Context is Everything


Babi Yar: Context

I went to a screening of this intense black and white documentary Babi Yar : Context by Ukrainian film maker Sergei Loznitsa yesterday at Film Forum with my old friend Ken Hurwitz, who worked for years for George Soros's Open Society. It should be required viewing by every man, woman and child alive to help educate people about the depths of depravity humankind is capable of rapidly sinking into, and to place the current possible run-up to World War III in context -- as this documentary has terrifyingly uncomfortable resonances with the violent war madness currently taking place in that region. Some images, recuperated from both German and Russian film archives and amateur footage taken by Ukrainians bearing witness, are so graphic and brutal and intense that viewing them is nearly beyond human endurance. But you cannot look away. You must not look away...

Midway through the screen goes black and the words of a prose poem about Babi Yar by Russian-Jewish writer Vassily Grossman (his novel Life and Fate is a masterpiece) are heard, describing the horrors of the genocide inflicted on Ukrainian Jews beginning in fall 1941 -- a passage that is simultaneously poetic, pithy, melancholic and unnerving. Basically, in September 1941 the occupying Nazi Germans, in a bestial rampage under orders directly from Hitler, methodically executed 34,000 Jews living in Kiev over two days -- shooting, gassing and clubbing their victims of all ages to death, and then dumping their bodies into a ravine known as Babi Yar, or Babyn Yar, carved out of the rocks by slave Jewish labor weeks before in preparation for this extinction event. This incident is of course hushed up by the Nazi authorities, but the truth slowly will out. The Russian army eventually arrives several years later after the Nazi siege of Moscow fails, and summarily routs the Germans and arrests many of their leaders who perpetrated this crime. The Russians are greeted by the non-Jewish Ukrainians left living in the region as liberating heroes, and are welcomed by their new Soviet masters back into the bosom of "the Russian motherland".

This catastrophe on an industrial scale in Babi Yar reverberates worldwide today, despite the Ukrainian government eventually filling the ravine with filthy industrial waste piped in from a nearby disused brickworks to prevent people from exhuming bodies or looting artifacts that weren't already torn from the thousands of corpses lying in the pit after their mass execution. A few survivors of those two harrowing days (in what historian Timothy Snyder calls the "Bloodlands" in his excellent book of the same name) describe in court in 1946 how they got away from the pit by playing dead. Watching the captured German architects of this unbelievable mass killing (34,000 Jews executed in two days!!) sitting in the dock listening to these survivor accounts is chilling to the bone. Some of the survivors were half buried alive with dirt shoveled over them and somehow they managed to crawl out of the mounds of freshly executed corpses to, as one simply put it, "go home". Except their Jewish homes were gone.

"The blood of the innocent now streams in the skies..."

I have seen most of Loznitsa's films, beginning with his first shocking fictional masterpiece My Joy when I was a judge at the Lodz Forum Kina Europejskiego Cinergia Festival in Poland a few years ago. My fellow judges unanimously awarded his film top prize. You should really try and see it also -- like this documentary it is very, very strong meat -- a beyond hallucinatory trek through the modern Ukrainian countryside with flashbacks to World War II. Loznitsa, originally a documentary film maker, also has another documentary of more recent vintage out, a found-footage assemblage entitled State Funeral, which is currently showing on MUBI, all about the propaganda pomp and bloated bombast surrounding the death of Stalin. But nothing I've seen to date anywhere approaches the shock of the real of Babi Yar: Context. (Unless it's the real time colour footage pouring in from Ukraine every hour on BBC World...)

Given the nature of the Beast set loose in the region currently, there is no film more relevant that is screening today than Babi Yar: Context.

Mr. Lucas is a master guitarist, musician and writer from New York City.

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