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Unique, extraordinary, and essential visual evidence of the dark shadow over Ukraine’s 20th century history

By Nora Lee Mandel

Written and Directed by Sergei Loznitsa
Produced by Sergei Loznitsa and Maria Choustova
Netherlands/Ukraine. 121 min. Not Rated
In Ukrainian with English subtitles

(New York Premiere seen with 2022 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image/ U.S. theatrical premiere release begins April 1, 2022 at Film Forum)

Archival evidence is a vital antidote to propaganda, selective memory, and political amnesia about the past in Ukraine. Documentarian Sergei Loznitsa has been mining the archives of the former U.S.S.R. for almost two decades to examine “the loss of humanity by a human being” due as much to human nature as to political ideologies and power manipulations. The people of Ukraine have been bloodily buffeted from east to west, west to east for over a century by these forces.

While the serial victors claim their history, the ravine near Kyiv (in Ukrainian, Kiev in Russian) has been haunted by their forgotten victims for over eighty years. Commissioned and financed by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, the film, the Memorial Center, and the documentarian have been controversial. But the visual evidence in German, Russian, and Ukrainian public and private archives and collections that Loznitsa and his research team found through almost a decade of digging is unique, extraordinary, and essential background on the dark shadow that Ukraine’s 20th century history casts over the country today.

In Loznitsa’s usual style that is a bit long, slow, and confusing for an American audience, the documentary opens with the first explosions of “Context” – June 1941 as Nazi Germany invades “Soviet Ukraine”. While the citizenry gawks at their long lines of tanks, cars, motorcycles, and horse wagons, loudspeakers blare the new government message on June 22. Flowers are presented under a banner “Glory to Hitler and Melnik” (a founder of a faction of OUN, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), while Soviet POW’s are rounded up. In brief color footage of a sunny, blue sky day, German soldiers set peasants’ houses on fire and casually loot them, while dead bodies are strewn around the fields.

On June, 30, 1941, the long lines of German troops and machines enter Lviv (in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, known as Lemberg under Polish rule) to church bells and cheers. The next day, Loznitsa writes on screen, the German authorities order the Ukrainian militia to gather the Jews at the prison, where the NKVD (the Soviet Secret Police) had executed all the prisoners before beating their hasty retreat, and burned the building, leaving smoldering bodies. Accusing the Jews of collaboration, the Nazis order them to remove and bury the bodies, under the watch of the horrified and weeping locals. They are interrupted by the infuriated mob that taunts, strips, drags, and beats them with sticks. Seemingly everyone in the area, including the women, are then put to work as forced labor building a road under the hot summer sun.

Heading east, the German army faces explosions, but their machine guns seem to easily overpower the Soviet soldiers. The probable Nazi footage picks out from the surrendering troops first the most Asiatic looking faces from the Eastern republics, then the Jewish-looking ones. The lines of captured POWs grow, past wrecked military vehicles, as they are walked into the horizon. The Germans continue going through villages, laughingly rousting residents and aiming flamethrowers at thatched houses, with screams on the soundtrack.

Further east, we see a lovely summer day in Kyiv, July 1941. The Soviet anthem is heard amidst views of the capitol city, with its churches, street cars, boulevards, high-rises, and grand institutional buildings. Startlingly like what we see there in 2022, children play amongst anti-tank hedgehogs, and women fill sandbags that soldiers pile high. Camouflaged cannons role through the streets.

Back in Lviv in August, the Nazi Governor General Hans Frank (to be later hung as a war criminal) is treated to a display of Cossack and Ukrainian heritage and small tributes to the OUN, now under Stepan Bandera. (In Loznitsa’s Maidan (2014), playing with two of his other films at the IFC Center April 8 – 14, a few pro-Russian hecklers accuse the mass of pro-European protestors of being “Banderas”, one source of the wildly exaggerated “Nazi” accusation that President Putin knows resonates with older Russians). But the swastika-bedecked streets are mostly lined with German soldiers, who then fill an auditorium with Sieg Heil salutes.

The German tanks press on, and civilian vehicles are left in broken wrecks by a river. Their planes rule the sky, and we look down on a ruined countryside. Pressing ever east, even their horses outpace broken trucks. By September 19, 1941, amazing aerial footage shows the German army occupying the capitol. Their bicycles roll past smoking fortifications. Some buildings are just burnt facades. Prisoners of war are walked through the streets to a camp outside the city, where relieved babushkas can sign out their husbands “to work for the benefit of the German army, the German nation…and the Third Reich”, in presumably propaganda footage, as they shed uniforms for civilian clothes. (Such forced labor by the Nazis of captured Soviets is estimated at most one million out of the almost six million maltreated POWs.) People jostle for a newspaper and small swastika pennants. A man who tries to take down a “Hitler the Liberator” picture is pushed away by the crowd.

But a few days later in September, the main street of Kreschatik, in rare eyewitness footage, explodes from timed bombs, one after the other, left presumably by the NKVD (Soviet secret service). The whole downtown burns, including apartment buildings. Wounded fill the sidewalks, ruins stretch out for blocks, and smoke blankets the city, seen from on high.

