Blockade (Directed by Sergei Loznitsa, 2006) Blockade is a multiple-award-winning documentary that portrays the suffering and stoicism of Leningrad’s civilians during the horrific 900-day German siege, September 1941 to January 1944.
To Russians, this story is as familiar as is General Washington’s winter at Valley Forge is to young Americans:
- Three million civilians were trapped by the Germans in Russia’s second largest city;
- About one million civilians died from starvation, while 332,059 Russian soldiers are listed as killed on the Leningrad front;
- The bravery of the city’s defenders is a stirring tribute to the Russian people’s will to resist and to subsist.
Director Sergei Loznitsa gained access to rarely-seen footage found in Soviet film archives. From these he has crafted an extraordinary cinema verite motif that presents this human Leningrad tragedy in an unforgettable manner. The starkness of his technique matches the starkness of his tale. Prepared for a Russian audience, there is no need for narrative. The only sound track is the occasional noise of bombs, vehicles, and the crashing of buildings. The segues from one set of images to another are abrupt. No effort is made to smooth the telling of this relentlessly tragic tale.
Loznitsa starts with soldiers awaiting an attack, barrage balloons and the construction of fortifications, and what appears to be a bustling city. From sirens, cars and trolleys traversing city streets, and normal pedestrian traffic, the film plunges sharply into bombing, devastation, wide-spread fires, and women and children engaged in salvage operations. For the first time we see civilian casualties, without knowing if they are bombing casualties or the first of the million starvation dead.
One senses the tragedy of that first, horrendous winter during which the trapped civilian population somberly carries on. The fortunate continue grubbing for survival. Pedestrians pass by dead bodies on the street without a glance. Coffins are shown on carts and bodies are gathered at open graves like cord wood. Most heart-wrenching are the photos of weeping mothers carrying their dead babies to burial pits.
Ultimately fireworks mark the end of the siege. There are scenes of muted joy and clapping. The siege was lifted, but the survivors could never erase from their minds this horrendous ordeal in which so many of their friends and family had perished.
Director Loznitsa has chosen to tell this siege story solely through the film footage found in Soviet archives. As such, it has a chillingly powerful effect that can be seen as a commentary on war and survival that has global relevance. His focus is on the civilians, while others have described the military aspects of this stand-to-the-last-soldier (and civilian) defense of an isolated Leningrad.
For Americans, Harrison Salisbury’s classic The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad tells, in excruciating detail, the Leningrad story that is well known to Russians. There are other film portrayals of the Leningrad siege. Several Leningrad scenes are included in Russia’s War: Blood Upon the Snow (1995). I found haunting the account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. This was composed and first performed in Leningrad during the siege. Subsequently Shostakovich returned to present his symphony to survivors from his original audience. On stage were the instruments of over half of the original orchestra who had not survived the ordeal.