The Siege of Leningrad

On 27th January 2014 it was 70 years ago that the catastrophic and tragic siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was lifted. I wanted to watch again the much acclaimed ”Blockade” by Sergei Loznitsa. Deckert Distribution was so kind to send me a dvd + a copy of ”900 Days” by Dutch Jessica Gorter. Two fine works that goes perfectly together. I have written about both films below.

But first some words about me and St. Petersburg, a city that I adore and have been so lucky to visit many times. First times in the beginning of the 90’es where I was part of a selection team for the Balticum Film & TV Festival on Bornholm (1990-2000). Head of the team was Russian born Sonja Vesterholt, the best guide to the city you can dream of. (On the 27th Sonja wrote the following on Facebook: ”I dag er der 70 år siden Leningrads 900-dages lange belejring blev ophævet.. 1 500 500 mennesker døde af sult. Min mor overlevede…” = Today, 70 years ago the 900 days long siege of Leningrad was lifted. 1.500.500 died of starvation. My mother survived…).

Later on I visited the city as consultant for the Baltic Media Centre together with Latvian colleagues Lelda Ozola and Ilze Gailite Holmberga. On one of these trips I met Ludmila Nazaruk, who stands behind the great website miradox.ru and together with Viktor Skubey have organised several meetings in the name of DoxPro in order to better the conditions for documentarians in Russia. The last effort of the two was the conference ”Financing of International Creative Documentary Projects in the Northern Dimension Area: Cutting Edge and Trends.” Russian speaking can follow (via miradox.ru) what was said at the Conference, where Mikael Opstrup from EDN and I were invited to be moderators. Link below. On top of that I have for two years been consulting the ”Message to Man” festival thanks to filmmaker Mikhail Zheleznikov and the new President Alexey Uchitel, who took part in the first edition of the festival on Bornholm. So all goes together in this nostalgic tour over two decades… It’s all about friendships, isn’t it?

Back to history and to the two films I saw. Sergei Loznitsa’s ”Blockade” is 100% based on archive material, b/w, 52 mins, no words, no explanation, ”this is how cameramen filmed the siege”, he seems to say in this unique work, that shocks you and from a filmic point of view impresses you with its precise interpretation of sound: footsteps, small not hearable conversations, a sled being taken through icy snow carrying a corpse… He presents the

archive material in a chronological way from trams in the streets, prisoners of war being taken up Nevski Prospect surrounded by crowds of people, people running away from the streets when the sirens announced another bombing, empty houses, a woman picking up a pair of shoes from the ruins, people sitting in the streets with all their belongings, dead corpses in the streets, frozen to death, starved to death, hard to watch it is, buckets of water being taken up from the streets, melted ice, a sports tribune being chopped up for heating… the material is impressive, many close-ups are used but Loznitsa refrains from going sentimental, most often you see expressions of hopeless in the eyes, only once he has chosen that line, when we watch a mother with dead child in her arms. And then fireworks and happy faces when the siege is lifted. You think the film ends here, it does not, a brutal hanging ”ceremony” follows. The crowds cheers.

An unbearable reality it was, brutal and not a heroic resistance time at all, as the Soviet empire, and the Russian government of today wants it to be. This is the starting point of Jessica Gorter’s ”900 Days” that has the subtitle ”myth and reality of the siege of Leningrad”. It starts with Medvedev’s glorifying speech to the veterans and the parades – and is followed by conversations with survivors, who paint quite a different picture of the terrible years. And some archive, that you recognise from Loznitsa’s film. Two women stand out with their stories, one of them – and her husband – have put away the medals they got from Stalin and his regime, there is nothing to be proud of, and the government banned all talk about the time after the lift was made. (We were) ”Live skeletons wrapped in skin”, one of them says, and one story after the other follows about cats being slaughtered and cooked, meatballs made out of human flesh, KGB that was active and locked up people, who critizised how the authorities handled the situation… Yes, there are also women gathered around a table talking positively about ”the good old days under Stalin” until one of them says that her father was deported because he was against. She can not bear to tell it all, the film has many moving moments.

It’s only 70 years ago!

Blockade, Russia, 2006, 52 mins.

900 Days, Jessica Gorter, 2011, 77 mins.

both films available from

http://deckert-distribution.com/

and in America from

http://icarusfilms.com/new2006/bloc.html

 

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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