Thursday, December 9, 2021

Cow








Director Andrea Arnold


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cow                C-                                                                                                                      Great Britain  (94 mi)  2021  d: Andrea Arnold        

A documentary film that delves into the existential worldview of a cow, that may also be viewed as a snuff film, as the entire life of the film draws viewers into the perspective of a single cow, seen giving birth in the opening, cleaning up the newborn afterwards with her tongue, just like so many other animals, and then cruelty hits, as they take the young calf away from the mother during a mechanical milking session, moved to a nursery where it is bottle-fed milk, their ears clipped and tagged, their horns cauterized to prevent growth, with the mother seen in distress afterwards searching for the missing calf while calling out with endless mooing, yet there is no answer.  It’s a cruel turn of fate, as the film follows the routine at an English dairy farm over the course of six years, completely unglamorized, shot with an often shaky, handheld camera by Magda Kowalczyk, developing a relationship with this one cow, where the farmers themselves are viewed as secondary characters, often seen and heard on the periphery whistling or chatting away, regularly herding the cows from one pen to the next, often heading them into the milking stations, using mechanical milking devices while flooding the region with a Top 40-approved playlist of primarily female soft pop tunes that are heard as ambient noise in the backgound, as if this helps calm the animals down, but they never mix up the sounds to include jazz or classical music, so it feels overly melancholic, from Billie Eilish, Khalid - lovely - YouTube (3:20) to SOAK - Everybody Loves You (Official Video) (3:22), Mabel - Mad Love (2:51), for the mating scene, of course, or Birdy - Skinny Love [Official Video 2014] - YouTube (3:20), where the lyrics are often sorrowful and sad, where one wonders what effect this has on the animals.  With so much attention paid to a single cow, it brings to mind Pietro Marcello’s Lost and Beautiful (Bella e perduta) (2015), which similarly follows a man leading a young bull around the countryside in an attempt to keep it from the slaughterhouse, much of it conveyed from the bull’s perspective, given its own dreams, and even a soul, a film that also questions man’s relationship to animals, routinely taking them for granted, while also recalling an early Errol Morris First Person made-for-television short documentary film entitled STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (2001), where Temple Grandin, an American scientist and expert on animal behavior devises a more humane way to slaughter animals, originating by communing with the livestock animals themselves and imagining how they would feel. 

While some may claim the wonders of viewer empathy with a barnyard animal, but that’s already been done to perfection by Robert Bresson in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), a near perfect film that reaches for transcendence and the sublime, so without any narration or dialogue concocting anything resembling a storyline, what this film really has going for it is length, as it sticks with an animal for an extended period of time, most of it spent in the crowded confines of a barn with other dairy cows, where it lives in its own filth, urinating and defecating where it stands, with hay strewn around to help filter the odors, but the grounds where they stand are always wet and muddy, where humans need heavy boots to walk around, yet cows have to live amongst constant filth.  On the occasion when they are released into open pasture land, it feels like an exhilarating freedom, where the space to roam and the quality of grasslands to eat is greatly elevated, immediately offering a higher quality of life, yet cows have only two options, either they can stand or sit, so there’s not a whole lot to identify with.  Much of this gets bogged down in the same old routine, where the monotonous life of a cow just isn’t that interesting to those of us who don’t live amongst them everyday, where they may take on a life of their own, like owning a horse, where a good part of the relationship is established in taking care of it, as you develop an affection during the time spent together.  That does not happen here, as the screen time is not with a single animal, but an entire herd of dairy cows, though one single female is highlighted throughout much of the film.  Andrea Arnold has made some powerful films, winner of the Jury Prize (3rd Place) at Cannes on three different occasions with RED ROAD (2006), FISH TANK (2009), and American Honey (2016), unafraid to accentuate miserablism, while also going off the rails on occasion with an overly abstract, experimental style in Wuthering Heights (Arnold) (2011), but this veers into different territory entirely, expecting a lot from her audience, indulging in her own personal fascination, offering her own autobiographical comments earlier this summer in The Guardian (We are animals. We need to connect to the millions of non ...), challenging our relationship with millions of animals around us that, according to recent scientific developments, Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, each have their own conscious awareness.      

