'State Funeral': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Eloquently grotesque — even without words — though not fully comprehensible.

Director Sergei Loznitsa uses footage of Joseph Stalin's massive funeral to convey the personality cult surrounding the feared Soviet premier.

Sixty-six years after the death of Joseph Stalin, one of the bloodiest dictators in modern history, filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa re-creates the mass delusion of citizens across the Soviet Union who reacted to the news of his demise as though they had lost their ideal father. The title State Funeral sounds like an understatement amid the grandiose pomp and ceremony of nationwide mourning fit for an ancient emperor. This cannily edited selection of rare archive footage reveals the peak of the people's mind-born terror, and it is the beginning of the end.

But what is the meaning of the gigantic funeral ceremony that engulfs the entire country, bringing it to a standstill for four days of mourning while the propaganda machine works overtime pumping its crocodile tears? As the end credits remind us, under Stalin's almighty hand, 27 million were murdered and 15 million starved to death. How, then, to interpret this sea of stunned, grief-stricken faces and weeping women?

Loznitsa has said that he sees the film as "a visual study of the nature of Stalin's personality cult," which it certainly is. In his attempt to make the audience a "participant and witness" at the mega-funeral, he eliminates captions and explanations as superfluous to over two hours of superbly edited archive footage, most of it in black and white but some in glorious color. But we can't identify the players without a scorecard — we're left wondering who the dignitaries are and if Stalin's children, Vasily and Svetlana, are framed briefly as he lies in state on a mountainous bed of flowers and wreaths. Loznitsa aims over the heads of most audiences, and the film will remain the pleasure of festival and special venue admirers.

It can be seen as the third part of a trilogy that includes the director's two other fine historical reconstructions of the U.S.S.R.: The Event, about the 1991 failed coup d'etat against Gorbachev, and The Trial, presenting the tragic absurdities of a classic Soviet show trial.

Stalin died unexpectedly in his home on March 5, 1953, of a stroke. While a lugubrious announcer goes into great detail about his final illness over the nation's loudspeakers, we see a coffin adorned in bright Kremlin red. After officials deposit it on a bier surrounded by a jungle of red and white flowers, the lid is removed and the pallid face of the embalmed Stalin appears resting peacefully, just as the oceans of mourners will see him as they parade by to the heavenly strains of a symphony orchestra and choir.

The sorrow extends far beyond Moscow: to snowy villages in Mongolia, seaports in the south and north, factory hands, uniformed soldiers and peasants in the interior, gathered together in awestruck remembrance ceremonies. During the four days of mourning leading up to the state funeral, planeloads of Communist prime ministers are greeted at the airport by unnamed generals. In towns and cities, people carry potted plants as offerings to giant Stalin statues. Lines form and people cram into avenues to walk by the body, which lies for three days in the Hall of Columns in the House of Unions. Finally the coffin is closed, and it is transported by a bizarre horse-drawn vehicle to Red Square. There, in front of a vast but orderly assembly of soldiers, officers and citizens, it is placed on permanent display in the Lenin mausoleum.

(In reality, the times changed quickly and the government ordered Stalin's body removed from the mausoleum and entombed in the Kremlin wall just eight years later. But that's another film.)

The final section of the film shifts gears to show the addresses given by four ranking politburo members to those assembled in Red Square in which, amid the hypocrisy and the hyperbole, the future of the country is sketched. The camera captures the confidence of Nikita Khrushchev, who would succeed Stalin as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, as he introduces Georgy Malenkov, the new premier, Stalin's protege Vyacheslav Molotov and the powerful Lavrentiy Beria, who would soon take the lead in policy and de-Stalinization. Even those who don't like speeches will be impressed by the gravity of the scene, with its overtones of Kafka.

Danielius Kokanauskis, who edited the footage into a stately but never boring 135 minutes, deserves a round of applause along with the dozens and dozens of cinematographers who are listed in the credits.

Production companies: Atoms & Void, Studio Uljana Kim
Director, screenwriter: Sergei Loznitsa
Producers: Sergei Loznitsa, Maria Choustova, Uljana Kim
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
World sales: Atoms & Void

135 minutes