Sergei Loznitsa’s primary strength as a director, as seen in his documentary work (‘Maidan’, ‘Austerlitz’), is being able to extract small moments of insight and inscrutability from crowds and faces. Loznitsa’s latest theatrical narrative film, ‘Donbass’ (which forms a rough trilogy with two of his previous features, ‘My Joy’ and ‘A Gentle Creature’) offers another social allegory that functions as a bitter criticism of Russia’s contemporary politics.
This time, instead of an unidentified Russian setting, the action takes place in Donbass, where the conflict between Ukraine and the Russian-supported Donetsk People's Republic has been ongoing since 2014. NATO considers the conflict a war with Russian irregulars, but others consider it to be a war between Russian proxies and Ukraine. Since the start of the conflict there have been more than ten ceasefires, each intended to operate indefinitely... but none of them stopped the violence.
The film’s opening sequence throws up some intriguing questions about the staging of conflict and propaganda. It shows a group of extras being made up in a trailer at a film shoot before a production assistant leads them out into what resembles a pitched battle, resulting in a chase through a housing complex under fire, captured on a shaky handheld camera.
Loznitsa has composed his narrative from thirteen interconnected vignettes, veering between farce and grim drama: an unlucky character will move from one situation to the next, or an incident will spill over, and the focus will shift to another set of characters, thus initiating a new episode. The many unpredictable ways in which the episodes are connected, and when these links are going to occur are the film’s most intriguing aspect.
Some of these episodes are darkly funny, such as a scene wherein the camera roams a large hall full of men speaking on the phone to their banks or families, all of them arranging for bribes to be wired to the military. Elsewhere, we see a woman (Olesya Zhurakovskaya), accused in a newspaper of taking a bribe, dumping a pail of faeces onto a town councilman; and a functionary (Boris Kamorzin) presenting the ridiculous amounts of supplies the separatists have set aside for the staff of a maternity ward.
Loznitsa has composed his narrative from thirteen interconnected vignettes, veering between The many unpredictable ways in which the episodes are connected and when these links are going to occur are the film’s most intriguing aspect.
The episodes become increasingly tense and cruel as we see how conflict has chipped away at social order and human nature: the male passengers of a bus being forced to strip down in the snow as potential new army recruits; a garish wedding is conducted according to the laws of "Novorossiya”; and a soldier ties a defector (Valery Antoniuk) to a pole in the middle of the street so that passersby may abuse him. A mob quickly forms and the man is brutally beaten for a gruelling amount of screen time.
Like Loznitsa’s previous films, the colour palette is heavy on shadowy autumnal hues and dull greys and blues. Loznitsa’s DP, Oleg Mutu, keeps his camera wandering around through the middle of the action, documenting the ground-level misery and squabbling - the widescreen compositions are teeming with horrible people doing bad things at all times.
An oppressive but thought-provoking viewing experience, Sergei Loznitsa’s ‘Donbass’ peers deep into the Russian soul and finds an unfathomable blackness lurking there.