Film Reviews: “Donbass” and “Babi Yar. Context” — Two Views of Destruction in Ukraine from Sergei Loznitsa

By David D’Arcy 

Donbass is a powerfully gritty portrayal of thuggish aggression by people who felt empowered, with Russian support, to steal from, torment, and kill their neighbors.

A scene from Donbass

Donbass, written and directed by Sergei Loznitsa, which premiered in 2018, revisits the 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine by troops who supported, and were supported by, Russia. These were the “little green men,” as Ukrainians loyal to Kyiv called them, fighters who claimed to be establishing a new regime, Novorossiya or New Russia. So much for liberating Ukraine “from Nazis.”

The film’s 13 dramatic scenes are violent, tragic, poignant, and comic – often all at once — as vulnerable civilians take shelter from the armed men who steal as well as shoot. Comic, that is, if you laugh at the way that men with guns can commit war crimes without the trace of a conscience.

That ongoing war in eastern Ukraine never ended. And, because the Russian gambit to seize the whole country in a week or two has fizzled, or at least stalled, when faced with resistance from Ukrainians, combat in the Donbass region (also written “Donbas”) is sure to intensify. The bloody confrontations that you can see on television today already look far worse than what’s in Loznitsa’s two-hour film.

Donbass is a scripted drama, atypical of Loznitsa, who made his name with momentous documentaries built around archival imagery of historic events  — the Nazi siege of Leningrad in Blockade (2006), the massive and deadly wave-like confrontations between demonstrators and pro-Putin police in Kyiv in Maidan (2014), blithe herd tourism at Nazi death camp sites in Austerlitz (2016), Moscow show trials in The Trial (2018), and a look at the Nazi massacre of 33,771 Jewish men, women, and children over a two-day period in a ravine located in present-day Kyiv, Babi Yar. Context (2021). Tall, thin, poker-faced, Loznitsa speaks no English, but he became a favorite of critics at major festivals. Still, though his films regularly premiere at Cannes and pile up awards, they have not reached broad audiences.

That could change with Donbass, a gritty portrayal of thuggish aggression by people who felt empowered, thanks to support from Russia, to steal from, torment, and kill neighbors.

Ukraine is a place that Loznitsa knows well. Watching his nuanced command of conventional drama in Donbass again last week (I first saw the film in 2018) was a revelation, with performances veering toward the grotesque that still feel uncomfortably real. The narrative opens in a hospital that is short on supplies and medicine. A self-important official steps out of his Mercedes to tell the shell-shocked and overworked staff that everything is OK and the supplies that they lack are abundant, daring the exhausted workers to contradict him. Franz Kafka meets Gogol.

In another extended scene, similar to those we now see in TV reports, the camera snakes through basement bomb shelters that extend from room to crowded room, crammed with frightened and exhausted civilians who are sleeping wherever they can. An expensively dressed and coiffed young woman storms through officiously. She finds an aging babushka (grandma) who seems to be her mother. The daughter then tries to drag the old woman to more pleasant lodging. The mother won’t budge. The daughter storms back to an office of the New Russian government, where “officials” who shot their way into power are now giving orders with impunity. Babushka, however, won’t cooperate.

Loznitsa knows how to make impunity look like what it is. In another memorable scene, a man finds his car parked in front of the local government office. He informs the unknown driver, who just parked it there, that he (the owner) expects that he will get it back. Led inside, the car’s owner meets up with another “official” who tells him that the new government needs the vehicle. And, ”by the way,” the “official” notes, as he grabs the man’s documents, what about 150,000 euros? The man moves to another room, where a dozen desperate men like him are on their cell phones, pacing in a fatalistic rhythm as they plead for cash to buy their release. The scene’s choreography of extortion is exquisite.

