Credit: Atoms and Void
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

The Invasion — Sergei Loznitsa [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 21, 2024

Moral judgments in artwork tend to be tinged in shades of gray. This is sometimes expressed by citing Jean Renoir’s unofficial motto that “everyone has their reasons.” That’s not to say that works of art cannot take ethical stands. But generally, it’s accepted that true artists also subject themselves to moral scrutiny, refusing to exempt themselves from critique. When works of art fail to make even cursory gestures of self-implication, they are often dismissed as propaganda. 

The Invasion, the latest documentary from Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, poses a direct challenge to that cozy liberal notion of enlightened relativism. Serving as a bookend of sorts to his 2014 film Maidan, which provided an almost real-time documentation of the uprising against the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych, The Invasion is an expansive portrait of everyday life in a nation at war for its survival. Loznitsa’s approach goes well beyond the Howard Zinn dictum regarding “being neutral on a moving train.” The Invasion is an unambiguously patriotic statement that fully embodies the collective chant heard throughout the film: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”

It’s not hard to see why, as Loznitsa opens on a funeral for four soldiers, presenting contemporary life in Ukraine as being continually punctuated with loss. Rather than showing daily existence grinding to a halt, The Invasion provides something more tragic: death and destruction becoming unavoidably woven into the fabric of normal living. Loznitsa strikes a distanced, observational tone while providing a panoramic vision of society as a whole. Funerals are followed by weddings. Church services and baptisms continue, interspersed with troop deployments and a search through the rubble of a bombed apartment building. Through it all, ordinary Ukrainians declare their faith in Jesus Christ and insist that their nation will prevail.

Loznitsa presents all these scenes without commentary, so it’s not completely certain he endorses everything we see in The Invasion. In one sequence, the film (and the Ukrainians) offer a challenge to standard liberal pieties. We see people working and shopping at an urban bookstore and notice that many of them are carrying bundles of books. “What do we do with Russian culture?” one customer asks, and then we see exactly what the Ukrainians plan to do with it. Hundreds of books in Russian are collected, discarded, and crushed into bales of recycled paper. Loznitsa makes sure we see that the trash includes both Russian works (Dostoyevsky, Mayakovsky) and other works in translation (Jack London).

For many, it will be easy to bristle at this chauvinism against literature, but Loznitsa’s clear-eyed depiction forces one to think again. The Ukrainians aren’t holding public book burnings, and what’s more, do these books really matter in the face of human destruction? If this act helps citizens feel less afraid, more empowered, maybe we must withhold judgment. As The Invasion depicts the ruins of schools, churches, and homes, we’re asked to really grapple with what it means for ordinary citizens to live with a war of aggression.

Overall, the picture Loznitsa offers of contemporary Ukraine is of a conservative society, one enfolding patriotism and religion, teaching preschool children songs about the fatherland and lionizing the nation’s fallen heroes. In fact, it resembles the country that MAGA types (most of whom oppose U.S. funding for Ukraine) claim they want to establish here. But it’s much more complicated than that. In the opening scene, at a water distribution site, we hear a passerby denounce Putin, but another person expresses his dislike for Zelensky. In a nutshell, this is the difference between Russia and Ukraine, the essence of why they fight: a conservative democracy permits dissent, whereas a totalitarian state violently squashes it.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024: Dispatch 1.