Thursday 11 November 2021

Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, 2021)

Babi Yar. Context was one of just two titles to fly the Dutch flag at last month's London Film Festival, the other being Paul Verhoeven's mildly outrageous Benedetta.  Cannes favourite Sergei Loznitsa—whose Den Haag-based production company Atoms & Void has been behind every one of the director's films from 2014's Maidan on—has quite a pedigree, with his past projects including Donbass, In the Fog and The Event.  Loznitsa is a filmmaker who's as at home with the documentary format as he is with drama, with Babi Yar. Context falling into the former category; as with the director's previous non-fiction efforts, the film mainly lets its footage speak for itself—although there are a smattering of title cards to signpost the way.  If you haven't read up on the film prior to watching it, the early stages might prove quite difficult to get a grip of, but it's not too long before Babi Yar. Context provides a bit of, well, context.     

Made with assistance from the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Loznitsa's film takes a long, unblinking look at an atrocity that happened just over 80 years ago, when Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C massacred more than 33,000 Jews in Kiev's Babi Yar ravine. Like numerous horrors of WWII, the events of Babi Yar have largely remained out of public consciousness, but Sergei Loznitsa places us firmly in the centre of a nightmare as we witness civilians being brutalised for the duration of a journey that will culminate in their slaughter.  As appalling as this crime is, Babi Yar. Context mines much of its horror from something beyond the obvious: the indifference of many of Kiev's citizens, who carried on with their daily business as the bodies piled up. The apathy on display recalls the words of Albert Einstein: "The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything".

When the Nazis invaded Ukraine in 1941, many welcomed their presence; posters of Stalin were torn down, and Hitler was widely viewed as a great liberator.  Although the Red Army retook Kiev in late 1943, this was long after the executions at Babi Yar, which had since become the elephant in the room for locals understandably keen to brush over the atrocity that had taken place in their back yard.  Loznitsa doesn't shy away from showing us the victims of Babi Yar, and while no film exists of the actual killings, there's no shortage of footage of the endless mound of bodies scattered across the ravine.  Yet what is arguably Babi Yar. Context's most horrifying moment occurs when we are shown a dozen Nazi criminals being hanged in Kiev's packed main square; while we've already seen footage of the trials that preceded these executions, it does little to take the sting out of these graphic, distressing images.  The inclusion of such material is indeed a brave move, one that poses some very difficult questions; most viewers will be pleased to learn that these men were sentenced for their awful crimes—but how many will truly want to see the death penalty being carried out?             

While Babi Yar. Context cannot be described as an enjoyable experience, its real value lies in its assembling of this footage into a coherent whole, one which chronicles an event that has been all but erased from the history books.  The film is primarily of importance as a document of record, yet its director quite reasonably hopes that it also contains lessons for today and tomorrow.  Given its rather unusual content, Babi Yar. Context is a tough work to evaluate in typical terms, but the extremely worthwhile nature of the project eclipses any requirement for the film to entertain (or even engage) the viewer.  Some may wish for a little more in the way of commentary, but the film invites the viewer to read around the events of Babi Yar and other, similar atrocities.  Sergei Loznitsa's film makes for a chilling, sobering experience, and it operates firmly outside of our expectations of cinema—documentary or otherwise.   

Darren Arnold