Wednesday 26 May 2021

The death of Stalin: "State Funeral"

The documentary State Funeral opens with newsreel footage of a small crowd of mourners removing a gleaming white coffin from a hearse and, lifting it high onto their collective shoulders, carrying it through to an antechamber in an unidentified building. The coffin is placed - with a bit of wobbling, but otherwise great reverence - onto a dais lined with floral arrangements, before its top is popped to reveal the body of your actual Joseph Stalin: grey-faced, lavishly moustachioed, decked out in full military uniform, but clearly, incontrovertibly dead. The Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa's excavation of Soviet history continues with a film that stitches together long reels of similar footage, recorded across the USSR in the days immediately following Stalin's demise in March 1953. We get 135 minutes of it here, but one senses many more hours remain in the archives, deposited there by chroniclers absolutely convinced this was a Big Historical Moment in the making. We don't just get a monochrome medium shot of the body lying in state, complete with pullback to reveal the fresh-faced soldiers standing guard over their fallen commander; we're also offered a full-colour close-up, in as much as there is colour left in this face to record, and the prologue concludes with an overhead shot - those flowers framing the skull and filling the frame - of which the young Sergei Parajanov, future scourge of the Soviet regime, might well have taken note. The coverage is... well, I'm tempted to say totalitarian.

You may well be drawn here by the historical specifics: the headlines, the state radio broadcasts, the dignitaries flying in from all points on the Communist globe, the small matter of who stood where on the balcony on the day of the funeral itself. But Loznitsa has visibly come this way to point up the batshit excess. There's so much of everything that it eventually becomes exasperating and exhausting, but for a good while, State Funeral is as satirically inclined, and almost as funny, as anything in Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin. In the first few minutes, we watch blank-faced metropolitan peasants and Outer Mongolian horsemen alike being lectured, in mind-numbing detail, about the cause of their leader's death ("the pulse force decreased"). Rows of newspapers in a kiosk lead with the same, committee-approved photo: old Joe with his head tilted defiantly upwards, towards some glorious future. Over in Minsk, meanwhile, the mourners are being schooled in how best to mourn via a PA system: "Impossible to take your eyes off this infinitely dear face. Your eyes are full of tears... you hold your breath, overwhelmed with sorrow." So many wreaths are shown piling up that there had to have been a national shortage of flowers for the best part of the next three decades. Everything else is cancelled, and there can be no escape: to some degree, I was reminded of how the BBC went dutifully all-in on their coverage of the Duke of Edinburgh's death earlier this year, only for even flag-lowering royalists to sneak away come hour seven to watch Gogglebox on the other side. (The issue there was a story that couldn't develop beyond the initial interruption of scheduled programming; as a friend pointed out at the time, it would only have merited rolling news coverage if Prince Phil had somehow come back to life.)

The modest group of pallbearers in that opening anecdote are but a taste of what follows. This is a film of crowds and queues, uniformly attired in hats and black overcoats. They commune, somewhat aimlessly, in public spaces as the news first filters through; they're corralled into workshops to hear teary speeches from people who never met the deceased about the greatness of the state Stalin singlehandedly brought into being; they line up around the block - around several blocks, in fact - to pay their respects to the dead. It is the dictionary definition of a good turnout, and yet you start to wonder whether all this footage was compiled so as to count every mourner out and then back in again; you dread to think what happened to anyone who elected to stay at home on the big day, or forgot to hang a commemorative tchotchke on the front of their yurt. (A few stark lines of text ahead of the closing credits offer a clearer idea.) This is entirely Loznitsa's point, but long before the exclusive first play of a Joseph Stalin tribute single (lyrics: "sleep my beloved, my dear little birdie"), it's all a bit much. Even switching between colour and black-and-white and widening focus to cover the funeral itself (bigger crowds! Extra pomp! Ultimate ceremony!), the onscreen shuffling becomes as repetitious as the Funeral March. Still, State Funeral proves effective in passing, never more so than in those ever-uncanny moments when one of these ghosts of the past - the majority dead themselves for many years - lifts their head and locks eyes with the camera, forging a direct connection between then and now Loznitsa seems expressly keen to foster. What were they thinking? Were they even thinking, or were they just playing along with the political theatre of that moment? Are these not the choices we also face, nearly 70 years on?

State Funeral screens tonight at London's Ciné Lumière, and is available to stream via MUBI.

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