Over two days in September 1941, German soldiers, with the support of Ukrainian collaborators, murdered 33,771 Jews in the Babi Yar gorge outside of Kyiv. The massacre was one of the earliest and deadliest episodes in what is sometimes referred to as the “Holocaust by Bullets” a phase of Nazi genocide that took place outside of the mechanized slaughter of the death camps. It is estimated that these mobile killing squads, known as Einsatzgruppen, took at least 1.5 million lives.
Ukrainian-born filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s new documentary, made up of archival footage interspersed with some tersely informative title cards, is called Babi Yar: Context. What is meant by “context” is less a broad explanation of the event – as found in historian Timothy Snyder’s book “Bloodlands” – and more a detailed visual narrative with a hole in the middle.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they brought along film cameras as well as rifles. So did the Soviet Army when they recaptured Kyiv in 1943. Some of these cameras were propaganda tools; others were run by amateurs. Both sides left an extensive filmic record, a fund of images that have largely remained unseen since the end of the war. Loznitsa wove them together and dubbed them to sound (the rumble of tanks and the murmur of crowds, with occasional snippets of understandable speech) and assembled a disruptive and revealing collage.
The murder itself took place without a camera. What is amazing is how thoroughly almost everything that happened before and after the massacre was documented in black and white and sometimes in color. The detail is ruthless and unrelenting: farms and villages set ablaze by German soldiers; Jews are rounded up, humiliated and beaten; snow-covered fields littered with frozen corpses; Bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv; the public hanging of 12 Germans convicted of atrocities after the war.
Although there is a military and political narrative to be drawn from all of this, Loznitsa’s method (portrayed in earlier found footage films such as State Funeral about the aftermath of Stalin’s death) is to let human reality speak for itself. A few prominent officials are identified – you may recognize Nikita S. Khrushchev, who became leader of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic shortly after the Germans were expelled – but what the film shows most vividly is the intense individuality of anonymous, ordinary people. History is a catalog of faces: townsfolk and peasants; victims, perpetrators and bystanders; Germans, Jews, Russians and Ukrainians.
Most of the time these people don’t speak. Towards the end there are testimonies in the courtroom in which a German soldier and several witnesses and survivors talk about what happened in Babi Yar. Her words, in the absence of images, have a harrowing intensity that goes beyond what images could convey. So did the Soviet-Jewish writer Vasily Grossmans 1943 essay Ukraine Without Jews quoted on screen to emphasize the enormity of what cannot be shown.
Much of the rest of Babi Yar: Context works in reverse, finding eloquence in actions and gestures that words may not offer. And also an element of vagueness when trying to read the thoughts and feelings on those faces.
The work of interpretation that Loznitsa forces has a political, moral dimension. After Kyiv, other cities like Lemberg fell to the Germans; the streets fill with Ukrainians celebrating their victory as liberation from Soviet oppression. Girls in traditional costumes present bouquets of flowers to Nazi officers, and banners are hoisted proclaiming the glory of Adolf Hitler and Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. When Jews are rounded up, harassed and mistreated, local civilians are ready to join in.
Later there are parades and flowers to welcome the Red Army. Hitler’s likeness is removed and replaced by Stalin’s. You might be wondering about the composition of the crowd. Did some of the same people who hailed the German army as liberators also support the return of the Soviet army? Did the residents of Kiev, who cheered the arrival of the Nazi fighters, also cheer their execution?
Forcing you to ponder these questions is one of the ways in which Loznitsa’s film brings you closer to the horror at its core, removing the simple judgment of hindsight and the layers of oblivion and distortion that unfold in the decades that follow accumulated the massacre.
And of course, Babi Yar: Context, which was completed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, comes to theaters with its own grim context. The Babi Yar Memorial near Kyiv was Damaged by a Russian missile in early March. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has claimed that one of his goals is to “denazify” Ukraine, whose current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. The past that Loznitsa unearths casts its shadow over the present. Knowing about it doesn’t make anything easier, but not knowing can make things worse.
Babi Yar: context
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. In theatres.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/31/movies/babi-yar-context-review.html Babi Yar: Context Review: Footage of Nazi Massacre Unearthed