Sergei Loznitsa’s most recent film contrasts the sombre with the celebratory at the yearly pro-Russia gathering on Victory Day at the Soviet Memorial in Berlin.
Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy) is a precise observation of the pro-Russian gathering at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin on the 9th of May. Like in his previous documentary Austerlitz (2016), the acclaimed Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa questions the use of historic places. In Austerlitz, Nazi concentration camps are consumed by tourists, whereas Victory Day demonstrates how the celebration in Treptower Park becomes a tool in the hands of the Russian government to promote its official narrative about World War II in order to raise patriotism.
Soviet Nostalgia and National Pride
In the 90s the Victory Day on the 9th of May was celebrated more silently. But after Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia, the government started promoting this holiday to cultivate national pride. Nowadays huge crowds gather to celebrate all over the former Soviet countries and other places with a large Russian-speaking diaspora. Berlin, where the last great battle of World War II took place, represents the end of the war. People from many places across the ex-Soviet Union have come here to celebrate victory 72 years after the bloody fighting.
Ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin once said, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” This Soviet nostalgia is clearly visible in Treptower Park as well–people arrive bearing the red Soviet flags. Some visitors still live in the past: a woman in the film says, “We belong together, we are all Soviets.” A song is played, “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, this is my country. Kazakhstan and Caucasus and Baltics as well. I was born in Soviet Union.” These words sound like a terrifying nightmare to most western Ukrainians and people in the three Baltic States. Probably the other countries mentioned also wouldn’t be happy to lose their sovereignty again. Present among the visitors at the Treptower Memorial are obviously many radicals who support separatists in Eastern Ukraine, openly admire Joseph Stalin and in their speeches refer to present-day Germany as fascistic.
«These young men certainly didn’t agree to die and become a propaganda tool for a political regime of which they could never have been aware.»
The Ukrainian director uses a fixed camera and long takes to patiently depict this party with lots of singing, dancing, public speeches and flamboyant visitors. Some are dressed in uniforms decorated with medals; others wear Putin t-shirts or traditional costumes. Red and orange colours are strongly present due to the attributes the visitors have taken along–most of which carry ideologically charged messages. A lot of people have brought red carnations, which in the Russian-speaking world symbolize the proletarian revolution. Also Georgian ribbons are widely worn. This controversial Russian military symbol became popular in 2005 and nowadays expresses a public support to Russian government. However, in Ukraine it is banned because of its association with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the annexation of Crimea and the Donbass separatist movements.
The Dead Can’t Speak
Details from the Soviet Memorial serve as a silent contrast to the extravagant crowd. We see dead bodies, crying women, children, soldiers, airplanes, horrors of war and signs of victory. Another tool the director employs to give contrast to the loud party is quiet off-screen music, which sounds much more nostalgic and serious than the famous Katyushka and other war songs sung by the Victory Day celebrators.
«Questions about memory, manipulation, ethics, correlation of the past with the present and the remembrance of victims stay with the viewer long after the final credits of the film.»
It’s important to understand that the impressive Treptower Park memorial, built to honour around 80,000 soldiers of the Red Army that were killed in the battle for Berlin, is also a military cemetery with more than 7,000 graves. In Loznitsa’s film, it’s made obvious that the dead soldiers are instrumentalized by the current Russian government. Once their bodies were used for war and now they are reused for achieving certain political goals. These young men certainly didn’t agree to die and become a propaganda tool for a political regime of which they could never have been aware.
In the Soviet Union there was an idiom useful idiot. The label was used by communists and the KGB to describe people in the West that they had successfully manipulated and cynically misused for Soviet propaganda or other purposes. Have the dead soldiers also become such useful idiots? Or perhaps the useful idiots are the ones celebrating today?
Victory Day, an outwardly simple observation of one event, turns into a philosophical study covering many layers. It’s hard to meet a German who would regret the defeat of Hitler. The loss of the war helped the country to critically re-evaluate its history and opened space for debate about humanism and democracy. In Russian-speaking society the opposite has happened–there is a lack of discussion about the horrors of the Stalin regime, which in a milder form continued even after his death and shadowed all of the Soviet era. These and miscellaneous other questions about memory, manipulation, ethics, correlation of the past with the present and the remembrance of victims stay with the viewer long after the final credits of the film.