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“The Natural History of Destruction”: Interview with Sergei Loznitsa

The film opens with a simple shot of the sky. Although the image is in black and white, it’s clear that we’re looking at a blue mid-summer day. A fluffy cloud covers the bright sun and slightly darkens the sky, with rays of sunlight peeking through.

The very first frame of the documentary The Natural History of Destruction, by Sergei Loznitsa, is a perfect allegory for the film’s subject, as we later learn that the opening footage is that of Germany just before the full-blown breakout of World War II. The film is comprised of never-before-seen archive footage leading up to and during the war. The story that unfolds on a screen captivates with unique images accompanied by various sounds. By following each other they increasingly change the tone and mood from idyllic to nightmarish. If the opening artistically represents the importance of recognizing the coming of dark times, the finale of the movie that presents disastrous ruins in place of a once flourishing city, passionately calls to prevent a future catastrophe caused by human mistreatment of fellow human.   


The title of the film is based on the book “On the Natural History of Destruction” by W.G. Sebald, which was published in 1999. The German writer, who is often called “the most revered writer of the second half of the 20th century,” deals with the trauma of the Second World War, and especially its effect on the German people – not a very popular subject, even in Germany. But if this part of history isn’t addressed by society and remains “a shameful family secret,” isn’t there danger that it will happen again?

It is not the first time that Sergei Loznitsa, one of the most distinguished documentarists and filmmakers, has been drawn to the work of W.G. Sebald. The 2016 movie Austerlitz, that was inspired by the last novel of the German writer, observes the visitors at the Nazi concentration camps in order to understand why they go there and what they are looking for. The Natural History of Destruction offers to observe the aerial bombings of the cities during World War II to see the extent of the devastation suffered by those cities and to understand why it happened and what should be done to avoid it in the future.

The Belarus-born, Ukraine-raised, Russian-speaking Sergei Loznitsa, who has lived for more than 20 years in Germany, is proud to be called a cosmopolitan, in the original meaning of this term. As a citizen of the world, he publicly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling the war “the battle between Good and Evil” during his resignation from the European Film Academy because of their initial conformist statement in relation to the Russian act of aggression. It didn’t prevent him from being expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy because of his opposition to the idea that “the key concept in the rhetoric of every Ukrainian should be his national identity.” At the same time, this controversial position allows him to look beyond geographical and cultural borders and examine how war affects people regardless of nationality.

Indeed, the concept of so called “strategic bombing” on the widest scale during World War II – one that often involved residential areas – was never fully condemned, and international law did not ban the aerial bombing of the cities. After the flattening of Grozny in Checnya, nothing stopped Russian pilots from bombing and destroying Syrian cities. For most Europeans, those devastations were too far away to cause concern. However, since the bombing of Charkiv, Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities, The Natural History of Destruction has become more relevant than ever.

The Natural History of Destruction, produced by companies from Germany, Lithuania and Netherlands, premiered at the 75th Cannes Film Festival. We met with Sergei at a roundtable, in-person interview at the Palace of Festival on May 25 to talk about the creative process of working with archive footage and the experience of living through today’s current events.   

Thank you very much for your movie. It was a very immersive one. When you make an archive documentary, what is the process of getting some of the elements out of that book but also applying it to your own style of filmmaking?

Well, of course the book was a starting point for me in making the film because Sebald puts forward some very important questions. First, the question of whether the perception of these events in post-war Germany is appropriate and whether it matched the reality of what happened. Of course, when I make a film, I need to find a way to express these ideas visually. 

And if we are talking about the destruction and the suffering of people, then my purpose in the film is just to focus on the destruction in order to exclude all other elements from the narrative.

For example, I exclude chronology from the narrative. I’m not interested in the facts of who did what, who went first, who went second etc. I’m not interested in this. Because the way in which we perceive chronology is that if somebody was first, somebody started first, then it means that the one who did it second was kind of acting in response, and there was a kind of revenge involved: if we enter this territory, this distracts us from the main idea of the film.

