«After genocide comes chronicide» is the logline for acclaimed documentarian Sergey Loznitsa’s new found-footage work Babi Yar. Context, which screened this week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Chronicide — the murder of time — is a termed coined by Russian thinker Mikhail Epstein for the act of eliminating knowledge of the past to reinforce ideology in service to an abstract future, as determined expedient during regime change. Loznitsa assembled the film from material, some of it little-seen, from Russian and German archives. It shows life in the Soviet Ukraine under Nazi occupation, and the climate of terrorisation and desperation that enabled widespread atrocities, and the massacre of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar ravine in Kyiv on 29 and 30 September 1941.
History and causation
In making Babi Yar. Context, Loznitsa has committed to restoring and preserving time, in the sense of collective memory of history and causation; of cataloguing the way in which the violence and oppression of totalitarianism fed human nature’s darker tendencies and created conditions for atrocities being condoned without resistance by the majority of a local population.
It was not only in Germany, where many believed the «clean Wehrmacht» myth that simple soldiers did not participate in the more brutal aspects of the extermination drive in Soviet Ukraine; that citizens were desperate to deny and forget their own culpability in genocide. The Babi Yar ravine was covered over with industrial waste after the war, and for a long time there was no monument commemorating the dead on the site of the massacre. This was in keeping with the resistance of the Soviets to acknowledging that Jews had been particular, prime targets of Nazi atrocities. Silence shrouded the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, where it was a taboo subject, and myths mitigating the extent of complicity by those who accepted and gained from anti-Semitic policies abounded. There are many jubilant faces to be seen lining streets to greet the German forces as liberators of Ukrainians from the hardships of Stalin’s rule, and relieved wives thanking commandants as they collect their freed political-prisoner husbands from jail. Collaboration, for many, seemed the least worst of only bad options.
Massive wall-spanning likenesses of Stalin come off public facades, and posters of Hitler go up, only for the process to be reversed a couple of years later as Soviet troops retake major cities. The wooden signs with German street-names that have been hastily erected are knocked down. Time’s traces are erased and written over, again and again, as the battle for ideology rages, and temporary victors seek to project their present pre-eminence past and forward as eternal glory.
Time’s traces are erased and written over, again and again, as the battle for ideology rages, and temporary victors seek to project their present pre-eminence past and forward as eternal glory.
The chronological film immerses us, first, in June 1941, as German troops occupy Lviv, and in September of the same year, Kyiv. In retaliation to extensive damage to the city centre of Kyiv caused by explosives that were in fact planted by Soviet secret police, the German authorities made the decision to exterminate all of the city’s Jews, and posted an order that they all gather by the Jewish cemetery on a certain morning with their documents and valuables, or risk being shot. We see local Jews, some naked and beaten, with faces of fear and bewilderment; a vulnerable group persecuted and humiliated, which had previously lived side by side with their now-hostile or silent neighbours. War has unleashed its hellish attrition upon moral scruples.
Powerful segments of testimonials from the war crimes trial in Kyiv in 1946, which preceded the Nuremberg trials but has been consigned to relative oblivion in historical memory, are in Babi Yar. Context provided space for renewed attention. An SS soldier, who seems unmoved by emotion or remorse, as if he were recalling a run-of-the-mill labouring task, describes matter-of-factly how he shot 120 Jews under orders at Babi Yar. Just as incomprehensible, but for a dignity and composure that seems beyond the bounds of the trauma she endured, is the testimony of Dina Pronicheva, a Jewish actress at the Kyiv Puppet Theatre, who was one of the few that miraculously survived the massacre, by jumping into the ravine before she could be shot and pretending to be dead while soldiers prodded her body, then nearly buried her alive. The startling immediacy enabled by Loznitsa’s resurrection of stored archive material does not destroy time, but rather our distance from it, as we sense its inexorable connection with the present, and are confronted with a need to make sense of these mysteries; of what the extreme capacities of behaviour on display tell us about the essence of being human.
Footage of the public execution by hanging on Kyiv’s main square, attended by a huge throng of locals, of twelve of those convicted of culpability in war crimes in Soviet Ukraine is also shown. The depth of animosity bred by atrocity, and evident in the enthusiastic onlookers, is a sobering reminder of the entrenched, generational repercussions that are wartime Europe’s legacy. But it is not a film without glimmers of light. A moving passage written by Ukrainian-Jewish journalist and novelist Vasily Grossman in his 1943 essay Ukraine Without Jews is included as an intertitle mid-way as the defiantly beating heart of the film. It offers a vast list of the different kinds of individuals — the skilled artisans and professionals, the loyal spouses, the dissolute layabouts — that transmits the sheer breadth of vibrant, varied and irreplaceable life wiped out by the Nazi regime’s dehumanising machine, and almost summons them, through devoted attention, back to vivid form in our collective memory. The practice of remembering through art not only maintains time and our knowledge of history as a safeguard against atrocities recurring, but is an act of love that keeps the essence of the dead alive as a future meaning source.