For this very disquieting documentary, like a two-hour bad dream, Sergei Loznitsa has assembled hitherto unseen footage in colour and black-and-white that was shot in the Soviet Union in 1953; it shows the official obsequies for the death of Stalin, whose body is seen lying in state, surrounded by lush flowers, like a Marxist-Leninist Ophelia. All this was reportedly intended for an official film, but, as the Khrushchev era advanced, and Stalin’s reputation declined, there was evidently no enthusiasm for editing and presenting this footage in the right spirit, and so it was allowed to languish, forgotten.
And what is so extraordinary is that these scenes of people shuffling along in the streets, obediently reading newspaper reports, listening to speeches, presenting wreaths, were clearly intended to be edited as ambient material, doubtless accompanied with a strident voiceover. Loznitsa doesn’t do this. He just presents long stretches of eerily fascinating scenes, the long national pageant of sleepwalker-solemnity, like a live feed from some reverential television broadcast. (You can imagine some Dimbleby-esque commentator for the actual funeral scenes at the end.)
Perhaps the most bizarre scene is at the airport when delegates from Soviet countries and communist parties from all over the world arrive to pay their respects: grim-faced men in heavy hats and coats who nonetheless are sometimes seen to smile, in fact obviously rather gratified and even excited by the event and by this demonstration of their own prestige. Undoubtedly, these unguarded moments would not have made the official cut.
One such visitor we see here is Harry Pollitt, of the Communist party of Great Britain – a Stalin supplicant whose footnote in history came with opposing George Orwell’s application to join the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war. Finally, we arrive at the official speeches at the funeral, given to the spectacular mass of people, from politicians such as Malenkov and Beria. (Beria’s tactless existence in the film is perhaps another reason for its disappearance in the 50s; editing him out would be easy enough, but who else would need to be excised?)
The faces are the most intriguing thing. Loznitsa gives us a montage of inscrutability and repressed anxiety. Some people – a very few – are shown crying. The rest are serious, watchful, deadpan and neutral, an accentuation of the faces people learned to show while Stalin was alive, in case any emotional demonstration at all could be interpreted as wrong or disloyal. Yet perhaps their sadness is too complex to be interpreted: a realisation that an era is coming to end, and a spell is lifting.
Watching this, I kept wondering if I should scan the crowds for a glimpse of the six-month-old Vladimir Putin. How will his reign come to an end? Will Russia literally have to wait until his state funeral?
State Funeral is released on 21 May on Mubi.
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