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IDFA 2021

Review: Mr. Landsbergis

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- In his latest, Sergei Loznitsa answers FAQs about Lithuania's break from the Soviet Union, over the course of four bloody hours

Review: Mr. Landsbergis

At this point, it's a well-established fact that Sergei Loznitsa can't just go to a festival without winning something, anything, and it has been proven to be true once again at IDFA – named as the Best Film of the International Competition, Mr. Landsbergis was awarded for its editing too, alongside a special mention for Babi Yar. Context [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Sergei Loznitsa
film profile
]
's creative use of archive footage. That Loznitsa managed to deliver these two films over the course of the same year is already impressive enough – that they are both so detailed is almost impossible to conceptualise. No wonder juries keep going weak at their knees in his presence.

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Then again, while the prospect of a four-hour documentary about Lithuania's decision to finally leave the Soviet Union behind – and everything that followed, from peaceful protests in 1989 to the tragedy that was Vilnius' Bloody Sunday in 1991 – is bound to scare many viewers to death, it's too big a subject to treat otherwise. Loznitsa doesn't want to show some aspects of the lengthy process that proved both inspiring and incredibly painful – he wants to show it all, and he needs time to do it.

Of course, it can be hard, and even though it's the kind of film that tends to be described everywhere as "exhaustive" and "epic," some scenes do go on for what feels like forever. Luckily, as always, there is some entertaining absurdity to just about any revolution: be it the idea that what the country needs is a "tolerant farmer with strong nerves" to the surprisingly clear-eyed view of one Mikhail Gorbachev, here coming off as less of a freedom fighter some painted him as in the past. "Freedom… I have already read that one" – he says dismissively about the signs the protesters are holding. He has read it, yes, but he still doesn't care.

It's an unusual film for Loztnista, who actually decided to have a proper, traditional talking head in the story, but only one, as he sets out to interview Vytautas Landsbergis, the first Head of Parliament of Lithuania after its declaration of independence. Loznitsa's voice can also be heard in the film a few times – apparently for the first time ever – and it feels like a sign of respect towards his protagonist, now almost 90 years old. He likes him, he appreciates him, he wants to spotlight his part in the events that ultimately brought the country its freedom. And while the film's more conventional structure (with some added intertitles) makes it feel like a history lesson at times, it does come alive when the archive footage kicks in.

At this point, it's also a well-established fact that Sergei Loznitsa knows how to use this kind of material. It doesn't feel like something faded, clawing its way back from the past. It comes alive, with entire scenes playing out both in black and white and in colour, captured by different amateur onlookers holding their cameras close and ready to document the change. There is one sequence in particular that, despite being clearly patchworked from various sources, is edited so seamlessly it could have been just as well shot in one take. Perhaps it's just the director, or editor Danielius Kokanauskis, entertaining themselves, also by mentioning one archivist, forgotten by history yet clearly their spiritual animal. Either way, it's working.

It's interesting that for all the crowd scenes shown here, and there are so many, with people forming the iconic Baltic Chain of Freedom or just quarrelling all the time, Loznitsa pays so much attention to this one person – "cultured leader" Landsbergis who, it seems, hadn't really been given his due by his countrymen yet. Maybe it took an outsider to notice all the complexities of Lithuania's transformation, or maybe there is just a need to hear Landsbergis speak once again, claiming that "oppression and lies exist but they are temporary." Here is to hoping he's actually right. 

Mr. Landsbergis was produced by Uljana Kim for Studio Uljana Kim, Sergei Loznitsa and Maria Choustova for Atoms & Void, and by Current Time TV.

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