Long before the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, the word “revolution” began its long linguistic journey in a much different place. It was celestial, referring to the movement of planets; think of Nicolas Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres. The political sense of the term didn’t stick until the late 17th century, with England’s Glorious Revolution. This dichotomy of meaning has long lent political revolutions a cosmic veneer, particularly since we began to think of history itself as a great, ghostly actor in human fortune. The surges of social revolt are awesome and inexorable, even works of art. Ancient philosophers refer to a “music of the spheres,” a way of using harmony to understand the cosmos. Pythagoras believed that heavenly bodies emit a celestial hum as they move through the sky, each at its own pitch. Revolutions, if you’re willing to allow a precariously extended metaphor, have sound.
That much is certainly clear in Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan (review), a portrait of the Ukrainian Revolution of 2013. Rather than a hum, the film is a national oratorio, built from patriotic choruses and wry pop songs. A crowd of protesters sings the National Anthem and a revolutionary rally is led by Eurovision Song Contest winner Ruslana. These more committed tunes are occasionally interjected by the rambunctious “Vitya Ciao,” a satirical dance hit that pokes fun at Russia-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych. Maidan is a triumphant portrait of collective political action, and there is perhaps no better metaphor for such a thing than a nation of voices united in song.
Two years after Maidan, Loznitsa has returned to the subject of mass political demonstration with The Event. This time, however, everything is different. There is no unified musical spirit in the events of August 19th, 1991, that brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That much is obvious from the very beginning. Using footage taken by eight cameramen on that fateful day in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Loznitsa has constructed an economical and incisive portrait of mass bewilderment. The subsequent history of Russia, particular from the perspective of this Ukrainian director, makes the tuneful and victorious nationalism of Maidan a inconceivable cinematic mode for this subject. The sounds of The Event are halting, hesitant and often too soft to fully comprehend.
Much of this tone is the inevitable result of the footage, which includes a whole lot of waiting and wishing. The events of that week could not have been further from the control of the people gathered in Leningrad’s streets and public squares. A group of Soviet generals had declared themselves a “State Committee of the State of Emergency” that morning, took over the public television stations, and rolled two divisions of tanks into Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest. Yet their failure to arrest President Boris Yeltsin complicated things. A stand-off began in front of the Russian parliament building, where Yeltsin and his allies prepared for an attack by the forces of this military coup. This lasted until the morning of August 21st, when they finally abandoned their ambitions and returned the reins to the President.
Of course, all of this dramatic military posturing was happening in Moscow. The footage in Loznitsa’s film was taken 700km away, on the streets of Leningrad. The images of The Event are not those of a high stakes stand off, complete with armored vehicles and paratroopers. Rather, they are mostly those of Russian citizens milling about. There are countless shots of their expressions, the confused and bored faces of a nation stuck wondering what to do. There are also political signs and slogans everywhere, some of which become leitmotifs. The most common seems to be “Fascism will not prevail.” There is so much near-silence, occasionally interrupted by the musings of passers-by or the strange opinions on the radio. “There’s no panic, all is calm,” someone intones. A voice, presumably urging one or the other side of the coup in Moscow, begs that soldiers “shoot, but without hatred.” Perhaps the most resonant of these bodiless aphorisms is this: “Yeltsin rises, confused but firm.”
This soundscape is likely Loznitsa’s principal accomplishment here, an odd synthesis of the mass energy of Maidan and the unsettling soundscapes of some of his nonfiction shorts. It is often impossible to tell where certain words are coming from. Early on in the film, before the community fully gathers in the town square, one can hear the faint shimmering of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. Is it coming from somewhere hidden in Leningrad, or is it arriving from the post-atheist future, supplied by Loznitsa himself? Many of the cheers in the later stages feel muffled, or at least insecure. The sound system used by Mayor Anatoly Sobchak (a mentor of Vladimir Putin) as he addresses the people has some issues, at least at first, as he rushes to address the people of his city and condemn the coup.
Of course, most other revolutions have periods of tremendous confusion as well. Disparate pieces often often coalesce into unity, or at least into an identifiable movement. One particularly powerful edit echoes this, toward the end of the film. Sobchak calls for a moment of silence, in memory and honor of those whose blood was shed resisting the coup. Loznitsa lingers on a shot of the crowd, as more and more of the assembled citizens raise their fists. Then, suddenly, he transitions to a shot of the same crowd with their hands raised in the peace sign. It is a brief moment of collective hope, an abrupt shift from a symbol of force to a symbol of harmony.
Yet this is the briefest of resolutions. The same is true of the film’s near-concluding development, the August 22nd decision of the newly reinvigorated Russian Parliament to replace the Soviet flag with the old Imperial tricolor. Though Loznitsa features the scene of the flag being removed and replaced atop the buildings at the center of Leningrad, the black and white cinematography robs this symbol of its patriotic weight. In fact, not once does he allow the audience any extended opportunity to sit back and revel in the beauty of political change. The last sequence, an epilogue built around the sealing of the Soviet archives, is a harrowing and final suggestion as to why Loznitsa is not interested in any triumphant gesticulating, but its cynical mood is present from the beginning.
And it is on this point that the film’s soundtrack, built almost entirely from selections from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, is a stroke of genius. In one sense, it’s the obvious choice. The leaders of the coup hat attempted to crack down on any dissemination of information, forcing all of the state-run television stations to broadcast an innocuous performance of the ballet by the Bolshoi. It is similar gesture to that of Victor Kossakovsky’s Demonstration, in which anti-austerity protests in Barcelona are set to the score of Ludwig Minkus’s Don Quixote, which was on stage that very same night at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Yet the impact of this classical soundtrack is so much more significant in The Event, and not simply because Tchaikovsky was a much better composer.
For one thing, Swan Lake is extremely well-known. This allows Loznitsa to use small snippets to tease the audience. He cuts to black between every scene and accompanies each of these punctuation marks with a short selection from the ballet’s score. Yet, just as quickly, the music fades out once the images return. There is never any payoff. This lush, Romantic score is never allowed to resolve, but instead hangs over the proceedings like so many incomplete feelings. This refusal to give the audience even the smallest passage of tonal triumph acts as the film’s government metaphor, as well as its aesthetic trump card. There was no victory in the end of the Soviet Union, no field of voices coming together in a shared song. The musical nationalism of Maidan is replaced by the disorienting silences and hanging sounds of unresolved confusion. A revolution without a tune is perhaps no revolution at all.