Sergei Loznitsa • Director of Babi Yar. Context
“These people were like dust underground and for 80 years, nothing was done about it”
by Jan Lumholdt
- CANNES 2021: The director turns his attention to a dark historical event that Europe has long tried to ignore and forget
In September 1941, Nazi troops killed 30 000 Jews over a three-day period in Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev, Ukraine. Their fate plays a central role in Babi Yar. Context [+see also:
interview: Sergei Loznitsa
film profile], which premiered in the Special Screenings section at the Cannes Film Festival and received a Special Jury Prize from the Golden Eye Award jury. From archival material, director Sergei Loznitsa has assembled a remarkable piece of work, bringing authentic actuality to a dark past in European history after decades of active and premeditated silence on the events.
Cineuropa: In your notes regarding this work, you write that you discovered the actual site of the killings already as a boy. Was that the genesis of the making of this film all these years later?
Sergei Loznitsa: Probably. I was born close to this place. When I first saw it, there was no monument, no sign, nothing. But in late September each year, people would show up to commemorate and the militia would come and disperse them. Finally one year, a stone was raised, where it was written: “here will be a monument dedicated to the Soviet people who were killed by Germans.” After yet another five or seven years, they built a monument, which was both strange and disgusting. Disgusting both from an artistic and ideological point of view. It stood there till now. When the Soviet Union collapsed, each nation built a monument dedicated to their own people who died there: one Ukrainian monument, one Jewish monument and one Romani monument. This division reminds me that a common memory does not yet exist. 150 000 people of the city of Kiev were killed during these three to four years. These people were like dust underground and for 80 years, nothing was done about it, no memorial, nothing. Until five years ago, in 2016, when the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was created. The artistic director of the centre, Ilya Khrzanovskiy, who I’ve known since film school in the 1990s, knew of my personal knowledge of the subject since childhood and asked me to make this film. I’ve also been planning, since some years back, a fiction feature, based on these events.
The film consists of footage from the actual period, some by amateurs, including German soldiers, some from newsreels, some from filmed court trials. The material looks quite well-preserved, even pristine at times. How did you work, from a technical aspect?
Most of the sound was created, except for the footage with actual sound of course, when people give speeches. The rest we dubbed in, not by actors but by regular people, to get the right kind of voice for a German soldier, for example. I had 20 or 30 hours of footage, and for each episode I chose the best material for the topic, and for my artistic work. There was much more from the German side compared to the Russian or Soviet side. As for the good quality you so kindly mention, we made it look good, cleaned it up and added depth to the pictures. We had 8, 16 and 35 millimetre material, some even in colour.
What would you like to call the film: a documentary, a document, a chronicle?
I like all those words. But to me, it’s firstly cinema. A piece of art.
A term that turns up several times during the film is “chronocide.” Can you elaborate on its meaning?
We live in a time of chronocide, it’s around us. In some countries – Ukraine isn’t exclusive to this – people don’t want to say or hear truths about past events. Instead they prefer to talk about these events with a different tongue. “Well, the people who collaborated weren’t that bad,” things like this. “Chronocide,” this metaphorical word that gives a new meaning to “killing time,” was proposed by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Epstein, and I understand where it comes from. During the Soviet era, they said nothing about the Holocaust. It’s like society finds itself in a historical black hole where heritage is non-existent.
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