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The uninhibited celebration of Soviet nostalgia

The 'Pobedy (Victory Day)
Regissør: Sergei Loznitsa

Unbridled dancing and exchange of stories of the greatness of the past: The 'Pobedy portrays Soviet nostalgia and Prorussian sentiments among Russian nationalists and their like-minded.


Sergei Loznitsa's static camera work lets the characters speak for themselves in his new film, The 'Pobedy (2018). The film is a poetic exploration of the enduring, almost mythical power that Soviet victory in World War II continues to exert over Russians.

Berlin-based Loznitsa – born in the Soviet Union (now Belarus) and raised in Ukraine – has an intimate understanding of the theme. This is reflected in his choice of images and fragments of the conversations that arise when thousands of Russians and other like-minded people gather at the huge Soviet war cemetery in Treptower Park in Berlin. They are gathered to mark the annual celebration of Victory Day 9. May – the day the Soviet defeated Nazi Germany during World War II.

Loznitsa does little to introduce or explain to viewers what the movie is really about. Instead, he lets the slow development of a day of memories, celebration, nationalistic symbols, song and dance tell the story that carries a faint narrative feel throughout the film.

There is a sort of underlying irony in the fact that Russians living in Germany are flocking to the highly touted Treptower Park – where, unlike Western war cemeteries, there are no individual tombstones, only massive granite memorials and mass graves – to mark Soviet victory. As they raise flags and banners that highlight Russian nationalism and pay tribute to Stalin, this irony is expressed, but is never explicitly stated.

There is a kind of underlying irony in the fact that Russians living in Germany are flowing to the festive tune of Treptower Park.

soviet nostalgia. The film opens with pictures of marching boys in their teens dressed in military uniforms, before the camera moves to the entrance to the park, where we see trailers gathered. A man with two extremely well-groomed rough-haired fox terriers pulls a small cart full of flags and flowers, along with a portrait of Stalin over a parole where it says (in Russian): "Thanks, Uncle." This way, Loznitsa gives us an early key to what the movie is about.

The boys were not even born when the Soviet Union collapsed almost twenty years ago. The middle-aged men and women – wearing red carnations and black and gold St. Georg loops representing Russian victory day – would have been promising young members of Komsomol (the Leninist youth branch of the Soviet Communist Party) at best. The fact that they are mostly German citizens – probably ethnic Volga Germans who emigrated to Germany in large numbers in the 1990s – is hinted here and there by random comments picked up by a stray microphone that follows the crowd. Those who speak, however, are rarely identified, as the events we follow that day are not described.

A German-speaking man – who we believe to be German rather than Russian – delivers a tirade in a speaker that Nazism was never defeated and that today's German institutions are still characterized by this. Skilled motorcyclists with bulls from the disputed Russian motorcycle club "The Night Wolves" – endorsed a few years ago by Vladimir Putin – join other nationalists from Serbia and other pro-Russian countries. Together, they sing songs and share stories of an honorable past. Those closely watching the news know that this gang – supported by the Kremlin – has cleared a ban from the Polish government by taking a longer route through Europe to arrive at this bold celebration of Soviet nostalgia.

Et insight in Russian sentimentality. The film is a colorful and emotional sight that constantly offers thought-provoking close-ups of the granite reliefs that surround the park, thus telling the story of war and suffering that the Nazis inflicted on the Soviet people.

It is these quiet, grayish images that really let director Loznitsa escape: the heroic, social-realist portrayals of young soldiers with character-driven chin parties, resolute mothers and mutilated children may well be created as propaganda. But here – in contrast to the holiday atmosphere with its slogans, flags, occasional political disputes, vodka drinks and kids who rattle in mini-uniforms from the Red Army – we are reminded of the bitter truth about the fears of a war that killed blindly.

It is these quiet, grayish images that really let the director Loznitsa escape.

Participants continue to pour into the inner sanctuary of the park. Under brilliant and colorful symbols of Soviet greatness (Moscow's Red Square framed by a Soviet star), they cast flowers on a growing power. The mysterious power of the ritual carries with it an unexpected emotional strength.

Between and during the effortless nationalism and the rampant dance, Loznitsa's silent message of war's futility spins his hypnotic narrative.

The 'Pobedy may not suit everyone, but for those who want to find out more about why World War II continues to characterize the Russian people's soul – and how it is increasingly used by today's Russian leadership for political purposes – it is an informative glimpse into an the world where emotions still rule over rationality.

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Nick Holdsworth
Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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