The Reeler


March 14, 2007

Scenes From the Siege

A pair of documentaries at Film Forum unearth haunting, surreal images of WWII

In the bleak midwinter: Another day in Leningrad from Sergei Loznitsa's silent documentary Blockade (Photo: First Run/Icarus Films)

At the start of Sergei Loznitsa's documentary Blockade, young men and women in the early 1940s march zeppelins along the streets of Leningrad, almost as if they were lining up floats for a parade. It looks like it's summertime, and the blimps strain against their leashes like zoo animals or outsize thought bubbles. Then the cadets let go of the ropes and a zeppelin floats up, slow and graceful, into an overexposed sky. Could this slightly surreal scene have occurred during the Siege of Leningrad, when German troops surrounded the city for nearly two-and-a-half years between September, 1941, and January, 1944, and an estimated 600,000 Leningraders died from cold and hunger?

Made up entirely of silent footage filmed during the Siege, Blockade (opening with its companion piece Amateur Photographer today at Film Forum) is both a wrenching historical document and an astonishingly elegant documentary. Aside from a terse coda at the end of the film explaining the fate of several German prisoners who bookend the rest of the action, the film eschews a strict plotline, commentary or even distinct voices, forcing you to look, really look, at its harrowing scenes. Vladimir Golovnitsky's intricate soundtrack of incidental noise -- a collage of footfalls, distant shouts, the shushing of sleds on ice -- revivifies the action without imposing false moods. And the image quality is surprisingly lush: Watching Blockade may be the definition of a guilty pleasure. After all, for fifty-two minutes you are confronted with images of citydwellers on the edge of starvation, yet each painful scene is acutely and patiently, almost lovingly observed (presumably the cameramen were state workers assigned to document the siege; Loznitsa found all the footage in Moscow's archives).

Images turn out to be slippery things. During the course of the film, Leningraders ladle meltwater from fissures in ice coating the streets; they put out fires; they wrench wooden boards (presumably for fuel) from a stadium dominated by a poster of Stalin; they stump along snowbound boulevards, picking their way around abandoned corpses, pulling sleds that hold buckets of provisions, or bulging parcels or tightly-wrapped bodies. Several nightmarish shots of the dead (and their weeping relatives) punctuate an otherwise sedate record of survival. One even gets the feeling that Leningrad was a hive of subdued activity during the Siege: the streets (at least the ones that were filmed) appear well-trodden and people courteously help each other clamber over cottage-sized drifts of snow. You want to ask where they are all going. Why is that woman smiling into the camera? At one point a wonderfully expressive statue of a human figure and a rearing horse is rolled, with great care and excruciating slowness, off its pedestal. Why? That Blockade withholds the answers to these questions becomes central to the film's melancholy and its record of loss.

Since its earliest days, silent film has been called a medium of ghosts: The black-and-white figures flickering across the screen appear especially disembodied because they've lost their voices. But Blockade gives new meaning to that silent-film metaphor. In this footage, which is brilliantly edited to make the most of its visual lyricism, the victims of the Siege are literally reduced to phantoms before our eyes. Their faces are sharply distinct, yet they remain anonymous; it seems appropriate that they should inhabit a city that can look ravishing as it chokes. Preserved this way, the citizens of Leningrad remind me of W.B. Yeats' poem about the massacre of Irish patriots in 1916: they are "All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born." Can it be that Leningrad's eerie loveliness in this film is not apprehended despite the city's slow destruction but rather because of it? At one point a cloud of loose papers floats from a burning building's gutted ribcage, fluttering to earth like a ticker-tape parade. Loznitsa seems to have a question of his own: How much can images tell us about suffering?

German private Gerhard M. whose WWII photo album is featured in Amateur Photographer (Photo: Granat Film Studio and First Run/Icarus Films)

Moreover, how much can images reveal about those who inflict suffering? That is the question at the heart of Amateur Photographer, a documentary directed by Irina Gedrovich and based on the photographs and notebooks of Private Gerhard M., a Nazi soldier on the Eastern Front. Like Blockade, this 26-minute film mostly avoids embellishing the archival material it uses: viewers see only the mediocre products of M.'s camera, and we hear no voice but his own speaking through the matter-of-fact notes in his journal. Unfortunately, Gedrovich ironizes the historical record with a stylish soundtrack of German cabaret tunes: The first voice we hear is not M.'s but Marlene Dietrich's singing "Lily Marlene." The songs, of course, underline the Nazis' casual cruelty, but underlining of any kind seems gratuitous here. The film is marred by technical missteps as well: for instance, the camera often tracks across M.'s photographs too quickly, not producing a tense, dynamic effect so much as unsticking the viewer's eye from the screen. Given Gedrovich's heavy-handed approach to the material, it's not clear that she recognizes the subtle conflict between the photographs and journal entries she manipulates. Yet their ambivalent dialogue is audible, or visible, throughout the film.

And M.'s life makes a riveting story. Born in 1919 and trained as an engineer, he was drafted in 1940 and assigned to a company "carrying out restrictive and retaliatory measures in captured zones." Evidently a true believer in the Nazi cause, M.'s tale includes an extraordinary final twist I won't spoil here. Most of his photographs record the banal daily life of his unit -- marching in formation; preparing meals with food taken from Russian civilians; burying comrades; simply posing for the camera. Then there are pictures of the Nazis' victims. In one of those, a man stands in a field stripped to the waist, facing away from the camera with a soldier aiming a rifle at his back. The photograph itself is neutral, and it's even possible to imagine a glimmer of sympathy toward the soon-to-be-expunged man in M.'s impulse to preserve him on film. But M.'s notebook revises the picture's meaning: He was proud, he writes, to have gotten a shot of the Soviet partisan about to be executed.

Amateur Photographer generally follows that pattern of visual ambiguity shattered by painfully explicit captions. Its approach complements that of Blockade, whose power comes from its reticence and beauty. By comparison, M.'s photographs are dreary to look at, often out of focus and carelessly framed. But they show us victims whose faces and poses we are grateful to witness intact, while his flat, affectless voice puts the photographer's intentions into chilling focus. We see an old man hefting a load across his shoulders; at the same time we are told that M.'s unit found "a small Jew" with two oven pipes around his neck but no papers, who is "lying now with a hole in his head, and the oven pipes are in our room. Hopefully it will be warmer now." Such words are almost too monstrous to comprehend in the ordinary darkness of a movie theater, but one is grateful for their candor -- they prove that visuals can go only so far in documenting the reality of war.

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