In the cinema. If not for these people

Rūta Oginskaitė
2022 January 13 d.

It is possible to enter the time long gone. This is the impression you get when you watch Sergei Loznitsa's film “Mr. Landsbergis” made with Lithuanian filmmakers and awarded the main prize at the IDFA International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. It is possible to enter, to be, to participate in the events of the liberation of Lithuania for four whole hours. And afterwards, to have your own impressions – as if not about the film, as if you had actually just lived through the time of the Sąjūdis, March 11th, January 13th. So there is no need to be afraid of a 4-hour screening. The work engages you, takes you with it on a journey, makes you feel the events physically.   Sergei Loznitsa's earlier films about the Siege of Leningrad (Blockade), Stalin's funeral (State Funeral), the Holocaust in Ukraine (Babi Yar. Context) work in a similar way.

In the film “Mr. Landsbergis”, there are three main characters. Professor Vytautas Landsbergis narrates, reminisces, comments, and moderates, so to speak, a journey to a specific period in history. Lithuanian people are active – crowds at rallies, individual groups, single faces. One more character storms into the film menacingly – the plane that flies him in roars into the frame much like the tanks he himself later sends in: it is Mikhail Gorbachev arriving to Lithuania and behaving like a master on his farm, where he does not want to be called ‘gospodin’ (i.e. Sir, but in fact just like the master, owner) because he is a ‘tovarishch’ (as in, ‘comrade’). Sergei Loznitsa with co-writer Vytautas V. Landsbergis develop the narrative between these three characters because their actions are connected, they all have an impact on each other's lives.

The portrayal of Vytautas Landsbergis in the film is quite unexpected. An ironic smile, a quiet laugh, begin the story of the destruction of the empire. It is not a sequence of horrible or mournful events about how the Soviets wronged us and how we suffered. On the contrary: the 88-year-old professor, sitting against the backdrop of his family summer house and flowering bushes, tells us how absurd, even comical, the behaviour of those we called occupants was, the demagogy they spouted, and how consistently, quietly, but resolutely, they had to be gotten rid of, and that was no longer funny. Landsbergis' words do not sound like the legends 'from the old days' repeated many times – he has documents in his hands with facts, dates and names. Static shots by the cameraman Povilas Baltinas make you feel like a guest of the professor and listen attentively to his interpretations.

Another surprise: Landsbergis speaks Russian in the film.  He is, after all, talking to Loznitsa, a filmmaker from Ukraine. They just as easily could interact in English in front of the cameras, both of them do speak English, both are citizens of the world, but why show off? Could the professor have talked in Lithuanian and the translator have translated for the director simultaneously?  Then there wouldn't be the kind of contact, the kind of communication that is felt in the film, where people communicate not only with language, but also with wit, pauses, and some shared experience. Loznitsa is not in the frame, only his questions appear, written in English – like directions for the flow of the narrative. Only in the last part of the film do we hear the director's voice, his final clarifying questions to the protagonist. So, Landsbergis answers in Russian in the film, his language is rich and nuanced, and subtitles have been put for those who do not understand.

The dynamics of the image appear together with historical footage, which the film crew found not only in the archives of various countries.  The people of Lithuania, who were amateur filmmakers at the time and direct participants in the events, also brought invaluable images to Sergei Loznitsa. Vytautas Landsbergis' comments of today are periodically interspersed with ‘those times’. The screen narrows (as the video format dictates) and it all begins: rallies, “Lietuva brangi” (Dear Lithuania), flags, clashes with the militsiya, Kremlin communist demagogy in the Congress Palace in Moscow, peaceful mass waiting for change in Vilnius at the Supreme Council, the historical parliament session, the scratching of the Soviet coat of arms... The image of the same moment changes from colour to black-and-white, but you don't notice the change of colour immediately, because essential are the actual events themselves, the faces, the moods, the tension, the danger, the joy, the hope. It is good to know that the film's editor, Danielius Kokanauskis, was also awarded a special prize at the Amsterdam festival.

