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The uninhibited celebration of Soviet nostalgia

Den' 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, Den' Victory (2018). The film is a poetic exploration of the enduring, almost mythical power that the 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 subject. This is expressed in his choice of images and fragments of the conversations that occur when thousands of Russians and other like-minded people gather at the vast Soviet war cemetery in Treptower Park in Berlin. They are gathered to mark the annual celebration of Victory Day on May 9 – the day the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

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

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

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

Soviet nostalgia. The film opens with images of marching teenage boys dressed in military uniforms, before the camera moves to the entrance to the park, where we see supporters gathered. A man with two extremely well-groomed rough-haired fox terriers pulls a small cart fully loaded with flags and flowers along with a portrait of Stalin above a slogan that reads (in Russian): "Thank you, uncle." In this way, Loznitsa gives us an early key to what the film is about.

The boys weren't even born when the Soviet Union collapsed nearly twenty years ago. The middle-aged men and women—wearing red carnations and black and gold St. George bows representing Russian Victory Day—would at best have been promising young members of the Komsomol (the Leninist youth wing of the Soviet Communist Party). 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 through casual comments picked up by a roving microphone following the crowd. Those who speak, however, are rarely identified, as the events we follow this day are not described.

A German-speaking man – who we understand from the context is German rather than Russian – delivers a tirade in a loudspeaker about how Nazism was never defeated and that today's German institutions are still characterized by this. Leather-clad motorcyclists with bull necks from the controversial Russian MC 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 exchange stories about a glorious past. Those who follow the news closely know that this Kremlin-backed band has evaded a ban from the Polish government by taking a longer route through Europe to get to this bold celebration of Soviet nostalgia.

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

It is these quiet, greyish images that really allow director Loznitsa to let loose: the heroic, social realist depictions of young soldiers with characterful chins, determined mothers and mutilated children could well be created as propaganda. But here – in contrast to the holiday atmosphere with its slogans, flags, occasional political disputes, vodka drinks and children shouting in mini Red Army uniforms – we are reminded of the bitter truth about the horrors of a war that killed blindly.

It's these still, greyish images that really let director Loznitsa loose.

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

Between and beneath the effortless nationalism and the unrestrained dancing, Loznitsa's silent message about the meaninglessness of war spins its hypnotic narrative.

Den' Victory may not be to everyone's taste, but for those who want to find out more about why the Second World War continues to mark the Russian psyche – and how it continues to be used by today's Russian leadership for political purposes – it is an informative glimpse into a the world where emotions still rule over rationality.

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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