Conference reports Forgetting and Un-forgetting: 30 years of the USSR’s fall and Sergei Loznitsa

The month of December began with three days of a much-awaited Symposium on the 30th Anniversary of the USSR’s Fall with the presence of film director Sergei Loznitsa in Stockholm. The Symposium, organized and realized by Professor Irina Sandormirsakaja, took place at Södertörn University and at the Swedish Film Institute between December 1-3, 2021.

Published on on December 14, 2021

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The month of December began with three days of a much-awaited Symposium on the 30th Anniversary of the USSR’s Fall with the presence of film director Sergei Loznitsa in Stockholm. The Symposium, organized and realized by Professor Irina Sandormirsakaja, took place at Södertörn University and at the Swedish Film Institute between December 1-3, 2021. Sandormirskaja managed to bring diverse disciplines together for vivid reflections and rich exchange on issues such as the event, image, history, archive, memory, and oblivion, as well as the world of Loznitsa. Invited speakers were the poet Lev Rubinstein, the author and Professor Mikhail Iampolski, and the Professor Andrea Petö. Along with screenings of Loznitsa’s films The Event (2015), The State Funeral (2019), and Austerlitz (2016), followed lively discussions. Other speakers included the scholars Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback (philosophy), Maryam Adjam (anthropology), Aleksei Borisionok (art), Malin Wahlberg (cinema studies), Trond Lundemo (cinema studies), Yulia Gradskova (history), Natascha Drubek (film and literature), Tora Lane (literature), and Natalija Arlauskaite (film and media).

The “un-eventness” of the Event

The Symposium commenced with a screening of Loznitsa’s The Event and followed with a discussion between Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, Maryam Adjam and Aleksei Borisionok. A mixture between philosophy, anthropology and the arts, themes included the “un-eventness” of the event, the interruption, the cutting and the coup, the afterlife of the missing of the event, the in-betweenness of what did not and has not yet happened, repetition, temporalities and infrastructures in political events and artistic practices, not only in reality and in film, but also on digital platforms. The discussion on this day set the tone for the upcoming three days by grounding the issue of absent presence and the presence of the absent: The event, as an experience of the limit, asks the question of what a future is when facing the end of utopia and revolutionary dreams while also facing the terror of the memory of a terrible past.

The Event directed by Sergei Loznitsa 2015.

The Event directed by Sergei Loznitsa 2015.

The day ended with Lev Rubinstein’s and Irina Sandormirskaja’s banter that every time there is an interesting conversation going on, nothing is ever said, the reason to which interesting conversations must be continued. Yet, needless to say, things were said in that final conversation between Rubinstein and artist Dmitri Plax, a conversation admirably translated into English by Kirill Kozhanov. That the event never actually takes place is familiar to readers of Rubinstein, who takes on the idea of the absence of the speaker. Both Rubinstein and Plax challenge the idea that a poem expresses the author’s direct voice. Rubinstein rather attempts to “uncover by covering” in the sense that he often disguises the author’s voice in his poetry. The author is an object of fictional manipulation, which further asks the question of the extent to which a poem’s author is the same as the poem’s voice. As a “twinkling”, the author is constantly appearing and disappearing as either a fictional author or as the one who actually writes. The author’s task is fundamentally not to put any obstacles to the expression of language, since language itself speaks, but the task is rather to moderate the direction of that speech. The question of the spoken-ness of language is, for Rubinstein, central in Russian. Moreover, Russian language and literature is something paradoxical in that it not only creates poetry as it also is a battlefield. Battles take place within and for the Russian language, asking the question of who owns and who is to own the language? From this, we can see another paradox of the Russian language in that it is a means of repression as well as one of the few fields of freedom in Russia.