What I’m interested in is that this principle was employed by all the armies of the world. All of them. The armies that had the technical resources to bomb and destroy civilian targets, the armies that had air forces, they all employed this method of conducting war.

So, basically, after I’ve formulated this idea, the idea of the film, I know what to do. Then afterwards, it is just a question of selecting the material, the material editing, and doing sound design.

There are a lot of powerful images, like the footage of the sky from the airplanes. What was the reason that you think that they shot it? And what was the process like for you when you were using that?

That whole scene reminded me of a Jackson Pollock painting. The footage was made purely for practical military reasons because they had to shoot at targets, which they destroyed. And we even found footage with marking, where the targets are clearly marked. When we edited this episode, even before we did any sound design, there was no sound, no music, just the image, it was so powerful and so impressive. Practically, through those images, I managed to show this horror without basically saying much, without showing much. Just showing flashes. And this is the essence of cinema. To provoke, to inspire, to fire your imagination. Cinema starts at the back of your own head. When the image opens your imagination and you own your own fantasy. Cinema par excellence.

Was it British footage?

Yes. It is footage of different bombings of Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Bremen, Cologne, Mannheim. When we first got the footage, we didn’t understand what we were looking at. The flashes appeared infrequently at first. The more we watched, the more we saw, and we began to understand exactly what we were looking at.

The images of the flashes from the bombing camera lead the audience straight to the factory where those airplanes got built. First, the British factory, which Field Marshal Montgomery is visiting, and then the German one, “AEG.” Those images of workers at a German factory set to Wagner’s music are remarkable.

It was very important to have that. Thank God I have this footage!

Why did you choose to combine that footage with that specific piece of music?

They’re listening to the overture of the “Nuremberg Meistersingers,” which is one of Wagner’s masterpieces. I thought it was very interesting to combine this music by Wagner with the industrial process of creating this war machines, these bombs, and airplanes. Because it seems that Wagner’s music and these processes, and the way it’s filmed, it’s full of Romanticism. So, we’re talking about the German footage of the period and the way the shot is composed, the lighting of everything that we see there, it’s so specifically German. And later the Soviets adopted this style of filmmaking. Everything was staged. Compare that to British footage, Montgomery’s footage, which is closer to cinéma vérité. It’s not staged. There’s a live camera which moves, and the subjects move naturally. They are relaxed. You can always see the tension in the German people. They’re united, they’re producing something. They’re producing the State, a heroic state against the entire world.

You decided to make this movie before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and I’m just wondering, how did you feel on February 24 when the invasion began? I mean in connection with making this movie.

So, first, I have been talking about the danger of this war’s happening for quite a long while, and I was trying to give a warning. Also, it’s important to mention that the war has been going on since 2014. And this decision by Putin to invade Ukraine was the most idiotic decision that one could have taken. And it was obvious, like for anyone who understands anything, that it couldn’t have possibly been a blitzkrieg, a kind of easy conquest. So yes, of course. So, this is just so stupid. This is so, so unjustified. And of course, I was very distressed. How can you … what kind of other attitude can you have to hear of this terrible situation?

But what was your first reaction? When you heard this news, did you call somebody?

I was awoken by a text message that I received from my friend, the Russian filmmaker Victor Kosakovsky, “Sergei, forgive me. It’s a nightmare. I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”

I think what’s happening now in Ukraine has added an additional weight to that sequence. If I watched this a year ago, I would have probably brushed it off as something scary that happened in the past that, thankfully, we don’t have to deal with anymore. But watching it now, current events have added a new perspective of the film.

I mean it really is just a big coincidence that this film is being released in the middle of this war. And yes, we are facing this rather strange and peculiar situation. This nightmare exists, it’s always somewhere around but we can’t always recognize it. And then something happens and suddenly we are aware of this nightmare.