There is no death here! There is only eternal life!—Anonymous Communist Party Member
To paraphrase Camus, Of death, I know but one thing: there are small deaths and there are significant deaths.
There are specters haunting Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral. They are the specters of the Chairman of Ministers of the USSR, the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the recently deceased, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. The heart of the father of the nation, the bearer of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s mission to build communism, has stopped beating—and the loss of this heart has left an entire nation frozen in sorrow.
Loznitsa’s film transports viewers back to the frigid first week of March 1953, inviting us to mourn alongside millions of Soviet citizens from Belorussia to the Sea of Okhotsk. Comprising of restored footage taken during the funeral processions for Stalin, this two-hour film contains a multitude of faces, gazes, and tears. There is no voiceover providing historical context, merely the anonymous voices of party members (“Moscow calls!”) detailing Stalin’s swift decline in health, speeches by factory workers vowing to be even stronger in their pursuit of communism, and the dull and droll eulogies performed by those small men vying for power in the wake of their “old friend’s” death.
What Loznitsa has provided is not a film to be watched so much as a film to be experienced. At an early point in the film, the body of Stalin is shown lying in state. His right eyebrow remains arched, for not even death could rob him of his “sneer of cold command”. The dozens of portraits hanging from government buildings, factories, or being carried by mourners contain his iconic off-frame glance, watching over the proceedings to ensure he is valedated as the “greatest genius in world history”.
The faces of the Soviet people (and the delegations from many other communist nations) feel so close. One almost feels as if you can reach out and console them, perhaps even ask them, via a whisper, if they ever lost a family member to a show trial or gulag. The incessant exchange of nods, stares, and handshakes is a mediation on power, authoritarianism, and the spell-like results of a cult of personality.
In my two viewings of the film, I have been swayed to tears at multiple junctures, underlining a voice in the film that utters, “Stalin is dead, long live Stalin!” It is as if, in an eternal last act, Generalisimus Stalin has commanded me to look upon his works “ye Mighty, and despair!” However, there are ripples of levity amongst the ocean of stern faces and tears: several children catch sight of the camera and deliver smiles from the past—their innocence and excitement an angelic deliverance from this somber day.
It is fitting that the film, at what I consider its emotional centerpiece, features Mozart’s “Lacrimosa”. The sky darkened during my second viewing, and heavy rain began to fall as this scene commenced. Whether lowly workers or high-ranking party members, mourners marched past Stalin’s coffin as a chorus sang about the day of judgment of man. “Lord, have mercy on him,” they sang.
I struggle to conclude whose mercy is being asked for. Perhaps it is mercy for the Soviet people, united on this day, not in the name of Marxism-Leninism, but in the name of being untethered, both to reality and themselves. They have awakened from a three-decade-long dogmatic slumber and asked themselves, “Where to now, comrade?”
Or perhaps mercy is being asked for the likes of Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov and Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, those small men referenced above who would struggle for power behind the scenes in the months after Stalin’s death. “Our dried voices, when/ We whisper together/ Are quiet and meaningless.” (T.S. Eliot)
But maybe it is for the man lying in the coffin. For no one becomes a functionary of history, reading well those passions of the masses, without becoming a scourge on grand portions of humanity. “Father died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.”
Eliot, T.S. The Wasteland and Other Poems. Signet, 1998.
Shelley, Percy. Shelley. Penguin, 1985.