As the cycle of life continues, we are surprised how soon after giving birth (60 to 90 days) that cows are again impregnated, placing them alone in a stall with a male bull, surrounded by all the other cows nearby, it’s not like this female was given any choice, as the high pregnancy turnover fits the farmer’s schedule, not the cow’s.  The juxtaposition of a nearby fireworks display seems trite and overly humanized, as that’s clearly not how the cow feels.  The farmers are elated to discover she’s pregnant again, where the exact same process plays out all over again, searching for that missing calf, where the repetitious brutalization of her life starts to become apparent.  Arnold intersperses shots of birds in flight, or airplanes, exuding a kind of freedom this animal simply doesn’t have, grounded in its own mundane reality, once more exposed to that top of the pops music which drones on as if having to listen to elevator music all day, as again, it’s not as if the cows have any choice.  When the snow flies and winter is in the air, one of the farmers is dressed in a Santa hat while the distinctive voice of Shane MacGowan can be heard singing an Anglo-Irish Christmas song, The Pogues - Fairytale Of New York (Official Video) (4:02), yet these animals have no real protection from the cold, as the barn is open-aired and not covered or heated.  In one scene a dead cow is seen simply laying on the ground, unattended, perhaps an all too frequent reality from which we’re naively unaware, but the starkness of the image seems to accentuate how little we know about the harsh life of farm animals.  The film offers ponderous moments where cows seem to stick their heads up, as if looking out into the sky, but more often than not it’s to evade the network of steel bars that surround them, pushed into them by the overcrowded pens, nearly impossible to avoid. Yet the cruelest fate is when they are led to their own destruction, a bleak reality that jars viewers into disbelief, wondering why a filmmaker would show that, as they’ve already established the heartless fate that awaits them, yet to watch an animal being killed that you’ve been observing over the course of an entire film is like a snuff film that some will find not just deplorable but unforgivable.  The scene brought to mind questionable choices in Haneke’s Benny's Video (1992) that were shown offscreen or the merciless Columbine shooting from Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2003).  While the director’s intent is to accentuate our disconnect with nature, according to a recent interview (Andrea Arnold on Capturing Cow, Bovine Beauty, and the ...), “We avoid all the uncomfortable things in life.  We don’t want to know, but life is uncomfortable sometimes.  Life is brutal sometimes.  That’s our reality.”  Yet it’s the spacy dreariness of the music that seems to haunt us at the end as we hear the gloomy and despondent sounds of Garbage - Milk (3:54) play out over the end credits. 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Petite Maman



 












Writer/director Céline Sciamma


The director shooting on the set












 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Petite Maman          B                                                                                                                      France  (72 mi)  2021  d: Céline Sciamma     

Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide.  There’s just no one to tell them to.                     —Marion (Gabrielle Sanz)

Some find this an enchanting film, an open dialogue between our past and the present, a kind of existential mystery that veers into the supernatural, with death having a pronounced effect on a young 8-year old girl, where two actual twin sisters, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, are indeed extremely compelling figures who are utterly fascinating, yet the overriding storyline feels overly contrived, imposing adult dialogue and transcendent concepts that are well beyond the ages of the children, standing out as the only thing that is not natural in an otherwise totally naturalistic film, recalling an earlier effort by this filmmaker, Tomboy (2011), another modest film told through a child’s perspective, so this feels like a return to an earlier period in her filmmaking career in the way that it is filmed and realized, completely guided by a verité naturalism, yet is different in that it introduces larger-than-life themes.  Outside of the two young girls, who are utterly charming, bringing an elevated level of personal magnetism and mystique to the picture, offering proof of the director’s sheer artistry working with children, the rest of the cast feel overly slight, non-existent, even wooden at times, as if never really invested in the picture, completely overshadowed by these two young girls who really do carry the picture.  Featuring unusually long silences, much of this film is wordless and extremely spare, turning into a fable taking place in the woods, like a children’s fairy tale.  But it’s all preceded by the death of her grandmother in what appears to be a senior retirement home, with Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) affectionately saying goodbye to each of the residents before she joins her mother (Nina Meurisse) clearing out her grandmother’s room before heading out to do the same with her mother’s childhood home in the woods.  Affectionately sharing her snack and juice box with her mother in the car, there are a few awkward moments between mother and daughter, with her mother pointing out she always gets chatty and asks a lot of questions at bedtime, but Nelly states matter-of-factly, ”That’s when I see you,” while Nelly is less than satisfied with the few anecdotal stories her mother shares about her childhood, eagerly wanting to learn more, never really getting to know that younger version of her mother.  While her parents rarely speak, her father (Stéphane Varupenne) is kind and supportive, but is even more guilty of failing to connect on that earlier childhood connection, leaving Nelly a bit exasperated at times, while her mother is also grieving for the loss of her own mother, and disappears one morning without explanation, leaving Nelly alone to play in the woods, which have a gorgeous autumnal presence with the leaves turning color, beautifully filmed by Claire Mathon, shot in the same woods of the director’s childhood in Cergy-Pontoise, bringing a spirit of enchantment to the picture.  But nothing out of the ordinary happens until the next day when she sees another young girl her exact same age in the woods, her identical twin Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), lugging some tree branches to make a hut in the forest, becoming their own secret place.   