Reflecting upon these paradoxes as well as different forms of the Russian language in Soviet and post-Soviet, the discussion took a hold on what contemporary post-Soviet Russia means, seeing the implications of a state to take on the mentality of enterprise. One of the results in terms of language is an emptying of language, where words have a more-or-less-meaning and the inventions of words and language is hindered. That words have lost their meaning, being ambiguous, is a fundamental difference between Russia and the USSR. Whereas USSR controlled the substance of language, Russia must manage the words losing their meanings by making them ambiguous. Whereas the Soviet language was “richer” than contemporary Russian which has impoverished, as well has its means, what was crucial for Rubinstein as a poet in the Soviet Union was the fact that poetry and visual arts differed completely from the official language, something which resulted in the task of creating a non-Soviet language.

Aesthetics and authenticity

The second day began with The State Funeral, followed by an interview with director Sergei Loznitsa at the Swedish Film Institute. The interview revolved mainly around the question of compilation (seeing that the film was made from footage taken by 197 cameramen) and that moment of Soviet dispersion and beginning of collapse due to Stalin’s death. Moreover, the fact that The State Funeral is an assemblage made by archival material that was intended for the never-released The Great Farewell, patrocinated by the Communist Party, documenting Stalin’s funeral, led to a discussion on the difference and tension between historical facts and artistic truth – or, to simplify – between reality and fiction. Cinema, Loznitsa explained, is the illusion of a time-machine in that we can watch what really is in front of us without any layer of explanation. Paradoxically, it is with editing, with cutting the film, that the spectator is involved. The director can thus direct the spectator to feel and to move between opinions. The historical line and facts are, in a sense, not of interest. As Loznitsa said, “one must be careful with history”. Dramaturgy, on the other hand, is more pressing since the idea itself is more important than facts. What is at hand is to bring the spectator to follow and change opinions so that one can experience how easily we change and follow as subjects. In this movement, we find a problematization of ideologies in film-making. To cut and edit does not mean to progress between different points to show a totality of one perspective. Rather, cutting end editing is for Loznitsa a means to cut through different points, for different foci. There is, of course, a context, but it is one that only appears in the end of the film along with its totality even when the totality is fragmented. Furthermore, the film shows through its editing how Soviet politics relied on media networks, or better yet, media hierarchies, to stage events and form future history. A media hierarchy, rather than network, is because of its characteristic of only having one radio, one film industry, one media, with different branches in different areas. Depending on the area of the USSR, there were different levels of propaganda in the media, thus being a media hierarchy where Moscow calls and there are different levels of echo from this Moscow call.

The State Funderal, Sergei Loznitsa 2019.

The State Funderal, Sergei Loznitsa 2019.

The speakers that followed were Malin Wahlberg, Natascha Drubek and Yulia Gradskova. The general theme was the archive in film and technologies of memory. Malin Wahlberg discussed the sounds of silence and anticipated terror. Loznitsa’s films open up and urges for a reassessment of different aspects of compilation aesthetics. Archives are not only footage and documents, but can also be sites of mourning, landscapes and poetic enactments that haunts traces of the past. What stands out in Loznitsa’s cinema is his artistic reenactment and re-framing in terms of edited sound and silence which can enhance symbolic meaning. That is, sound effects underscore impacts of what we witness in the film. Natascha Drubek spoke of Soviet memory and oblivion of the Majdanek concentration camp, parting from research on film documents of the Nazi deeds in this camp that show the ways Soviet history and identity-building was constructed in terms of memory and oblivion. Yulia Gradskova underlined the importance of contextualizing the cinematographic story. It is fundamental to see the contextualization of archival material. The rest of the day followed with discussions on context, aesthetics, politics, restauration, and authenticity. A pressing question was what authenticity means and whether artistic truth convinces our sense of authenticity.