It gets worse. A huge uniformed soldier who acts like a sergeant arrives on a street corner with a bald, scarred prisoner draped in a Ukrainian flag. He attaches his captive to a stake or a small tree. Young men appear and taunt the prisoner, spitting on him and hitting him. More people arrive, cursing and pummeling the prisoner, calling him a fascist, the generic term, then and now, for anyone opposed to the Russian invasion. The image of a bound, mocked, and whipped Christ won’t be lost on anyone. The scene doesn’t end in a lynching. (Sorry for the spoiler.) The sergeant is experienced enough to know that whipping up the frenzy of your supporters inevitably loses its momentum once the victim is reduced to a corpse. After all, a living prisoner can be subjected to more public thrashings down the road. And those thrashings will help solidify the base, as the saying goes.

The point is clear: the Donbass war is an invasion that empowered (and still empowers) ordinary people to act in brutal ways. Eventually, Loznitsa pivots away from the tactile violence, drawing the camera back for a Brechtian overview of his filming of the drama. The danger here is that we might dismiss what we have seen — so it’s just a movie? But by that point the anger and violence are hard to forget. Another unforgettably awkward dance of tactility: a wedding mired in vodka — even by the extreme standards of the region — where a bride and those in her wedding party can barely speak.

In theaters today, Donbass presents a conundrum. Had the film been revived six months ago, it would have shown us — at least those who had ignored barbaric Russian aggression in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Crimea — what to expect from Putin. Yet it was the recent invasion that has brought Donbass back into circulation, a reminder that the war Russia began in 2014 in Ukraine never ended.

It’s impossible to watch Donbass without weighing its horrors against those of the war today. Loznitsa concentrates on mundane thuggishness — low-grade horrors compared to the current invasion by a superpower. The film now seems like a first chapter, a taste of the terror that never stopped in eastern Ukraine, as well as a promise (now with evidence) of new atrocities. For better or worse, Loznitsa is well positioned to film his own sequel.

A scene from Babi Yar. Context. Photo: Courtesy of Atoms & Void

Babi Yar. Context, also playing now in theaters, reminds us that Kiev was the site of the Nazis’ single worst mass killing of Jews. Loznitsa surveys the landscape in archival footage — much of it filmed by Germans — of the scorched earth campaign throughout the Ukrainian countryside, the Nazi seizure of Kyiv, and the explosions (claimed to be Soviet sabotage) that were used to justify the rounding up of Jews on September 29-30, 1941. Victims were told to bring their valuables; failure to appear was punishable by death.

We see Ukrainians welcoming Nazi troops with flowers and fascist salutes, all part of what Loznitsa sees as Ukrainian complicity in the atrocities that followed. Official Soviet policy was to mourn the victims as Soviet dead, without noting that the majority of the 33,771 killed at Babi Yar were Jews.

There is still a hole at the center of Loznitsa’s film, which can make the wide-ranging documentary more numbing than compelling. His approach favors context over the facts of the massacre. Perhaps Loznitsa feels that those facts are known well enough, but talking to anyone about Babi Yar will make you wonder. Masha Gessen, in a recent article in the New Yorker, addresses the 1941 killings and notes the grim evolution of the Babi Yar site. What was dedicated as a memorial to the dead is now crowded by unrelated structures — along with deposits of waste from an adjacent brick-making plant. In recent interviews, Loznitsa recalled walking through the massacre site as a child and stressed Ukrainian complicity in the persecution of Jews, for which he’s been attacked. Yet the WWII footage feels eerily contemporary — the scenes of destruction look as if they happened yesterday.

Editor’s Note: The 2022 Cannes Film Festival will host a screening of Loznitsa’s latest, On The Natural History of Destruction. The film is inspired by W. G. Sebald’s book of the same name, a short collection of essays on the devastating Allied bombings of Germany in World War II and the failures of German culture and literature to address that experience.

Cannes 2022 will show one Russian film in its main competition, Tchaikovski’s Wife by Kirill Serebrennikov, who has relocated to Paris. Loznitsa quit the European Film Academy in February, citing the body’s weak response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.


