In “State Funeral”, an astonishing new film from Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, this cult of personality is shown with austere and frightening clarity. Bringing together original footage of the massive and extended nation-wide and republican mourning ritual for Stalin, “State Funeral” is astounding, but it is astounding with a purpose. Personality cults are designed to numb the mind. “State Funeral” shows the result.
Loznitsa searched the television archives for existing footage, working with the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archives (along with many others). The footage is clear and beautiful, with no degradation of the image, no motley effect of the trailer. The shots, of mourners gathered around newsstands, or galloping on horseback through snow-capped hills to attend a funeral ceremony, of workers on an oil rig in Azerbaijan standing with their heads bowed, are sometimes even pictorial , the rich and dark colors, all those deep reds. and the grays, as if the people themselves were a color-coded propaganda poster. Accompanied by funeral marches and requiems from classical composers (Schubert, Mozart, Chopin, Mendelssohn), the overall effect is overwhelming, especially since Loznitsa does not use contemporary “talking heads”. Historians ignore the context. The people who were there do not share their memories. There’s not even a voiceover narration. The images are isolated.
This can make the watch difficult, especially since it is so repetitive, the same ceremonial rituals in every town, town, region, same peasants walking through mud, wielding crowns as big as a Volkswagen bug , the same loudspeakers echoing with tear-filled voices urging people to gather in the town square, singing the praises of the leader who has just left them. Loznitsa’s modus operandi brings the “cult of personality”, “cult of the individual” in overwhelming vividness, reminiscent of Andrei Ujică’s “Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu”, which functions in a similar way. Over the course of three hours, the propaganda on display is so aberrant, so all-encompassing, that it functions as a leaden blanket over the critical mind. People are sinking under his weight.
For those who find it difficult to understand why, for example, North Koreans erupted into a public mourning frenzy in 2011 after the death of Kim Jong Il, who wonder if all that crying and moaning was really real, understanding how propaganda works is essential. George Orwell explained it all 1984, with its final line (“He Loved Big Brother.”) showing the inevitable surrender of Winston Smith. In his masterpiece the Master and MargaritaSoviet author Mikhail Bulgakov (whose relationship with Stalin was fascinating) broke it down in the chapter “Ivan Is Divided in Two”, a brilliant step-by-step explanation of how man is crushed by the pressure of Propaganda. Arthur koestler Darkness at noon also shows the process by which a man can be forced to make a false confession, and believe that he is doing it for the good of the “state”. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told it all The Gulag archipelago, how the show trials worked, how false confessions were tortured, how the gulag system was maintained.