Road to nowhere: Sergei Loznitsa and Russia’s wartime ghosts

My Joy (dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2010)

The experience of watching Sergei Loznitsa’s grippingly joyless debut fiction feature My Joy (2010) is captured by an exchange that takes place around halfway through the film. “Where does this road lead?” truck driver Georgi asks three men who have just tried to steal from him as he takes a break to sleep in his vehicle in the middle of a dark wood. “It’s not a road; it’s a direction,” one of the men replies mysteriously. “Where does it lead?” Georgi asks again. The answer? “Nowhere.”

The moment also turns out to be a pivot in the narrative of the film, marking the point that it veers off-road to become almost plotless. Until this nocturnal scene, we have followed Georgi on his journey to deliver freight to an unspecified destination. Despite occasional detours, watching the film’s opening hour it seems reasonable to assume that he will be the protagonist and that his journey will form its through line, however picaresque and meandering the narrative. But Loznitsa eventually abandons both Georgi and the road. The film’s disparate parts do not cohere around an individual on a journey into the future, but around a thematic preoccupation with the collective past. My Joy is less a road movie than it is a ghost story.

Set in the drab post-Soviet present (which already seems to belong to the distant past), the film was shot in Ukraine but is set in Russia. The head of Mosfilm proclaimed it “anti-Russian” at the time of its release. Loznitsa’s treatment of the past, particularly the Second World War, suggests not only that history haunts the present but implies that its ghosts were never really dead in the first place. In an interview about his 2018 feature A Gentle Creature, the director described Russian history as a form of “copy-paste”. The present not only inherits from the past but repeats it: first as tragedy, then as tragedy recast. This is a grubby, petty, almost farcical vision; for all the brutality and suffering, these are tragedies robbed of grandeur or catharsis.

Loznitsa’s treatment of the past, particularly the Second World War, suggests not only that history haunts the present but implies that its ghosts were never really dead in the first place

History constantly bleeds into the present as a series of echoes. When Georgi first hits the road, he is listening to a song from the time of the Soviet-Afghan war. He is soon stopped at a checkpoint where his documents are examined; a similar encounter is then repeated in flashback, when an old man Georgi finds in his truck starts telling him about his experiences as a lieutenant at the end of the Second World War. In flashback, we see this man, like Georgi, being stopped to have his documents checked. A Soviet official invites him for a drink in his cabin. The lieutenant shows off his things: a red dress he is taking back to his fiancée, a camera, a German jacket. Waiting among the crowds to board a train the following day, the commandant approaches the lieutenant again and asks for his papers as if they’d never met. This time he declares them suspicious, informing the man he will be sent to prison for two weeks and that there is nowhere for him to leave his belongings in the meantime. Back in Georgi’s truck, the man tells him that he has lived without a name since that day, before disappearing. Though the man vanishes from the film, the connection established between past and present cruelties lingers; throughout the film, trivial acts of brutality motivated by selfishness and greed continuously recur.

Georgi next comes across a young sex worker with whom he shares his packed lunch. She tells him that her grandmother had told her that the drained swamps in the area were cursed. He asks her casually about her friends to which she replies: “There’s no friendship here.” A cursed swamp where no-one can be trusted is an apt summary of how Loznitsa seems to view contemporary Russia, a place characterised by scams, hustles, petty crime, and senseless violence. In a later scene, a woman who remains off screen can be heard complaining that she sold her house to pay for space in a care home only to discover that the care home didn’t exist. One of the three men who tried to steal from Georgi before being apprehended asks for forgiveness with a shrug: “The devil took us,” he says flatly, “it happens.”

My Joy (dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2010)

Another bridge between devils past and present is established. Georgi is told that one of the three thieves has been mute since childhood. It was rumoured that his father was killed and that he was never the same again, but his companions seem unsure of the story’s veracity and soon abandon him in the forest. Another flashback to the Second World War begins. Two soldiers who have been walking endlessly seek shelter in a house belonging to a widower who lives alone with his young son. He offers them dinner and a bed for the night. The next morning, they beat him and drag his body outside to be buried: there’s no friendship here. Again, the motive seems purely material. After they ransack the house, the widower’s son – presumably the mute man introduced in the woods – is shown sitting alone on the porch clutching a gun, before we cut back to the now-ramshackle house in the present.

My Joy’s ruminations on the aftermath of wartime destruction can be understood in the context of Loznitsa’s more famous documentary works. Taken together, his fiction and non-fiction careers demonstrate an acute sense of the impact that Russia’s failure to reckon with its violent history has had. A preoccupation with the legacies of the Second World War animates his non-archival documentaries shot in Germany, Austerlitz (2016) and Victory Day (2018), which both contend with forms of public memorialisation: the former’s long static shots eavesdrop on tourists chatting light-heartedly on visits to Sachsenhausen and Dachau, while the latter documents the politically divergent mix of visitors to the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park on 9th May, the anniversary of the day the Red Army declared victory over the Nazis. A number of his archival documentaries also collage material from the war, including Blockade (2006) and Babi Yar. Context (2021). Like Austerlitz, his most recent film, The Natural History of Destruction (2022), borrows its title from a work by W.G. Sebald. Eerie footage of everyday civilian life in Nazi Germany and Allied countries precedes footage of aerial bombardments. Sebald described how the memory of civilian destruction had been completely repressed in Germany, while Loznitsa seems to suggest that Russia remains morbidly attached to a distorted image of victory that blots out the deep scars inflicted by the conflict.

Loznitsa suggests that Russia remains morbidly attached to a distorted image of victory in the Second World War that blots out the deep scars inflicted by the conflict

Although there are no further flashbacks in My Joy, there is an additional vignette that connects the present to the unresolved traumas of the Second World War: a haggard old man wearing a Lenin badge on his lapel wanders down a snowy road muttering about shooting people and leaving them in a mass grave. His vague and incoherent remarks about “world peace” pair jarringly with his recollection of laying “the bastards head-to-head.” A truck pulls over to ask him where the road goes, and he hits the driver on the head with a metal implement.

For Loznitsa, all killing brutalises. As he remarked in a 2022 interview: “All war dehumanises”. In My Joy’s two flashbacks, the Second World War does not appear as a conflict between two opposing forces, let alone as a fight to defeat fascism, but is instead depicted as random acts of interpersonal violence between Soviet people motivated by nothing grander than their own immediate greed. The film ends with a final document check, prompting another display of arbitrary cruelty and ending in a massacre. My Joy makes for bleak viewing in 2023, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet for all the venality and violence in Loznitsa’s film there are occasional moments of kindness and compassion, however thwarted, fleeting, and unreciprocated – Georgi sharing his packed lunch and coffee with the young sex worker in the present, the widower feeding the soldiers in the past. Loznitsa insists that even dehumanised humans are human. It’s not exactly a hopeful vision, but it does at least suggest that other roads could still be taken.

Watch My Joy on Klassiki here