Sergei Loznitsa

Russia 2005, 52 min.

In 2005, mankind marked the 60th anniversary of the surrender of fascist Germany and the end of World War II–the most dreadful event of the 20th century. On this occasion, scores of feature films and documentaries were produced, especially in Germany and Russia.

The Russian cinema has a huge filmography on this subject. However, each new film brings to light facts that are either new or hardly known at all, events and names from the time of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945). And in its staggering records, a truly amazing event stands out: the unprecedented blockade of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), which lasted as many as 900 days, until 1 March 1945. This was almost two and a half years of complete isolation, destructive bombings, bitterly cold winters, ruthless famine, people bereft of hope dying daily by the thousands – in essence, an incredible human tragedy. But in spite of it all, soaring high above it is the even more incredible hardiness of the few survivors, the prodigious act of heroism of the ordinary people and the unparalleled victory of the human spirit over war and destruction!

In this deadly environment, dozens of documentary cameramen worked day after day for posterity to leave an astounding film archive of shocking authenticity and unique historical value. This is exactly the kind of breathtaking footage that the skilled film director Sergei Loznitsa (1964, Baranovichi, Belarus) has used to create his compiled documentary film Blockade, which reminds us one more time of the blockade tragedy, yet manages to add something new both to the theme and to this type of documentary.

To produce his 52-minute film, Loznitsa carefully studied more than four hours of archive material. The narrative follows the logical sequence of events and facts, grouped in thematic episodes: air raid precautions, bombing, destructions and fires, killed and wounded citizens, water and food supplies, taking in the dead and frozen bodies, the end of the blockade, German soldiers taken as prisoners of war, the execution of traitor-collaborationists (already in January 1946).

Blockade by Sergei Loznitsa

Many documentaries of this sort, produced from pre-filmed newsreels, have been compiled by the film industries around the world. Some of the particularly popular war theme titles are: Why We Fight (1942–1945) – a seven-film series by Frank Capra; Obyknovennyy Fashizm (1966) – a strong, analytical and condemning film by Mikhail Romm; and the series Unknown War(1978), directed by Isaak Kleinerman (USA) and Roman Karmen (Russia), made to order by Air Time International for TV distribution in USA. A theoretical survey of compiled films was made by Jay Leyda (the only US citizen to study with the legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein at the Moscow State Film School in the 1930s) in his book The Compiled Film.

In Blockade Sergei Loznitsa has made a considerable contribution, achieving unquestionable success with his exceptional work on the soundtrack. The archive material he used was shot without sound, on a 35 mm black-and-white negative. However, Loznitsa sound-tracked the film with incredible precision, meticulously finding the best suited sound effects for each frame and episode of the film. And this meant a sustained effort and dedication that eventually resulted in astounding, true-to-life, artistic on-screen authenticity.

The sound effects of exploding bombs, street clamour and the noise of passing trams, cars and tanks, even the snow crunching under the feet of passers-by make up the exceptional authenticity representing the blockade of the city, to the effect that today’s audience seem to mingle with the documentary characters who experienced the tragedy of Leningrad.

Once again, Blockade demonstrates how great documentaries can be made about exhausted themes, events, and problems. Because once they get into the hands of a talented director, they can always result in unique productions that would be in demand by the audience of any time and generation.