Marion invites her home, which is identical to her grandmother’s home, with the same wallpaper, only with furniture, with Margo Abascal playing Marion’s mother, yet the two girls play games and have fun, while growing curious about each other.  Both are sad that they have no siblings, which seems to draw them closer to one other.  They also act out stories while wearing costumes, with Nelly asking Marion’s mother for help, yet it’s the interaction of the two girls that carry the picture, mimicking the world of adults, never carried away with overacting, always maintaining a strong sense of self, both very determined young ladies who immediately connect with each other, becoming the friend they never had, though they are challenged by time restraints, as once Nelly’s parents finish clearing out the home, they will depart back home, expected to be just a few days.  Playing out in the woods together, fortifying their handmade fort, Nelly reveals an ominous hidden secret, informing Marion (the same name as her mother), that she believes she is her mother as a young child, and that Marion’s mother is her grandmother, so this time together allows them to interact in ways they never could before.  Now this is a blockbuster revelation, way too complicated for an 8-year old to figure out, yet there it is playing out before our eyes, like a storybook coming to life, allowing viewers to immerse themselves into a developing fantasy world, a lushly realized children’s story that suddenly has adult implications, incredible perhaps, yet a ponderous possibility, where the appeal of the two young girls may lure you into thinking they believe it, as children believe things without hesitation, without bias or filter, but simply believe.  The light airiness of the film couldn’t be more polar opposite than the density in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s THREE COLORS: BLUE (1993), yet both deal with similar themes, though here a story of death and grief evolves into an out-of-body experience, illuminated by what amounts to a wish-fulfillment fantasy, yet perhaps the bravery of the film is the director’s willingness to portray a child’s world with this degree of worldly enhancement, valuing their emotional intelligence and their ability to adapt to things we view as complicated.  Perhaps the essence of this film is that it’s a woman’s picture, internalizing the female experience, accentuating the bond between a mother and child, which doesn’t have to make sense, as so much of it is instinctual, learning by feel, allowing the spirit to express itself onscreen.  Now if this was an animated feature, a Miyazaki picture, for instance, would we be viewing it any differently?  Miyazaki seems to have been a strong influence on the making of this film, as unlike Disney, Miyazaki’s children stories confront real-life dilemmas that can be profoundly scary, like the potential death of a sick mother who is away at a hospital in MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988), sending chills of fear into her children, who invent a fantasy world to cope with it.  Because this film plays out in such a realist manner, we may get caught up in the details, as there are transcendental elements here that appear jaw-dropping, yet the matter-of-fact style is how the director has chosen to convey this message, using no special effects, only magical ideas.    

