Known in his home country as the “Ukrainian Nuremberg”, it was the post-war trial of 15 Nazis and their collaborators, taking place in the city of the same name in January 1946. Premiering at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, in the Out of Competition section, the movie is a moral examination of the grey areas involved in the need for retribution and the “show effect” of war trials.
Starting off amidst the snowy, white landscape of Kyiv in January, bombed ruins, emerging through the snow like teeth pointing at the sky, set the mood for the impending trial. The footage, filmed by a professional team from the Moscow Central Documentary Studio, seems to convey the fact that the Soviet people did their best to hang on while reinforcing the destructive nature of the German occupation.
After all, the 15 men and the many witnesses introduced during the trial can only testify to memories, and maybe the numbers of casualties. But it is those with which the movie builds its horrifying momentum. The almost casual tone and the sheer escalating number of victims mentioned evoke an eerie feeling.
Focusing on the unmoved faces of the German soldiers as well as the seemingly haunted expressions of the witnesses, there is no denying that the footage was meant to serve a unifying purpose, forming a collective Soviet identity. Loznitsa, who assembled and edited the three hours of footage into roughly one-and-a-half hours, builds up these stories of war crimes, starting with rather “simple” arrests and monetary fines, then increasing the emotional crescendo to encompass entire villages and ethnic groups being wiped out, all the way up to another recollection of the 1941 massacre of Jews in the Babi Yar ravine close to Kyiv, which claimed up to 33,000 lives.
Loznitsa offers his viewers some narrative orientation by inserting title cards that state the name of the perpetrator or witness, and the crime committed. Jonas Zagorskas’ masterful restoration of the footage allows him to clearly hear the matter-of-fact way in which the German officers recount the events. There is frustration as these men employ the bureaucratic approach of downplaying their role in these happenings, answering, like many after them at subsequent trials, “I don’t know”, “I wasn’t there” or “I didn’t give the order”.
The crimes also extend beyond the persecution of the Jewish population, showcasing the mass murder of the Ukrainian and Russian people, all in the name of creating Lebensraum, or living space – or, as in one case of women and children who were shot, “they were simply running around the village”. Those who survived were left with nothing: the scorched-earth policy demanded that everything be burned to the ground.
But Loznitsa also turns his gaze in the other direction. His documentary doesn’t end with the obvious sentencing to death of the Nazi criminals, but their actual hanging in a crowded square in Kyiv on 29 January 1946. There is a funfair-like atmosphere, as the crowds gather eager for a spectacle, celebrating as the lifeless bodies keep on dangling. Loznitsais not asking for any compassion. Rather, he shows how easily justice can be turned into spectacular revenge – a debate that modern-day Ukraine will have to face sooner or later as well, given the geopolitical circumstances.
The Kiev Trial was produced by Atoms & Void (Netherlands) and the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (Ukraine).
I came across the forgotten footage of the Kiev Trial when I was working on archive research for Babi Yar. Context. Having gained access to this unique footage, just as powerful as the famous Eichmann tapes, I decided to make a film reconstructing the entire trial. As always, my aim is to immerse the spectators into the atmosphere of the courtroom: to make them feel as if they are witnessing the whole trial from a seat in a public gallery.
When I started this project in spring 2021, I couldn’t imagine, even in my worst nightmare, that Ukraine will once again become a battlefield and that innocent civilians will once again be subjected to brutal violence. Only this time the barbarian invaders wear Russian uniforms. We have been thrown 80 years back and it seems that no lessons from our recent history have been learnt...
I wish with all my heart that we shall not have to wait for too long before the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity, being committed in Ukraine today, are brought to justice.