Who would have guessed that within a five-year period, we’d be treated to not one but two movies about one of history’s most delightful events, the demise of Joe Stalin? Following the smart 2017 comedy The Death of Stalin, though, the new film lacks comic zing. It’s called State Funeral, and it’s such a slog of a documentary that it could have been made by the Soviet state propaganda machine.
. . . And it was! Sort of. When Pal Joey died in 1953, hailed as a “supreme genius” by the New York Times, the glorious socialist cinematic machine swung into action, sending out documentary crews to check in on the embalmed corpse as it lay in state in the House of Unions in Moscow before it was transported to its temporary final resting place in Lenin’s Tomb (where it lay until 1961). The crews also catch the obsequious obsequies of comrades in the street, filmed in every corner of the evil empire. The opening scenes take us through long, extremely monotonous takes of the mourning displays put on, or staged, by huge crowds of citizens as they listen somberly to announcements about Stalin’s death through loudspeakers. Then we move on to the airport, where delegations arrive from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Communist party of Great Britain; for about five minutes, we watch hundreds of wreaths being laid in Moscow.
So it goes, for two and a quarter hours. There is no narration, no historical context supplied by experts, no readings from eyewitness accounts. Except for some classical music added to the soundtrack, we basically observe nothing but what was picked up by the cameras and their accompanying microphones on the days following Stalin’s expiration. State Funeral is what the highbrows call “pure cinema” and what I call “archival footage.”
All of this material was assembled for a Soviet documentary titled The Great Farewell, which was never released. The restoration team has done a fantastic job making all of this film look brand-new; shot in both color and black-and-white, the footage sparkles as if it was shot this year. There is some interest (for a couple of minutes, anyway) in perusing the expressions of the heaving crowds of mourners. Hey — did that guy flash a smirk for half a second? To what extent were these people faking it for the cameras? Who knows? That’s why it would have been helpful for someone to read off diary entries for us, or memories of the day shared later.
But to this day, Stalin commands alarmingly wide admiration among Russians. When you live in a totalitarian disinformation state, maybe you come to genuinely admire the man around whom the cult of personality is so assiduously assembled. On the other hand, if you had no gift for playing along with whatever the regime expected of you, by 1953, you would have been dead for about 30 years. And the Russians are famously not the most expressive people on the planet. Whatever was going on inside these people’s heads, they were masters of the stone face. Today’s viewer is not going to derive much from watching 15 minutes of rank-and-file citizens standing around listening to state propaganda announcements in public squares.
The no-context, fly-on-the-wall documentary format is beloved by many critics, but it is not even beliked by me; just as I don’t open a book of history hoping to be presented with a sheaf of contemporaneous memos and documents from a given period, I expect a documentary filmmaker (in this case, the director is Sergei Loznitsa) to do much the same work as any other kind of filmmaker. The director should edit images together to assemble a narrative, not just dump truckloads of footage upon us with a cosmic shrug and expect us to make sense of it all. This film, though it contains images of Stalin’s nefarious comrades Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lavrentiy Beria, doesn’t even identify them for the audience, much less discuss who they were. Nor should a documentary be so profligate with the audience’s time and patience as to expend five or ten minutes on a series of mind-freezingly repetitive images such as those of people trudging along in a mourning parade or filing past the casket. I look forward to the footage used in State Funeral being repurposed to make a real movie, but this is not it.