Babi Yar. Context, 2021.
Directed by Sergei Loznitsa.
Nazi troops massacre more than 30,000 Jews over a two-day period in September 1941.
Given that the world is typically used to seeing aggressively narrative-driven depictions of the Holocaust – whether cinematic feature or documentary – Sergei Loznitsa’s (Donbass) new doc Babi Yar. Context may seem rather languorous by comparison, even if its strength as a vitally important historical document ultimately overcomes its slightly stodgy format.
Loznitsa’s film covers the lead up to and fallout of the Babi Yar massacre, where in the titular Ukrainian ravine 33,771 Jews were shot to death by Nazi forces over the course of two days in September 1941. Though no footage of the massacre itself exists – somewhat thankfully so, historical value aside – Loznitsa forms a compelling narrative around the event by focusing on the Nazis’ invasion of Ukraine, the Soviets’ later retaking of the country, and the Nazi trials that followed.
The two hours of archive footage, presented in rough chronological order, fleets between the cities of Lviv (aka Lemberg) and Kiev to demonstrate the country’s changing landscape, both literally and spiritually, caused by the war.
The opening segment of the film alone, depicting the German invasion of Soviet territory in 1941, contains enough horrors to fill an entire feature; an opening shot of Lviv being thunderously shellacked to bits, citizens bringing flowers to a Nazi motorcade, the snake-like sea of Jewish prisoners marching along, dead bodies being swarmed by flies, and homes being set aflame while Nazi soldiers jovially drink from bottles in the foreground.
This is joltingly contrasted with the as-yet-uninvaded Kiev, where life appears to largely be going on normally, at least for a short while, until it too is a levelled hellscape of bombed-out vehicles. Sights of Ukrainian women “collecting” their husbands from prisoners-of-war camps, local citizens scrambling to grab Nazi flags, and glimpses of propaganda posters featuring “Hitler, The Liberator” are absolutely chilling.
Due to explosions going off in the center of Kiev, the Germans enact their plan to extinguish the city’s entire Jewish population, as forms the titular massacre. Again, no footage of the event itself was ever recorded, but Loznitsa mines enormous power from the masses of abandoned clothing, a propaganda newspaper piece that refers to the Jews as “oriental barbarians,” and the benign horror of a Kiev parade that took place mere weeks later.
This all couldn’t be juxtaposed more sharply with visages of Nazi signage being torn down when we joltingly skip forward to November 1943, where Soviet troops have retaken Kiev. Yet no sight the film shows us proves more jaw-dropping than the testament from those few who survived the massacre.
One Jewish woman was forced to feign death for eight hours while the massacre continued around her, while actress Dina Pronicheva devastatingly details that she was left for dead and buried alive by the Nazis before narrowly finding her escape.
On the flip-side, we also hear from SS member Hans Isenmann, who details with a methodical detachment how he executed 120 people during the massacre. This leads, inevitably, to the public hangings of those deemed responsible, before Loznitsa concludes on powerful imagery of the ravine being filled in with industrial waste, quite literally wiping all evidence of the lives lost off the face of the Earth.
Per its title, this film is all about the context of the massacre, both pre and post, rather than strictly the massacre itself, the footage presented here with extensive intertitles and, at one point, a deeply moving essay from Vasily Grossman, “Ukraine without Jews.” Diegetic “dialogue” is decidedly more infrequent, though; long stretches of the footage unfold without anyone speaking, beyond distant mutterings largely left un-translated.
The fact that this footage exists at all is itself miraculous and a reason to watch Babi Yar. Context – especially being so lovingly restored as it has been – where the simple, haunting power of a thousand-yard stare into the camera lens can say so much. In an appropriate example of Soviet montage itself, Loznitsa and his editorial team frequently cross-cut starkly between cities and time periods to powerful effect.
Due to the condition of the footage, the overwhelming majority of the film’s soundscape was created from scratch by sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskiy, save for the sporadic public speeches of which there were other recordings. It’s an impressive feat, if also one which sometimes threatens to become a distracting embellishment.
The foley mix, particularly of motorcycles, raging fires, and clapping audiences, often feels overly active, clean, and obviously post-produced. It might’ve made sense to actually dirty-up the sound a little to make it blend more seamlessly with the video.
At two sober, unhurried two hours, its fair to say that the more powerful imagery may have its impact somewhat blunted by the more elongated passages, such that viewers couldn’t be blamed for allowing their attention to drift at times. It is an exhausting sit any way you slice it, but a more disciplined edit may have opened the pic’s accessibility up beyond history buffs.
An invaluable, horrifying visual testament to one of World War II’s most heinous massacres, Babi Yar. Context offsets its dry presentation through the sheer gaze-fixing power of its stunning archive materials.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.