Lacking the luxuriance of her most recent film, 2019 Top Ten List #2 Portrait of a Lady On Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), this seemingly effortless film is unusually low-key, remaining ambiguous in every respect, which can be off-putting and a bit disconcerting at times, where the short film duration does not allow viewers much time to adjust to what’s happening onscreen, yet it’s certainly a provocative film.  And while this may be a BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) ghost story, it never feels like one.  Shot during the Covid pandemic, limited to small sets and minimal crew, that fact belies the richness of the film’s detail, and the bright color of the forest, though it may tap into shared themes of profound grief and loss.  Nelly inquisitively leafs through her mother’s childhood journals, extracting bits and pieces of information, exhibiting a healthy dose of curiosity, a trait she shares with Marion, while Marion’s mother is already walking with a cane that Nelly kept as a keepsake after her death from some undisclosed terminal illness.  Marion is due to undergo surgery in just a few days so she doesn’t suffer the same fate, acknowledging a certain amount of fear, with Nelly helping her pack a suitcase for the hospital.  Yet the overriding factor is the developing friendship between the two girls, who seem to hide nothing from each other, always speaking directly, yet so much is communicated without ever uttering a word.  Nelly can’t help but wonder what happened from the playful and uninhibited child that Marion is to the closed-off adult that she is now, where her unexplained departure leaves an emotional gap that she’s trying to fill, remaining a bit of mystery.  The subject of grief is filtered through childhood innocence, as the girls mischievously make pancakes together, spilling ingredients, rubbing some of the mess on their face, laughing giddily, where their humor is infectious, yet Nelly is especially mature and perceptive, quickly picking up on things, like Marion’s changing moods, already exhibiting signs of melancholy, which she’s seen happen with her own mother and predates her recent loss.  But Marion is quick to point out, “You didn’t invent my sadness,” which feels uncommonly generous, like an overly insightful and completely incomprehensible thing for an 8-year old to understand, but these girls display a rare degree of empathy.  It can be jarring to hear young 8-year olds speak like adults, but that is part of the inversion of this film, as they’re the ones exhibiting uncommon insight, while the adults exist only on the periphery.  Among the more transfixing scenes is a raft ride on a lake, paddling to a destination out in the middle that resembles a lost Mayan ruin, like the pyramid structure of El Castillo that seems to hold mystical powers, adding an element of complexity and depth that is never explained, but challenges the imagination, as if exploring the deep recesses of their own subconscious, accompanied by exhilarating music they call “Music of the Future,” Mon Coeur (Bande originale du film "Petite Maman") - YouTube (2:20), offering an uplifting air of euphoria.  Exploring themes of female identity in such an unusual manner, mixing childhood with adulthood, seems like an original choice, yet death in this film always seems far away, more like an abstract concept, yet the film does engage in difficult territory too often left unexplored.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Babi Yar. Context












 





Dina Pronicheva





Director Sergei Loznitsa











Babi Yar. Context                   B                                                                                           Ukraine  Netherlands  (121 mi)  2021  d: Sergei Loznitsa

In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere - not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin.  You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls [small towns].

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered.

Murdered are elderly artisans, well-known masters of trades: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, housepainters, furriers, bookbinders; murdered are workers: porters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, furnace workers, locksmiths; murdered are wagon drivers, tractor drivers, chauffeurs, cabinet makers; murdered are millers, bakers, pastry chefs, cooks; murdered are doctors, therapists, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists; murdered are experts in bacte-riology and biochemistry, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry; murdered are lecturers, department assistants, candidates and doctors of science; murdered are engineers, metallurgists, bridge builders, architects, ship builders; murdered are pavers, agronomists, field-crop growers, land surveyors; murdered are accountants, bookkeepers, store merchants, suppliers, managers, secretaries, night guards; murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women who were faithful to their husbands, and murdered are frivolous women; murdered are beautiful  young women, serious students and happy schoolgirls; murdered are girls who were unattractive and foolish; murdered are hunchbacks; murdered are singers; murdered are blind people; murdered are deaf and mute people; murdered are violinists and pianists; murdered are three- year-old and two-year-old children; murdered are eighty- year-old elders who had cataracts in their dimmed eyes, cold transparent fingers and quiet, rustling voices like parchment; murdered are crying newborns who were greedily sucking at their mothers’ breasts until their final moments. All are murdered, many hundreds of thousands, millions of people.

This is not the death of armed people during the war… This is the murder of a people…of a people’s soul and body. An entire people murdered.

Ukraine without Jews, by Vasily Grossman, 1943, (PDF) Vasily Grossman - Ukraine without Jews (excerpt)

