A fascinating 2019 documentary called State Funeral is available now on MUBI, but be forewarned: the film literally moves at the speed of a dirge, as it shows the public funeral of Joseph Stalin, who died March 5, 1953.
The footage of grief-stricken crowds used by director Sergei Loznitsa came from “tens of thousands of meters” shot by 200 cinematographers, all over the Soviet Union. It was used by “the celebrities of Soviet cinema” to make a film called The Great Farewell, one month after Stalin’s death, but “the higher authorities watched it and put it on the shelf,” Loznitsa says in an interview after the documentary.
Even the raw footage was censored until 1988. Loznitsa found it in the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive in Krasnogorsk and supplemented it with audio from the Russian State Archive of Sound Recordings. He says cleanup and restoration were done by computers, and though he does not mention AI, the film reminds me of Peter Jackson’s recent documentary work.
Loznitsa explains he is playing with the idea of a film by Dziga Vertov, called Lullaby, “in which a space, a world [the USSR]…revolves around a leader [Stalin] to whom all aspiration is attached.” Loznitsa says his own film portrays an “anti-world,” because despite Stalin being dead at the start of his film, “he continues to be the point around which this space circulates….”
State Funeral is, on the face of it, 153 minutes of people crying over Stalin, shuffling in lines to see his body, and carefully placing all the flowers of the motherland in heaps on the bier, at the feet of Stalin statues, and along the walls of the Kremlin.
But the fascination comes instantly from the quality of the images on black and white film, early color film, and film colorized in 1953. Every time I began to drift watching it, my mind snagged on faces, wondering at the mystery, beauty, and existential hopelessness of their anonymity.
This, of course, is part of the point of the documentary, which works on us covertly, as there is no contemporary narration. I recognized Khrushchev in the film, and the speakers at the funeral—Malenkov, Beria, and Molotov—are introduced as part of the ceremony. But the hundreds of thousands of mourners we see in wide and close shots are nameless, as most of humanity has always been to history, especially in authoritarian regimes.
Meanwhile, our dead protagonist, as Loznitsa calls him, gets false, ridiculous, tasteless, surreal, ironic praise from voices on the radio amplified tinnily for the masses standing in the cold—with reindeer, next to yurts, at ports, in factories, in rail yards, and in villages and cities.
“Our first day without Stalin, it’s the day when he is gone. Death has come, and everything is useless. Death has come—and we are all alone,” near-shouting says.
“We knew he was the best on our planet,” says a megaphone. “To be victorious in every battle, every war, to think of other people was his tenet, his heart was selfless to the core.”
“He gave us his advice. He helped us grow. He was everywhere. He was always with us. Every child knew his name from birth, and cherished it as a keepsake. His name, which is so dear to us, which is so dear to all mankind, his name continues to shine and to illuminate our road to Communism, just as it illuminated our entire lives. This name is immortal. So long as mankind lives, it shall be illuminated by the light of this life-giving and immortal genius.”
“Oh, Comrade Stalin, we don’t have words, but we have hearts to give. Without words, in every town or village, to add one minute to your precious life, we would have given all our blood. If we could bring together all of them, all those hearts with their silent passion, and give them all to you, you would have lived another hundred years, you would have lived, you would.”
“Stalin’s immortality is in his deeds,” one says for the wrong reason.
After lying in state, his hot red casket is closed, but the lid has a little plexiglass window in it, like a Hot Wheels car. His cortège walks over to Red Square, where he is laid next to the embalmed Lenin. (That did not last.) Field guns and naval cannon fire; factories and steam trains and commercial ships blow whistles. Men and women weep into their handkerchiefs, and children look worried. That world—11 time zones—literally pauses: a steam-shovel bucket hovers above a dump truck, a pallet of bricks on a lift pauses at a work site.
Back on Red Square, crowds push to see the wreaths and flowers beginning to rot in the wet snow. There are bells, a man sings in Russian a song called “Lullaby,” a callback to Loznitsa’s inspiration: “Sleep, my beloved, my sweet little birdie, lull-la-la-by. Let no sorrow, let no evil trouble your innocent soul.”
A note at the end of the documentary reads, “According to historical research, over 27 million Soviet citizens were murdered, executed, tortured to death, imprisoned, sent to Gulag labour camps or deported during Stalin’s rule. A further estimated 15 million starved to death.”
It points out that in 1956 the 20th Congress of the Communist Party “condemned Stalin’s rule as a cult of personality” and called for the “de-Stalinization” of the USSR. His body was taken out of Lenin’s crypt and buried in a less noticeable place along the Kremlin wall.
Loznitsa says his film “is not about the past; it is a film about how seductive this form of power is in general, including for the masses, who are magnetized by this form and are, at the same time, sacrificial animals to this form.”
Stalin love is on the rise again, as is that for authoritarian figures in the West. Loznitsa says audience reactions to his film in Russia conflicted along the predictable progressive-conservative divide.
“So it turns out that everything depends not on what I present to the viewer,” he says, “but on the viewer’s ability to discover the world, on his conception of history, of the universe, of himself in that universe, on his education, culture and upbringing, on his moral principles—everything depends on that.”
“[T]he thought I wanted to express in this film is very simple—Stalin is allegorical of all these people who have a little Stalin in them, who share all these outlooks, and who compose, like little bricks…this whole apparatus of totalitarian human destruction.”