Sergei Loznitsa, "Mr Landsbergis", still,

“We Have to Distinguish Culture from Propaganda” A Conversation with Sergei Loznitsa

Karol Szafraniec: Mr. Loznitsa, you have been invited as one of the ‘masters’ to this year’s Krakow Film Festival. You were recognised here very early. Your first award was in 1996. 

Sergei Loznitsa: Yes, Bronze Dragon for the short film ‘‘Today we are going to build a house’’.

KS: I would like to begin on a pleasant note and ask you about Krakow and the festival, since you have been awarded here many many times since. What do you think about the festival, how important is it for your life and career?

SL: It’s been 26 years since I came here for the first time. The festival has changed during those years, a lot of people used to come here, now I can see that there are less and less people. I remember the first time very well. My film was shown in Kijów Cinema and the audience was full. Since then I have shown my films here almost every year. Krakow always welcomes my films. I thank the festival for inviting me on such a regular basis. Almost every year I wait to spend the end of spring in this beautiful city. I meet a lot of colleagues. This is why festivals are so important, because we can always meet and discuss different topics. They are doing a great job here.

Sergei Loznitsa, “Mr Landsbergis”, still

KS: You began your adventure with the festival during the 90s. It was a time when documentary festivals were sort of niche. What do you think about the situation where documentary film as a medium is being recognised much more widely than it used to be 30 years ago. 

SL: Festivals were the only opportunity to watch documentary films during the 90s. Some films were shown on TV, but on a very small scale. Now we have many different opportunities – TV, streaming services, websites, depending on what you like. It’s different though, because you watch films alone. You don’t feel the way the audience is receiving the film. I’m a little afraid of that, because I always make films for big screens with a good 5.1 sound and I like to feel the emotions of the viewers. Watching films together triggers immediate discussions afterwards. On the other hand, when you watch films alone or just with very few people, you have very limited possibilities to talk and to listen to what others have to say. In the future, cinemas may be like opera houses – something very special and unique. That’s why festivals are so crucial. They have to keep that possibility of watching films on a big screen. It is so important, because big screens do something special – they make people look like gods. The film characters become bigger than all of us.

KS: Some say it applies mainly to blockbuster movies, but in your opinion even documentaries may benefit from that.

SL: Of course. The picture quality and the composition of the frame are very important things, even in the documentaries that I make. They’re not only pieces of information, they are pieces of art. They catch spectators in their artistic web, they may attract them and then shake them up. Although it is good to have more opportunities to watch films, it is also a shame that we resign from some important qualities that used to be connected with it.

KS: Your career has been very interesting. You were a mathematician before becoming a filmmaker. You began your artistic career as a documentalist. Sometimes you use found footage, sometimes you make more observational things and you also make fictional feature films. But you keep saying that cinema is mainly an audiovisual device to make meanings. Is the process of creating those meanings any different in each type of film you do?

SL: They certainly are similar. The way of working with footage is somewhat different and of course within feature films you can do and show anything. It is the agreement with the spectator, that this is the work of fiction. The blood may not be real, but the emotions are true. Documentaries are always limited by the ethics of what you can show and what you cannot. You need to be careful about it. That is basically the main difference. The rest of the filmmaking process, meaning the way you organise and produce the material, is always dictated by the main idea of the film, which makes all the film types similar. It all becomes fiction from that point of view.

KS: One of the most fascinating things in your body of work is the way you deconstruct the original meaning of the archives. Some say that you use propaganda against itself by de-contextualisation and by juxtaposing images. We are living in a very mediatised world today and propaganda is a strong part of it. Being Ukrainian, you are seen as one of the most prominent representatives of the Ukrainian cause within the artistic world. Since you plan to make a film about the Russian invasion, I wonder what meaning would you like to construct with it?

SL: You say that with my found footage films I tend to deconstruct some meanings and create others, but it’s not quite right. Everything we do has some meaning, but the meaning is not the essential part of that thing, it is not hidden in the film itself. Films don’t show neither true meanings nor true reality, they are just the representation. When starting the film, I only have a general idea, a feeling, so I don’t know what kind of meaning will come out of it. What interests me now are the proceedings of the International Court who started to investigate crimes made by Russian troops (gangs would be a much more proper name) in Ukraine. This is what I would like to follow with my camera, and we will discover what kind of movie it will eventually be. It is a very important topic right now. Films from the battlefield are very obvious and widely understandable. The things connected with the international court case are not that obvious, but crucial. If you remember Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” and some of the questions raised in that film, you can see that they have remained unsolved. All courts have their limitations and crimes have to be investigated. But what after that?

KS: The way this war has been approached internationally is obviously very important. You famously left the European Film Academy, because you found its reaction to the situation too lazy at the time. What do you think about it now? How do people in film, arts and culture in Europe react and has the situation improved somehow?

