Imagine what a Trump Funeral would look like. After all, Trump turned America into a funeral home with 400,000+ deaths.
Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin may have imagined the Soviet ruler’s demise in satiric terms, but its ridiculousness has nothing on the breathtaking absurdity and horror of State Funeral. The final piece of a loose trilogy that also includes The Trial (2018) and The Event (2018), Sergei Loznitsa’s stellar documentary (out now) is another found-footage feature culled from preexisting material—in this case, 40 hours of restored black-and-white and color footage, shot by over 200 cameramen, of the monumental pomp and circumstance surrounding Stalin’s funeral in March of 1953. Capturing throngs of mourning citizens and Communist Party apparatchiks as they stoically and/or tearily pay tribute to their beloved tyrant, it’s an entrancing portrait of extravagant devotion and delusion. Through its fixed gaze on repetitive sights and sounds of Soviet fanaticism, it repurposes what was intended to be a propagandistic hero-worship work into a damning critique of a cruel and disastrous cult of personality.
There’s no prefacing context for State Funeral, which begins with Stalin’s coffin being delivered to the Hall of Columns, where it’s displayed amidst a lush array of plants, bouquets, and wreaths. Just as Stalin’s corpse has been prepared for this public viewing, so too has this scene been meticulously staged, with his body expertly framed by the surrounding flowers and radiantly illuminated by spotlights. Far from detached, this imagery—like the rest employed by Loznitsa—has been crafted with deliberate political purpose: to memorialize, to venerate, and to inspire. So too have the ensuing clips of citizens taking to the streets, in Moscow’s Red Square as well as in Soviet Socialist Republics like Lithuania, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan, to stand quietly as they listen to radio broadcasts of the news of Stalin’s death, and of encouraging words about the future of the Soviet Union. There’s a spartan, natural beauty to these vistas, which often have a chiaroscuro dynamism that recalls the finest gems of the Italian neorealist period—and, also, Leni Riefenstahl’s similar glorification project, Triumph of the Will.