Sergei Loznitsa on the history behind Mr. Landsbergis

    • Festival
    • November 27, 2021
    • By Vladan Petkovic

    Sergei Loznitsa's newest documentary, Mr. Landsbergis, is his second about the 1991 USSR coup d’état, and his second film this year—Babi Yar. Context screened in IDFA's Masters section after winning the Special Jury Prize of the L'Œil d'or Award in Cannes. Even though virtually the whole filmography of the Ukrainian filmmaker screened at IDFA, this is his first film to play in a main competition—and win the top prize.

    "I am very grateful to IDFA. It is a lovely festival," he says on a Zoom call. Evidently exuberant about his victory, he continues: "I first came to IDFA 25 years ago with my student film, Today We Are Going to Build a House. It was very well received, and then almost all my films screened here in different programs, but never in competition. I guess you have to wait for the right moment and the right jury."

    Mr, Landsbergis is an epic, four-hour documentary on the first president of Lithuania after the breakup of the USSR, the now 89-year-old Vytautas Landsbergis. Consisting of an interview with the politician and a wealth of archive footage, it meticulously traces the path the Baltic country had to take to become the first independent country of the former Soviet Union.

    "It was important to tell this story now because everything seems to be coming back," he reflects. "The Russian Federation is rebuilding the Soviet Union at home, and when they complete it, they will come for all of us—Ukraine, Baltic, Caucasus, and the Central Asian countries, and we have to be prepared for that.

    "This is why it is crucial to remember what happened when the Soviet Union collapsed, because still many questions remain unresolved from this time."

    Meeting Mr. Landsbergis

    Loznitsa has worked in Lithuania a lot, showing most of his films there. At one of these screenings five years ago, he met his future protagonist, and they became friends.

    "I remembered him from that time; how he held a speech in June 1989 before a thousand of People's Deputies and spoke candidly about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the occupation of Baltic countries, and freedom from the Soviet Union. It was very brave to speak like that back then. One could easily find themselves in a Siberian gulag," the director recalls.

    "He is one of the great politicians of our era: he was the first president of Lithuania and chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament for a long time. He was also a member of the European Parliament for years. He is a statesman on the scale of Vaclav Havel, very smart and brave, and I often think, if we had such people in other regions of the USSR, maybe they would have been able to transform it," he says.

    When approaching the work on this film, Loznitsa says he first studied the history and related archive materials.

    "We found a lot of footage shot by amateurs. It was surprising how many people in Lithuania at the time had a camera and filmed these events," he recalls. "Of course, you can imagine the quality of these materials. It's 30-year-old VHS."

    But a Latvian digital expert, Peteris Sudakovs, managed to recover much of it, and the director used some technological tricks as well.

    "The aspect ratio of 2.39:1 helps 'squeeze' the picture and make it look better. We also used the speed of 50 fps, which means you can see the image two times in one second, making it much richer. Finally, we did a lot in color grading, thanks to the amazing Romanian grader Claudia Doaga of the Avantpost company," says the director. "Their work is what helped this film become rich and a pleasure to watch in the cinema."

    The work on the film started in March 2020, and Loznitsa began an extensive interview with Landsbergis the summer of the same year: they filmed five hours a day for 15 days.

    "I had never done this before: I've always avoided directly interviewing people, or even having a hero in any of my documentary films. But now I have so much good material that it will become a book," he reveals. "What is in the film are actually just small excerpts from this interview."

    Looking back at the history

    Asked if in his research he was maybe confronted with some truths that he did not know about, he replies: "When I'm making a film, I try to cleanse my brain and pretend I don't know anything about the topic. Of course, I remember my impressions from the first Congress of People's Deputies. The face of authority had changed: before, people in power—Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Khrushchev—were stone-faced and untouchable, almost like a reflection of the gods.

    "Now, for the first time, there was Gorbachev, looking like a normal person, answering questions he apparently wasn't prepared for, and speaking to the public. This had surprised me a lot and I remember that he was considered a hero, someone who opened the door to liberty and democracy. Now, when I looked at this footage, I thought, how stupid I was! What a demagogue!"

    Editing the four-hour film

    The director edited the historical four-hour film with his regular collaborator, Lithuanian editor Danielius Kokanauskis who received the IDFA Award for Best Editing. When asked how he went about this herculean task, the director quips: "The rough cut was five and a half hours long!"

    "Of course, I had history to rely on, so it was easy," he says with a mischievous smile. "I chose the most important points in this history and edited them into episodes, and I connected them to what Landsbergis was telling me."

    The last segment of the film consists of footage from the conflict between protesters and the Soviet Army on the streets of Vilnius on January 13, 1991, when 14 people were killed, and their subsequent funeral.

    "When you have a such a culmination, it's difficult to add anything," he explains. "Honestly, I would have liked to finish the film with Soviet troops leaving Lithuania, but we didn't find enough footage."

    However, he did add one small detail: the joining of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the UN. At the same meeting, North Korea and South Korea also joined. This, according to Loznitsa, was no accident.

    "This is a very important detail," he says. "South Korea was not a member of the UN because the USSR blocked it, as the UN would not let North Korea join. At that moment, probably the agreement was, if you include the Baltic countries, you have to include North Korea as well."

    Loznitsa's most difficult film and praise for IDFA

    A regular at IDFA for more than two decades, Loznitsa says he is noticing that the festival is changing—in a good way.

    "I like this change and IDFA has kept the audience. I've seen a lot of people in the cinema, and so many interesting films. I notice the signature of the programmers; I admire their work and I want to thank them very much for that.

    "I'd like to also thank first of all my protagonist, my hero, Vytautas Landsbergis, and all the people who worked for me on this very complex film. It took us one and a half years, which has never happened to me before. I am very fast, but there were many difficult circumstances. It is my most difficult film but it ended well!"

    Mr. Landsbergis

    • Sergei Loznitsa
    • 2021
    • 246 min

      Singing even a peaceful song can unleash a revolution. Lithuanian politician Vytautas Landsbergis looks back on his country’s independence struggle in this captivating masterclass on the collapse of the Soviet Union by the great chronicler Sergei Loznitsa.

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