Much like the man at its center, State Funeral is an inscrutable, complex work.
Josef Stalin died on March 5th, 1953, at his Kuntsevo dacha, following a cerebral hemorrhage and a few days of complete immobilization. His body was embalmed and placed on display from the 6th to the 9th of that month, at which point he was taken, by procession, to be buried in Lenin’s Mausoleum. Sergei Loznitsa edits together footage found in the Russian state archive from these four days. The footage was originally taken for a film, The Great Farewell, which was banned after an initial screening for Soviet officials, but it continues to live on as a document of a landmark event, one that marks a shift in power, the ramifications of which were felt across half of the globe. State Funeral has a number of movements, from the initial dispersal of news to central Asia and Siberia to the gatherings of mourners in Eastern Bloc cities such as Berlin, Warsaw and Prague. Much of this would be considered impressive even if it were televised in our contemporary moment: the condensing of thousands of reactions into a montage of loss and apprehension; the dashes of Soviet red in an otherwise greyish palette; the 21-gun salute that brings to a halt every organ of the nation for a moment of silence, finally releasing the energy invested in Lenin’s disciple.
But perhaps the highlight of the film comes with the speeches delivered by the figures standing atop Lenin’s mausoleum. To see Malenkov and Beria delivering their eulogies, flanked by Voroshilov and Khrushchev, gives us a proper glimpse of this volatile moment, one where the key players vying for power bid farewell to the old Soviet Union and the man who “managed to transform a backward country into a powerful, industrially and agriculturally developed state, […] free of economic depressions and unemployment.” These words of Malenkov ring especially true in a speech concerned with little besides lionizing its subject. But, of course, much remains hidden here and Loznitsa is sure to remind us of this fact with his closing messages. Making reference to Stalin’s crimes (with frankly exaggerated statistics) and Khrushchev’s period of “de-Stalinization,” Loznitsa makes clear that this ritual of extolment is simply a surface beneath which lies the bodies of so many enemies of the state: an ending that might have seemed offensively reductive had it not been preceded by the words of Malenkov. It’s obvious that Loznitsa is instructing us to feel a certain way about this event, and it may well belie Stalin’s real place in history — that of the “most inscrutable and contradictory character” who helped stop international fascism and purged a million of his own people.
You can currently catch Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral in theaters or streaming on Mubi beginning on May 21.
Originally published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 7: Wavelengths Program.