Review: Babi Yar. Context (2021)

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Babi Yar. Context (2021)

Directed by: Sergei Loznitsa | 121 minutes | documentary

The IMDB page dryly features the protagonists of the documentary ‘Babi Yar. Context’ digitally chiseled. You can click on: Hans Frank, governor-general for the eastern part of the Nazi Empire; Hans Isenmann, an SS officer; Nikita Khrushchev, former Soviet leader; and so on. In the context of this impressive documentary, you will not be disappointed with this list.

Sergei Loznitsa is in charge of the range of penetrating visual material about the impact of the Second World War on what is now Ukraine. Loznitsa was born (1964) in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and moved to Kiev during his childhood. For this documentary, Loznitsa once again bites into a turbulent part of world history. Barely two years earlier, he produced ‘State Funeral’ (2020), in which images of Stalin’s state funeral orchestrated by the Soviet regime serve as a glimpse into the grotesque visual culture of a dictatorship. For ‘Babi Yar. Context’ Loznitsa also wrote the screenplay and his regular editor Danielius Kokanauskis and producer Maria Baker – Chaustova were also present. This team approached archives from Kiev, Berlin and Moscow to show the viewer with restored images how Ukrainian and European histories are swirling with unresolved traumas.

Met by tufts of enthusiasts, the German army triumphantly takes possession of western Ukraine in 1939. After a brief truce, Nazi Germany declares war on the Soviet Union and deals a devastating blow to the Red Army on Ukrainian territory. What’s left of the Red Army is imprisoned or displaced, leaving behind wreckage of man and machine (images of this are eerily reminiscent of the bombed Iraqi army in the last Gulf War). The pitch-black pivot of the documentary is the tightly organized mass murder of more than 33,000 Kiev Jews in the Babi Yar ravine and the persecution of another hundreds of thousands of Jews on Ukrainian soil during the German occupation. Loznitsa can only present fragments of images of this. The destruction of visual material was part of the genocide by the Nazi regime, and historiography also suffered. The few images it can show are a testament to the importance of lore and testimony.

Loznitsa uses for ‘Babi Yar. Context’ much more accompanying text as historically justified connective tissue than in ‘State Funeral’. You can therefore see the ‘Context’ addition to the film title as a reference to present-day Ukraine and its relationship to the extremely destructive sides of Europe and Russia in the twentieth century. One thing definitely sticks, the return of a shared past. The announced end of history with the fall of the wall turned out to be only a blinding dream. However, the past itself did not come without warnings.

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