History repeating

WAR / Footage from a Soviet war crimes trial in Kiev in 1946 underscores today's atrocities committed by the heirs to the Red Army in Ukraine.

Sergei Loznitsa is an uncompromising character. He is a director long obsessed with the Second World War – and its impact on the Russian and post-Soviet character.

As he has moved from directing features (In the Fog – his 2012 film about partisan activity in his native Belarus) through hybrid documentaries (Donbass, 2018) to his recent focus on archive footage from the war (The Natural History of Destruction, which premiered at Cannes this year), Loznitsa is becoming a master at assembling long unseen reels of celluloid into compelling documentaries.

Compelling as they are, his films are not always easy to watch. The Natural History of Destruction was entirely made up of archive footage with no narrative apart from original contemporary official statements or the rare occasions where a statement was made at the time – for example, by Air Marshall «Bomber» Harris.

Kiev Trial Sergei Loznitsa
The Kiev Trial, a film by Sergei Loznitsa

The Kiev Trial, next screening at The Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, follows this pattern. Opening with scenes of snowy Kiev (or Kyiv as Ukrainians today know it) in January 1946, we see the snow-covered wreckage of war: shells of buildings with piles of rusting steel supports lying in bent piles by the roadside. People struggle to walk along rubble-strewn sidewalks as military vehicles lumber by. For those of us who have been obsessively following the daily news reports from Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked attack on the country on February 24 this year, these ruins look sanitised compared with the destruction shown every day on news bulletins.

Loznitsa wastes little time getting to his point – that this is a historical film as much about today as the past. After thoroughly introducing the key dramatis personae – the Soviet military prosecutors and judges, the German Wehrmacht, field police and SS defendants – we cut to the chase.

The defendants have all pleaded guilty to the charges (or most of them) against them. Loznitsa does not tell us what the charges are – but we can guess.

Loznitsa does not tell us what the charges are – but we can guess.

First up is a Wehrmacht officer accused of stealing food supplies and overseeing the imprisonment and executions of local Ukrainians in Melitopol, then a small village in south-eastern Ukraine. For those of us who have been keenly paying attention to Putin’s war, Melitopol was one of the first places taken by Russian forces in February this year. It is now a small town, not far from the more famous (or infamous) Mariupol – a city almost entirely destroyed by the Russians.

Watching the old footage from 1946 – splendidly lit and shot in black and white by Soviet cameramen – one cannot help but extrapolate to what is going on now. Nazi war crimes may have been of greater order and more organised, but after Bucha – the torture, rape and cold-blooded murder – the world looks on Moscow with the same disgust it once felt for Berlin.

There are sound bites here that one anticipates may one day be heard at a new international war crimes tribunal for those Russian commanders and leaders who permitted the atrocities of this year to happen: «How do you explain the cruelty the German occupiers inflicted on the civilian Soviet population?» Substitute Russian for German and Ukrainian for Soviet, and 1946 might as well be today.

Loznitsa allows the footage from 1946 to tell its own story. The only real difference between these scenes and some of the recent trials of Russian servicemen in Kyiv (for shooting civilians) is that the Nazi defendants retain some of their old arrogance. The solitary low-ranking Russians who have faced charges so far have all appeared pathetic and lost, lacking even an evil ideology to cloak their crimes.

Kiev Trial Sergei Loznitsa
The Kiev Trial, a film by Sergei Loznitsa

The Kiev Trial is what it says it is: a meticulously assembled story of the 1946 process – including harrowing witness testimony – that ends with footage of the inevitable hanging of those sentenced to death for their crimes. Loznitsa sticks to contemporary place name, giving the place of the public execution as Kalinin Square. For those familiar with Kyiv, it is immediately obvious that this is today’s Maidan (Independence) Square, where the momentous events of February 2014 played out when Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych fled in the face of a popular uprising. That those events are part of today’s Ukrainian story is, perhaps, part of Loznitsa’s narrative: that we must remain ever vigilant against fascism in any form.

Whether the world ever gets to hold such a Russian war crimes trial in the same way the Soviets, Americans, British, and French did after 1945 remains a moot point. Nazi Germany was convincingly defeated, Germany was in ruins, and there were few places for the guilty to run. Today, the west remains acutely cautious lest Putin uses the tactical nuclear weapons he keeps rattling, and as Ukrainian forces retake vast swathes of formerly occupied territory in the east and the Russian army retreats in disorder and panic, the dangers of Putin striking out like a wounded animal – or more accurately a cornered rat – remain high.

Will the world ever get to ask a defendant the question one former German officer was asked in 1946? Why were children among the 613 people shot in a small Ukrainian village in 1943? Because the whole purpose of the operation was to destroy the village in its entirety, so it was logical, he answers.

Apart from a few monstrous friends of Putin, the world dreams for such a reckoning. Sergei Loznitsa’s latest film begs the question of whether we shall ever have the satisfaction Soviet military prosecutors had in The Kiev Trial.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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