Earlier last year, the Belarus-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa drew a spate of hostile reactions when he denounced the blanket ban on Russian films at the 2022 European Film Awards. The programme decision came in the aftermath of his open letter expressing resignation from the European Film Academy (EFA) for their weak-hearted consolatory stance on the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war.1 But EFA’s reactionary decision later at the Awards also seemed utterly facile for Loznitsa, as it banned artists “based on their passports” and turned a blind eye to the complexities of political positions.2 In a further comedy of political errors, the Ukrainian Film Academy expelled Loznitsa for opposing the ban, with the executive director, Anna Machukh, blaming his cosmopolitanism during a political crisis when “the key concept in the rhetoric of every Ukrainian should be [their] national identity.”3 

Following Russia’s escalated invasive efforts against Ukraine with irremissible impunity, the classic contradictions between art, identity, and reception face the test of rapid reflexes in populist media. It becomes more intricate when the identity of artworks logistically involves questionable social and financial legacies. A similar controversy surfaced at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival surrounding the programming of the Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov’s film, Zhena Chaikovskogo (Tchaikovsky’s Wife), and its financial ties to the $100 million Kinoprime Film Fund maintained by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.4 

For an auteur like Loznitsa, works of cinema do not seem to possess a reducible identity premised upon their thematic or contextual relations. They manifest as processual exercises attending to the complicated semantic routes of political subjectification. No wonder he did not budge in producing a play based on Jonathan Littell’s novel, The Kindly Ones, where several actors objected to its depiction of Ukrainians’ complicity in the Holocaust, deeming it an incorrect gesture amid the ongoing war.5 One wonders, when can questions of historical revision and introspection be not untimely? Loznitsa navigates such stalemate critical circumstances by digging deeper into the compositional nuances of films and their manifold potential. His much-celebrated documentaries like Maidan (2014) and Austerlitz (2016) develop a sustained formal approach that reorients hermeneutic practices of drawing distilled conclusions. As opposed to the expeditious nature of media reportage, the minimalism of these films – austerely built upon repetitive and cyclic patterns – generate new modes of situating political reality. 

Indeed, his subject position dwells on a principled aesthetic disposition harking back to his early, lesser-screened documentaries like Polustanok (The Halt, 2000), Portret (Portrait, 2002), Poselenie (Settlement, 2002), Peyzazh (Landscape, 2003) and Fabrika (The Factory, 2004). One must revisit this period of his productions to trace their textual implications in fostering a deliberative praxis of encountering politics. Instead of engaging with visibly localised political events such as protests, demonstrations, or state ceremonies, they focus on commonplace, quotidian details in everyday scenarios. Yet, their aesthetic rendering with striking formal and structural ingenuity renders pressing political questions to the fore, provoking new idioms of cinematic responsiveness. 


In the 2004 documentary, Factory, Loznitsa steps into the labouring spaces of a steel and clay industrial unit in the Ural region of Russia, a historically rich location for its metallurgical heritage since the 4th millennia BC. However, the film eschews the scope for narrativising its history and examines the textured material relations in production chains. With extended periods of focus on the rhythm and flow of labouring bodies, Loznitsa structures an abstracted mosaic of factory work. The film’s composition into two sections, “Steel” and “Clay,” further play out the abstract dichotomies of masculine-feminine, rough-delicate, or creating-dismantling to underline the material configurations in the industrial division of labourers. He captures the visuals in deep contrast colour alongside a thoughtful orchestration of industrial noises, which casts an undeniable atmospheric spell precipitating situated awareness. 

Following a short prologue, showing night-shift workers entering a factory sequentially, the camera reveals a worker strenuously climbing out of the mouth of a furnace. The scene’s figurative signification shadows the succeeding sequences, referring to the birth of the industrial being whose habits and reflexes exclusively respond to the parental logic of the machine’s productive function. From putting scrap iron into the furnace, moulding molten metal, hammering piston valves, and driving mechanised belts, Loznitsa methodically observes the habitual impulses of workers over a considerable time. The frames remain static against the rhythmic movement of bodies and machines in conjunction. Resultingly, the abstracted notions of labour sediment into concrete correspondences between individuals and the production infrastructure. Through the temporal passage of acute observation, the input-feedback relations in the workers’ repetitive actions progressively disclose a located understanding of individual labour.  

