Ukrainian director on documentaries: “War acts like a virus”

Ukrainian director on documentaries: “War acts like a virus”

Sergei Loznitsa made a documentary about air wars. The Ukrainian director about the civilian population and killing as an end in itself.

People fleeing a bombed city during World War II

Reflecting on wars with historical material: Scene from “Air War” Photo: Progress Film Distribution

For his documentary film “Air War – The Natural History of Destruction”, the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa was inspired by the book “Air War and Literature” (1999) by the writer WG Sebald. In it he asked about the role of the Allied bombing of German cities in German post-war literature. The book sparked a debate at the time. At the beginning of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, Loznitsa had demanded in the taz that NATO secure Ukrainian airspace.

taz: Lord Loznitsa, based on your 2016 film Austerlitz With your new documentary film “Air War – The Natural History of Destruction” you are once again approaching a work by the writer W. G. Sebald. What fascinates you about the author’s work and specifically about the essay “Air War and Literature”, the basis of your film, which is about the destruction of German cities like Cologne and Dresden during the Second World War?

Sergei Loznitsa: The reason I’m attracted and fascinated by Sebald is that he raises unanswerable questions in his books. Questions that resonate for a long time and that cannot be clearly clarified, not even for our society today. I don’t mean that in a political or ideological sense, but more fundamentally. “Air War” is about the possibility of using a civilian population as a weapon of war. This idea first came up during World War I, but was fully developed and incorporated into the war machine by World War II.

What is drastic about this idea in a historical sense?

Since civilians became a target, humanity has entered a new phase in military history. In the past, wars were fought between armies of rulers – think of the war between Charles XII. and Peter the Great – but since the war against the civilian population, the war has become total, involving the entire nation, the entire population, including civilians.

Military action against the civilian population also plays a role in today’s wars.

The concept of total war can also be seen in the Russian war against Ukraine. I fear this war will continue to escalate and more areas and countries will become involved. This is the situation we are in at the moment. If we want to or not. There is therefore hardly a topic that would be more relevant to our time than that of film.

Person: The director Sergei Loznitsa was born in 1964 and grew up in Kyiv. He studied applied mathematics, worked in Kyiv at the Institute of Cybernetics on artificial intelligence. In 1991 he moved to Moscow and studied directing. Since 2001 he has lived with his family mostly in Germany.

Films: Loznitsa has made over 20 documentaries, including Maidan (2014) about the Ukrainian revolution, “State Funeral” (2019) from archive footage of Stalin’s funeral and “Babyn Yar. Context” (2021). His fourth feature film “Donbass” from 2018 was released again last year.

The subtitle of your film – “The Natural History of Destruction” – is a rather sinister finding of civilization. Are you convinced that human beings have a natural tendency towards violence, towards acts of war?

Carl von Clausewitz describes the phenomenon in a clear and precise way in his book on war. Clausewitz says that basically all of human history is a history of wars. Periods of peace appear here only as necessary pauses in preparation for a new war. In my view, we humans have not done anything to refute Clausewitz’s theory.

The film you made from archive material, which you assemble non-chronologically, shows the Western Allies’ bombing campaign as a war crime. Historically, the classification is disputed. Wasn’t the bombing of German cities an understandable means, especially with regard to the support of broad sections of the German population for the Nazi regime?

In my opinion, asking the question in this way throws us far back into a civilizational past, because we neglect the concept of individual responsibility and assume collective guilt. One of the aims of the Allied bombing was to turn the German people against their rulers and to provoke a possible revolt against the Nazi government. But this goal was missed, the opposite of it happened.

In this context we must speak of an important aspect, that of technological, industrial progress. At the time we are talking about, the war industry has advanced far, the production of weapons is becoming mass production. The result of this technological advance can be seen in the example of the destruction of the city of Dresden. But we are now speaking exclusively of the destruction of the German cities. As far as this principle is concerned, we should of course also talk about the bombing of British, French and Dutch cities.

Whether the bombing of German cities, which your film shows, was militarily necessary and expedient or whether it should be considered a war crime is a matter of debate among historians to this day. In the German context, it is important to see that the commemoration of the destruction, such as that of the city of Dresden, is regularly instrumentalized by the political right in order to relativize German crimes.

But now we’re already talking about the area of ​​propaganda, a subject I don’t deal with in the film. The example reminds me of the Soviet Union, in whose times I grew up. Whenever there was internal criticism because something went wrong, there was a typical evasive answer of the kind: But in the United States there are also grievances! Black people are discriminated against and lynched there. And so forth.

Here the procedure of the philosopher Plato always seemed advisable to me, who at the decisive moment went back to the point and used to say: But we are talking about Greece! My point is: every war is madness. It doesn’t matter what war and who the warring factions are – it is always an act of insanity. War acts like a kind of virus that spreads. At a certain point in the war, the cause of the war conflict becomes irrelevant – killing becomes an end in itself.

Her cinematic method is always one of restraint. Her documentaries manage without classifying what is shown, without explanatory voice-over and without the genre-typical talking heads. We saw that last in yours documentary works on the Maidan, the Leningrad blockade and the Babyn Yar massacre. The montage of the images and the carefully prepared soundtrack should speak for themselves. But doesn’t your method sometimes reach its limits? Wouldn’t “Luftkrieg” need more context?

My films are invitations to think about topics and questions to which I don’t have a clear answer either. If I devote myself to a question in a film, it is because for me it is an unsolved one. My films elude black and white categorization, including the current one. “Air War” is meant to be an invitation to think about the subject. Since you mention the soundtrack, it’s richer and more intense than in my previous films. It was also my first time working with a composer (editor: Vladimir Golovnitski). The music is very precise. In introducing them, I also introduce a certain point of view – an outsider’s, a spectator’s point of view on the events. The sound plays an important role in the development of the film’s dramaturgy.

What effect do you expect to have on the audience?

I want viewers to think about what happened and put themselves in the shoes of the civilians who were innocently affected by the war. The film has become a very immersive experience in that regard. As a spectator, you are drawn into the events and experience with skin and hair and your soul what has happened.

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