Speechless but not Silent: Blockade (Sergei Loznitsa, 2006)

Is it possible to tell the story of a besieged city without the trace of an epic? Can one capture the state of emergency without melodramatic excess? Recounting the Siege of Leningrad in 1941-44, Sergei Loznitsa’s archival documentary Blokada (Blockade, 2006) brilliantly transcends both challenges. Showcasing the daily life of the struggling city, Loznitsa’s film is devoid both of heroic pathos and of sensational appeal.  This 52-minute take on the Siege is far from being a blatant orchestration of the audience’s affective response. Rather, using a minimum of expressive tools, Loznitsa is interested in exploring the tension between the authentic and the constructed that lies in the core of documentary aesthetics.

Released in 2006, sixty-two years after the siege was lifted, Blockade presents a compilation of the archival footage produced by forty cameramen in war-time Leningrad.  In the Soviet cinematic tradition, the genre of the compilation documentary is originally associated with Esfir Shub’s film Padenie dinastii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, 1927). Working with film chronicles and the archive of Nicolas II, Shub told the story of the demise of tsarist rule and the February revolution of 1917. Her method largely relied on repurposing pre-revolutionary footage that captured official ceremonies and important events. As Shub’s experiment demonstrated, effective editing and powerful textual commentary allows for endowing documentary footage with a radically different appeal.

In Blockade, Loznitsa’s take on the siege is not oppositional to that of the film chronicles that constitute the original stock. Rather, he is in conversation with the post-war and post-Soviet documentary projects that have used this material to create a certain visual and discursive imagery of the Leningrad siege. From the 1976 screen adaptation of Alexander Chakovsky’s novel Blokada and 1978 documentary Leningrad to the contemporary television projects of the channel Rossia-Kultura (Aleksei Mikhalëv’s Leningradtsi, 2017) and Piatiy Kanal Rossia (Kirill Nabutov’s Blokadniki, 2014), documentaries and feature films alike have been recycling the familiar archival shots of the frozen city and its suffering people. Accompanied by a rousing march or a melancholic tune, a poem, or a testimony, sequences from the chronicles serve as evidence of the city’s tragedy and resilience. In contrast to these films, Loznitsa chooses to do without voiceover and music. Instead, together with the sound-operator Vladimir Golovnitskii, he reinvents the daily sounds of the wartime city, simulating the experience of “the diegetic sound” for the viewers. Like Shub, Loznitza compiles his own narrative out of archival footage, but his intervention is an attempt to recover the original power of the image from the chronicles, the image beyond the traditional story of urgency and heroism. This desire for authenticity is curiously satisfied with the help of a simulation – a studio recording that imitates diegetic sound.

It is tempting to describe the structure of Blockade as anti-narrative. Thus, in her review, Denise Youngblood offers a synopsis of the movie in short descriptive sentences, attempting to imitate the anti-narrative and genre-bending nature of the film.1 Likewise, Polina Barskova’s review in KinoKultura compares the movie to the Siege diary and emphasises the way the film “challenges the overpowering desire for а teleological master-narrative that would ascribe meaning to the hellish world of the Siege.”2

Like any traumatic experience, the Siege of Leningrad resists narrativisation. Thus, Loznitsa’s movie presents us with what looks like a selection of fragments. Yet it is possible to trace a trajectory in the way the director tells the story. The first sequences capture the earlier days of the blockade. Vertical artillery and stratospheric blimps signal the war-zone, but the daily life is busy and vibrant: trams, cars, and people fill the city streets. The next episode separated by a blackout shows the crowd observing German POWs. Another blackout – and we see an air-raid warning, a fire, and the victims killed in the bombing. These scenes of action give way to scenes of paralysis later on: fast and bold in the beginning, the tram is shown frozen in the snow; as the traffic stops, citizens use sledges to transport dead bodies.

In his interview for BBC, Sergei Loznitsa explains that he “chose to structure the film alongside the vector of decay of life and intensification of death.” 3 This trajectory defined the way Loznitsa worked with the archival material. Vladimir Padunov draws our attention to the temporal compression that takes place in Blockade: the two-and-a half year Siege turns into a provisional year in the life of the besieged city. As Padunov points out, “the newsreel footage was sequenced as the succession of seasons (summer-fall through winter-spring).” 4 Indeed, in Loznitsa’s account, the state of emergency annihilates the sense of historical time, leaving us with the archaic temporality of the nature cycle.


Another thing that seems to disappear together with historical time is human speech. Painting the cityscape of the struggling Leningrad, Loznitsa is interested in communal rather than in individual experience. Thus, close-ups of people’s faces are rare, and even when the camera focuses on a speaking subject we never hear the character speak. The two most conspicuous examples include a woman cursing at a German POW in the beginning of the film and a mother mourning the death of her child closer to the end. In both cases we see the women’s lips moving, but what we hear instead is the noise of the street in the first case and the sound of the bell chimes in the second. So particular at imitating “the diegetic sound,” Loznitsa and Golovnitskii hardly include any human speech beyond a rare interjection – “Mummy, Mum” and “Oh Lord!” – throughout the movie. This total absence of any discourse is a radical response to the often-practiced cinematic narrativisation of the Siege with the help of the voiceover. It also shows how catastrophe takes us to the primordial and pre-linguistic realm where affects are clear and words simply do not matter.

