Training his eye on the 2017 memorial service held at Berlin’s Treptower Park, a site of pilgrimage for the Soviet diaspora, Sergei Loznitsa’s Victory Day is an absorbing study of nationalism and the collective memory of traumatic experiences.
After the Second World War ended, and Berlin was divided up into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation, the USSR authorities ordered the construction of three monuments to honour the valour of the Red Army soldiers who fought against fascism. The largest of these is in Treptower Park, where each year thousands of people descend to pay their respects. The erection of memorials like this, and the ceremonies that take place around them, are often the subject for political debate, and the Treptower monument, replete with Soviet iconography is no different, giving physical shape and a public space for a particular interpretation of national history.
A portrait of small-scale human interactions, and a timeless evocation of human reactions to memories of trauma, Victory Day unfolds exclusively in rigorously static shots. Eschewing any form of expository techniques in favour of a more immersive experience, Loznitsa provides the viewer with the perfect vantage point to eavesdrop on the interactions of those who have made this pilgrimage. There’s a tiny wagon with Stalin’s face on it being pulled along by two highland terriers. Young men, in full army regalia practicing their marching. A gang of leather clad bikers arguing about fascism and how it has reinvented itself in capitalism. They drink, sing and take selfies, whilst a line of solemn faces snake their way around the statue’s steps waiting patiently to lay flowers at the foot of the monument.
Although lacking the intensity of Maidan, Loznitsa’s observational documentary about the protests in Kiev’s Independence Square, or the disquieting power of Austerlitz, a meditation on tragedy tourism shot on the sites of several Nazi concentration camps, the same simplicity and intellectual acuity is present here. A fitting b-side to, Austerlitz, Loznitsa’s latest is similarly concerned with memory and how time eventually erodes it. Here it’s the less documented crimes committed by the USSR that are the Belarusian born director’s primarily focus; specifically how the memory of these atrocities is being replaced with zealous nationalism and nostalgia.
An immersive sound design, composed of snatched conversations, bird song, and the hum of the surrounding city combine to muddle the senses and dissociate the viewer from their own thoughts and preconceived ideas concerning nationalism. It quickly becomes apparent that a large majority of those here are more interesting in mourning the loss of their Soviet identity, than the lives of those who died, but Loznitsa’ stark refusal to pull individuals from the crowd allows us to appreciate the deep complexities of these conflicted identities. A rounded portrait of humanity, and how memories are not perfect reconstructions of the past, Victory Day is a subtle study of patriotism and the complex relationship between time and memory.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 15-25 February. Follow our coverage here.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble