Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s latest documentary, “The Natural History of Destruction,” bows May 23 in the Cannes Premiere section of the Cannes Film Festival. The director returns to the Croisette one year after his last feature, “Babi Yar. Context,” won a Special Jury Prize of the Golden Eye award for best documentary. Variety has been given exclusive access to the film’s trailer.
Inspired by a book by German writer W.G. Sebald, “The Natural History of Destruction” makes use of an unprecedented trove of archive footage to re-examine the strategic bombing campaign of Allied forces in Germany during the Second World War. The unsparing attacks were designed to destroy the country’s war capabilities and break the German people’s morale.
Loznitsa poses the question whether it’s morally acceptable to use civilian populations as a means of war — an urgent question as Russia’s brutal onslaught in Ukraine approaches the end of its third month. “How is it still possible to use such inhumane methods of mass destruction and mass extermination of our fellow human beings? And what kind of mechanisms should we put in place in order to stop this mass destruction from happening once and for all?” he said.
Three days after the Russian invasion of his homeland, Loznitsa resigned from the European Film Academy, slamming its “shameful” response to the unprovoked attack as “neutral, toothless and conformist in relation to Russian aggression.” Less than a month later, the director was unceremoniously expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy over what he perceived as backlash against his refusal to fall in line with calls for a boycott of Russian cinema.
With members of the Ukrainian film industry in Cannes this week renewing those calls, Loznitsa reiterated his support of Russian filmmakers who have criticized Putin and the war in Ukraine at great personal risk. “In my opinion, any attempt to boycott any culture is an act of barbarity in itself,” said the director. “If we’re talking about culture, then it is our duty to defend culture and to protect culture. And any steps towards any cancelling of any culture is also a road to barbarity.”
“The Natural History of Destruction” is produced by LOOKSfilm (Germany), Studio Uljana Kim (Lithuania), ATOMS & VOID (The Netherlands), Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg and Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk. Progress Film is handling world sales as well as distribution in Germany, where it’s planning a theatrical release.
Despite his status as one of the world’s most significant and celebrated documentary filmmakers, Loznitsa spent three years struggling to finance his film. Many funders didn’t grasp his motivation for wanting to make it, he said — a bitter irony in light of recent months. “I think it should be clear to everybody why this subject is so relevant,” he said.
The film is Loznitsa’s latest attempt to wrestle with the “terrible, tragic events” of a turbulent century he explored in films such as “The Event,” about the 1991 coup d’état in the Soviet Union, and his prize-winner “Babi Yar. Context,” which depicts the 1941 massacre of more than 33,000 Jews in Kyiv by Nazi German forces. “[These events] still haven’t been fully reflected upon and understood,” he said. “And we still haven’t found a mechanism of preventing similar events from happening again.”
The Belarus-born filmmaker, who was raised in Kyiv and now lives in Germany, remains hopeful that mankind can ultimately find a way to break such cycles of violence. “It’s not that we are not at all capable as humans to draw any lessons from the past, from our history,” he said. “But in order to draw these lessons, there should be a will — political will, personal will — and it requires an effort. An effort of understanding, an effort of reflection.” Musing on Russia’s bloody war in Ukraine, however, he added: “It is a shame that so far this effort hasn’t really been made.”