Review by Camden Ferrell
It is hard to deny that Joseph Stalin is one of the most consequential historical figures of the 20th century. As a result, Stalin’s death was a spectacle unlike any other. Veteran documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa chose this as the subject of his film State Funeral, which had its premiere at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. Thorough to a fault, this movie is an immersive look at Stalin’s death and funeral, but it lacks a strong narrative due to its exclusive use of archival footage.
Stalin died in March of 1953. Following his death, numerous citizens pay their respects at the Red Square and witness his burial. It’s a widespread event in the Soviet Union, and people from all walks of life mourn their leader. This is an interesting subject matter due to its historical significance and how it can be relevant to today’s culture.
The most notable aspect of the film is that it is comprised solely of archival footage of the funeral and mourning of Stalin. Editing it was no doubt a Herculean task, and Loznitsa selects some genuinely fascinating material. The footage is gorgeously shot in both color and black and white, and it really does immerse the audience into the experience. Despite not being particularly engaging over multiple hours, the movie does succeed in bringing the viewer into this historical occasion and capturing a feeling rather than a story.
However, this isn’t entirely sustainable for over two hours. The footage begins to lose its charm after constant exposure, and the length of the film significantly tests the viewer’s patience. While the footage is nice to look at, the significance and meaning derived exponentially decreases over time. The film is exhaustive and thorough, and it makes sure to leave no stones unturned in its exploration of a nation’s grief over the death of a leader.
On the surface, a movie showcasing the grief over a complicated and ethically objectionable leader, can seem problematic. However, it’s very obvious, especially by the end of the film, that the film serves as a commentary on the cult of personality surrounding Stalin. Its subtext explores the effects of totalitarianism and serves as a modern reminder of how someone like Stalin could significantly affect his subjects.
Incredibly thorough and historically significant, State Funeral ultimately suffers at the hands of its bloated runtime and lack of engagement. It’s informative and somewhat interesting in its immersion, but it will most likely turn off most viewers with its structure.
State Funeral will be available in select theaters May 7.