As the title suggests, Babi Yar. Context seeks to provide the full picture behind the Nazi massacre of some 33,000 Jewish people in a Ukrainian ravine in 1941. But the odd phrasing could also mean contextualising where we are today, with antisemitism on the rise in Europe and the US. Atrocities do not occur in a vacuum, and Sergey Loznitsa’s taciturn documentary shows the events before and after the eponymous monstrosity.
Mining a wealth of incredibly restored footage from Russian, German and Ukrainian archives (itself a sign of cooperative progress), the Ukrainian director presents the Nazi occupation of Kiev and its aftermath in a chronological narrative. The helmer mostly lets the images speak for themselves, though the inclusion of contemporary testimony and Vasily Grossman’s famous essay Ukraine Without Jews are extremely moving.
Other passages require little comment, as the locals greet the German occupiers with flowers and proudly replace Stalin posters with Hitler banners (only to swap them back again when the Soviets reclaim Kiev two years later). The footage reminds us how easily extremism breeds extremism, trading one ideology for another with a smile, a song and hope that they can’t possibly be as bad as the last lot.
The titular context does not cover the pogroms, which would provide even greater insight into a society that consistently allows atrocities against the Jewish people. We see them rounded up at gunpoint as supposed Soviet sympathisers, beaten in the streets, their homes firebombed, paving the way for the mass executions. Title cards tell us the slaughter occurred without resistance from the citizens of Kiev; a newspaper article implies it was the will of the people.
Babi Yar. Context is hard to watch not solely because of the massacre, of which limited photographic evidence exists (the bodies were dug up and incinerated). What makes it chilling is also what makes it essential: the focus on the conditions that permitted the atrocity, eerily familiar warning signs to take a stand before it is too late – which it is by 1946, when the Soviets put the Nazis on trial for the mass killings.
Here we witness first-hand accounts of Babi Yar survivors, including one woman who escaped by lying in a pile of corpses for eight hours and another who was buried alive. The SS officers are hanged for crimes against the Soviet Union with no mention of the Jews, then in 1952 the ravine is unceremoniously filled with industrial waste; a toxic sign of Jewish erasure that continues in public discourse to this day.
Babi Yar. Context has just premiered at the BFI London Film Festival.