Interview: Sergei Loznitsa and The Natural History of Destruction

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa returned to the Cannes Film Festival this year with another archival documentary film entitled The Natural History of Destruction (last year he debuted Babi Yar: Context on the mass killing of Ukrainian Jews by Nazi Germany’s forces in September 1941). The film is quite close to the English title of German author W.G. Sebald’s 1999 book in which he not only wrote about the devastation created by Allied air raids on German cities during the Second World War, but also how its population processed the memory of those civilian bombings.

This is not the first time that Loznitsa has taken inspiration from Sebald: his 2016 film Austerlitz appropriated the title of another one of his books, which was dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. There he simply filmed tourists visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

In this latest documentary, however, Loznitsa takes long uncut clips of archive footage, mostly black and white but occasionally switching to color by using digital technology, to display the horrors of the Second World War. The documentary begins with shots of Germans and Brits (though we often don’t know which is which as no chronological order or contextualization are given to these images) calmly going about their everyday lives in the 1930s and completely oblivious to the tragedies of war and destruction that await them. He then shifts to aerial views of planes dropping bombs and thereafter, we see nothing but absolute destruction: scenes of rubble, ruin, and corpses.

Through these images Loznitsa seems to be asking his viewers to use their conscience and reflect not only about war, but also our morals. As the Russia-Ukraine war wages on, this introspection remains as relevant as it was 80 years ago. Loznitsa held a round-table discussion at Cannes with the international press, which led to the following in-depth discussion.

Q: You use W.B. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction as the basis of your documentary. To what extent does Sebald’s book figure in it?

Sergei Loznitsa (SL): Sebald’s book, of course, has been an inspirational impulse for me because he puts forward very important questions. First and foremost, the question of perception. What happened during the war? What was the perception of these events in post-WWII Germany? Were they really appropriate and match the reality of what happened at the time? When I make a film I need to find a way to express these ideas visually. And if we are talking about the destruction then my purpose in the film is just to show destruction, to focus on destruction and to exclude all other elements from the narrative and simply to concentrate on destruction. This is why, for example, I excluded any chronology from the narrative. I’m not interested in the fact of who did what to whom or who was the first or the second to do so. I’m not interested in this because the way we perceive chronology is that if somebody started first then it means that the one who did something second was acting in response and there was a kind of revenge. And if we enter into this territory this distracts us from the main idea of the film. What I’m interested in is that the principle that was employed by all the armies involved in the war was having the technical resources to bomb and destroy civilian targets. They all employed this method of conducting warfare.

Q: A lot has been said about how this documentary has become tragically relevant in recent months due to the ensuing Russia-Ukrainian war. Why are you asking the viewers of The Natural History of Destruction the following: is targeting innocent civilians a legitimate way of conducting warfare?

SL: Because this hasn’t been reflected upon. There hasn’t been much public discussion about this and Sebald’s essay on this subject was only published in 1999. Unless we discuss and reflect upon this it will continue to haunt us and to exist. The same destruction on a smaller scale, for example, was at work in Grozny in Chechnya when Russian troops were destroying the city. Also, Russian pilots bombed Syria and destroyed Syrian cities. Yet to the majority of people this was something happening far away and didn’t really matter that much. Now the same guys who practiced in Syria are flying over Ukraine. This shows how short-sighted we are because we’re not really reflecting upon what is going on. We always have this impression that when something is happening far away it doesn’t concern us because it’s just something far away, but in fact the world, our world, is a very small place and we’re all connected. Of course, what’s going on in Ukraine right now is horrible and absolutely terrifying, but again it shows us that we seem to be absolutely helpless. We don’t have a way to stop this and we’ve been thrown back eighty years to the situation of the Second World War.

Q: What should be done to change the bombing of innocent civilians in Ukraine, Syria or anywhere else in the world?

SL: I’m not a politician; I’m a filmmaker. But if we’re talking about the politicians I’d say that they have to act and the citizens of their countries have to demand that they take action. And if we’re talking about those countries that possess fifth-generation weaponry, they need to take action. The first decision that had to be taken by NATO member states was to introduce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This is not a military decision, but a political one.

Q: You decided to make this documentary before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How did you feel on February 24th?

SL: First of all, I have been talking about the danger of this war happening for quite a while and I was trying to give warnings (in fact, Loznitsa addressed Russian aggression in Ukraine in his 2018 fictional feature Donbass). Also, it’s important to mention that the war has been going on since 2014 and Putin’s decision to actually invade Ukraine was the most idiotic decision he could have taken. It was obvious to anyone who understands anything that it couldn’t possibly have been a kind of blitzkrieg, i.e. an easy conquest. This is just so stupid. This is so unjustified. I was, of course, very distressed. What other kind of attitude can you have to this terrible situation?