  1. Daniel Lazare on April 14, 2022 at 1:03 pm

    “Thuggish aggression by people who felt empowered, thanks to support from Russia, to steal from, torment, and kill neighbors….” Spare us the NATO propaganda.

    • Richard Shortt on April 20, 2022 at 8:50 am

      The problem is that the script, based on a reality, fits the profile of thuggish leaders who work through fear. Trump follows Putin who learned from Stalin — fear confers power. Maybe there is an element of “NATO: propaganda,” but does that negate the reality of living with/under thugs with the lust to dominate?

  2. jim fouratt on April 22, 2022 at 12:07 am

    Sharing my review:
    Watching s Sergei Loznitsa’s “Barbi Yar, Context” in NYC on October 21 at the Film Forum while war rages in Ukraine was a deeply, emotional experience for me. I am not Jewish but engaged as an art critic to show how artists, with all their contradictions, can see and be both capable of extreme horror and the making of soul-moving art.
    Reality check: the film resonates with World War11 in 1941 as a mash-up in context for understanding the war between two imperialist countries, Russia and the US, today with Ukraine in the middle.
    The importance of authenticity of the history as revealed in the archival footage is critical to understanding the events in 1941 and,I suggest the conflict in Ukraine today. Sergei Loznitsa’s previous films reveal a director of earned and recognized integrity and merit,
    “Bari Yar Contex” is chilling in its revalation and visual documentation of the mass killing of Jews in Ukraine during the Nazi invasion. And, most importantly, is his indictment of Ukrainian citizens for their passive acceptance of the genocide of Ukrainian Jewish population and the celebration by the majority of Ukrainian citizens of the defeat of the Russian army fighting to protect Soviet Ukraine.
    When the Russian army seized back Kve from the Germans, the citizens flipped flop and demonstratively welcomed the return of Soviet Ukraine.

    The film’s structure to Loznitsa’s credit is much more nuanced. It demands to be seen as storytelling and history. revealing more than a simple retelling of the central core of genocide. The editing adds to the tension of both being fascinated and wanting to get up and leave the theater. I stayed.

    After exiting the Film Forum I walked around thinking of two things.:
    1: How Barbi Yar’s history informs the Ukraine of today. It is admittedly a complicated query.
    2: Of the flawed documentary, “Welcome to Chechnya” (2020-Netflix) by David France that documents the torture and killing of homosexuals in contemporary Ukraine. Documented is the vigilante justice mob calling for honor killings to protect religion and family values. France, with his high-end tabloid journalism aflame , reveals the participation and support of elected officials including police and neo-nazis in the capture, torture (to get names) and calling for the murder of homosexuals. Purification rituals to rid society of deviants. France makes central a volunteer underground organization that attempts to rescue and give safe passage out of Ukraine for desperate besieged homosexuals.

    His film could have been more successful in storytelling if he had made a narrative film. Then France could have let his imagination flesh out his narration. I say this because in each of his previous documentaries, he choose hot button issues but failed to stick to the facts. He let his imagination be in charge in a way that made him vulnerable to the charges of confabulation.

    Back to “Barbi Yar: Context”. The genocide of Ukrainian Jews in 1941, a mass-killing of almost all the Ukrainian Jews who did not manage to escape, morphed for me to today’s attempts to erase the existence of homosexuals of both birth sex regardless of gender expression.
    I must confess that in watching the Ukrainians in the street in mass numbers I looked and looked to see if I could have found just one small rainbow flag held visably
    Hopping that in this moment of national crisis unity would be inclusive.
    I am not suggesting that Putin’s claim of getting rid of Nazis active in today’s political, financial, and cultural Ukraine means that homosexuals are anyway free or safe in Russia today. They are not, as news reports and videos over the last few years have documented.

    I highly recommend “Barbi Yar Context ” if you want to put some depth into your understanding of the horrid and the history of the war raging in Ukraine today. History Matters.

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