Best of Doc #4 review: Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa)

“Documents like Babi Yar. Context help the world to stay vigilant, and people like Sergei Loznitsa are of pivotal importance to help the world remember.”

History repeats itself, but even prolific Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa could not have suspected that his documentary Babi Yar. Context would be so eerily reflected only a few months after its release under the Cannes Label of the (never held) 2021 festival. In recent years Loznitsa’s focus has been on documentary filmmaking, in particular on subjects surrounding World War II, often using a collage of never-before-seen archive footage to literally document but also narrate his central storyline. A mixture of black and white and colour film, with added sound effects where needed with the help of sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskiy, Babi Yar. Context pieces together the build-up as well as the aftermath of the massacre of 33,771 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv by a Nazi Sonderkommando and auxiliary Ukrainian forces in September of 1941.

One only has to open up a wiki on Ukraine’s history to understand the suffering of the Ukrainian people for centuries. Some of the harshest times came in the 20th century, when Soviet-induced famines and the iron fist of Josef Stalin were briefly interrupted by Nazi occupation, only to switch back to Stalin’s rule two years later. At the start of Babi Yar. Context, which focuses on the World War II era, the German army is closing in on Kyiv. When the city falls in September 1941, the German troops are hailed as liberators, as Stalin’s portrait is torn down left and right. It took the Nazis only a week to decide to exterminate the Jewish population of Kyiv, and on the last two days of September people were rounded up in the titular ravine and murdered, only three days after being given notice to assemble on the 29th with their valuables and warm clothing.

Loznitsa’s footage shows that many in Kyiv helped out in harassing their Jewish fellow citizens as they were rounded up, and local newspapers praised the Nazis for ‘helping solve the Jewish problem’. As much as the film has ‘context’ in its title, the willingness to collaborate with their new occupiers is underexposed, likely a result of the format Loznitsa has chosen. As the massacre, one of the largest during the Holocaust, draws near, the cameras are turned off. The aftermath is shown in static shots, though no victims are shown, only their belongings (Loznitsa doesn’t shy away from showing dead soldiers, frozen in Ukraine’s harsh winter, earlier in the film).

Two years later the Red Army is back at the gates, swiftly kicking the Nazis out of Kyiv. Again the citizens take to the streets to enthusiastically welcome their liberators, this time tearing down the portraits of another tyrant with a moustache. The inevitable question comes to mind: what is the overlap between these people and the people we saw earlier hailing the Germans? The question remains unanswered, because again the format of a documentary essay doesn’t lend itself to answering it. These are small frustrations that creep in while watching Babi Yar. Context, but the power of the imagery and how Loznitsa constructs the story surrounding the mass murder manage to overcome its shortcomings for the most part. The documentary’s final stretch shows footage from the trial of the perpetrators of the atrocities, footage that was expanded upon by Loznitsa in last year’s The Kiev Trial, an unmissable companion piece to Babi Yar. Context. The final shots reveal the decision to turn the ravine into a landfill, as if to cover up what happened there forever (there is a memorial in the location, which unfortunately was damaged during Russia’s assault on Kyiv last year.

The astonishing amount of footage is courtesy of both the German and Russian occupiers, who brought more than guns to shoot with. They abundantly documented the war effort on both sides, but also their (mis)treatment of the people they lorded over (some of the German footage in the first half looks scarily like Elem Klimov’s monumental Come and See). The story the clips tell has a hole in the middle: there is no direct footage of the massacre itself. It’s as if even the ones involved knew they were doing something that should never see the light of day. The eerily silent shots in the ravine right after are the lone reminder of what truly took place over those two days in September 1941, and as the natural midway-point in Loznitsa’s narrative these soundless, motionless shots form the emotional core of Babi Yar. Context.

Seeing it now, a year and a bit after Russia attempted to invade Ukraine and with the war still ongoing, Russia’s attempt to take Kyiv in February last year hangs over the film like a dark cloud. Given reports about mass graves in other Ukrainian cities that were captured by Russia, it sure looks like Kyiv escaped another Babi Yar, and that chilling realization makes Loznitsa’s film all the more poignant and harrowing. History does repeat itself, and this calls for vigilance. Documents like Babi Yar. Context help the world to stay vigilant, and people like Sergei Loznitsa or Rithy Panh, who similarly documents the brutal history of his country of birth Cambodia, are of pivotal importance to help the world remember.