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Twice removed: 'State Funeral' and 'The Death of Stalin'

Two films examining Stalin's death from different perspectives—one non-fiction, the other a fictional comedy—make for a potent double bill

A still from Sergei Loznitsa's 'State Funeral'

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On 5 March 1953, Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR, died following a stroke. The national mourning, during which thousands of citizens poured into Moscow to look at him one last time, was known as “The Great Farewell”. A film of the same name on the funeral proceedings was shot by four directors. Though intended as tribute, it was banned by the authorities and never released. But the hours and hours of footage remained in the archives and were resurrected in a remarkable film by Sergei Loznitsa called State Funeral (2019), now streaming on MUBI.

Loznitsa is an Ukrainian director whose work, in both fiction and non-fiction, takes a critical look at moments of historical tumult: the Holocaust in Austerlitz, the German occupation of Belarus in In The Fog, the protests of 2013-14 in Ukraine in Maidan. State Funeral resembles one of his earlier documentaries, The Trial—about a show trial in Moscow in 1930—in that it’s composed entirely of existing footage.

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The thing we most often credit directors with is images imagined and then captured. But with this part already decided in State Funeral, it shines a light on the next step in the process: the sifting through image upon moving image to find the exact one required, and the assembly of these images in a manner that speaks to the viewer. And Loznitsa really does need the images to “speak”, because the film has no narration, and no screen text apart from names of cities and a few key individuals.

The film begins with the news of Stalin’s death spreading through the USSR: images that are most likely B-roll shot by the 200-odd camerapersons who filmed the events leading up to the funeral in 1953. They give a sense of the sheer breadth of the Soviet empire back then. We see crowds gathered in villages in Ukraine and Tajikistan, on an oil rig in Azerbaijan, in the mountainous Altai region of southern Siberia. Loznitsa overlays these with speeches which played on the radio in the hours and days following Stalin’s death—though the impression the viewer gets is of announcements made in town after town.

The film winds up in Moscow, where a stream of people walk past the body of Stalin in a red coffin and Central Committee leaders give speeches (Loznitsa switches between black and white and fetching Agfacolor footage— often in the same scene). Unlike the images, all of which already existed, the sound of the film had to be invented. Everything from the tinkling of a reindeer sled to the blare of traffic was created and matched with the images. If someone sniffles or coughs or waves a paper on screen, there’s a corresponding noise on the soundtrack. The two-hour film is a wonderfully creative example of sound design, especially since nearly everything is made to sound diegetic, emerging from the action of the scene.

It’s fitting Loznitsa studied at the same school where Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein once taught, for State Funeral is above all a feat of editing. Yet, his approach is entirely different to the Soviet montage practised by these directors. There’s little rapid cutting or schematic juxtaposition, just a slowly building picture of life in the Soviet Union in those days. It would be misleading to say this is a gripping film—its two-hour runtime consists of endless variations of a few scenarios—or one that serves up a ready critique. Rather, one is left free to read as much or as little as one wants into the proceedings. People look genuinely moved but was the mourning a sort of national hysteria, as Loznitsa said in an interview? Were the gatherings in town after town a competitive display of grieving for the benefit of judging authorities or a spontaneous outpouring?

State Funeral makes its feelings known through an intertitle at the end, reminding viewers that 21 million died in Stalin’s reign. But it’s in another film that one can find what Loznitsa’s repurposed footage could never show. The Death Of Stalin (on Amazon Prime) is a comedy by Scottish writer-director Armando Iannucci (The Thich of It,Veep). After Stalin has a stroke, the party top brass—Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin)—bicker and try to grab power while everyone else—soldiers, doctors, concert pianists—tiptoe through their lives for fear of giving offence and being executed. It’s obviously an exaggerated account, yet Iannacci keeps it close enough to real life to have the ring of truth. If the film wasn’t so funny, it would be horrifying.

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In State Funeral, I was confused to see a group of priests among the thousands paying respect to Stalin in the Kremlin. And so I was delighted when Krushchev exclaims in The Death Of Stalin, during a recreation of the same moment, “Jesus Christ, who invited the Bishops?”—a moment worthy, Palin would surely agree, of Monty Python. State Funeral is extremely serious, and Iannucci’s film is anything but, yet the two enhance each other and sharpen our impression of that time. The Death Of Stalin even fills in a historical gap that Loznitsa—rather disappointingly—leaves unmentioned, like how the masses entering Moscow for the “Great Farewell” resulted in a stampede that killed over a hundred (the unofficial count is much more). This omission should be weighed against the gun salute and sirens going off across the Soviet Union, crowds taking their caps off in respect, one of the most poetic scenes in State Funeral.

“Rather overwhelming, isn’t it?” says Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, to Beria. “And nobody’s making them do this, are they?” Beria’s “no, no” is immediate and unconvincing. The same doubt kept surfacing in the 15-odd minutes dedicated to teary-eyed mourners passing Stalin’s open coffin in Loznitsa’s film. Wonderful as State Funeral is, I would urge anyone attempting the double bill to watch it before Iannucci’s film. Satire is tragedy plus time, Lenny Bruce once said. State Funeral and The Death Of Stalin both have the benefit of time and a sense of the tragic, but only one buries Stalin.

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