State Funeral: A remarkable portrait of the aftermath of Stalin’s death

Review: This fascinating and invaluable found-footage film is worthy of its title

A scene from State Funeral

Film Title: State Funeral

Director: Sergei Loznitsa

Starring: Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 135 min

Fri, May 21, 2021, 05:00

   

A nation mourns its leader. In the far north, they gallop by reindeer towards the nearest village; in the far south, they gather around the sound system on an oil rig, heads bowed. Across thousands of miles and many states, people gather. They are stunned, sorrowful, and as scared as one might expect from a state that lost more than 20 million citizens only a decade earlier. 

Women weep. Men remove their hats. Children buy commemorative editions of newspapers. Everyone listens intently to the state broadcaster, hanging on to every detail concerning their late premier. The autopsy takes in every last breath and medical detail.

Following on from Armando Iannucci’s 2017 comedy, the second film to deal with the death of Joseph Stalin has elicited some strange and varied responses in the US. 

“The cult of personality is shown in stark and frightening clarity,” writes Sheila O’Malley on the Roger Ebert website. The author goes on to characterise the film as a kind of illustrated guide to Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in which he denounced Stalin for elevating himself above both party and nation, and stated: “Comrades, we must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all.” 

Meanwhile, Kyle Smith at National Review denounces State Funeral as “a slog of a documentary that could have been made by the Soviet state propaganda machine”, a pronouncement that probably says more about the author than the film.

Such generalisations are impossible when reckoning with a film with millions of subjects as shot by hundreds of film-makers. In common with the Soviet Union it depicts, State Funeral is simultaneously a Rorschach test and an enormous 11-timezone undertaking; it is a found-footage documentary that captures life in thrilling, painstaking detail in the hours and days after Stalin’s death. 

There is no voiceover, context, or explanatory intertitles in this new film from director Sergei Loznitsa, only contemporaneous newsreels and home movies spliced together with extraordinary finesse by editor Danielius Kokanauskis. The colour footage is so vivid one half expects it to smudge the screen; the monochrome is high contrast enough to rival the slickest digital technology.

Whatever the Ukrainian director’s intentions, an extraterrestrial with no prior knowledge might watch and marvel at the rituals of the titular event specifically, and of death generally. Wreaths are laid. Crowds converge. The hyperbole applied to Stalin – “the greatest genius in the history of mankind” – is an extreme version of the keening and extravagant appraisals overheard at many funerals. “There is no death here; there is only eternal life,” is another phrase that is parroted both here and during many less grandiose burials.

Throngs of mourners from Tallinn to Azerbaijan to Vladivostok are joined by dignitaries carrying their own small suitcases and descending from propellor planes, as they arrive from Czechoslovakia, Romania and East Germany; other visitors include a delegation from the Communist Party of Great Britain.

A fascinating and invaluable document for all of its considerable run time, State Funeral is an occasion worthy of the title.