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‘Babi Yar: Context’ Review: Unearthing Footage of a Nazi Massacre

Over two days in September, 1941, German soldiers, assisted by Ukrainian collaborators, murdered 33,771 Jews at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kyiv. The massacre was one of the earliest and deadliest episodes in what is sometimes called the “holocaust by bullets,” a phase of the Nazi genocide that took place outside the mechanized slaughter of the death camps. These mobile killing squads, known as Einsatzgruppen, are estimated to have taken at least 1.5 million lives.

The Ukrainian-born filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s new documentary, consisting of archival footage interspersed with a few tersely informative title cards, is called “Babi Yar: Context.” What’s meant by “context” isn’t so much a broad, explanation of the event — such as one finds in the historian Timothy Snyder’s book “Bloodlands” — as a detailed visual narrative with a hole in the middle.

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they brought movie cameras as well as rifles. So did the Soviet Army when it took back Kyiv in 1943. Some of those cameras were instruments of propaganda; others were wielded by amateurs. The two sides left behind an extensive cinematic record, a pool of images that have mostly languished unseen since the end of the war. Weaving them together and dubbing in sound (the rumble of tanks and the murmur of crowds, with an occasional snippet of intelligible speech), Loznitsa has assembled a wrenching and revelatory collage.

The killing itself took place off camera. What is astonishing is how thoroughly nearly everything that happened before and after the massacre was documented, in black-and-white and sometimes in color. The detail is unsparing and relentless: farms and villages set on fire by German soldiers; Jews being rounded up, humiliated and beaten; snowy fields strewn with frozen corpses; bombs exploding in downtown Kyiv; the public hanging of 12 Germans convicted of atrocities after the war.

Though there is a military and political narrative to be gleaned from all of this, Loznitsa’s method (displayed in earlier found-footage films like “State Funeral,” about the aftermath of Stalin’s death) is to allow the human reality to speak for itself. A few prominent officials are identified — you may recognize Nikita S. Khrushchev, who became the leader of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic soon after the Germans were driven out — but what the film displays most vividly is the intense individuality of anonymous, ordinary people. History is a catalog of faces: city-dwellers and peasants; victims, perpetrators and bystanders; Germans, Jews, Russians and Ukrainians.

Mostly, these people don’t speak. Toward the end, there are scenes of courtroom testimony, during which a German soldier and several witnesses and survivors talk about what happened at Babi Yar. Their words, in the absence of images, have a harrowing intensity beyond what any pictures might convey. So does the Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman’s 1943 essay “Ukraine Without Jews,” quoted onscreen to emphasize the enormity of what can’t be shown.

Much of the rest of “Babi Yar: Context” works the other way around, finding an eloquence in actions and gestures that words might not supply. And also an element of indeterminacy, as you try to read the thoughts and feelings on those faces.

There is a political, moral dimension to the work of interpretation that Loznitsa compels. After Kyiv, other cities like Lviv fall to the Germans; the streets fill with Ukrainians celebrating their victory as liberation from Soviet oppression. Girls in traditional costumes present bouquets of flowers to Nazi officers, and banners are hoisted proclaiming the glory of Adolf Hitler and the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. When Jews are rounded up, harassed and brutalized, local civilians are on hand to participate.

Later, there are parades and flowers to welcome the Red Army. Hitler’s likeness is taken down and replaced with Stalin’s. You might wonder about the composition of the crowds. Did some of the same people who welcomed the German army as liberators also turn out to support the Soviet army’s return? Did residents of Kyiv who cheered the arrival of Nazi fighters also cheer their execution?

Forcing you to think about these questions is one of the ways Loznitsa’s film draws you closer to the horror at its center, stripping away the easy judgment of hindsight as well as the layers of forgetting and distortion that accumulated around the massacre in subsequent decades.

And of course “Babi Yar: Context,” completed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, arrives in theaters with a grim context of its own. The Babi Yar Memorial near Kyiv was damaged in early March by a Russian missile. Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has claimed that one of his goals is the “denazification” of Ukraine, whose current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. The past that Loznitsa excavates casts its shadow on the present. Knowing about it won’t make anything easier, but not knowing can make everything worse.

Babi Yar: Context
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. In theaters.

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