By Samuel Mclemore
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Runtime: 121 mins | Genre: Drama
War is a favorite subject for the movies. The reasons are as obvious as they are abundant: any battle will provide enough spectacle, drama, and conflict to provide material for a thousand films, from The Red & The White to Saving Private Ryan. What separates Loznitsa from other directors is his obsessive focus on how war affects the psychology of a populace, generations after the fighting is done.
Much like Loznitsa’s In The Fog, his only previous film to be set during wartime, no fighting occurs onscreen in Donbass. Unlike that film, Donbass returns to Loznitsa’s preferred narrative and visual schema: the panorama. Structurally, the film presents a series of vignettes that Loznitsa sourced from amateur YouTube videos. He streamlined them into a smoothly polished portrait of war and its effects on the inhabitants of Donbass—no class is excepted.
With no central character or situation to return to, Donbass cleverly subverts Loznitsa’s trademark use of digression and has it become the film’s primary formal conceit, progressing elliptically and propulsively from one group of people to the next. In one scene we witness a smuggler—just seen glad-handing the staff of a hospital he has swindled—abandoned by the camera at a border checkpoint. There, we see a soldier’s sneering treatment of the same smuggler before the camera latches onto a passing bus full of war-weary travelers on to meet their own set of sneering border guards.
This stylistic decision isn’t a result of Loznitsa finding these people uninteresting or unworthy of precious screen time; Loznitsa views all his characters and situations as fundamentally the same. Boss, criminal, soldier, civilian—all share a vision of universal suffering crafted through generations of abuse, enslavement, and war. If a longstanding theme of Loznitsa’s oeuvre is oppression and how people arrange themselves (both mentally and spiritually) against it, then his ultimate goal is in articulating how post-Soviet, post-WW2 trauma has infected both modern day Russia and Ukraine. To this end, his films purposefully exist in the vacuum between ethnographic document, allegorical tableau, and political statement.
Most of Loznitsa's films can be defined by the tension that exists between what is being shown onscreen and what is being presented thematically. Loznitsa has admitted to not caring about what passes in front of his camera so long as the thematic elements are clear, but the strongest moments of his filmography (the opening of In The Fog, simultaneously dense and sparse; the wandering crowd shot in the market of My Joy, with its oneiric shock) are those in which image and theme meld into a teasing alloy that is stronger than either alone. These moments are unfortunately rare, if not nonexistent, in Donbass. When that level of cinematic magic—the thing that made Loznitsa stand out amongst other filmmakers on the festival circuit—is gone, it’s a notable disappointment. What remains in such cases is irony and nihilism, albeit tackled with the usual care and polish Loznitsa evinces. There is a lot on offer in Donbass, but coming after masterpieces like My Joy and A Gentle Creature, it seems minor.