‘Putin is just the frontman’: Sergei Loznitsa, the Ukrainian film-maker who refuses to be cancelled

The director of Donbass and In the Fog resigned from the European academy and got booted off his country’s awards body. He explains why we must listen to other voices in Russia and Ukraine as the third world war has already started

On 27 February, three days after Russian tanks rolled into his homeland, the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa resigned from the European Film Academy. Loznitsa, an ebulliently professorial figure who moved with his family to Berlin in 2001, was furious that the EFA had issued a statement of solidarity with Ukraine that he saw as too “neutral, toothless and conformist in relation to Russian aggression”.

Then, on 19 March, Loznitsa announced he had been expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy (UFA) for being a “cosmopolite”. He immediately understood the resonance of its slur. In an open letter published in Screen Daily, he wrote: “In the era of late Stalinism, this word acquired a negative connotation in Soviet propaganda.”

Loznitsa said he was really ousted from the UFA for opposing “the boycott of those of my colleagues, Russian [film-makers] who oppose the crimes of the Putin regime”. He also slammed the UFA for advocating that “when Ukraine is struggling to defend its independence, the key concept in the rhetoric of every Ukrainian should be their national identity. Not a civil position, not a desire to unite all sane and freedom-loving people in the fight against Russian aggression, not an international effort of all democratic countries to win this war – but ‘national identity’. Unfortunately, this is nazism.”

This controversy erupted two days after I first interviewed Loznitsa about his harrowing archival documentary, Babi Yar: Context, which screened at 2021’s BFI London film festival and opens at Film Forum in New York in April. Asked now if he thought the UFA’s appeal to national identity was wartime rhetoric or embodied a deeper Ukrainian problem – a refusal to embrace pluralism – he replied: “Their attitude has been further aggravated by the war, but the fundamental problems had manifested themselves long before. A few years ago, the Ukrainian Oscar committee [closely linked to the UFA] wanted to change its rules, allowing only films shot in Ukrainian and Tatar languages to be nominated for Oscars.”

Given that 30% of the Ukrainian population are native Russian speakers, such a decision struck Loznitsa as deeply unfair. “There are also Hungarian, Greek, Jewish and other minorities living in Ukraine. I was categorically against this proposal. It wasn’t an easy task to persuade my fellow committee members, but I did succeed.”

There was another factor: Babi Yar: Context deals with, among other issues, Ukraine’s collaboration in the Nazi massacre of 33,771 Kyiv Jews in the Babi Yar ravine four miles north of the city in 1941. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the ‘honourable academy members’ had a very different perception of Ukrainian history, which they claim they know better than anyone. Thus, by calling me a ‘cosmopolite’ and using my refusal to categorically ban the entire Russian culture completely as a proof of my insufficient patriotism, they descend into the Stalinist paradigm of traitors, enemies, and collective responsibility – the best present they could have possibly given to Putin.”

Further attacking the boycott, he cites the example of Russian film-maker Askold Kurov. “A few years ago, he put his liberty and perhaps even his life at risk by making a documentary about the trial of Oleg Sentsov, which took place in Russia.” Sentsov was a film-maker, writer and activist from Crimea. “The film was widely shown in Ukraine and worldwide. It played a crucial role in mobilising the world to campaign for his release. Kurov happens to be Russian. Do we now have to ban him and his work? This would be immoral and indecent. And there are other voices, in other fields of art.”

A still from Babi Yar: Context, showing the titular ravine where more than 33,000 Jews were killed by the SS and their Ukrainian collaborators.
A still from Babi Yar: Context, showing the titular ravine where more than 33,000 Jews were killed by the SS and their Ukrainian collaborators. Photograph: Publicity image

Babi Yar: Context traces Ukraine’s early upheavals during the second world war, building towards the massacre, carried out by Nazi Sonderkommando, SS and Wehrmacht units, as well as the Ukrainian police. It was said that the hair of some victims, mauled by dogs and realising their fate, turned grey on the spot.

