The first thing you notice when going to Babi Yar is just how close the ravine is from Kiev. So close that if the wind was right in those final days of September 1941, the city residents could almost certainly have heard the gunfire as Nazi soldiers slaughtered 33,771 Jews. Standing on the site, one wonders if the screams might also have been carried along by the breeze; if so, the cries of terror were largely greeted by shrugs or closed ears. This unfathomable indifference to human life is what Sergei Loznitsa’s “Babi Yar. Context” is meant to tackle, not as a way of coming to grips with such an incomprehensible amorality — there is no way of truly explaining an atrocity — but to raise awareness, to ensure that the memory of that event isn’t covered over like the ravine itself was after the War, when it became an inconvenient reminder of both active and passive anti-Semitism.
Loznitsa’s best documentaries masterfully use archival footage whose tight focus, generally spanning just a few days, allows us to watch history unfold in astonishing, relentless detail. “State Funeral,” “The Event” and “Maidan” cover brief periods of time and yet their effect is epochal in scope, forcing us to confront history through a brilliantly edited prism of repurposed images. “Babi Yar. Context” has power but falls short of the director’s greatest works, largely because his span here is considerably longer, and in consequence the focus suffers. The massacre at Babi Yar needs context, no doubt, and the film has more title cards than most of Loznitsa’s work, but by covering the whole period from the Nazi invasion of Ukraine to the 1950s, he makes the slaughter a piece in a puzzle. An argument can be made that indeed that’s what it was, and yet by presenting the event this way, without his usual laser-sharp gaze, the genocidal horror becomes simply part of the war machine, its impact on the locals just another aspect of the Occupation.
When the Nazis invaded Soviet Ukraine in June 1941, many residents, especially those in the western part which had been under Austro-Hungarian control until the end of the First World War, greeted the incoming troops with cheers. Objectively it’s not hard to understand why: Stalin’s murderous agricultural policies had resulted in millions of people starving to death, so no wonder large swaths of the population treated the Germans as liberators. If you weren’t directly tied to the Soviet administration and you weren’t Jewish, you might reasonably assume you’d be better off under the Nazis.
Once the bloody battles for control of the territory were over, it became easy to brand the Jews as fifth columnists and Soviet sympathizers; Loznitsa discovered deeply disturbing footage of people in Lviv (formerly Lemberg) being beaten, stripped naked and dragged through the streets by their neighbors, the poor quality of the images somehow enhancing their potency. By September, Kiev was taken after fierce fighting left parts of the city destroyed, and once again the Jews became a convenient scapegoat for both occupiers and locals. They were rounded up and taken to the Babi Yar ravine on the city outskirts where, between Sept. 29 and 30, more than 33,000 were gunned down.
Loznitsa incorporates more still photos than in perhaps any of his other documentaries: bodies half-buried, shoes, snapshots that fell out of lifeless hands, even a prosthetic leg separated from its owner’s limb. One of the local newspapers celebrated being rid of the “oriental barbarians.” In the following month, there was a big parade — chilling is too gentle a word to describe the sensation of a city celebrating just weeks after tens of thousands of citizens had been so swiftly exterminated. The indifference continues to shock.
In November 1943, the Soviets retook Kiev, their soldiers (at least in the footage seen here) greeted with resignation, unlike the Nazi troops a couple of years earlier who had flowers tossed at their feet as crowds scrambled for miniature swastika flags and “Hitler the Liberator” posters. That same month, international journalists were taken to Babi Yar, and in January 1946 trials began. The film includes footage from the tribunal, not just the well-known testimony of actress Dina Pronicheva, one of the few survivors of the massacre, literally climbing her way up to the air from beneath piles of corpses, but also SS private Hans Isenmann, whose unnervingly unemotional statement demonstrates the mechanical nature of the massacre.
Loznitsa shows the execution by hanging that ended the trial, the 13 men seen relatively close-up in their final death shudder. Is it hypocritical to ask why such close graphic footage was included when we don’t ask why we see the corpses of soldiers and victims of the atrocities? All death is ugly and brutal, yet the act of killing is something apart, and in this case perhaps would have been best shown only in the longer shots. Just a few years later, the memory of the massacre became an inconvenience, an embarrassment considering how many locals turned a blind eye, and in 1952 the city council authorized the ravine to be filled in with industrial waste. Now the area is wooded apart from a few unimpressive monuments, a place for joggers and wild dogs.
Babi Yar has been tackled in film before, though never by someone of Loznitsa’s caliber. Because of this, one expects something more potent, more revelatory in how it lays out the building blocks of evil. “Babi Yar. Context” does as the title says: It gives context, which means it doesn’t strip away the accretions of background and afterlife. Perhaps staring exclusively into this terrifying heart of darkness was simply too much for the filmmaker to face — it’s difficult to find a sense of direction when trying to understand how 33,771 people were gunned down in two days, and so few bothered to notice.