- Blockade (2006)
When Nazi bombs incinerated Leningrad’s central food depot in 1941, rivers of molten sugar and chocolate seeped into the site, and profiteers rushed in. Warehouse dirt, used to make siege “candy” or “custard,” sold for 100 rubles a glass. That first winter the emaciated denizens also ate sawdust and glue pancakes, rancid machine oil cakes, and buttons boiled into soup. Of an estimated three million inhabitants, only one million survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad (from August 1941 to January 1944).
Documentary footage of the siege is scattered in archives throughout Russia, such as the St. Petersburg Documentary Film Archives, the source of Sergei Loznitsa’s 50-minute montage, Blockade, his eighth documentary. Loznitsa, 43, who was born in Belarus and emigrated to Germany in 2001, made his directorial debut with Today We’ll Build a House (1997).
Blockade—like all Loznitsa’s films—eschews voiceover, which Loznitsa feels burdens the spectator with the director’s viewpoint. Blockade, however, is not silent: Loznitsa has composed an eerie, minimalist street symphony by synchronizing silent archival footage with the sounds of clanging streetcars, air raid sirens, hissing fire hoses, falling rubble, crackling embers, children’s voices, and endless variations on snow and ice—scraping, trudging, crunching. This soundscape, which includes archival recordings and a recent market day in Minsk, is a technical marvel.
The synchronization of heterogeneous sounds and images in Blockade is so precise and natural it defies detection—and raises a question about documenting and editing history: how much license does a director have? Loznitsa—once a translator of Japanese—likens chronicling history to the multi-perspectivism in Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short story “In a Grove” (1922), which Akira Kurosawa filmed in Rashomon (1950). In a recent interview (published in Russian), Loznitsa elaborates:
Four men experience one event and each has his own image of the event. It does not mean that we cannot determine what happened. But this process has its own complexity. It is, so to speak, “non linear.” We deal not only with one but several dimensions. And obviously every description of events presented by historians is a version of the past with varying degrees of proximity…Whether the author is tempted to create his own inner history or not, he creates it, regardless, and puts the mosaic together in that way.
In other words, in making Blockade, Loznitsa cut, edited, and added a soundtrack to archival footage to open history to new interpretive possibilities and deeper comprehension. But none of this philosophizing would matter if Loznitsa’s montage were not compelling.
The scenes in Blockade are riveting, portraying Leningrad—in broken chronology—as an organism in various states of crisis and recovery: in flames, torn and broken by an invisible and relentless enemy; or wounded, but patched up and showing signs of gestation. The opening sequence is surreal, reminiscent of an early Dadaist film. Dirigibles are everywhere, grounded in fields like beached whales, hauled along streets, levitating across the Hermitage and the city’s roof tops.
Blockade is divided into some two dozen self-contained episodes; chronologically discontinuous, each ends in a fade-out. The second and last episodes provide narrative closure: we see a company of German prisoners, heads shaved, being paraded through the city by goose-stepping, baby-faced sentinels. The crowd of onlookers grows. Children shake their tiny fists. An agitated woman, dressed out of Paris Vogue, spews insults, hurls something, and spits on a prisoner. A jump cut moves the prisoners from the main square to a leafy suburban road before the grainy footage [End Page 70] fades to black. Twenty episodes and 40 minutes later, four flat-bed trucks stop under a large wooden trestle in the center of the square where thousands have converged. The trucks pull away and eight German prisoners, arms bound in back, dangle from nooses. Loznitsa lifted this last episode from The People’s Verdict, a 1946 documentary whose closing shot states, “The sentence against German soldiers accused of war crimes was carried out on January 5, 1946...