Memory, silence, oblivion

The film Austerlitz launched the Symposium’s third and last day with an intense discussion at Södertörn University. Presentations were held by Professor Andrea Petö, Natalija Arlauskaite and Tora Lane. The final presentation was by the author and Professor Mikhail Iampolski on the significance of the insignificant. Petö’s presentation on the problems of memorialization in museums, especially regarding Holocaust memorializations, asked the question of when we see signals of a crisis, in what framework is knowledge produced and whose stories are being told? There is a paradigm change in memory politics which shows us that there is more violence against Jewish communities and more people are ignorant of and negate the traumatic past of the Holocaust than ever before. Institutions are incorporating an Americanized narrative on memory politics, making it crucial to see the connection of these processes to post-truth and its implications. Petö spoke of disinforming over-information in the “Americanized” paradigm of education on the Holocaust in connection to illiberal memory politics. She also spoke of the necessity of so-called “better” stories, that is, stories on care and hope, and not only the ones on cruelty. Natalija Arlauskaite spoke on causality in cinema, more specifically in Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. Context (2021). Since there was no official documentation or Soviet iconography of the camp in Babi Yar, the film does not imply the usual change in visual register from archive to film. There is thus a partial reenactment since there is no previous material. Rather, the previous material used was literary fiction. The question that followed was then: what happens to ideas of displacement if there is no previous place from which one can displace? Film, due to its temporal order of sequences, departs from a principle of causality: what comes next in a film is because of something that came before in the film. From this, Arlauskaite wanted to frame the issue of context in the film by asking what context is and how it becomes context? Loznitsa’s technique to “clean”, that is, to efface the sound of sonorous archives and cleaning the images in the process of restoration is a way of achieving context. Arlauskaite challenged this idea with the example of film-making that does the opposite by bringing forth the archives with all its “dirt” (with all existing sound, damage, and so on that has been recorded). So how does the use of archival footage and images of violence contribute to memory as well as to forgetting? Tora Lane continued the issue of forgetting with her reflection on memory and oblivion. Memory cannot be given a home, it is rather the homelessness (Unheimlichkeit) of the past, opening up for oblivion. This question Lane put in conversation with Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. Context and The State Funeral when seeing, in a general sense, the destruction of the human being as a carrier of memory. Poetically, what speaks is the silence and what remembers is, in a sense, oblivion. What Loznitsa’s films attempt is to let the silence of the past speak, thus framing the significance of the cultural context for memory.

Baby Yar The Context, Sergei Loznitsa 2021.

Babi Yar. Context, Sergei Loznitsa 2021.

Repetition codes reality

The Symposium ended with Mikhail Iampolski’s exposition on the significance of the insignificant. Living in a world where images and words are constantly being repeated and codified, Iampolski analyzed what this repetition means in regard to memory, oblivion, and ideology. There is an extraordinary importance of the insignificant which allows us to relate differently to both memory and oblivion. In terms of images, totalitarian regimes are the most efficient as well as they are more sensible to the production of codes. The more something is repeated, the more it becomes real, or as Iampolski proposed, it is “instaured”. The repetition, in its homogeneity, is a “plan de consistence”, a term taken from Gilles Deleuze, but it can be shaken through an event, that is, something surprising and accidental that happens in its insignificance. The eventness of an insignificance, helps us to memorize a certain time and space, whereas the homogeneity is forgotten in that context of the event. An event does not mean a special and grandiose effect that affects us and thus allows us to remember. Rather, it is the insignificant happening that disturbs the homogeneity that allows memory. An event is what changes something, no matter how little, for us and our view, and thus has an impact as meaning. Parting from this, we should consider the way Deleuze defines “concept” in that it has heterogeneous components making it inseparable within itself and from itself, that is, it is “something which shows its face”, and through this, it gives you the feeling of a possible wor(l)d. As soon as we are dealing with codified material, ideology does not play an important role. All that is codified is amalgamated, and thus one thing is easily transformed into or replaced by another. The event of meaning, that is, the significant insignificance, is in this sense an event of the destruction of codification, of this plan de consistence.

With tired, yet content, eyes and smiles that will un-forget the three first days of December 2021 filled with many themes and topics to be further thought and reflected upon, the Symposium closed a winter afternoon at CBEES, Södertörns University.