Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

Destroyed traces

CONFLICT / War crimes and the assisting population

Babi Yar is a ravine nearby Kiev. Here on the bottom of a vast pit, a hidden mass grave is placed, where 33771 Jews were executed by the German army, assisted by the local Ukrainian police regiment and auxiliary police. There hasn’t been observed any sign or movement of opposition or resistance against this proceeding in the local population.

This event took place in autumn 1941. It had never been documented officially. Sergei Loznitsa researched different archives to bring materials together to reconstruct a deranging historical fact. He spent his youth nearby and had already planed a fictional film about the subject. His documentary Babi Yar. Context is wholly based on the footage, in sometimes surprising technical quality after being cleaned up. The sound is partly original, partly carefully dubbed in. Faces, gestures, manifestations, celebrations, marching soldiers, prisoners, dead bodies in the streets, and war scenes of all kinds are connected to reconstruct a historical phase in a dense intensity.

Babi Yar. Context, a film by Sergei Loznitsa
Babi Yar. Context, a film by Sergei Loznitsa

An enthusaistic welcome

In the first sequences, we see an enthusiastic population welcoming the German troops in Lviv (Lemberg) and Kiev. Stalin’s posters were immediately destroyed, Hitler’s images were placed everywhere by the local population. Jews were immediately accused as collaborators with the Soviets. They were publicly beaten and sometimes set out naked in the streets.

The situation got worse after a devastating bomb attack against the Germans on September 24, 1941. German authorities decided to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Kiev, and in the following three days, more than 30,000 Jews, including children, women, and the elderly, were killed. They have been asked to show up at a particular hour and place with warm clothes and their objects with the courage to hide the real intention, threatened by dead in case of not following the order. An even larger deadly movement followed the first killing wave. The expulsion of 150,000 Jews, already celebrated in Kiev’s newspaper as «a great day for Kiev» will be, in fact, an ongoing execution, taking place for three to four years.

Babi Yar. Context, a film by Sergei Loznitsa
Babi Yar. Context, a film by Sergei Loznitsa

Historical reconstruction

Babi Yar. Context is an important historical reconstruction and an impressive example of the changing narratives. When 1943, the Soviet army again took over the region, including Kiev, Stalin’s images was set up again, and all traces of German occupation, including street names, was replaced again under the applause of the local population, which now again honoured the new resettled regime with flowers and folklorist celebrations. In November 1943, the slaughterhouse ravine of the Jews was transformed into the tragic killing place of Soviet citizens. During an official process in 1946, Ukrainian civil witnesses declared to have been victims of the shooting, especially when they witnessed the ongoing atrocities. The trial will end with the hanging of some German prisoners under the eyes of thousands of approving spectators, even standing on their rooftops not to miss the spectacle.

In a public declaration, the doomed men were accused of their «brutal extermination of Soviet citizens and prisoners of war» and «the enslavement of the population of Soviet Ukraine.»

Babi Yar. Context is an important historical reconstruction and an impressive example of the changing narratives.

To bury the mass extermination forever, the terrain of the dead was covered in 1952 with industrial waste from nearby brick factories, ordered by the City Council.

In a recent interview, Loznitsa pointed out the devastating fact, that there had never been a trial of the atrocities and war crimes of communism. Still, without this, «the totalitarian monster will keep coming back again and again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It’s a vicious circle, and I wanted to warn people about this danger.»

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Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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