SL: The actions taken by the European Film Academy after my leaving became unpredictably strong. Suddenly they wanted to ban all Russian films, which also isn’t right. I know there are a lot of Russian film directors who never supported the existing regime in any way. There are those who have always actively fought against it, some don’t even live in Russia anymore. So all the reactions should be more careful. Making simple decisions against all of the culture of one country can be very dangerous. During the Cannes Film Festival I met with the director of the European Film Academy and its president Agnieszka Holland. I made a proposition to organise a conference with film historians, film critics, anthropologists, sociologists and directors from many different sides. We should just listen to what they have to say about situations like the one we are in right now. How should we behave, what should we do? For the moment we are just against everything that is Russian, which is not productive and not enough. It is an emotional reaction, and that’s OK, but we are in the 21st century and we need to move the conversation to another level. We have to rethink the role of culture and analyse why those things keep on happening. Ignoring some parts of culture doesn’t work. Some used to say ‘‘never again’’ to Shakespeare, Mozart and Wagner, now they say that to Tchaikovsky. They presume that Russian culture produces that kind of people. I am pretty sure that most of those soldiers, or criminals, have never truly read any book. They have no real relationship with their culture. I can’t see that connection, because culture is not to blame, it is always against such destructive powers. That’s why I would like to invite people that are more educated than me, to explain to us what culture really means. Some say that culture is guilty by pointing for example to some specific films, like the latest by Kirill Serebrennikov, but that’s not what culture is. Culture is not one or the other film which is just a result of the existence of culture, but the term itself is much broader. It is like the ocean that surrounds us. The way we sit at the table, the way we talk, shake hands, the fact that we respect each other and all other people – this is all part of culture, which is the force that keeps us from being barbaric. By banning the culture of a certain country, we actually propose to destroy all that is good about it and leave its citizens to just some basic instincts. It’s like telling them ‘‘you guys are all barbarians, you need to be kept in a reservation’’.

Sergei Loznitsa, "Mr Landsbergis", still,
Sergei Loznitsa, “Mr Landsbergis”, still,

KS: You yourself have made a film based on Russian prose by adapting Dostoevsky’s ‘‘A Gentle Creature’’ for the screen. Would you do it again today, or would you do it differently after all that has happened?

SL: Of course I would do it again. He is one of the most important writers who raises some of the most important questions ever. And he is just one of many in Russian literature. Gogol also wrote about many things that turn out to be strikingly relevant in the present situation. Keep in mind that Dostoevsky also created a very unpleasant book about Russians called ‘‘Demons’’. Isn’t it exactly what we all may observe right now? Although it was written around 1869, it predicted the future organisations like KGB or Cheka. They consisted of a very specific type of people who have been so aptly described in Dostoevsky’s novel. They have no empathy, they destroy their own society from the inside. It’s the very same dangerous kind of people who took power in Russia. They began during the Soviet Union, but they continue in Russia. Why would we ban this insightful study of their way of thinking? I myself would like to do something connected with “Demons”, though I wouldn’t like to make a straight adaptation, since others have made them already. There is a film by Andrzej Wajda and an interesting variation made by Kurosawa called ‘‘The Bad Sleep Well’’.

KS: Just yesterday, during the Krakow Film Festival, you were invited to be a part of a debate with two very famous Eastern European dissidents: Vytautas Landsbergis – former head of the Lithuanian state, who happens to be the main protagonist of one of your films, and Adam Michnik – Polish intellectual and journalist. They seemed to disagree strongly on the subject of Russian culture and Russian mentality. Adam Michnik gave the impression of being decidedly more optimistic in this regard, while Landsbergis expressed strong scepticism about any chance of repairing Russian society from within.

SL: What we have to do is to distinguish culture from propaganda. Landsbergis was talking not about culture, but about propaganda, which is merely a tool used for brainwashing people in Russia. As you probably know, he is very familiar with Russian culture and very well educated in it. From time to time he easily recalls huge quotations from Russian literature – poetry, prose, intellectual writings, which he remembers well from his youth. We need to consider that he was born in the 30s and will be 90 years old this year. So, when listening to him, we succumb into this universe of a man who throughout his life was very close to certain things, like the Soviet propaganda for example. But he also met a lot of strong personalities who opposed that propaganda. Those were times of huge tensions, evil things were happening, but on the other hand there were also all those wonderful people who wrote books, created poetry, made music, and lived their lives against all that totalitarian idiocy of the Soviet Union. I also remember this time and all the wonderful books I read illegally, that we used to share among people from our movement. You could have been penalised for reading, but nevertheless the culture of writing and reading those books existed. Reading a one-week Bible or example. It could be kept by one person for seven days only. I remember this feeling of learning about the history of the Jewish nation during the night. I was so surprised by the fact that it was forbidden in this country. What a stupid decision it seemed to be. So it was culture that gave us ways to oppose the propaganda.

KS: You seem not to like solutions that are either too easy or too simplified. You are associated with fighting for the Ukrainian cause, but on the other hand your last two films are not afraid to tackle uncomfortable subjects and discuss certain historical taboos. ‘‘Babi Yar. Context’’ tells the story of the massacre of the Jewish population carried out with the complicity of Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in 1941, while ‘‘Natural History of Destruction’’ is also controversial for some people, since it depicts how civilians are victims of many wars on each side of the conflict. Some say it is not a good time for such films, because nowadays one has to stand with the victims of greater evil, so one shouldn’t violate any given taboos, nor sow doubts.