Over the film’s second section, “Clay,” a similar observational structure ensues with women workers driving different assembly junctures of a factory’s clay casting unit. Every worker’s habitual role reacts to an unceasing productive flow of labour relations. However, as the camera meditates on individuated work patterns, sporadic lapses in the workers’ operation become evident, reinstating the all-too-human presence at the heart of the factory. In one scene, as a woman puts clay casts on a vertical conveyer belt, carefully filling in every position on the chain, she abruptly expresses a sigh of weariness and misses a few rotations. Sergei Loznitsa’s unremitting observation fleshes out several similar instances – a worker accidentally dropping metal scraps, missing the correct piston mark, or skipping a few objects on the conveyer belt. Here, the film’s aesthetic design invites an intense engagement to discern the logic of work patterns and their inconsistencies within an apparently unsullied human-machine assemblage. It translates to a form of labour where the viewers attune themselves to a peculiar mode of responsiveness beyond a diegetic rationale or narratorial commentary. Since the audio-visual sequences do not relate to a storyline, the observational structure proceeds through the purely formal cinematic registers of composition, time, and movement.

The profuse materialities pictured in the steel and clay production process constitute a distinctive extra-textual layer. There is an implicit haptic referentiality in the images involving the repetitive handling, moulding, and assorting of different material states. Therefore, one must seek the embodied, multisensorial reception of the audio-visual collages instead of cognising them in purely optical terms. The lack of characterological depictions, narrations, or plot arcs promotes such a critical direction. Laura Marks devises the notion of haptic visuality to articulate the embodied relationship between the self and the image beyond visual-narrative identification. In the representational schema of optical visuality, cognitive association with depicted elements forms the experiential value for the spectator. But Marks’ derivation attends to one’s encounter with the material nature of visuals, including the texture, frequency, editing effects and formats, and other formal properties that reside on the surface plane of signification. Therefore, attuning to the hapticity of visuals requires assessing one’s relation to these material layers rather than being “pulled into narrative.”6 

In The Factory, Sergei Loznitsa develops an inventive visual pattern relying on tropes of repetitions, stillness, punctuations, pauses, and other compositional rhythms that create a textured interface as dynamic as the mutating material states with which the factory workers interact. The film demands a responsive orientation that attends to these formal dialogues with critical reflexivity. Undeniably, the spectator confronts the labour of working through the material nature of visuals to process the reflexes, continuities, and breaks of factory workers the film captures. This spectatorial labour matures as a political praxis in the aesthetic programme of Loznitsa.  Perhaps the meta-textual implications of labour cannot be more apparent than in this film during the auteur’s early career. Among the number of short and mid-length documentaries he made during the turn of this century, The Factory seemingly manifests as the idiomatic culmination of their maturing political vision.


Loznitsa’s more audacious formal experiments in films like Portrait squarely enunciate the spectatorial labour at function. In the Russian countryside, it collates a deadpan tableau of villagers staring back at the camera. They stand in varied rural settings with hardly any perceptible movement, as if posing for still photographs. Many appear frozen in the middle of their work hypnotically. Without contextual information about the villagers or the locations, time becomes the singularly dynamic agent. There is an indubitable opacity to these visuals privileging the material nature of images and their texture, rhythm, composition, and surface tensions over semantic value. Quite indicative of the militant minimalism to follow, the film opens with a vast snowscape horizon and ends with its almost negative image – a grassy stretch rendered pitch black in monochrome. These two images bracket the film’s formal emphasis.


A similar structure guides his first feature-length documentary, Settlement, where the clearing and the fogging of landscapes mark its initial and terminal points. Often, these bracketing scenes come imbued with symbolic potency that ritually prepares the space for formalist experiments. In this film, Loznitsa fragmentarily focuses on the daily routines inside the premises of a rural mental institution to draw evocative images. While the background setting is never explicitly disclosed, he crafts a suggestive atmosphere that hints at their complex reality without sentimentalising it. 