No footage of the massacre exists and Loznitsa avoids graphic imagery. But there are intimate images of families waiting to die – a young woman and a boy glare at the camera – or walking past the discarded clothes and belongings of the already dead: children’s mittens, snapshots of loved ones, a prosthetic leg.

“The film is not a scientific historical explanation,” Loznitsa says. “My intention was to immerse the spectator into the atmosphere of the time, to show various manifestations of human behaviour. The idea is to encourage questioning – it’s a starting point, not an answer.” His plan to shoot his long-gestating fictional version is now on hold because of the war.

A still from Loznitsa’s last film, Donbass, about the war in south-east Ukraine with Russia-backed separatists.
A still from Loznitsa’s last film, Donbass, about the war in south-east Ukraine with Russia-backed separatists. Photograph: Eureka Entertainment

Inevitably, the scale of devastation in Ukraine this past month has led to comparisons between Putin and Hitler and Stalin, the Soviet dictator having orchestrated the deaths of between 4 and 10 million Ukrainians during the 1932-33 Holodomor or “terror famine”. But Loznitsa demurs. “Hitler and Stalin were self-made men who forced their way to the top by killing everyone around them, whereas Putin was appointed by a corporation that stands behind him. He’s nothing but a frontman. And if he was to be removed, a similar kind of faceless character would be put in his place. But if we are talking about the essential elements of their regimes, yes, they governed their societies by violence and fear, which are the foundations of all totalitarian regimes.”

Does he think, as many fear, that Russia will invade other countries? “First of all,” says Loznitsa, “they have to conquer Ukraine – and the chances are that will be a long and difficult process. I think Russia will disintegrate before it actually manages to digest Ukraine. But if the most pessimistic predictions come true then of course, absolutely, there is no doubt Poland will be next, then Moldova and the Baltic states. After that, it will be Germany, which still doesn’t seem to get the danger of the situation, then France, et cetera.

“There is almost no limit. In 1953, Stalin had a plan to start the third world war and his ambition was to conquer the entirety of Europe. It would be appropriate to start some kind of anthropological research to analyse how this crazy idea about conquering the world gets into the heads of all those rulers in the Kremlin.”

Loznitsa’s most recent feature film was 2018’s Donbass, which opens in New York on 8 April. It comprises 13 grotesque vignettes from the 2014-15 war that took place in the south-east of his homeland between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists. “It’s important to know that the attitudes of Ukrainians are very different from what they were eight years ago,” says Loznitsa. “Back then, there were people who supported, or at least sympathised with the idea of the so-called Russian world. But after the atrocities, after everything the Russians have done to Ukraine, there is nobody now who would approve of this.”

One horrifying sequence in Donbass is now being played out for real in Ukraine’s cities: it shows a group of ailing, helpless civilians hiding – without food, medicine, or even a functioning toilet – in a damp underground shelter to escape shelling. “Of course,” the director says, “there are also scenes in Babi Yar: Context that remind us of the images of Ukraine we see on TV screens today.”

Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog (2012).
Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog (2012). Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Alamy

Loznitsa is on the verge of completing The Natural History of Destruction, his second take on a WG Sebald book following 2016’s Austerlitz. This documentary, he says, “looks at the question of whether it’s possible and permitted to use a civilian population as a means of war, as a military resource.

“Like Babi-Yar: Context,” he says, “it’s not a historical thesis. The concept of war that we have today allows this method of destroying civilian populations. What do we think about this situation? How do we deal with it? The world observed how cities in Syria were destroyed. Now, having practised on Syria, Russia is destroying the cities of Ukraine. And again, the world is just an onlooker, standing at a distance as this destruction goes on.”

All of which brings Loznitsa to a grim conclusion. “The politicians of the countries that have the means to stop this are acting immorally,” he says. “It’s doubly immoral because they base their policies on fear. They claim that if they intervene, it will result in a world war, whereas the world war has already begun.”

Babi Yar: Context opens in the US on 1 April. A UK release is TBC.

Graham Fuller

The GuardianTramp

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