State Funeral is a heck of a slog—but it’s an effective one. An hour in, I kept wondering if it was really going to be two-plus hours wherein people amble about Russia looking forlorn, yet, at its conclusion, viewers might be thoroughly converted to its historical value.

At its core, the film is a narratorless archival footage fest that focuses on the Soviet people’s silent reactions to Stalin’s death in 1953. It’s a bit of a drudge if you don’t know your history—though, to be fair, it’s a bit of a drudge even if you do, just with a little more oomph. The repetitive imagery isn’t lacking purpose, however, and it gives viewers a chance to truly peer into ’50s-era Soviet Russia. That alone is at least a little fascinating, even if everything else feels more like something we should know even if we don’t wanna.

The masses stood dumbfounded in the wake of Stalin’s death. Many likely never knew another leader, or at least couldn’t recall one; to them, the man industrialized a peasant land and defeated the greatest invasion into their nation after hundreds of years of God knows how many invasions. Were his crimes against humanity widely known to the Soviets by the 1950s, or were his mourners hung up on what brutal regime might have come next? What’s that saying about the devil you know? Either way, Stalin killed millions. But still, when a national radio “suggested” it, the entire Russian nation, from the Mongolian border to the Polish border, stood at attention, together, as their fallen leader’s portrait was hoisted over an in-progress dam amidst rising smoke and the clatter of work hammers.

The irony there is beautiful—a society built on collectivism indulging in Godlike worship for one man. But the grand irony is in how, within three years of Stalin’s passing, Nikita Khrushchev began the de-Stalinization of the USSR and condemned his predecessor for crimes against the Soviet people and beyond. This haunts the footage and gives State Funeral a creeping effectiveness, even if it feels 40 hours long. While tedious, director Sergey Loznitsa offers proof that a society can flip on itself with shocking speed. We should probably remember that.


+ Thought provoking; astonishing footage

- Requires dedication

State Funeral

Directed by Loznitsa

MUBI, NR, 135 min