Raiding a country’s vast film archives in search of perfect vérité symbolism—say, a factory worker wiping sweat from his proletariat brow—is the sort of termite activity that drives documentarians mad. But if the results are anything like Sergei Loznitsa’s impressionistic time capsules, then insanity is a small price to pay. A director who’s mined Russia’s visual artifacts—newsreels, propaganda shorts, home movies—for poetic portraits of Soviet life, Loznitsa combines a knack for finding sociological meaning in throwaway moments with a less-is-more aesthetic. (Narration is nonexistent, replaced by the natural sounds of birds singing, feet shuffling and fires raging.)
Blockade, his 2005 examination of the siege on Leningrad, doesn’t barrage you with battle scenes; instead, we get eerie moments of calm as people walk down snowy streets littered with corpses and tanks roll off into the distance. All of which makes a final, abrupt shot of traitors being hanged that much more gut-wrenching. Compared with that city symphony of the damned, Loznitsa’s 2008 Revue seems tamer, but its aims are far more subversive. By juxtaposing labor-filled activities with TV shows and plays proclaiming the “bounties” of revolution, the film offers glimpses of a government-sanctioned alt universe. Those contemptuous of the “reality-based community” will likely take notes. Everyone else will rightly shudder.