wed 24/07/2024

Donbass review - war stories from the Ukrainian front | reviews, news & interviews

Donbass review - war stories from the Ukrainian front

Donbass review - war stories from the Ukrainian front

Dark comedy and grotesque unsettle in vignettes from a forgotten conflict

Checkpoint strip-down: war as a series of everyday humiliations in 'Donbass'

The latest from the prolific Sergei Loznitsa, Donbass is a bad-dream journey into the conflict that’s been waging in Eastern Ukraine since 2014, barely noticed beyond its immediate region.

The titular break-away region, also known as “Novorossiya” (New Russia), is under control of Kremlin-backed militias, fighting the Ukrainian army commanded by Kyiv. But Loznitsa – the director was born in Belarus, raised in Ukraine, and studied film in Moscow, a personal history that surely gives him a perspective on both sides – has not made a war film as such: rather Donbass offers a series of vignettes which present a picture of a society ravaged by a conflict that has become an almost banal factor of everyday life.  

Loznitsa has spoken of his concern in the film being “the particular type of human being, which is produced by a society, where aggression, decay and disintegration rule”. It sounds almost anthropological, and the protagonists on whom he focuses are largely big, brutal Russian men who behave more than anything else like gangsters, their corruption greased down with a sickening dose of demagoguery. The sense of grotesque that defined his previous film, A Gentle Creature (2017) is ramped up, the surreal quality of this new story made crueller by the reality of its conflict-zone setting: where A Gentle Creature had a strange sense of history repeating itself across generations, hardly alleviating but somehow contextualising the horror, there's nothing similar to remotely console here.Donbass lynchingDonbass displays a new cynicism right from the start, opening on a scene with actors being made-up as they prepare for roles that turn out to be fake documentary rather than fiction (Loznitsa himself began his career as a documentarist, and an ambiguous interconnection between the two forms is threaded through Donbass). Their “role” turns out to be civilian lookers-on who have supposedly witnessed a staged enemy mortar attack; even in our current fake-news climate, it’s a chilling glimpse of how war can be “managed”. Loznitsa structures his film from some 13 sketches – each apparently based on stories from real life, dating from 2014-15 – that come together into a loosely cumulative collage. Characters bob in and out of the wider picture, plot episodes gain additional significance as context reveals itself; the effect is particularly chilling when the final episode of this circular journey comes round (again), its back-to-the-beginning revelation hitting with a cold sense of macabre that shows human beings as nothing more than dispensable pawns on the chessboard of war.

Such a lack of narrative structure means that we sometimes struggle with quite what’s going on, particularly at linking moments, but that’s also surely one of Loznitsa’s points – that predictability of connection is one of the first things to go in war. The director’s command grows with each new film he makes, his skill at handling large-scale set scenes particularly impressive here. Their emotional effect ranges from the darkly comic to the agonisingly grotesque, the former exemplified by a scene in which a businessman fails, painfully, to realise that his SUV has just been expropriated by the state, and that he’s now being forced, along with a whole room of others who are in the same position, to come up with a ransom to gain his freedom.

There’s a nightmare urgency that gets disconcertingly under the skin

The opposite end of that spectrum comes in a scene in which a captured Ukrainian soldier, demonised as an “extermination squad volunteer”, is tied to a lamppost to be insulted by passers-by (pictured above) before he’s eventually herded away for lynching. If such hatred is one extreme of this Novorossiya world, another episode takes us down into an underground shelter, a place for desperate civilians of all ages to escape the shelling, exposing us to the mute pain of the real victims in this conflict.  

There are arguably some uncertainties of tone. Caught up in such visceral moments, do we overlook the fact that Loznitsa’s attention is directly exclusively at the Russian side – and is his ferocity justified to such an extent? You don’t have to endorse a Kremlin-friendly political stance in any way to ponder the fact that civilian casualties fall on both sides of any frontline.Donbass weddingSomething similar comes up in the big wedding scene (pictured above) that comes towards the end of the film: it’s a hilarious parody carried out according to the excruciatingly vulgar rites of Novorossiya, a huge and shouty bride marrying a man who looks like a shrimp next to her, the ceremony dominated by the raucous interruptions of his army comrades (we’ve seen them elsewhere in a different context: that’s the skill of this cumulative story at its best). It’s all carried off with enormous panache, surely recalling the exuberance of Yugoslav master Emir Kusturica, but does Loznitsa allow style to take over? Not least because it’s a style that somehow seems to run counter to the wider tone of Donbass – hilarity against pain, if you like – with the director somehow taken over by an aesthetic that he would appear to condemn. (A Gentle Creature had a similar protracted late scene, formally masterful in itself, which seemed similarly ambivalent about what it depicted).    

But those are stylistic quibbles. Loznitsa has worked impressively with a broad, surely largely non-professional ensemble cast – singling anyone out seems almost impossible – to create a grim but gripping film. Nimble camerawork from his long-term cinematographer, Romanian New Wave master Oleg Mutu, keeps the mood neurotic. There’s a nightmare urgency to Donbass that gets disconcertingly under the skin.

Watch the trailer for Donbass

Loznitsa’s directorial command grows with each new film he makes, his skill at handling large-scale set pieces particularly impressive here


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters