Made with uncompromising intellectual rigor and singularity of purpose, Sergei Loznitsa’s latest feature-length assemblage of archive footage, The Natural History of Destruction, unspools material showing the before, during and after of carpet bombing during WWII. Austere in the extreme, it’s consistent with Loznitsa’s usual documentary MO: no contextualizing voiceover, no explanatory text onscreen, just archive material enhanced with sound design that brings it to life. As such, it’s much like his previous films about the same period (Blockade, Victory Day) as well as his accounts of recent history (Maidan) — except this time, in a bold new departure, Loznitsa has laced in an original soundtrack by Christiaan Verbeek that enhances the pathos of the last reels.
Obviously, the portrait of senseless destruction designed to murder and break the spirits of civilians resonates with what’s happening right now as Russian forces lay waste to cities in Ukraine where Loznitsa grew up and lived for many years, even though the film was in production well before the war started. But the connection to Ukraine is strictly abstract and has to be made in the viewer’s own mind given there is nothing to guide our reactions here. There’s not even any kind of gloss on the book of essays On the Natural History of Destruction by German author W.G. Sebald, which inspired the film and addresses the very lack of reflection on the trauma of civilian bombings.
The Natural History of Destruction
The Bottom Line
War was ever thus.
In the film’s press notes, an extremely erudite Loznitsa talks thoughtfully about the relationship between original text and the film he’s made. But most viewers are unlikely to have access to that diegesis. In the film, his deliberate erasure of any kind of authorial voice is even more frustrating given he’s one of the most internationally known Ukrainian filmmakers around, apart from former actor-producer Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Loznitsa has taken principled stances in public on how the West has addressed the war (he resigned from the European Film Academy over its refusal to call it such) and the “cancelling” of Russian artists (he’s against it), addressed the Russian aggression in Ukraine in his 2018 fictional feature Donbass, and served up plenty of stories tackling the cruelty and corruption in both the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes (In the Fog, A Gentle Creature).
That this film should be Loznitsa’s first artistic contribution since the Russian invasion in February 2022 may be a sheer accident of history and scheduling. But it feels a tiny bit disappointing somehow, especially given how abstract and strictly inferential the connection is to what’s just happened in Mariupol, not to mention Aleppo and other cities senselessly laid to waste recently.
That might seem like quibbling, but it’s a feeling I couldn’t shake throughout The Natural History of Destruction, which is otherwise a mesmerizing experience. Fluidly edited by regular Loznitsa collaborator Danielius Kokanauskis, and using digital technology to make the material look as pristine as news footage shot yesterday, especially the rare color footage, on a strictly aesthetic level the documentary bewitches. It starts with shots of Germans in the 1930s going about their daily lives, eating in cafes, strolling boulevards in picture-postcard-pretty cities, all chocolate-box architecture and just the occasional glimpse of banners with swastikas. There are abundant, rarely shown aerial views of cities that probably look utterly different today judging by the later shots of devastated landscapes, where just tottering shards of masonry remain amid piles of rubble, ruin and corpses laid out for collection.
In the midsection, between the before and after passages, we see the destruction from the point of view of the planes, raining down masses of stubby little bombs that in some of the nocturnal footage create firework-like explosions, truly the flowers of evil. There are shots of munitions factory workers toiling away, many of them women with Rosie the Riveter headscarves, sometimes operating their machinery with pinned up-pictures of movie stars. It’s these little human details from unnamed lives, the people pulling carts of possessions while walking barefoot, or dancing in the streets, that really get to you — far more than the rousing words of then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, seen here giving one of his war-time addresses and surveying Blitz-damage in London.
Personally, as a long-time London resident, I couldn’t help trying to work out which bombed cathedrals belonged to which city and feeling frustrated that I didn’t know if this was supposed to be Liverpool Street or Lubeck. But then it hits you that it doesn’t really matter — the pain and loss felt in both places were equally profound, and trying to create a mental cartography of destruction is not the job at hand here.