Two formal cinematographic movements recurrently feature in his films, still frames and lengthy pans. In the middle of static collages, the panning shots across landscapes serve as visual breaks – a technique that assumes central importance in Landscape. Over long, ceaselessly-cut 360-degree pans, Loznitsa navigates the location of a small bus stop in a village with snatches of people’s expressions, conversations, and behaviour recorded in passing. Reminiscent of Laura Mulvey’s avant-garde classic, Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), the film’s formalist approach captures a cacophony of noises and transitory bodies in a self-referential gesture of its textured material compositions. 

Train Stop

There is a remarkably taciturn approach in the films marked by the characters’ absence of verbal communication. They work silently, stare blankly, or ramble among themselves without any definitive referential point for the viewers. But, in Train Stop, the characters are not even awake. With razor-sharp compositions shot in a blurry and grainy-textured monochrome film, Loznitsa observes slumbering passengers at a train stop in the middle of the night. The sound of passing trains roars on the screen as waiting passengers sleep exhausted. With dynamic angles framing inert bodies in various resting postures, the uneventful scenes attain a striking depth that conjures allegorical reflections about the drowsy post-soviet political state of existence. Here, the formal-material property of images, including the blurs, grains, and scratches, mobilises one’s embodied encounter with the otherwise mute figures. 

The question of spectatorial labour conspicuously features in encountering these films, requiring constant appraisal of the material nature of the images. It is apposite that Factory converges this dynamic on a meta-textual level as it reflectively probes the labouring processes in an industrial unit. Reading the visuals of Loznitsa’s documentaries entails laborious working with the form, composition, frequency, and related formal characteristics stimulating a multisensorial evocation of haptic and other proximities. While optical reading stresses distance between the discerning spectator and represented elements, haptic visuality bespeaks an intimate contact with the “skin of the film,” to bring in Laura Marks’ phrase. 

Embodied encounters with Loznitsa’s documentary images provoke a critical relationship that undermines perfunctory identitarian associations. Though documentaries explicitly dealing with episodes of political crises like Blokada (Blockade, 2005), Maidan, or Austerlitz follow motivated ideological orientations, they do not afford inadvertent perspectivation. Their material compositions, also involving structuring archival footage, encode critical responsiveness. Therefore, the spectatorial labour in working through Loznitsa’s cinematographic virtuosity resists knee-jerk responses to sensational visuals in contemporary media. Returning to the controversy that led to the Ukrainian Film Academy expelling Loznitsa, it becomes obvious why he opposed the populist drive to cancel Russian filmmakers at the European Film Award. 

In an open letter responding to his expulsion for being a cosmopolitan, Loznitsa critiques the parochial notion of “national identity” as a “gift to the Kremlin propaganda.” It is not a “civil position” that forms alliances across identities against Russian aggression but harps on insular identification. Contrarily, cosmopolitanism necessitates working across structures of identification and orienting towards new constitutions of collectivity and citizenship. Perhaps, there cannot be a more befitting correlation to his critical subject position than the political vision developed with formalist acumen in his documentaries, propounding spectatorial labour over uncritical visual-narrative identification.


  1. Scott Roxborough, “Ukrainian Director Sergei Loznitsa Quits European Film Academy Over ‘Shameful’ Response to Invasion,” The Hollywood Reporter, 28 February 2022.
  2. Elsa Keslassy, “Ukrainian Filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa Speaks Against Russian Boycott (EXCLUSIVE),” Variety, 1 March 2022.
  3. Martin Blaney, “Ukrainian Film Academy explains decision to expel director Sergei Loznitsa,” Screen Daily, 21 March 2022.
  4. Christopher Vourlias, “Kirill Serebrennikov Talks Russian Boycotts, Putin’s War and Oligarch Roman Abramovich,” Variety, 18 May 2022.
  5. Marius Eidukonis and Jolanta Kryževičienė, “Sergei Loznitsa’s Holocaust-themed production in Vilnius draws controversy over ‘anti-Ukrainian’ subject matter,” LRT, 27 September 2022.
  6. Laura Marks, The Skin of the Film (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 163.

About The Author

Santasil Mallik is a writer and media artist pursuing his PhD at the University of Western Ontario. He is interested in documentary practices in conversation with narratives of political violence. As a practitioner, he works around experimental cinema and video art.

Related Posts