A unique exploration of history, where the director combines the public and private archives in Russia, Germany, and Ukraine, working with the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo documents in Krasnogorsk (RGAKFD), with the Bundesarchiv in Berlin, with several regional archives in Germany, with the Ukrainian State Archive in Kiev and with private archives, including footage from soldiers on the front lines, reels from Die Deutsche Wochenschau, the Nazi propaganda news bulletin that was produced in Germany and distributed throughout the territory occupied by the Third Reich, as well as the help of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, the aim of this documentary is to “plunge the viewer into the atmosphere of the time.”  Yet the origins feel more personal, as Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa grew up in Kiev and went to school there, not far from the Babi Yar ravine, but had no knowledge of what happened there, declaring “Even though I grew up close to Babyn Yar and to the old Jewish cemetery, which was completely destroyed, and as a child I stumbled across the Jewish tombstones many times during my walks, my parents were very reluctant to answer my questions on the subject.”  We now know that on September 29–30, 1941, in a large ravine in Kiev known as Babi Yar, the Nazis slaughtered more Jews in two days than in any other single German massacre, killing 33,771 Jews.  In total, from September 29, 1941, until October 1943, the Nazi forces, with no interference from local residents, killed nearly 100,000 people at Babi Yar.  Nazi authorities banned photo and film cameras from the places of mass executions, however through the use of archival footage, it is possible to reconstruct the surrounding circumstances of what happened.  With the troubling rise of xenophobic far-right groups in Europe, the unlearned lessons of history and the growing seeds of hate and resentment make this time we’re living in dangerous and extremely precarious times.  For instance, less known even to practiced historians is that fact that as many as 500,000 to a million former Soviet citizens were living in Ukraine and actually joined the Third Reich in fighting against the Red Army, as they were hoping the Germans would deliver them from Stalin.  With that in mind, the assembled footage is presented with no narration or talking heads, instead there is frequent use of introductory intertitles that place each historical setting in context, opening with “June 1941. Soviet Ukraine” as bomb blasts are dropped on the city of Lviv, the largest of the westernmost cities of the Ukraine, demolishing a bridge while targeting supply dumps and airfields, as Nazi troops are seen riding in diesel-powered Panzer tanks, rumbling motorcycles, and even horse-drawn vehicles as they move their artillery units in and begin to occupy the town, where a mass square is filled with POW soldiers, the first attack in Operation Barbarossa, a German plan to destroy the Soviet Union.  The city is surrounded by plumes of smoke, while dead bodies are strewn everywhere.  The Soviets left behind murdered prisoners, as corpses lay on the ground swarmed by flies, with bystanders, including many children, stopping to stare, yet Jews are blamed with collaborating with the enemy, ordered to line up by the prison and carry out the bodies, with Nazi soldiers going house to house setting them ablaze, with some seen in the foreground drinking in a celebratory mode, exacly as depicted in Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri) (1985), while citizens are seen bringing flowers to the tanks, openly welcoming them while destroying the posters of Stalin, replacing them with posters of “Hitler, the Liberator,” as children are seen fighting for hand-sized Swastika flags on sticks.    

Using only found and restored archival footage, mostly black and white, the film images were restored by Jonas Zagorskas, a colorist and VFX artist, who colorized some of the images, with Vladimir Golovnitski adding an innovative sound design, adding aural effects and even dubbing voices to what is otherwise silent footage.  Throughout, people inevitably stare at the camera as they walk by, as there are endless scenes of troop movements lugging heavy equipment across muddy terrain, including lines of captured POW Soviet troops walking along in single file, yet there are also lines and lines of soldiers marching, so massive that one wonders where they all sleep, as there couldn’t possibly be adequate accommodations for either group.  Even for prisoners, where could you possibly hold them all?  As it turns out, what we see is unfathomable, a giant expanse of people packed together like sardines for as far as the eye can see, where the number of Red Army POW’s was actually 600,000, most dying of starvation as the Nazis never made provisions to feed them.  A small number of about 10,000 were released if a family member came present and they signed a document swearing to never fight against Germany again, as the films shows scenes of recently freed Ukrainian POW’s being processed, greeted briefly by their smiling wives who take them home.  Yet it’s scenes not normally seen that stand out, like women trying the clean the bodies of the dead with branches and brooms, or hideous footage of people being pulled from their homes and beaten with sticks, stripped naked and paraded through the streets by their neighbors, some dragged by their hair, long lines of trenches are dug, mostly by women, apparently to bury the dead.  By the time the Nazis get to Kiev, there are more explosions, as several days after the Germans took control of the city remote-controlled explosives were detonated by the Soviets, who mined the central streets and planted the bombs, causing mass destruction and many civilian casualties, as buildings burned for days, leaving 25,000 people homeless, drawing the ire of the Nazis who again accused Jews of collaborating with the enemy, posting an ominous public order in Russian, Ukrainian, and German language:  

All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, 29 September, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Jewish Viis’kove cemetery).  Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc.  Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.  Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.

