“At 21.50, due to cardiovascular and respiratory failure, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin died,” intones an announcer. A woman takes off her hat, on the verge of tears. A handsome youth in a military uniform stares stoically at his feet. One middle-aged man glances self-consciously at the camera, as if to check it is still watching him, before looking down again. Again and again, our focus is drawn to faces in the crowds all across the Soviet Union. Not all are reverent. Some people shuffle, chat, chew, smoke, even half-smile.
The broadcasters’ praise for Stalin becomes ever more ludicrous: “We knew he was the best on our planet … It’s impossible to take your eyes off this infinitely dear face. Your eyes are full of tears, you hold your breath, you are overwhelmed with sorrow shared by millions, hundreds of millions of people.”
But is that right? As the focus keeps returning to individuals, the film asks us to consider how each of them really felt.
Screening on Mubi and showing in selected UK cinemas from 21 May, State Funeral is an extraordinary documentary constructed by the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa from largely unseen footage of Stalin’s funeral in March 1953. It was supposed to be a very different film. The footage was shot for an official production entitled The Great Farewell. It was meant to glorify Stalinism, not to highlight the individuality of those who lived under it.
Yet the subject proved awkward at a time when the leading figures in the footage were locked in a power struggle. Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s deputy, is seen here side by side with Soviet leaders who would have him arrested a few months later. Beria was executed with a bullet to the head in December 1953. Nikita Khrushchev, who emerged as the leader, embarked on a programme of “de-Stalinisation”. The Great Farewell was canned and would not be seen until after the fall of the Soviet Union, in December 1991.
To create a new version with a distinctly critical slant, Loznitsa went to the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk, just outside Moscow. How did he gain access to the raw footage, which was considered so sensitive for so long? “It was very simple,” he says. “I just asked the director of the archive and they were very open. It’s amazing that this idea hadn’t occurred to anyone before.”
The archive had 40 hours of footage, in colour and black and white. There was also 24 hours of original radio broadcasts, plus recordings of the eulogies. Lithuanian postproduction and image-restoration experts cleaned up the old footage, returning it to a brilliant sharpness. The sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskiy pieced together a soundtrack mixing archive recordings with new sound work, giving the often silent images a sense of life. The effect is startling. State Funeral feels unsettlingly fresh.
There will be a familiarity to this material for audiences who saw Armando Iannucci’s dark satire The Death of Stalin (2017). Loznitsa loved that film: “As a genre piece, it’s great, it’s wonderful,” he says. “Iannucci’s film is a translation of a historical event into contemporary language.” That comedy and this documentary would make a fascinating, if macabre, double bill. Despite their obvious differences, they share a theme: the relentless terror and irrationality of totalitarianism – and how people function around it.
From the beginning, Stalin cultivated his own image and myth. He built a quasi-religious cult around Lenin, who had died in 1924, that probably would have horrified Lenin and certainly horrified many of his fellow Communists. “It’s very surprising that the Soviet Union has always been regarded as an atheist society,” says Loznitsa.
At first, official imagery depicted Lenin as Stalin’s teacher. In the early 30s, the iconography shifted, so that the two were shown as equals. By 1935, Stalin was the star, with Lenin relegated to the background. Stalin obsessively controlled images of himself: he was sensitive about the smallpox scars on his face, his short left arm and his diminutive stature. He preferred portraits where he was shown embracing children, reinforcing his image as a loving father to the Soviet Union. (In reality, he was a terrible father, abandoning some of his children and making the rest miserable. When his son Yakov survived a suicide attempt, Stalin is said to have responded: “He can’t even shoot straight.”)
In State Funeral, though, we glimpse just how widespread and effective this propaganda was. While Loznitsa has selected snippets of footage in which mourners smirk, chat or look bored, there is plenty of convincing grief here, too. Eyes are downcast; shoulders slumped. Many weep as if they really have lost a beloved father. Did they genuinely love him? Or did they feel they had to be seen to love him?
Inevitably, much is left out. We do not see events in Trubnaya Square, Moscow, after Stalin’s death was announced. A bottleneck formed as people crowded on their way to see the leader lying in state. In the resulting crush, at least 109 people were killed; unofficial estimates suggested many more died. “Documentary film-makers, especially those of us who work with archive footage, always find ourselves in a difficult situation, because we can only show the things that were actually shot,” says Loznitsa. “If we think of all the victims of the regime, the stampede was yet another tragic element of this enormous tragedy that occurred.” There may be footage of Trubnaya Square, he says: “Perhaps it is still classified in some secret KGB archive. We tried, but we couldn’t find it.”
Loznitsa’s film has no narration or captioning (apart from the English subtitles). A title card at the end acknowledges the millions murdered and persecuted under Stalin’s rule. After all that has gone before, the words in red on black have a tremendous impact – but there is an ambiguity that is open to criticism. “What is lost in the balance, of course, is context,” wrote Masha Gessen in the New Yorker. “Ordinary viewers, whether American or Russian, often won’t know what they’re seeing.” If you do know what you are seeing and not seeing, there is an incredibly sinister slant to all of this – and the fact it is not didactic perhaps makes it even more powerful.
The film was released in Russia just before the pandemic hit. The reaction from audiences was divided into two types, Loznitsa says: “There are people who say how terrible, how awful – the whole spectacle is so awful. Another reaction is: ‘What a great person Stalin was!’ Some people see it as a great film about a great leader. As for this intertitle [title card] at the end that states otherwise, they say: ‘Never mind, we can just ignore this text: the film-maker didn’t know what he was doing.’”
In the context of modern Russia, Loznitsa’s film is provocative. “Perhaps at this point it doesn’t really matter that much which particular name is placed on top of the pyramid,” Loznitsa says, referring to Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, Moscow – a tomb Stalin shared from 1953 until 1961 and in which his body is interred with great ceremony at the end of this film. “The ideology is still there. The system is still there.”
There may be many ways to watch this footage. For anyone interested in the Soviet Union or totalitarianism generally, though, State Funeral is unmissable.
Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann (Headline, £20), which includes a chapter on Stalin, is published on 8 July. To support the Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.