SL: Oh, you know, it’s never a good time for showing films like that. There will always be somebody not agreeing with you. It would be strange or maybe even wrong if everybody agrees with what you do. A Russian Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin once famously said that he was no ‘‘golden coin’’ to be liked by everyone.

KS: What do you think is so interesting in the ‘‘Natural History of Destruction’’- why does touching on the topic of bombing civilians during wartime seems to be relevant for you?

SL: This film is about a very important thing. It is about every situation when military people use civilians and cities as a war target. They use civilians and their homes as tools of warfare. In the film I have used this very well known quotation from admiral Arthur Harris, who was responsible for bombing of German cities during the World War II. He said in 1943: ‘‘There are a lot of people who say that bombing cannot win the war. My reply to that is that it has never been tried… and we shall see’’. That principle has since been used by all the air forces: British, Soviet, Russian, German and American during each and every war. It has become normalised that anyone can bomb any target to win the war. The British started with bombing weapon factories but ended with the city of Dresden. The ongoing development of this basic idea resulted in bombing civilian households in German cities. The film’s title is inspired by the essay ‘‘On the Natural History of Destruction’’ by W. G. Sebald, who writes about how Germans not only accepted the way their civilians have been treated, but also used language that avoids describing the true extent of the tragedy that happened. Similar observations were made by Kurt Vonnegut in his ‘‘Slaughterhouse-Five’’, a book that was partially censored for American schools in the 60s for using improper language. So, even in America it was not the right topic to talk about, nor was it the right time for it. There were also other books that I remember about bombing of Dresden that were forbidden somehow and might have found their way to the readers decades later. Maybe there exist some other in-depth films about that topic, I’m sure Alexander Kluge has done something about that, but it has never been discussed properly. And now we have what we have in Ukraine. The Russian army uses just the same method – to destroy everything. The fact that doing such things is still possible comes as shocking for me and many other people as well. Nothing has changed for the last 80 years. I started to think about this film around 2017 and for three years we were unable to raise funds for it. Paradoxically, one of the organisations that rejected the project was asking me ‘‘what more can we add to the subject, the problem is solved, things like that don’t happen anymore’’.

Sergei Loznitsa, “Mr Landsbergis”, still,

KS: Unfortunately, history proved you right.

SL: And unfortunately we didn’t solve the problem, we just kept avoiding solving it. The situation with ‘‘Babi Yar. Context’’ is very similar. It is about a very important topic. The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police was created to help the German Einsatzgruppen. They participated in executions of Jews in Babi Yar and some other places. This subject must be addressed if we want to speak the truth about the Holocaust in Ukraine. You know, making this film in the 80s was not possible, but the same can be said about the 90s, early 2000s and any other time. The reactions would always be negative. But it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t do it. Speaking out loud the truth about history is the only thing we can do, there is no other way. Otherwise, bad things will repeat again. Some new groups might happen to be the victims next time. At the moment there are only 40,000 Jews in Ukraine, whereas before the war there were around 2 million. 

KS: The two last questions are going to be about Ukraine and present times. The film ‘‘Mr. Landsbergis’’ that was shown this year during the Krakow Film Festival is about leadership. Vytautas Landsbergis was one of the key figures in making Lithuania an independent country. Now we have Zelensky who is fighting for a free Ukraine. Can you compare those leaders? Are there any similarities between those who were fighting against Soviet domination and today’s heroes?

SL: The world has changed – it’s true, but Zelensky does just the same thing that Landsbergis was doing during the 90s. And he is doing a great job. I know him, he is a very good actor, but most importantly he is truly kind and has a very big heart. He unites the whole nation and is representing the Ukrainians around the world. He’s like the face of the country right now. Western politicians wouldn’t have changed their minds about Ukraine if not for Zelensky. This process of change is slow, too slow compared to what we expected, but Zelensky really helps Ukraine a lot.

KS: As you say, Zelensky has really united Ukraine. He is, like Landsbergis, a man of culture. He is also a media personality. Your film ‘‘Donbass’’ was very much about the media, about different narratives and how divided Ukraine was at the time. Now it has become a very united country. Could you pick one factor that has particularly contributed to this wonderful and strong unification?

SL: I think it’s dignity and freedom. That’s what people are fighting for. They don’t want any totalitarian regimes anymore. They want to live the way they want. For people in Ukraine this unification is completely understandable and not surprising at all. Those lies distributed by the Russian propaganda about ‘denazification’ and ‘protecting Russian-speaking citizens’ are complete nonsense and people know that, because they see that Russians are bombarding Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine at the same time. A lot of those who fled from Ukraine are Russian-speaking people, so they know that they are the target and hence they  have become the victims of this aggression. I can’t imagine anybody in Ukraine would support Russians at the moment. We can have different opinions about many things: politics, way of living, history, but now it is a matter of surviving.

About The Author


Freelancer, film scholar, and educator. He curates interdisciplinary events and creates educational programmes related to films for cultural institutions. Interested in cinema, music, games, and art. Author of a podcast series called ‘Audio/Wizualny.’

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