In the next in our series of new writing about new films at Open City Documentary Festival 2019, Patrick Gamble works his way through Sergei Loznitsa’s latest, The Trial.
Painstakingly assembled from hours of raw footage, Sergei Loznitsa’s The Trial chronicles the court case of several scientists accused of plotting a coup against the government of the USSR. Continuing the director’s preoccupation with Soviet history, the footage was originally shot in 1930, and depicts one of Joseph Stalin’s first ever show trials. Hearings like these would eventually become an important agitational tool of Stalin’s Central Committee, but history often obscures as much as it reveals, and even though the events that unfold are real, the charges levelled against these men are pure fiction.
Watching this grainy black-and-white footage of men pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, it’s hard to believe this case was fabricated purely to advance Soviet ideology. From newsreels and public information advertisements, to educational and industrial films, archive footage like this is commonly used to add an aura of authenticity. But rarely do we stop to consider their origins or the intention behind their creation. Instead, audiences are expected to accept what they’re shown as an essential truth. The problem here isn’t just one of legitimacy, but the misplaced belief that archival footage is somehow separate from other forms of cinema, with Loznitsa’s reinterpretation of this material a reminder that all film, regardless of its production values or claims to reality, is a form of fiction.
The Trial is not the first time Loznitsa has engaged with archival footage. In 2005 he made Blockade, a depiction of the siege of Leningrad assembled from footage discovered in the Moscow film archives. These images were originally used to promote the strength and valour of the Soviet army, but Loznitsa repurposes it to focus on the destruction of the city and the everyday struggles of those that fought back. Three years later he made Revue (2008), a film composed of propaganda reels from the Khrushchev era about the benefits of collectivism. By eschewing any form of narration or context, Revue forces the viewer to consider how conscious audiences were of the propagandistic nature of these newsreels. However, even though the purpose of these films was to further a lie, Loznitsa believes there is a truth laced within these images; one that if viewed correctly exposes the repressive measures imparted by the Soviet regime.
With The Trial, Loznitsa takes this theory even further, stripping away the strategies of deception by allowing the material to speak for itself. He arranges the footage in a linear fashion and abstains from any form of exposition, with the viewer witnessing events as they would have unfurled at the time. The only change he makes is one straight from the propaganda rule book, interrupting this footage with scenes of crowds cheering ‘death to saboteurs’ and ‘long live the Bolsheviks’. Loznitsa understands how images communicate with each other and, as these men refuse to defend themselves, there’s a disquieting feeling that something is not right. By providing a glimpse beneath the bonnet of the Soviet propaganda machine, The Trial encourages a wider dialogue about how we engage with history and the perceived truth of archival footage.
Patrick Gamble is a freelance writer specialising in film and culture.
Sergei Loznitsa’s The Trial screens on Tuesday 10th September at ICA.