Beginning in September 1941, German soldiers massacred somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 people at the Babi Yar ravine outside of Kiev, capital city of Ukraine, including Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, communists, Ukrainian nationalists, and Roma. The first documented killings transpired on September 29 and 30, claiming an estimated 34,000 Jewish residents rounded up from the city, with more following throughout the two-year German occupation of Kiev. This is widely-known information, quickly accessible on Wikipedia, but in his new documentary Babi Yar. Context, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa wants to paint a broader picture of these events, here piecing together a loose chronological narrative using only found and restored archival footage showing the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of this horrific act. In an interview with Screen Daily, Loznitsa details the impetus of the project; that he was conducting research for a fiction film on the same subject when Covid shutdowns struck the world, after which he was approached by the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center to construct a proper documentary about the event. A fortuitous happenstance, perhaps, but one that fits squarely with much of Loznitsa’s recent work, including other films constructed entirely from historical found footage, like The Event (2015) and State Funeral (2019), as well as works engaging directly with how we remember atrocities, like Austerlitz (2016) and (more obliquely) Victory Day (2018).
Using German, Russian, and Ukrainian archives, Loznitsa and his team have restored reams of footage while constructing an almost entirely new soundtrack, adding aural effects and even dubbing voices. It’s quite visceral, adding immediacy and urgency to the largely black-and-white (with some color) footage of tanks, planes, bombings, explosions, and crumbling buildings that are otherwise overly familiar from countless mediocre History Channel programs. Loznitsa finds striking moments of calm amongst the ravages of battle, sometimes focusing on wide-open clear skies and bucolic landscapes before zeroing in on charted corpses, or focusing on a plume of black smoke that cuts across an otherwise pristine horizon line. The film uses occasional title cards to convey specific information as it charts the German army’s onward march toward Kiev and its eventual occupation, with Nazi soldiers patrolling the streets, mingling with the citizenry, and even freeing prisoners from the jails (of course, Loznitsa includes a quick shot of people tearing down a huge banner of Stalin). Eventually, there are a series of bombings that rock the city, and although it’s unclear who carries out these attacks, the German forces use them as an excuse to whip up resentment against the city’s Jewish population. Soon, notices go out informing all Jews to report to specific areas with warm clothes and any valuables they wish to bring with them. Of course, we know that these people aren’t being sent away, but will instead be transported to the ravine, executed, and their bodies buried. There’s no actual footage of the killings, but Loznitsa shows the chilling aftermath — a haunted landscape littered with debris, the belongings of all these people left in piles on the ground like makeshift gravestones, echoes of human lives now lost. The Soviet Red Army takes back the city in 1943, and the final third of the film details a kind of miniature Nuremberg trial against captured Nazi soldiers and officers, culminating in their conviction and execution. The testimonials from survivors are all the more horrible for how matter-of-fact they are, and the testimony of a German soldier is pure banality-of-evil stuff. It’s remarkable footage, a true contribution to the historical record.
Loznitsa has been both praised and derided for refusing to directly comment or otherwise editorialize in his found-footage films, instead relying on subtle editing cues and oblique juxtapositions to “nudge” audiences (even as erudite a thinker as J. Hoberman wondered if State Funeral would be better served by an opening rather than closing epigraph contextualizing Stalin’s crimes, or by viewing it in conjunction with the fictional The Death of Stalin). Loznitsa makes clear in interviews that with this project, he wishes to pull back years of Soviet obfuscation as to what really transpired at Babi Yar, as various USSR policies first neglected the event, then honored the site of the massacre while refusing to mention lost Jewish lives specifically. But, in the finished film, we get only a final scene of color footage from the 1950s that shows construction crews filling in the ravine and building new structures around it, and it’s hard to grasp that Loznitsa means to show the literal and metaphoric erasure of the site without any additional context offered. There’s certainly political and historical background to the long, fraught relationship between Ukraine and Russia that Westerners might have little or no knowledge of, context that might further implicate complicity on the part of Nazi collaborators that helped engender this monumental crime (to be fair, there is passing reference to Russian and Ukrainian onlookers who did nothing to curb the slaughter, although the point is not belabored). Curiously, additional restored footage from the Babi Yar project is available on YouTube, leading to questions about what was and was not included in the final project, and why. For instance, after years of filling the ravine with sewage and waste, it eventually ruptured and flooded the city, killing over a thousand people. This curious note is documented via footage on YouTube, and might have made a fitting capstone to the film proper, a kind of darkly poetic bit of karmic payback, but it’s not clear how viewers would be expected to know about these addendums short of seeking out specific interviews with Loznitsa. In the end, Babi Yar. Context represents an important act of remembrance that nevertheless requires yet still more context. Loznitsa is reportedly still working on his fictional account of these events; perhaps that project will fill in certain aspects left frustratingly vague or unaddressed here.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.