How Stalin’s Funeral Exposed the Crazed Cult of Soviet Communism
Using hours of found footage, ‘State Funeral’ revisits the funeral of Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin, offering “a damning critique of a… disastrous cult of personality.”
Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin may have imagined the Soviet ruler’s demise in satiric terms, but its ridiculousness has nothing on the breathtaking absurdity and horror of State Funeral. The final piece of a loose trilogy that also includes The Trial (2018) and The Event (2018), Sergei Loznitsa’s stellar documentary (out now) is another found-footage feature culled from preexisting material—in this case, 40 hours of restored black-and-white and color footage, shot by over 200 cameramen, of the monumental pomp and circumstance surrounding Stalin’s funeral in March of 1953. Capturing throngs of mourning citizens and Communist Party apparatchiks as they stoically and/or tearily pay tribute to their beloved tyrant, it’s an entrancing portrait of extravagant devotion and delusion. Through its fixed gaze on repetitive sights and sounds of Soviet fanaticism, it repurposes what was intended to be a propagandistic hero-worship work into a damning critique of a cruel and disastrous cult of personality.
There’s no prefacing context for State Funeral, which begins with Stalin’s coffin being delivered to the Hall of Columns, where it’s displayed amidst a lush array of plants, bouquets, and wreaths. Just as Stalin’s corpse has been prepared for this public viewing, so too has this scene been meticulously staged, with his body expertly framed by the surrounding flowers and radiantly illuminated by spotlights. Far from detached, this imagery—like the rest employed by Loznitsa—has been crafted with deliberate political purpose: to memorialize, to venerate, and to inspire. So too have the ensuing clips of citizens taking to the streets, in Moscow’s Red Square as well as in Soviet Socialist Republics like Lithuania, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan, to stand quietly as they listen to radio broadcasts of the news of Stalin’s death, and of encouraging words about the future of the Soviet Union. There’s a spartan, natural beauty to these vistas, which often have a chiaroscuro dynamism that recalls the finest gems of the Italian neorealist period—and, also, Leni Riefenstahl’s similar glorification project, Triumph of the Will.
Though he’s edited his archival treasure trove down to 135 minutes, Loznitsa nonetheless luxuriates in the uniformity of this action. State Funeral is a compendium of shots of men and women congregating en masse in large outdoor spaces to bow their heads, or shuffling forward in enormous processions through snowy fields, courtyards and corridors to view Stalin lying in state. The primary voices heard are those carried on the airwaves, which lament the loss of their leader while praising his legacy and guaranteeing the perpetual success of his Communist vision. “Death has come—and we are all alone,” they moan. “Stalin is dead, long live Stalin!” they proclaim. “The Central Committee, invincible and glorious, will overcome and will defy his death!” they promise. “We knew he was the best on our planet, victorious in every battle, every war. To think of other people was his tenet, his heart was selfless to the core,” they cheer, dubbing him “the greatest torchbearer for the cause of world peace.”
State Funeral doesn’t need to explicitly censure this as gross fantasy; it makes that point simply by presenting it, over and over again. The disconnect between the rapturous lionization of Stalin, a monster who killed millions of people—by onlookers, and by adoring Party commentators—and the grimness of this place and its people is plain for all to see. For all the talk about the Soviet Union’s status as the world’s beacon of progress (thanks to its Leninist-Stalinist cause), what’s shown here is a cold, gray, wintery milieu—all austere buildings situated in drab metro and rural environments—populated by grim-faced men and women dressed in near-identical coats, hats, and head scarves. It’s Communist equality through indistinguishable misery and shared zealotry.
Even for a moment of national bereavement, the joylessness depicted by State Funeral is shockingly stark. Factory foremen and Party bigwigs wax rhapsodic about Stalin’s great accomplishments and the bright tomorrow his toil has secured for the Soviet Union, and the fact that the former isn’t true and the latter didn’t come to pass only underscores the lunacy of this spectacle, which is mesmerizing in its scale, its mundanity, and its homogeneity. Meanwhile, the constant droning on about how Stalin made the Soviet Union strong, how that strength will continue to grow even after his death, and that unity and resolve are likewise on the rise, carries with it an air of desperation. In these over-the-top huzzahs and pledges, one gets a sense of the perilousness of this particular moment in the country’s history, when transition carried with it the potential for world-stage regression, if not catastrophe.
Loznitsa goes back and forth returning to the same spots, the same scenes, albeit from different cinematographic vantage points, to create an impression of the advancement of time—the flow of bodies, and history—even as he simultaneously fragments and fractures his chronological account. His film is at once linear and circular, trudging onward toward its inevitable conclusion while also doubling back on itself to suggest a cycle—of behavior, and thought—that can’t be broken. That sly formalism makes State Funeral hypnotically monotonous, allowing it to cast a spell that’s not unlike the brainwashing being perpetrated by Stalin’s eulogizers. Other than those verbal commendations, the only other sounds present are muffled orchestral tunes and crowd noises, which blend together to create a soundscape that enhances the overarching atmosphere of dull indistinctness.
Save for a quick clip of a Party official sneezing on a platform (replete with newly recorded sound effect), there’s no humor to State Funeral—or, at least, no overt humor. The film’s closing passages build to a crescendo of anguish, longing and hope, full of firing canons, tolling bells, bellowing horns, and Matvey Blanter and Mikhail Isakovsky’s sentimental Stalin lullaby (“Sleep tight, my sparrow”), thereby conveying the epic grandeur sought by the Party. Yet in the context of the film’s preceding, slyly critical action, this finale comes across as a stupendously unwarranted and misguided celebration of a despot by a Party, and people, clinging to comforting lies in order to avoid facing harsh truths. Thus, at its end, State Funeral plays like a sad, scary joke about institutionalized authoritarian mania—one punctuated by a textual coda that hammers home the monstrous reality lurking beneath this totalitarian exhibition’s reverent façade.