Expecting 5 or 6,000, nearly 34,000 reported under the false belief they would be resettled, and were taken to the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of town where one by one they were systematically stripped, giving up their luggage, then their coats, shoes, clothing and underwear, leaving their valuables in a designated place, before being led into the ravine in groups of ten where they were gunned down by SS police battalions and units of the Ukrainian auxiliary police, who actually walked among the corpses shooting anyone still breathing.  According to testimony afterwards, they were made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot, with bodies placed atop bodies, covering them with a layer of dirt at the end of the night before commencing again the next day.  According to some reports, many were still alive after the shootings, but were in a state of shock, where as many as 10% may have died from suffocation under all the other dead bodies.  As there is no existing footage, still shots are shown of half-buried bodies, discarded coats and a pile of boots and shoes, and a prosthetic leg left behind while an extensive passage of Vasily Grossman’s eloquent memorium Ukraine without Jews is read, (PDF) Vasily Grossman - Ukraine without Jews.  While there may have been some who risked their lives by helping the Jews, thousands of others remained indifferent to their fate, becoming preoccupied with dividing the remaining Jewish property amongst themselves.  What’s truly appalling is the widespread infestation of anti-Semitism, as neighbors reported on their neighbors, acted as informants, and provided lists of residents to the Nazis.  Even after the massacre, a few remaining invalids and elderly Jews who were too frail to walk to Babi Yar were hunted down by the local residents, dragged out of their homes and stoned to death.  Incredibly the locals did this on their own initiative, without any German involvement.  Afterwards local newspapers celebrated, printing the bold headline “Kiev is liberated from oriental barbarians, finally a new life begins,” while the following month they held a big parade, a chillingly indifferent response to the extermination of tens of thousands of people, as life, for all practical purposes, went on as normal.  Despite centuries of Ukrainians and Jews living peacefully together, the extermination of Jews in Lubny, Poltava, Kharkov, Kremchug, Borispol and Lugotin among others, continued shortly afterwards with no public interference.  There is some question about Ukrainian complicity, as Ukrainian nationalists at the time were looking for an independent state protected by the German army, unaware that the Germans planned to kill them as well, but the Nazi priority was to exterminate all the Jews first, Poles and Ukrainians would come afterwards.

The war on the Eastern Front began to take a turn in 1943 when Soviet troops reclaimed Kiev, with Hitler posters once again replaced by Stalin, though by this time the war-weary citizens were too overwhelmed by the exhaustion of war to present flowers to the returning Red Army soldiers, instead they were met with a tired resignation, yet a massive public celebration was held in the town square to promote a united Poland, Ukraine, and Russia behind the Soviet banner.  International journalists, including Americans, traveled to the site of the Babi Yar massacre where details of the atrocity were presented, including an attempted cover-up, as Nazis forced Russian war prisoners to dig up the bodies and burn them in an attempt to conceal the evidence, building two-storied funeral pyres, cremating 1500 bodies with each operation, taking nearly 3 days to burn completely, a process that went on for 40 days.  Afterwards the Nazis turned on those prisoners, spraying them with machine gunfire, yet a dozen out of more than 200 managed to escape.  Actual court testimony is presented in the war crimes tribunals that followed the war, including one woman witness Osmachko who escaped execution in Kharkov by lying in a pile of corpses for eight long hours without moving while the massacre continued all around her, even as soldiers walked around the pit with machine guns searching to shoot anyone showing signs of life, yet none was more riveting than Dina Pronicheva, Testimony of Dina Pronicheva about the Annihilation of the Jews in Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941, a Soviet Jewish actress from the Kiev Puppet Theatre, who tore up her identity card and claimed she was not Jewish, that she was only there to accompany someone else to the site, but Nazis ordered her death anyway, wanting to eliminate all witnesses, marching her to the ravine, stripping her naked, then as she was about to be shot she jumped onto the pile of corpses and played dead, remaining completely still as the shooting continued all day, with bodies falling all around her, finally covered by a layer of dirt, when she became more afraid of being buried alive than being shot, so she climbed her way out of the massive pit of corpses and a layer of earth, up the side of the ravine and crawled to safety under cover of darkness.  She is among 29 known survivors of Babi Yar, and related her story to Soviet author Anatoly Kuznetsov whose novel Babi Yar was published in 1966, where hardcover copies have been out of print for decades.  Additional court testimony was provided by one of the Nazi sharpshooters, SS Officer Hans Isenmann, whose testimony is brutal, exposing the methodical nonchalance in revealing just how mechanical the entire process is to organize a massacre, expressing no emotion, simply repeating established procedures, exhibiting no regard for human life.  After hearing various testimonies, the director provides rare and macabre footage of the public execution by hanging of 13 Nazi officers in Kiev’s Kalinin Square for “atrocities against the Soviet people,” among them Hans Isenmann.  The square is completely packed by a massive outpouring of 200,000 people completely filling the screen, with Jeeps pulling them into their designated spaces with nooses placed around their necks, and then the Jeeps move away, leaving them dangling in the breeze.  It’s a horrific sight any way you want to look at it, primitive and grotesque, as if that barbaric act can actually eradicate evil from our midst.  About 1.4 million Jews were murdered just in the Ukraine alone, so the execution of a handful of men hardly suffices, but wartime is an entirely different mindset, where this massive extermination of Jews is unprecedented in human history. 

