Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953. State Funeral, the fascinating and elusive new documentary by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, shows what happened over the next few days when Stalin’s body lay in the trade union hall in Moscow to the Lenin mausoleum before it was transferred . (It was removed eight years later, but that’s another story).
The film consists entirely of footage shot in different parts of the Soviet Union at the time, and is a haunting blend of official pomp and everyday experience, the dual image of a totalitarian government and the people in whose name it ruled.
At the beginning, crowds gather to hear news of the dictator’s death, read over loudspeakers in stately, somber tones. These broadcasts, which continue as the crowds shuffle past Stalin’s wreath-laden coffin, provide an abstract, pink interpretation of his life amid frequent evocations of his immortality. His subjects – his comrades in the language of the day – are reminded of his undying love for them as well as of his “selflessness”, his courage and his monumental intelligence. Among other things, he was “the greatest genius in human history”.
This type of rhetoric is evidence of the personality cult that was rejected a few years later when Nikita Khrushchev came to power and embarked on a program of de-Stalinization. State Funeral captures the official manifestations of this cult, including the gigantic portraits of Stalin hanging on public buildings and the arrival of delegations from other communist countries. Fulsome elegies are delivered by the decidedly uncharismatic men who – as it turned out – briefly took Stalin’s place: Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lavrenti Beria. (Khrushchev, who would soon kick her out, serves as master of ceremonies).
But Stalin’s famous face, with his bushy mustache and hair combed back, is staged by the crowd of ordinary citizens who gather to bear testimony and pay tribute. The anonymous cameramen who take photos in color and black and white in distant shipyards, factories, oil fields and collective farms are Loznitsa’s most important employees. Intentionally or deliberately, they collected images that complicate and, to some extent, undermine the somber, emptied language of the regime, and revealed a complicated human reality under the ideological basis.
It is the parade of ordinary Soviets that makes the “state funeral” both moving and annoying. It’s hard not to be touched by the tears that grandmothers, soldiers, old men in fur hats and bareheaded young women have shed as they mourn a monster. Other answers are harder to read. Does that steady, non-smiling look mean stoicism or defiance? Is that faint smile an expression of relief? Out of gratitude? From terror? When someone looks straight into the camera, do their eyes register suspicion or solidarity?
A brief note at the end of the film reminds the viewer of Stalin’s crimes against his own people – the tens of millions who have been purged, imprisoned, starved and slaughtered. This knowledge fits uncomfortably with what came before, not because the leaden language of the scripted episodes is convincing, but because the grieving citizens are so real. In their diversity and particularity, these people do not seem to belong to a distant place and a distant time. They look completely modern and familiar.
What can be taken as a warning: every population can be influenced and subjugated by tyranny. You could be us. But the tone of “State Funeral” is more meditative than warning. It looks at the Soviet state almost exactly in the middle of its existence, illuminates the faces of those who lived there, and at the same time takes into account the dead weight of history.
Not rated. In Russian with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. In the film forum. Please consult the Policies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before viewing films in theaters.