With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

‘State Funeral’ Review: Saying Goodbye to Stalin

Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953. “State Funeral,” the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s fascinating and elusive new documentary, shows what happened in the next few days, as Stalin’s body lay in state at the Hall of Unions in Moscow before being transferred to the Lenin mausoleum. (It was removed eight years later, but that’s another story).

Composed entirely of footage shot at the time in various parts of the Soviet Union, the film is a haunting amalgam of official pomp and everyday experience, the double image of a totalitarian government and the people in whose name it ruled.

At the beginning, crowds gather to hear news of the dictator’s death, read out in stately, somber tones over loudspeakers. Those broadcasts, which continue as the masses shuffle past Stalin’s wreath-laden coffin, supply an abstract, rose-colored interpretation of his life amid frequent invocations of his immortality. His subjects — his comrades, in the idiom of the time — are reminded of his undying love for them, as well as of his “selflessness,” his courage and his monumental intelligence. He was, among other accomplishments, “the greatest genius in human history.”

This kind of rhetoric is evidence of the cult of personality that would be disavowed a few years later when Nikita Khrushchev came to power and undertook a program of de-Stalinization. “State Funeral” captures the official manifestations of that cult, including the gigantic portraits of Stalin hanging from public buildings and the arrival of delegations from other communist countries. Fulsome elegies are delivered by the distinctly uncharismatic men who — briefly, as it turned out — took Stalin’s place: Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lavrenti Beria. (Khrushchev, who would shortly kick them out, serves as master of ceremonies).

But Stalin’s famous visage, with its bushy mustache and sweptback hair, is upstaged by the throngs of ordinary citizens who gather to bear witness and pay tribute. The anonymous camera operators, shooting in color and in black and white in far-flung shipyards, factories, oil fields and collective farms, are Loznitsa’s vital collaborators. Intentionally or not, they gathered images that complicate and to some extent subvert the somber, emptied-out language of the regime, disclosing a complicated human reality beneath the ideological boilerplate.

Read entire article at New York Times