Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Natural History of Destruction

Sergei Loznitsa: The Natural History of Destruction (DE/LT/NL 2022).

DIRECTOR: Sergei Loznitsa
COUNTRY: Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands
YEAR: 2022
DURATION: 112 min
LANGUAGES: English, German / subtitled in English
CATEGORY: Documentary Films, Sergei Loznitsa, Special Guests' Films, Subtitles in English
Viewed at Kitisen Kino, Sodankylä, Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF), 18 June 2023

Lauri Piispa (MSFF 2023): " The horrors of World War II included extensive aerial bombardment. Almost all countries got their share of it, but major German cities in particular were systematically razed at the end of the war. This was formally justified by the need to destroy the war industry, but there was also a thinly veiled motive to take revenge on the German people. The firestorms claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. Today, terror bombings are generally regarded as unnecessary and even a war crime.

Loznitsa’s impressive compilation makes no excuses, but shows the bombings from the air and from the ground; from the perspective of the bombers, victims, rescuers and others besides. The film also contains speeches and explanations of decision-makers and soldiers. Instead of the prosaic historical narrative, the focus is on the essence of destruction and terror against civilians. Needless to say, this topic has not lost its relevance.

In his essay collection On the Natural History of Destruction (which sparked the idea for this film), W. G. Sebald reasoned that only a text sticking to cold facts could capture the horror of bombings. Similar conclusions can also be drawn regarding live images. We see how a bomber going on a mission loads not only the bomb bay and the machine guns, but also a film camera. The night shots taken by these cameras for purely technical military use form the most memorable aspect of Loznitsa’s film. " Lauri Piispa

AA: Sergei Loznitsa's compilation documentary about the fire-bombings of German cities during WWII is a great epic historical testimony, a reminder of the war crimes committed by the Allied to stop even greater war crimes by the Nazi government, yet raising the question about justice and purpose. Was it more about revenge?

We start from pastoral idylls, observe the Hamburg shipyard, Zeppelin aerial footage of peaceful Germany and shockingly move to a landscape resembling abstract cinema: seen from the sky at night, we only see endless flashes in the darkness.

Scenes from ruined buildings and cities, corpses retrieved from the wreckage, rows of invalids, shots of dead children tell us how innocents get to suffer in war. Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts Meistersinger in front of a swastika. Churchill and Göring meet crowds. The croaking Hitler reports on the terror of the Allied and declares Gegenterror as the only remedy.

The First World War brought the experience of industrial massacre to Europe (it was long since familiar in colonial wars). War lost whatever remains of honour, dignity and valour it might have had. World art and aesthetics were never the same, traditional concepts of the beautiful and the sublime became meaningless. Modern art has ever since attempted to come to terms with this broken sense of humanity. We still do not have even basic concepts of aesthetics for experiences such as total war.

Sergei Loznitsa's remarkable film makes us raise such questions. Maybe there will be no answers.

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