Stalin discouraged placing any emphasis on the Jewish aspect of the Babi Yar tragedy and instead presented these atrocities as crimes committed against the Soviet people, so under the Soviet occupation there was no mention of Jewish genocide at Babi Yar.  Even more astonishing, in 1952 the city council voted to turn the Babi Yar ravine into a reservoir for liquid industrial waste from a nearby brick factory, erecting box-like multistoried apartment buildings nearby, with workers seen wearing no protective covering, standing knee-deep in the industrial waste, and can be seen spreading the waters into the ravine.  The film ends without revealing that after years of filling the ravine with sewage and waste, it eventually ruptured and flooded the city, killing over a thousand people.  Also not mentioned, several attempts were made to erect a memorial commemorating the fate of the Jewish victims, but all attempts were overruled until after Stalin died and was finally denounced by the Party in 1961, when Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a poem after visiting the site, searching for a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker, but found nothing, so his poem begins with the line, “No monument stands over Babi Yar,” Babi Yar By Yevgeni Yevtushenko - The Holocaust History, a line repeated in Shostakovich’s commemorative 13th Symphony entitled Babi Yar, Shostakovich - Symphony n°13 - Moscow PO / Kondrashin 1962 YouTube (56:35), which is structured around the narrative of the poem.  An official memorial to Soviet citizens shot at Babi Yar was erected in 1976, but it wasn’t until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Ukrainian government finally allowed a separate memorial specifically identifying the Jewish victims.  It took until the 75th anniversary before a broad international coalition gathered to announce the 5-year plan to construct the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kiev, which proposes to build a $100 million complex of museums, research centers, works of art, and open-air audio and visual exhibits on more than 320 acres of land.  Yet for all the publicity surrounding the event, there is still ample evidence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, as anti-Semitic literature is regularly sold on Independence Square in Kiev, the symbolic center of the Orange Revolution, while a pro-Nazi group handed out anti-Semitic fliers at the Babi Yar event, and even Swastika graffiti could be seen entering the walkway to the Jewish Babi Yar memorial, as the filled-in ravine is now a park surrounded by urban sprawl.  Loznitsa attended the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK, the celebrated Russian film school) at the same time as Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, the director of the epic and ever evolving DAU (2019) series of films and art installations about life in the Soviet Union.  Khrzhanovskiy is an associate producer of the film, also one of the people that urged Loznitsa to make this film, while also serving as the artistic director of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.  While this is a unique understanding of history, it’s also difficult viewing, with the director relying upon intertitles much more than usual, which still leaves viewers on their own, swamped with historical content, often unaware of just what it is we’re seeing, as the mixed archival content often changes and confuses the narrative.  For instance, multiple early sequences show massive lines of soldiers, yet it’s hard to tell who they are, which side they are on, or whether they are advancing or retreating, a sequence of Ukrainian women digging a ditch is unclear if they are being forced to do this, or why, also in the trial testimony they edited war crimes at Babi Yar with atrocities occurring in other areas, which was not immediately apparent.  Overall this can feel a bit overwhelming.  It’s a bit ironic that the word context is in the title, as without any explanation, context is often precisely what’s missing, despite elaborate measures to assemble footage in a comprehensible fashion.  Much in the same vein as Romanian Radu Jude’s I Don't Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari) (2018), these filmmakers are holding their own countrymen accountable for what happened during the war, yet they’re viewed as elitists among the intelligentsia, as the majority of the modern era populace would prefer to overlook the incriminating details, opening the door for more far-right nationalists to push hate speech among their xenophobic rhetoric, as neo-Nazi organizations are now considered commonplace.  While this film is like an anguishing cry in the dark, one has to wonder whether anyone is listening.