Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Choices of war

CONFLICT / Sergei Loznitsa’s sombre documentary, The Natural History of Destruction, re-examines the heavy bombing of British and German cities during World War Two, posing the question – ‘is it morally acceptable to kill civilian populations as a means of war?’

Berlin-based, Belarussian-born Ukrainian citizen Sergei Loznitsa has long been a controversial figure on the European art-house scene.

A native Russian speaker, Loznitsa was born in Baranovichi in Belarus but grew up in Kyiv and is firmly opposed to the Russian war of aggression currently raging in his homeland.

That has not prevented him from becoming a divisive figure among those filmmakers and artists who see him as morally compromised by a position on the war that opposes the orthodoxy that all Russian film and culture should be banned from European arts venues during the current conflict.

The Natural History of Destruction, a film by Sergei Loznitsa
The Natural History of Destruction, a film by Sergei Loznitsa


That Loznitsa is anti-war is indisputable: much of his filmography – features and documentaries – has been intimately involved with dissecting the long fall-out from World War Two and more contemporary issues of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, going back at least as far as the «Maidan» revolution in Ukraine in 2013/2014 and Moscow’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, and support from secessionist rebels in the Donbas.

That his position on culture is more nuanced than many of his compatriots – with notable Ukrainian film producers and industry professionals castigating him for opposing cancel culture on Russia, or even for public comments at the Cannes Film Festival where he failed to talk about Ukrainian culture – is clear.

In the early days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Loznitsa resigned from the European Film Academy over the weak and muted language it used to condemn the Russian invasion.

A statement by the EFA noting «the invasion in Ukraine is heavily worrying us» was slammed as «shameful» by Loznitsa, who noted in an open letter, «the Russian army has been devastating Ukrainian cities and villages, killing Ukrainian citizens. Is it really possible that you – humanists, human rights and dignity advocates, champions of freedom and democracy, are afraid to call a war a war, to condemn barbarity and voice your protest?»

However, his openness towards shielding Russian culture and individual film directors from boycott got him into trouble with Ukrainian compatriots. He was subsequently dismissed from the Ukrainian Film Academy in a move Loznitsa described as «a gift to Russian propagandists.»

The world premiere of Loznitsa’s latest film – The Natural History of Destruction – took place May 23 against a backdrop of the glitz, glamour – and political controversy of the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

That has not prevented him from becoming a divisive figure among those filmmakers and artists who see him as morally compromised by a position on the war…

Cannes controversy

The inclusion in the main programme of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s Tchaikovsky’s Wife had attracted widespread criticism – not helped by Serebrennikov using a Cannes press conference to defend its funder, sanctioned Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, and to express his sorrow for the families of Russian soldiers sent to fight in Ukraine. Coming as the world reels at mounting evidence of Russian war crimes and the indisputable evidence of the rape, torture, and execution of Ukrainian civilians revealed in Bucha, Irpin, and elsewhere in the war zone, Serebrennikov’s comments piled the pressure on festival president Thierry Frémaux, whose tin-ear to concerns over his controversial decision to include the film dominated many conversations at Cannes this year.

The festival’s opening film (Michael Hazanavicius’ Coupez!) had also aroused rage from Ukrainians as the odd-ball zombie horror had initially been called Z (comme Z) – seen by many as unwittingly supporting Russian aggression, as the letter Z had been adopted as a propaganda symbol in Russia due to its extensive use as an army group call-sign painted on invading tanks and armoured vehicles.

The Natural History of Destruction is a lengthy (nearly two hours) documentary of the mutually destructive heavy bombing of civilian populations in British and German cities during the 1940s – dropped into this typically Cannes artistic melee with the force of a 500-kilo air drop bomb.

The Natural History of Destruction, a film by Sergei Loznitsa
The Natural History of Destruction, a film by Sergei Loznitsa

Based on

Based on the eponymous 1999 book by German W.G. Sebald, the film opens with a montage of bucolic pre-war German scenes, cityscapes of fine Medieval buildings, and ordinary, industrious Germans at work and play. Only gradually do we see Nazi flags, their Swastika symbols – that the current Russian Z symbol is so chillingly reminiscent of – fluttering in the background.

Loznitsa talked at length before the premiere screening of the difficulty of funding a film that took him three years to produce. European public funders had, he said, argued that there was nothing new to tell about the German aerial Blitz on Britain and the subsequent carpet bombing of German cities by the British and American air forces.

But as he pointed out, the moral question – to what extent is it acceptable to target civilian populations to pursue war aims – is clearly relevant today, as Russian forces literally obliterate Ukrainian cities like Mariupol, where at least 20,000 civilians are estimated to have died. (The latest distressing revelation is the discovery, by Russian forces following the fall of the city’s last Ukrainian defenders, of 200 heavily decomposed corpses of civilians who had been sheltering in the basement of an apartment building flattened by Russian bombing.)

Loznitsa’s film moves on from the scenes of an apparently peaceable German nation to the sound of heavy bombing – the repetitive concussions of high explosives, as aerial footage of a nocturnal raid on a German city unfolds.

The film is entirely composed of archive footage – some of it rarely, if ever, seen in public – such as images of a makeshift German mortuary in a bombed-out building, the mutilated corpses of bomb victims laid out in front of the coffins that await them.

to what extent is it acceptable to target civilian populations to pursue war aims

There is no narration, apart from the occasional speeches made by figures such as British military commander Field Marshall Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery, Adolf Hitler, or Britain’s controversial Royal Air Force chief, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris – who devised Britain’s policy of bombing German cities with no apparent military/strategic value.

Although the film makes some questionable artistic choices – it shows the Allied bombing of German cities such as Berlin, Bremerhaven, and Dresden before depicting the Luftwaffe’s destruction of British cities, including London, Coventry, and Plymouth, as if it was the British that first bombed Germany, rather than the other way round – the appalling images are an uncomfortable reminder that humanity seems to have learned nothing in the 80 years since these archive movies (some in colour) were shot.

For those who wish to be reminded of the horrors of total war from a part of European history, many people before February 24 this year thought was long gone. The Natural History of Destruction is recommended viewing.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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