Commentary on the film directed by Sergei Loznitsa

Perhaps one of the most pathetic episodes of World War II was the blockade of the city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). From October 1941 to January 1944, there were about 870 days of almost complete siege, which led to the death of more than a million people, a third of the population. Most died of cold, starvation, and diseases such as typhus, scarlet fever, and jaundice; many perished in the bombings. Adolf Hitler's expectation was to asphyxiate and liquidate the city with a minimum of losses to the German forces. The strict rationing of food, especially in the first winter of the siege, had such an impact that resorting to cannibalism became an option, even among loved ones from the same family.

Blockada (2006), by Sergei Loznitsa, is a 52-minute exercise on the blockade of Leningrad, made exclusively from archival material, mostly from newsreel, without narration and/or interviews, with a track of natural noises built entirely artificially, in a studio. On January 27, 2014, in Berlin, the Russian journalist and writer Daniel Granin addressed the German Parliament on the siege of Leningrad. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the main leaders of that Legislative House were present. Granin, aged 95, a soldier stationed in the city at the time, did not hesitate: “The blockade was sudden and unexpected, just as the war was unexpected for the country. There were no reserves of fuel, of food… one after the other, tragedies began to happen, electricity and electricity ran out, there was no water, sewage system, central heating… The trams stopped running, adding, in the middle of winter, three or four hours of walking to the heavy work routine. The added burden of walking further weakened the muscular system, including weakening of the myocardium…the number of sudden deaths in the streets was rising rapidly. Between December 6 and 13, 1941, 841 bodies were taken from the streets to the death chambers. By mid-month, at least 160 people a day were collapsing in the streets".

Blockada, the film by Sergei Loznitsa, is immersed in this almost dreamlike flow of memories and latencies, voluntary and involuntary. Its primary source – newsreel material – reproduces images used to exhaustion in other productions, some of them as vignettes of television grids, recurrent signs of memory. every plan Blockada contains an expressive value in itself. Ordered to convey a record of the population's routine resistance, they acquire a significant quality, which reaches the threshold of a poetic vision of Leningrad under siege.

Thematic blocks – separated by black screen interpolations, alluding to the blackouts, as suggested by Denise Youngblood – show the recovery of books from a half-destroyed library, buses and trucks abandoned on snow-buried avenues or the desperation of people extracting water from the ice on the streets. With the absence of narration, the meticulous trail of noise ends up triggering a strangeness in the reception of the film, a proximity effect that is even intimidating due to its adherence to the scenes shown. Trivial sounds – creaking door, child crying, passing car – add an aura of (uncanny) familiarity to the film, softening the viewer's adherence. The block of images with the greatest impact shows abandoned bodies, or wrapped in cloth, including children, mounted and sounded on the same tuning fork. The result, in other words, is an unprecedented sequence of sound-images, images expanded by the use of sound. Real ghosts.

Everything works, in Loznitsa's scheme, as if the spectator's interaction with the cinematographic diegesis were, in itself, the operation of reconstructing the past through visual and sound microelements. His strategy, however, sabotages the usual profile of films built fundamentally from archival footage. With the spectator's sensorial-motor scheme stimulated, the articulation between sound and image establishes the disturbing effect that characterizes Blockada. Human vision, recalls Michel Chion, is partial and directional: hearing is omnidirectional.

The images of Blockada, filmed with the vocabulary of newsreels, have a structured system of orientation that reassures the viewer of the physical limits within which the action unfolds. In contrast, the soundtrack, the noises, come from all sides and sources, inside and outside the visual field. To top it all off, the absence of narration – and equally of any intelligible dialogue – deliberately empties possible sound powers that could come to dominate the image. The sound track disorients the viewer, putting in check the usual interdependence between real and virtual that is done to build what we call “reality”.

Such ambiguity reaches its apex in the final sequence, which passes from the ecstasy of the liberated population, punctuated by fireworks, to the relentless revenge of the mass execution of the Germans, which took place on January 5, 1946. These last images, the only ones that were not in the four-hour set of newsreel material, were extracted from the documentary A People's Verdict.

The word documentary, said Alberto Cavalcanti, undoubtedly has “a taste of dust and boredom”. The quote, which is well known, is even more valid for archival film, in particular newsreel. The idea of ​​cans sleeping in some forgotten warehouse comes to mind when talking about documentaries made from the “cinema of current affairs”. Consumed practically at the moment of production, the images of newsreels have a unique capacity, however, to recover dramatic gestures laden with historicity. The merit of Loznitsa was to update this potency in Blockada.

*João Lanari Bo Professor of Cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasilia (UnB).



Russia, 2006, 52 minutes.
Directed by: Sergei Loznitsa


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