In documentaries and fictional features, including two timely new movies, Sergei Loznitsa takes a hard look at both countries, examining daily life amid war and other historic forces.
By Nicolas Rapold
The scenes of German and Soviet soldiers overtaking Ukraine in Sergei Loznitsa’s “Babi Yar: Context” inevitably bring to mind the current Russian invasion of the country. For more than two decades, Loznitsa, a Ukrainian filmmaker who was raised in the Soviet Union, has chronicled the past and the present in Ukraine and Russia by revisiting historic events and depicting daily life in the grips of war and empire.
“Babi Yar: Context,” a documentary that opens on Friday at Film Forum, recreates Ukraine during World War II through vivid archival footage of Kyiv, where Nazis murdered thousands of Jews at a single site, the ravine of the film’s title. In the fictional satire “Donbass,” which opens on April 8, Loznitsa re-enacts bizarre and disturbing episodes from Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine in the 2010s.
Loznitsa, 57, recently made news when he quit the European Film Academy over a statement by the group on the Russian invasion that he deemed “toothless”; then he returned to the headlines after he was ejected from the Ukrainian Film Academy for opposing boycotts of Russian filmmakers. Even Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, weighed in during a March 27 interview with Russian journalists, saying of Loznitsa, “He’s an artist who supports Ukraine.”
Loznitsa regards the conflict as “a European war, not just a Ukrainian war.” Speaking in Russian, with his producing partner Maria Choustova-Baker serving as an interpreter, he spoke about his films and current events during a video chat from Berlin, where he lives. These are excerpts from our conversation.
Where were you when the Russian invasion started?
Vilnius. I am finishing a new film there. I was awoken by an SMS from my friend, Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky. It said, “Forgive me. What a nightmare.”
Is it true that you helped your parents get out of Ukraine?
In contrast to many others, I actually believed in what the U.S. intelligence was reporting and what President Biden was telling the world [that Russia had planned to invade]. I even guessed the dates correctly. My friend, the Ukrainian co-producer Serge Lavrenyuk, helped me remove my parents [from Kyiv, three days before the invasion started]. This war comes as an enormous shock for millions of people. My father was born in 1939, and he remembers very well his childhood and these horrors. My mother was born in 1940 and also remembers all the movement during the war. Now they are [in their 80s] and it is the same circumstances!
How would you compare the situation now with the history in “Babi Yar: Context”?
The fundamental difference is that back then, it was a fight between two totalitarian regimes. Now there is one totalitarian regime fighting with a country aspiring to be independent. Back then, the big countries like the U.S. and the U.K. also participated in the war. But today, the majority of the countries who have the potential to stop this war have chosen this immoral position of an onlooker, of noninterference. And the politicians of these countries have put their citizens in this situation of immorality, because the only choice the citizens have is to observe online, in real time, how city after city of Ukraine is destroyed.
You could say that Putin is winning at the moment internationally, because the policies of world leaders are based on fear. They’re not even capable of taking a rather neutral step of introducing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Some worry that such involvement would lead to escalation and nuclear conflict.
I don’t think it’s a valid excuse. First of all, do these politicians have any guarantee that in case — God forbid — Russia does manage to swallow Ukraine, they won’t use nuclear weapons? Putin had no valid reason for invading Ukraine. So why do you think he would need a valid reason to use nuclear weapons? This can only be stopped by force. Sooner or later, NATO will have to get involved, and the longer they wait, the bloodier the resolution of the conflict would be.
“Babi Yar: Context” doesn’t shy from addressing the role of people within Ukraine in the massacre of Jews. Have you experienced any criticism about this?
There were people who criticized me in Ukraine for making this film the way I made it. The contemporary situation is completely different. And it’s absolutely obvious that all that Putin is talking about, that there are Nazis in Ukraine, was all nonsense. At the same time this question of collaboration in history is very, very painful in Ukraine. Yes, I was heavily criticized.
Do you have relatives that were affected by the Babi Yar killings?
In “Donbass” you take a different approach: dramatizing events based on actual cellphone videos. Why this form?
First, because I was mesmerized by those amateur videos that I found on the internet. Second, I wanted to create this grotesque form because I needed something to keep the film together and I didn’t want to use just one protagonist or a group of protagonists. I wanted you to observe the idiocy in all its shapes and forms. This wonderful film by Luis Buñuel, “The Phantom of Liberty,” also employs this method.
One of the scenes shows Russians moving artillery around from place to place after firing on a civilian bus.
Yes, the most important thing for them was not to be identified. So this is why they had to move from one place to the other. And the killing that occurs afterward [in the film] is because they wanted to get rid of the witnesses.
That sounds like a mafia movie.
Yes, in fact, these criminal gangs that took power in 1917 and that hold power today, there’s no difference between them and any other mafia. Before this, the mafia covered itself up with Soviet ideology. Nowadays there is no ideology anymore. It’s just mafia.
“Donbass” also portrays people who are hired to pretend to be witnesses to a staged explosion.
Yes, it happens all the time. This is the technique that’s routinely employed by Russian television, and monitoring groups managed to identify actors who play the parts of witnesses in different locations. So they have almost a cast of actors that they employ for fabrication of fake news. There was a notorious TV report around 2014: a story of how Ukrainians crucify a Russian boy. This report was analyzed by professionals who proved that every single element was fake, all staged.
When you were growing up in the Soviet Union, was there a point where you became disillusioned?
The fact is that the entire Soviet Union lived in this kind of double reality or multiple realities, and everybody was aware of it, but very few people actually questioned it. But I was a very bad pupil. [Laughs] I was a very good pupil in terms of school results, but I always questioned this double reality and asked myself, “Where am I and what is going on?”
Today this criminal group [in power in Russia] has regrouped. They fixed the country’s economy a little bit. They upgraded their military force. And now they’re ready to conquer the world again. [Laughs]
These days your movies can look like prophecies because of their familiar images of war.
The problems that I talk about in my films have been around for a long time. This is why I wanted to make “Mr. Landsbergis” [a new film about Lithuania’s successful bid for independence from the Soviet Union in 1989-91]. Because there is this unique and fantastic and colossal experience of fighting against the Soviet Union and winning.
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