For the cameras, German soldiers display unexploded bombs and stacks of boxes of TNT in the Lenin Museum. They decide, writes Loznitsa on screen, to blame the entire Jewish population for the destruction. So begins the most extensive “genocide by bullets” in the Holocaust accomplished by the Einsatzgruppen (Death Brigades). Over the two days September 29-30, the Nazis massacred 33,771 Jewish men, women, and children. A few of the black-and-white photographs of the deadly process have been seen before in documentaries or exhibits, while there is also startling color photographs of bodies and the extensive piles of clothes humans were forced to discard at the point of guns, including children’s items -- precursors to the loads of items at the extermination camps. (Elena Yakovich’s current Song Searcher includes some of these photographs with additional context, and notes that the number of victims is known from the Nazis’ dispatches to Berlin.) Loznitsa adds this was carried out “without any resistance from the local population,” and a couple of weeks later another parade for Nazi VIPs features cultural troupes, albeit only a few participants salute the occupiers. Just days later, the genocide is shown continuing in the central city of Lubny, while peasants are seen with stuffed sacks. (Over a thousand Jews were killed there on October 16.) Loznitsa quotes Vasily Grossman’s 1943 poetic eulogy “Ukraine Without Jews”, written while the Red Army is seen re-taking Kyiv in 1944, amidst flames, smoke, and rubble that its residents today are dreading will repeat.

Riveting are two sections that relate to how the wider population was made aware of the Holocaust in Ukraine after “Stalin liberates” them. In November 1943, almost a year after the Allies, including the Soviet Union, publicly confirmed that Hitler was exterminating Jews, the Red Army tours American journalists through Babi Yar. But their version, which becomes the basic party line for decades, stresses the POWs forced by the Gestapo to pile bodies of “Soviet citizens” into pyres to hide “Fascist crimes” (and they were executed as witnesses). Then, simultaneous to the Nuremberg Trial in Germany that included USSR participation, the Soviets in January 1946 conducted a trial concerning “the atrocities committed by the Fascist Invaders on the territory of the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic.” While Russian-reading scholars have been familiar with the transcript, the extensive testimony here of eyewitnesses has not been viewed by audiences before. Nor has the explicit footage of the public executions in Kyiv of the convicted with the revengeful crowd’s reaction.

Yet more “Context” follows. Loznitsa lets us know, and see, that in 1952 the city council decided to dump industrial waste from nearby brick factories into the ravine. A few years later, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko decries “No monument stands over Babi Yar”. But then the polluted sludge spilled out and overwhelmed the streets and population of Kyiv. What became known as “The Kurenivka Mudslide”, like the massacre before it, was never fully acknowledged nor the many victims accounted for by the Soviet Union. The area became a park that Loznitsa as a child walked through to his family’s home.

Displaying this archival evidence has not been without backlash, even before the heightened anger around Russia’s 2022 invasion. First, there is criticism at showing the alliance of some Ukrainian independence nationalists with the Nazis, though the convenience of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend is obvious as the Stalin banners come down and go up again. There are objections to showing the collaboration of some Ukrainians in antisemitic and deadly actions, though many documentaries and docu-dramas, such as No Place On Earth (2012) and In Darkness (W Ciemnosci) (2018), have demonstrated those facts. Jewish organizations involved in refugee assistance now are quick to cite the list of 2,673 Ukrainians honored in Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations” for saving their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, and descendants of survivors have reached out to help the descendants of their protectors.

Some Ukrainians object that the foreign media identifies Loznitsa as a Ukrainian filmmaker; he was born in the part of the Soviet Union that is now Belarus, grew up through secondary school in Kyiv (from where he just evacuated his parents), went to film school in Moscow, based his work for many years in Lithuania, and now lives in Berlin. While he resigned from the European Film Academy because it did not condemn the devastating Russian war, he is also feuding with the Ukrainian Film Academy that says he doesn’t stress his “national identity”; he claims he was disqualified because he objected to their censorious position against all Russian filmmakers. (I have seen another Ukrainian filmmaker object to being on the same bill with a Russian, even an anti-Putin director/film. MoMI’s First Look Festival also included Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s satire Petrov’s Flu (Petrovy v grippe) of the USSR’s fall.)

The objections to the Memorial Center (with its titular Russian spelling) go back years, and changed with government administrations and international relations with Israel and Jewish organizations. A particular thorn was the involvement of two Russian oligarchs who, like President Volodymyr Zelensky, were born in then Soviet Ukraine to families of Jewish background. The artistic director Ilya Khrzanovskiy, who is from Moscow and also shares Jewish heritage, commissioned the documentary by his film school mate, adding to local resentments this is a “Russian project”.

Loznitsa’s sweeping Babi Yar. Context marks the end of the silence about the human disasters at that ravine. The vital continuation of a free, democratic environment lets all these philosophical clashes finally come out.

4/1/2022; addendum 4/29/2022

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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