Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: The Building, Remnants of Historical Possibility and Failure

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Carmen Grey explores the history of the structure that sits at the centre of Tatjana Kononenko and Matilda Mester’s The Building. The Building is available in Block 2 (Sat 12th Sept midday – Tue 15th midnight BST)

“What an old elevator. Still smells of the Stalin era,” a man comments as he waits to ascend to the upper floors of a building in the city of Kharkiv. This is not just any building. When it was built in the late ‘20s, this concrete-towered skyscraper was in a sense the buildingat least for the fledgling world of communism in Ukraine. The Derzhprom (House of State Industry) was the most spacious structure in the world when it was finished, and its innovative, constructivist style had a wow-factor that preceded New York’s skyscrapers. Kharkiv—formerly a provincial town—was made the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic after the 1917 Russian Revolution had swept aside the established ruling elite. This massive headquarters was designed by architects from Leningrad who sought to materially embody the future utopian glory of the city’s new ideology and way of life. 

But the shining speed gripping the modernist imagination soon gave way to a regional reality of musty bureaucracy and, more sinisterly, the mass repressions and famines of totalitarianism. Now, nearly a century after the Derzhprom’s conception, moments drag. According to maintenance rules, a minimum of four passengers are required before the building’s elevator can move. The first to get in, emulating the voice of old socialist slogans, joke that they are waiting for colleagues “to share their destiny.” The bright future shown in communist propaganda having never come to pass, it has now become the stuff of wry asides. Tatjana Kononenko and Matilda Mester’s film about the Derzhprom is a fascinating study of time in architecture; the traces of the past in present materials and their haunting by dead future ideals twisted into troubled ghosts. What do the remnants of historical possibility and failure mean, when citizens still work inside? 

“Long live the communist expression of material constructions!” Manifesto phrases of the Russian Constructivists—whose movement grew out of futurism to service the revolution—are peppered throughout the documentary collage, their dynamic exclamation marks at odds with a building now awash with a mood of inertia. “Here’s something to film, they’ve changed a lightbulb!” exclaims a concierge on her shift, complaining about neglected renovations as the outdated western pop of Abba tinkles from a radio. 

Soviet cinema pioneers Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein showed the Derzhprom as a symbol of modernity. Now, its very preservation is a matter of debate, as quarters moving to decommunise Ukraine seek to remove all traces of a painful legacy from its facades: the statue of Lenin in front of the building was recently torn down. The Building’s directors—both graduates of Berlin’s DFFB film school, one Ukrainian and the other Danish—are in the frame wandering the complex, struggling to find a proverbial key to understanding it amid the confusion that befalls a structure when its essence is politically discredited. Meanwhile, a West lost in the consumerist sameness of a global capitalism in which, since communism’s fall, there seems to be ever-less outside, bathes in images of the Derzhprom with the fetishising impulse of the Soviet relic tourist. 

Carmen Gray is a freelance film critic, journalist and programmer, who was born in New Zealand and now lives in Berlin.

Tickets for The Building are on sale now.