By David D’Arcy
Donbass is a powerfully gritty portrayal of brutal aggression by people who felt empowered, with Russian support, to rob, torment and kill their neighbors.
Donbass, written and directed by Sergei Loznitsa, which premiered in 2018, looks back at the 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine by troops who supported and were supported by Russia. They were the “little green men”, as Ukrainians loyal to kyiv called them, fighters who claimed to establish a new regime, Novorossiya or New Russia. So much for the liberation of Ukraine “from the Nazis”.
The film’s 13 dramatic scenes are violent, tragic, harrowing and comical – often all at once – as vulnerable civilians take cover from armed men who rob and shoot. Comedic, that is, if you laugh at how gunmen can commit war crimes without a shred of conscience.
This ongoing war in eastern Ukraine has never ended. And, because the Russian bet to take over the whole country in a week or two collapsed, or at least stalled, in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the fighting in the Donbass region (also written ” Donbas”) are sure to intensify. The bloody clashes you can see on TV today already look much worse than what is in the two-hour Loznitsa film.
Donbass is a scripted drama, atypical of Loznitsa, which has made a name for itself with memorable documentaries built around archival footage of historical events – the Nazi siege of Leningrad in Blockade (2006), the massive and deadly wave-like clashes between protesters and pro-Putin police in Kyiv in Maidan (2014), gleeful herd tourism at Nazi death camp sites in Austerlitz (2016), Moscow show essays in The trial (2018), and a look at the Nazi massacre of 33,771 Jewish men, women and children over a two-day period in a ravine in present-day kyiv, Bab Yar. The context (2021). Tall, slender, straight-faced, Loznitsa speaks no English, but he has become a critical favorite at major festivals. Yet, although his films regularly premiered at Cannes and racked up awards, they failed to reach large audiences.
This could change with Donbass, a gritty depiction of brutal aggression by people who felt empowered, thanks to Russian support, to rob, torment and kill neighbors.
Ukraine is a place Loznitsa knows well. Watch his nuanced mastery of conventional drama in Donbass yet again last week (I first saw the film in 2018) was a revelation, with performances veering into the grotesque that still feel uncomfortably real. The story opens in a hospital that lacks supplies and medicine. An important official gets out of his Mercedes to tell the shocked and overworked staff that everything is fine and the supplies they are missing are plentiful, daring the exhausted workers to contradict him. Franz Kafka meets Gogol.
In another extended scene, similar to those we now see in TV news, the camera winds through basement bomb shelters that stretch from room to crowded room, crammed with frightened and exhausted civilians sleeping wherever they can. A luxuriously dressed and hair-dressed young woman unofficially bursts in. She finds an aging babushka (grandmother) who appears to be her mother. The girl then tries to drag the old woman into a nicer place to live. The mother will not move. The girl storms back to an office of the new Russian government, where “officials” who have fought their way to power are now giving orders with impunity. Babushka, however, will not cooperate.
Loznitsa knows how to pass off impunity for what it is. In another memorable scene, a man finds his car parked outside the local government office. He informs the unknown driver, who has just parked it there, that he (the owner) expects him to pick it up. Driven inside, the car’s owner meets another “official” who tells him that the new government needs the vehicle. And, “by the way”, notes the “official”, seizing the man’s papers, what about 150,000 euros? The man moves into another room, where a dozen desperate men like him are on their cell phones, pacing in a fatalistic rhythm as they plead for money to buy their release. The extortion choreography of the scene is exquisite.
It’s getting worse. A huge uniformed soldier who acts like a sergeant comes around a street corner with a bald, scarred prisoner draped in a Ukrainian flag. He ties his captive to a stake or a small tree. Young men appear and mock the prisoner, spit on him and beat him. More people arrive, cursing and beating the prisoner, calling him a fascist, the umbrella term, then and now, for anyone opposed to the Russian invasion. The image of a bound, mocked and whipped Christ will not be lost on anyone. The scene does not end with a lynching. (Sorry for the spoiler.) Sergeant is experienced enough to know that whipping up your followers’ frenzy inevitably loses momentum once the victim is reduced to a corpse. After all, a living prisoner may be subjected to more public beatings down the road. And those beatings will help solidify the base, as the saying goes.
The point is clear: the Donbass war is an invasion that enabled (and still empowers) ordinary people to act brutally. Eventually, Loznitsa moves away from the tactile violence, pulling the camera back for a Brechtian glimpse of her shooting the drama. The danger here is that we might dismiss what we’ve seen – so it’s just a movie? But at this point, the anger and violence are hard to forget. Another unforgettably awkward dance of tactility: a vodka-bogged wedding — even by the region’s extreme standards — where a bride and her bridal party can barely speak.
In the cinema today Donbass presents a puzzle. If the film had been revived six months ago, it would have shown us – at least those who had ignored the barbaric Russian aggression in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Crimea – what to expect from Putin. Yet it was the recent invasion that brought Donbass put back into circulation, recalling that the war launched by Russia in 2014 in Ukraine has never ended.
It is impossible to watch Donbass without weighing its horrors with those of today’s war. Loznitsa focuses on mundane brutality – low-level horrors compared to today’s superpower invasion. The film now stands as a first chapter, a taste of the terror that never ceased in eastern Ukraine, as well as a promise (now with evidence) of further atrocities. For better or worse, Loznitsa is well placed to film its own sequel.
Bab Yar. The context, also currently playing in cinemas, reminds us that kyiv was the site of the worst massacre of Jews by the Nazis. Loznitsa surveys the landscape in archival footage – much of it filmed by Germans – of the scorched-earth campaign throughout Ukraine’s countryside, the Nazi capture of kyiv and explosions (allegedly sabotage Soviet) that were used to justify the rounding up of Jews on September 29 and 30, 1941. The victims were ordered to bring their valuables; failure to appear was punishable by death.
We see Ukrainians greeting Nazi troops with flowers and fascist salutes, all part of what Loznitsa sees as Ukrainian complicity in the atrocities that followed. Official Soviet policy was to mourn the victims as Soviet dead, not noting that the majority of the 33,771 killed at Babi Yar were Jews.
There’s always a hole in the center of Loznitsa’s film, which can make the wide-ranging documentary more numbing than compelling. His approach privileges the context to the facts of the massacre. Maybe Loznitsa thinks these facts are pretty well known, but talking to anyone about Babi Yar will make you wonder. Masha Gessen, in a recent article in the New Yorker, discusses the 1941 killings and notes the grim evolution of the Babi Yar site. What was dedicated as a memorial to the dead is now cluttered with freestanding structures – as well as waste dumps from an adjacent brick-making factory. In recent interviews, Loznitsa recalled walking the site of the massacre as a child and highlighted Ukrainian complicity in the persecution of Jews, for which he was attacked. Yet the footage from World War II looks eerily contemporary – the scenes of destruction look like they happened yesterday.
Editor’s note: The 2022 Cannes Film Festival will host a screening of Loznitsa’s latest film, On the natural history of destruction. The film is inspired by WG Sebald’s book of the same name, a short collection of essays about the devastating Allied bombings of Germany during World War II and the failures of German culture and literature to address this experience.
Cannes 2022 will show a Russian film in its main competition, Tchaikovsky’s wife by Kirill Serebrennikov, who settled in Paris. Loznitsa left the European Film Academy in February, citing the body’s poor reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.