’s cast of thousands. The ten Commandments. More overtly propagandistic in its quest for local color, German newsreels often focus on Russian POWs with ostensibly Tatar or Jewish features—”eastern barbarians,” in Nazi parlance.

Soviet newsreels before the German assault depict kyiv as a normal city, albeit with startlingly contemporary images of citizens filling sandbags, uniformed nurses strolling the streets, and children playing among anti-tank obstacles known as Czech hedgehogs. This hymn to Soviet readiness more or less dissolves with a sequence in which Lviv celebrates its incorporation into Nazi Poland. Loznitsa found, or made, a mini triumph of the will: all the martial hymns, parades and solemn ceremonies adorned with flowers and swastikas in honor of Governor General Hans Frank.

The Germans occupied kyiv on September 19. The Soviets bombed the city five days later; this became the pretext for the Germans to exterminate the local Jews. The murders are represented by color still photographs of abandoned clothing and personal effects, reminiscent of, perhaps an inspiration for, French artist Christian Boltanski’s haunted installations of packed belongings, piled around the ravine. The photos are shown almost silently, as are later images documenting the roundup of Jews in the nearby town of Lubny.

These frozen moments are perhaps the most harrowing images in the film. The German occupiers search bewildered children and helpless adults, all doomed, staring at the camera in mute accusation. Nothing is heard but the soft whistle of the wind. Then, scrolling down the screen in the film’s only substantial annotation, two paragraphs of Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman’s excruciatingly eloquent eulogy “Ukraine without Jews.” His first-hand account of the aftermath of the Nazi massacres in the Ukraine, written in 1943, made it clear that the victims were Jews. Suppressed by Soviet censors, who downplayed the ethnic aspect of the murders, it was published in Yiddish and did not appear in Russian until 1990.


Sergei Loznitsa’s photo Chapter Now. Context2021

The Soviets retake kyiv in the second half of the film, and American journalists are herded into the Babyn Yar ravine for an account of the September 1941 massacre and after. (According to the official Soviet account, neither victim is identified as Jewish.) Shortly after, the Red Army liberates Lviv. German signs are torn down and images of Hitler are replaced by images of Stalin. No less a character than Nikita Khrushchev, the former Stalin-appointed governor of the Ukraine, appears to deliver a speech invoking the common Slavic heritage of Poles, Ukrainians and Russians, his speech followed by a wild display of Kazatski acrobatic dancing.

Some hearings about the 1941 massacre were filmed. Witnesses testify, in particular the miraculous survivor Dina Pronicheva, a crucial witness in Anatoly Kuznetsov’s 1966 documentary novel. Yar Chapter—a literary event even more scandalous to the Soviet authorities than Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1960 poem on the subject. A German officer is put on trial, and although dead bodies abound throughout the film, the public execution of him along with a dozen other SS men is the only time an act of murder is actually shown.

In 1952, the Soviet authorities decided to bury Babyn Yar by filling the ravine with industrial waste. A decade later, a mudslide further submerged the site. Some color images show Babyn Yar as it is now, unrecognizable after earlier photographs have etched the original landscape into memory. Loznitsa does not show the various monuments, some more appropriate than others, that have been created since then. The problem of what to do with Babyn Yar has never been resolved. Appointed artistic director of the Babyn Yar Memorial Center in 2020, Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky planned a kind of terrifying and punitive theme park, a fate somewhat anticipated by Loznitsa’s 2016 documentary. austerlitzin which a static camera, placed at various locations in a German concentration camp turned tourist attraction, observes bored and obediently curious school groups wandering around posing for selfies.

The erased site that is Babyn Yar was bombed during the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when an airstrike hit a television tower next to the park. Whether the monument was an intentional target or not, the attack was just the latest display of Russia’s disregard for the actual victims and history of the Holocaust, which the state continues to exploit for its own ends. The impossibility of remembering Babyn Yar is central to Loznitsa’s painful, provocative and sobering film. The abrupt black screen with which the film ends suggests exactly this absence: a frame around a void.

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