Donbass is one of the grimmest films ever made. Taking place almost entirely within the self-declared republic of Novirussiya, lying on the border between Eastern Ukraine and Russia, the latest film from Sergey Loznitsa pulls no punches in its unsparing depiction of war. The degradation, lack of basic humanity, and complete absurdity on offer is extremely hard to stomach, yet it feels essential for its hypercritical look at the Novirussiyan — and by extension — Russian regime.
There is no traditional plot here; Loznitsa instead treats the region as a whole as his main subject. Donbass flows from character to character, spanning from those at the very top of the food chain to those living with nothing at the bottom. The result is an epic, sprawling work that to paraphrase Francis Ford Coppola, is not about Donbass, but literally is Donbass.
The difficulty of the subject matter is reflected in the pacing, using extremely long takes to test the endurance of the viewer. Loznitsa proves himself particularly adept at choreographing group scenes, employing both static wide shots and floating steadicam takes in order to show the the mania of the crowd. One scene in particular, depicting a captured Ukrainian soldier being both verbally and physically attacked by passers-by, stands out for the way it fluidly organises multiple actors within the same shot. This is bravura filmmaking, matching content and form almost perfectly.
The topic of fake news is covered in some detail — crisis actors put on make-up and complain about not getting paid, before we are shown take after take of them making sure they get it right. Even the soldiers are performers — some pretend to be from the area, despite that they are evidently Russian agents or mercenaries, while others pose for pictures so their mothers can see them back home. Yet, perhaps the most egregious crime is when they stage attacks and blame it on the Ukrainians. The lack of basic morality is completely shocking. As Donbass doesn’t posit a single solution to any of these problems, it is really an entirely bleak film — going beyond even Zvyagintsev’s Loveless in the severity of its critique.
This is a war with no antagonists or protagonists. There is no actual gunfighting taking place, no raids, and definitely no victories. At times, it even borders on the blackest of comedies. For example, the soldiers stop a bus along the road to recruit the men for their quest; the woman in charge asks a man why he hasn’t volunteered. He states that his mother is sick, to which she replies that we all have a sick mother — our motherland. She’s being serious, but the effect I felt was pure absurdity. This is Alice in Wonderland territory.
Donbass may not be pro-Ukraine, but it is defiantly anti-Russian. The soldiers claim to be fighting against the fascists, constantly fetishising the Russian victory over the Nazis in the Second World War. But by expropriating people’s vehicles, bombing coaches along the road, and staging fake attacks, they are acting as the very thing they are claiming to fight against. The film is not completely one-sided, however, as Loznitsa does show us their motivation for acting in this way. They have lost their family and friends in the war, and they want to take their revenge against the Ukrainians by any means possible. This leads the movie into a moral morass through which no one could possibly wade.
Behind this is a critique of the Kremlin itself, who will claim that they have nothing to do with the conflict in Ukraine, and that the pro-Russian forces are acting on their own. This is completely bunk of course, but the Russian government is second to none when it comes to Shadow Warfare. One hopes that by simply showing the severity of the crisis, Donbass can raise some awareness towards a seemingly unsolvable situation. This is a brave, great film, and I never want to watch it again.