If Blockade is speechless, it is definitely not silent. Loznitsa adds a naturalistic sound track to the originally silent footage, immaculately reproducing every possible noise we might spot on the screen. In fact, the film does not give us a minute of silence. This is especially noticeable in sequences focusing on still, immovable objects: barricades, barbed wire, ruins of buildings. As we watch a static shot of an abandoned building or an antitank obstacle we hear the sound of blowing wind or a squeak of metal. The same unsettling squeak appears in the scene capturing the ditch filled with dead bodies. The shots featuring corpses piled together in a pit are terrifying in their nonchalant motionlessness. These frames are emphatically still, reminiscent of tableaux, and yet, they are not silent. The synchronised squeak in this sequence produces a destabilising effect: on the one hand, it makes the scene even more disconcerting; on the other hand, it renders death quotidian and with that, less absolute. If there is a squeak there must also be someone to hear it.

When asked about the specificity of working with the archival material versus on-site camerawork, Loznitsa remarked:

Of course, you cannot go back in time and shoot anything the way you would prefer it, but these are the rules of the game. If you accept these rules and approach what you have (in this case, newsreels) as material, not a product, your authorial freedom does not suffer a bit. You always have a choice to recombine the material, an opportunity to comment on it – for instance, with the help of sound, and consequently, the freedom to create new meaning.5

Steering away from voiceover in Blockade, Loznitsa creates new meaning with the help of reconstructed sound. According to Polina Barskova, one of the central questions in the Siege diaries (for Olga Berrgolts as well as the other voices of the blockade) is whether or not death can become entirely quotidian. 6 The sequence showing people passing by corpses in the street addresses this very question. Do citizens slow down when they see death? As Barskova suggests, in Blockade they sometimes do and sometimes do not.7 While this is true for the material from the newsreel, Loznitsa’s work with sound in the scene suggests a different perspective.

Thus, one of the original shots featuring a lying corpse shows no sign of approaching people. Yet Loznitsa and Golovnitskii synchronise it with the sound of steps, which in a second turns into silence – as if someone came up to the body and stopped. According to the filmmaker, death requires a stop even when the original footage does not show it. Loznitsa’s Leningrad is not silent, and consequently not completely dead. Like in the sequence with abandoned buildings and motionless barb wire, someone is always around to produce or hear the sound, even if they are invisible.

The only time when we hear prolonged silence in the film is during the last blackout separating the celebration of the break of the Siege from the episode of the public execution of German war criminals in January, 1946. These few seconds of absolute silence make the last sequence function as an epilogue. In an interview with Rossiiskaia Gazeta, Loznitsa characterised the episode of the public execution as defining the pathos of the film.8 He explains that he considers it important to “include these archival shots as a reminder that the two key events in the life of a population are a public celebration and a public execution of one’s enemy.”9 For a contemporary viewer this reminder has an estranging effect. It seems hard to believe that in 1946 a huge crowd of people would observe something as barbaric as a scene of hanging. Likewise, it seems almost incomprehensible how a large modern city would be dying out of starvation around the same time. As we see the final titles, we yet again hear the disconcerting squeak, the same sound we heard in the episode with the corpses. Loznitsa wants to leave his audience with this final discomfort, triggering both the memory of the losses and the vision of the punishment.

In their exploration of the relevance of documentary aesthetics for contemporary Russian culture, Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky discuss the move from “reality as an effect of representation to the real as thing of trauma” registered by Hal Foster.10 Sergei Loznitsa’s Blockade is a brilliant attempt to estrange our vision of the Siege by showing us “the real as thing of trauma” without sentimentality and heroic appeal.


  1. Denise Youngblood, “A Chronicle of Our Time: Sergei Loznitsa’s ‘The Blockade’ (2006)”, The Russian Review 66:4 (2007): 694
  2. Polina Barskova, “Sergei Loznitsa, The Siege (Blokada, 2006)”, KinoKultura 24 (2009) http://www.kinokultura.com/2009/24r-blokada.shtml
  3. Maria Beiker, “Blokada v Rotterdame”, BBCRussian.com, February 6, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/russian/entertainment/newsid_4684000/4684348.stm
  4. Vladimir Padunov, “Reviewing a Lost Civilization: Sergei Loznitsa’s ‘Revue’ (2008), The Russian Review 68:4 (2009): 685-686
  5. Maria Beiker, “Igra v neigrovoe”, Iskusstvo Kino, April 2008. http://kinoart.ru/archive/2008/04/n4-article15
  6. Polina Barskova, “Sergei Loznitsa, The Siege (Blokada, 2006)”, KinoKultura 24 (2009) http://www.kinokultura.com/2009/24r-blokada.shtml
  7. Ibid.
  8. Artur Solomonov, “Portret so stradaniem”, Rossiiskaia Gazeta, January 20, 2007 https://rg.ru/2007/01/20/blokada.html
  9. Maria Beiker, “Blokada v Rotterdame”, BBCRussian.com, February 6, 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/russian/entertainment/newsid_4684000/4684348.stm
  10. Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky, “The Desire for the Real: Documentary Trends in Contemporary Russian Culture: Introduction”, The Russian Review 69:4 (2010): 562

About The Author

Tatiana Efremova is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at New York University with a secondary field in Cinema Studies. She works on Soviet and Post-Soviet Russian literature, film, media, and visual culture. Her first publication,” ‘It was totally worth it’: Patriotic Consumption in the Queue to Serov’s Exhibit,” appeared in a special issue of Digital Icons in the spring of 2016.

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