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IDFA 2021

Review: Babi Yar. Context

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- There are no words to describe the massacre that took place in 1941 just outside Kiev, and Sergei Loznitsa is not even trying to find them

Review: Babi Yar. Context

After its win at Cannes, Babi Yar. Context [+see also:
trailer
interview: Sergei Loznitsa
film profile
]
recently earned its prolific helmer, Sergei Loznitsa, a Special Mention for Best Creative Use of Archive at IDFA (see the news – his other 2021 release, Mr. Landsbergis [+see also:
film review
film profile
]
, was crowned as Best Film at the same festival). His affection for such footage is already well established, and yet once again, he manages to prove that these images, especially without any explanatory narration that could make one immediately start considering taking a nap, can hit hard.

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At times, it really does feel like the events that took place in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in 1941 are happening live. Loznitsa wastes no time in establishing the immediate danger, starting with explosions laying waste to people’s homes. His film, dedicated to the massacre that claimed the lives of thousands of people – 33,771, it’s reported here – does get explicit quite quickly. There are so many motionless corpses pictured, flies crawling on their faces, some barely resembling human bodies any more. It’s all there for the people to see, and they do. But the key to the film seems to lie not in its depictions of violence, but rather in one short sentence, stating that the horrific tragedy took place “without any resistance from the local population”.

Knowing how widespread antisemitism was in Europe at that time, or still is, some claim, it’s really not that surprising. But it happened so close, and there were so many people. The massacre itself doesn’t get a filmed treatment; it’s more about the before and after, the piles of clothes and abandoned belongings, just like in Auschwitz, or someone’s artificial leg suddenly deprived of its owner. It's good that Loznitsa doesn’t care much for words – when faced with such images, what good would they do, anyway? “One cannot explain it with words; it cannot be told,” repeats one of the witnesses later, during a trial “for the atrocities committed by fascist invaders”. Somehow ironically, perhaps, as these are the moments when words actually do make it into this mostly mute story and dilute its power a little.

“Murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women faithful to their husbands; murdered are women who are frivolous,” wrote Vasily Grossman in Ukraine without Jews in 1943, also quoted here, stating, “This is the murder of memories, sad songs, epic tales of good and bad times.”

There are scenes here that are genuinely upsetting, at one point scored to a sound that feels like a constant, animal-like lament. Others just show that conflicts like these come and go, and then come again, with the officials always getting their flowers from smiling children and the locals watching yet another parade, celebrating the fact they have survived and maybe will live long enough to welcome another general, and bring him more flowers. First, they put up posters of “Hitler the Liberator”. Then they rip them down, piece by piece. Co-edited by the director, his regular collaborator Danielius Kokanauskis and Polish director Tomasz Wolski, recently celebrated for 1970 [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Tomasz Wolski
film profile
]
, Babi Yar. Context shows the circle of war that just keeps on rolling and might never stop.

“We didn’t know,” was a sentence uttered often after the war. It wasn’t us; it was them: the “fascist dogs”, the Soviet troops. But it just doesn’t work this time around. People knew; they just didn’t care or decided not to react, too afraid or, understandably, putting themselves first. Or, and this is the most nauseating thought, they were actually glad that someone else took care of the problem. After reading an old excerpt from a paper, calling 29 September “a great day for the city of Kiev”, now “liberated from oriental barbarians” and finally able to breathe freely, one goes from “how could it happen” to “we are lucky it doesn’t happen more often”.

Babi Yar. Context was produced by Dutch outfit Atoms & Void and co-produced by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (Ukraine).

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