Sergei Loznitsa’s film is neither the first nor the only one to show the processes of that time in Lithuania. There are many films by Lithuanian directors made after the restoration of independence documenting the same time, the same rallies, the same sea of singing people with still illegal tricolours and slogans about free Lithuania: works by Edmundas Zubavičius, Rimtautas Šilinis, Vytautas Damaševičius and Juozas Matonis, Domantas Vildžiūnas, Saulius Beržinis, even the "screen poet" Arūnas Žebriūnas' "The Resurrection of Lithuania". At the end of the last century, it seemed that almost every documentary filmmaker in our country simply must have had a work with Sąjūdis-inspired images in their filmography. Because it was finally happening! Of course, most of them were made before the excitement of change had cooled down, and when the bitterness had already begun to set in that freedom was not equivalent to happiness, that one had to face sudden poverty, daily hard work and that one had to learn to live in the new reality (where cinema was one of the many things that were left out of the funding and attention). Maybe that's why there is a sadness that can be felt in the Lithuanian documentaries of the 1990s about the time of Sąjūdis, because not all the hopes were fulfilled, and there was also a nostalgia for the unity of the crowd, for the belief that things would be much better than they were. Why are those films forgotten? They probably weren't even shown to the public properly – at the time of their premieres, cinemas didn't care about Lithuanian films. But there is plenty to show.

Loznitsa sees the condition of Lithuania not only from the outside, but also from the distance of time.  He edits the events of the quest for freedom in a leisurely manner, letting us see and be present at those rallies and singing. He enjoys being in it himself. He explores and encourages the viewer to investigate, to feel, to perceive. After all, there is something that unites those crowds of people chanting "Lie-tu-va" (Lithuania) – or, in the face of aggression by the armed forces, "O-ku-pan-tai” (Occupants), "Fa-šis-tai” (Fascists). People are not there just to shout. They are united by a common concern for the future of their country. What would have come of the politicians' decisions, of the aspirations for freedom and independence, if it were not for these people and their daily efforts, their risks, their faith? The film is also about the fact that politics is not just the work of politicians.

Loznitsa’s film “Mr. Landsbergis” had its world premiere at the aforementioned Amsterdam Festival in 2021. A year earlier, at the same festival, one of the most important for documentary cinema, Vitaly Manski premiered his film “Gorbachev. Heaven”. These two films about peer political leaders indirectly debate between each other. Filmed in a bright summery landscape, Landsbergis' intellect and playful (Fluxus style!) wit allow us to experience the circumstances of Lithuania's liberation from the empire step by step, decision by decision, which required political wisdom and courage. It is the talk of a reflective winner, with a good dose of derision for the former intents of the enemies. In Manski's film, we see, first of all, a seriously ill old man. Gorbachev, who declared that he is "from the people", communicates with the film crew in a relaxed manner, familiarly, the conversation develops with difficulty, the film itself begins to wander around the government-run country villa, where the former president of the USSR lives. The film captures the darkened empty spaces and the malaises of the character, who is almost melting in their darkness, and there’s winter outside the window. Manski clearly thinks highly of Gorbachev, this is his second film about that politician, and here the director is trying to get Gorbachev's own opinion on whether he is proud that the Union no longer exists thanks to him. It is precisely on this question that confusion starts to prevail in Manski's “Heaven”, and the director even emphasizes it: Gorbachev tries to explain that he wanted to preserve the Union and that the nations should be given freedom. Wait a minute, Manski pauses, it's either one or the other, the Union plus freedom – it doesn't work that way, and if freedom is to be given, why were there shots fired in Lithuania, which was on its way to freedom? Gorbachev is silent, he changes the subject, the director returns to the question, he hears "I answered", he reminds him "You didn't say anything", silence... Either the old man doesn't understand the questions anymore, or something is bothering him and forcing him to keep quiet, to avoid the topic? 

The answer is heard in Loznitsa's film: Landsbergis makes it clear that only the supreme leader of the USSR could have turned tanks against the peaceful people of Lithuania, and that he is the one to blame for the victims of January 13th. In Loznitsa's work, Gorbachev is the character with a minus sign. The sequences with the tanks, the gunfire, the attack on unarmed people in Vilnius are horrifying. The director has tactfully selected only the shots that reconstruct the atmosphere but do not show extreme violence and blood.

There is quite a lot of singing in the historical parts of the film, and “Lietuva brangi” is sung three times. At the first massive gathering, when the song is led by composer Julius Juzeliūnas, a member of the Sąjūdis Initiative Group, who addresses the gathering as "dear singers", it is sung at full volume as a dignified statement by the nation about living on its own land. Around the middle of the film, when people line up on the Baltic Way and join hands, “Lietuva brangi” is heard as a calm, confident hope, as an affirmation that we are protecting and defending our land. And the third time is after we say goodbye to the victims of January 13th. Then “Lietuva brangi” is extremely quiet, but persistent. Hope and dignity were not taken away by anyone. And at some point, without quite realizing it, you start singing along. Whether it's that hymn, the national hymn or another. The impact of the film is so powerful that – who knows – maybe the audience joins in during the screening just as involuntarily.