Q: Ok, but what was your first reaction?

SL: I received a message. I was awoken by a message that I received from my friend, the Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky who wrote me, “Sergei, forgive me, it’s a nightmare. I’m so sorry, forgive me.

Q: You recently spoke out against the boycott of Russian culture. Why did you feel propelled to do so?

SL: Well, how can we possibly boycott culture? I just don’t get it. We’ve been through these situations many times in the past. How is it possible that we come back to the same issue, the same question? Ukraine is a multi-cultural and multi-national society. There is a substantial percentage of ethnic Russians who are Ukrainian citizens. So, if you propose to boycott Russian-language culture you are effectively proposing to boycott the culture of a large percentage of your own citizens. It reminds me of the situation of 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans who lived in the Soviet Union, who were Soviet citizens, were being deported to Siberia. They were persecuted and discriminated against simply for being ethnic Germans. I am also under the impression that it might be that this agenda of cultural boycott is being imposed upon us and in a way it’s replacing a much more serious discussion about the responsibility of European politicians who have been for years appeasing the Russian regime, which is something that we really need to talk about regarding this war. They were doing business with Russia and moreover, made Europe dependent on Russia, particularly Russian energy resources. Somehow instead of talking about this we are all talking about boycotting Russian culture. Let’s ban Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov from the Red Carpet at Cannes and we shall win the war. Banning Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s popular 1812 Overture as the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra did in March won’t stop the war. If you apply just a little bit of logical thinking it all becomes absurd.

Q: The Natural History of Destruction is in some way a counterpoint to Austerlitz. As Sebald’s works are profoundly connected to the theme of memory, how do you think Jewish people will perceive your latest documentary?

SL: I don’t know. I haven’t had any feedback yet and I can’t comment on this now because I believe, I assume, that nowadays this whole subject wouldn’t be perceived as such a painful issue in Israel or at least not a sensitive one. So, to rephrase your question: do you think that Jews, the Israeli audience today, would feel compassion towards the sufferings of Germans during WWII? Perhaps it depends, first of all, on the individual and his or her level of education, as well as humanity.

Q: In the movie we see speeches by Winston Churchill, Field Marshall Montgomery, Joseph Goebbels, but not Adolf Hitler. Was this an intentional choice?

SL: There is also a speech by Admiral Arthur Harris. For me these four speeches were enough to present the entire intellectual concepts behind this campaign. There is also no Stalin in the film.

Q: There are some images of people in a factory building planes while listening to the music of Richard Wagner.

SL: It’s an important episode. Thank God I have this episode. The piece that is performed at the German factory is Wagner’s Meistersinger overture. I thought it was very interesting to combine Wagner’s music with this industrial process of creating war machines – these bombs and airplanes – because it seems that both Wagner’s music and the way this process is filmed is full of romanticism. We’re talking about German footage taken from that period, and the composition of this shot, the lighting and everything we see there is so specifically German. Everything was staged compared to British footage, where the Brits were close to cinéma vérité in the sense that it’s not staged. There’s a live camera and people move in a relaxed manner. You can see that the German people are always in a state of tension and this is why Wagner’s music is united with the scene. It shows how they produced the idea of a heroic state.

Q: There is also some incredible footage taken from the sky. Why do you think they shot these images from up above?

SL: The footage was made purely for practical military reasons because they had to shoot which targets they destroyed. We even found some footage where the targets are clearly marked. When we edited this whole episode, even before doing any sound design, the image itself was so powerful and impressive that I just thought to myself, “Wow! I managed to show this horror. I managed to show what was happening without basically saying or showing much, but simply by showing this light and darkness.” This displays the essence of cinema: to inspire and to launch your imagination into work. Cinema happens in the back of your head when the image opens up your imagination and your own fantasy.

Q: Going back to the footage we are seeing in Ukraine in the present. Are you surprised that the images from eighty years ago are so eerily similar to those we are seeing right now?

SL: It’s a coincidence that the film is being released at the moment when the war in Ukraine is going on. We are facing a rather peculiar situation. This nightmare actually exists. It’s always somewhere around, but we are not aware of it and we cannot recognize it, and then something happens and we are suddenly aware again.

Q: You recently resigned from the European Film Academy over its refusal to call Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a war. Could you comment?

SL: Kiev was already being bombed and Russian tanks were advancing through Ukrainian territory and the European Film Academy was issuing this statement in which they expressed their concern about the well-being of Ukrainian filmmakers and how they would create art under these difficult circumstances. They were talking about the growing tension. I was shocked that they were unwilling to describe the shit that’s happening in Ukraine. It’s a war. I responded immediately and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his support of my position.