Babi Yar. Context is not a case of top down history with aging witnesses recalling their experiences. Instead, it is a two-hour restoration project that imbues reels of archival footage with crisp visuals and ambient sound, bringing mood and ambience to this abhorrent event.
Writer/director Sergei Loznitsa commits fully to this ambient approach, providing little to no commentary through long stretches of his film. This is a curious tact for a documentary that aims to contextualise its subject, as some viewers may know little of what they’re seeing.
Frankly, viewers both informed and uninformed would be better served by Einsatzgruppen: The Nazi Death Squads, the Netflix show that explores the Einsatzgruppen’s ‘Holocaust by bullets’ across Soviet Union, which precluded the Nazi regime’s use of poison gas at Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps. However, Loznitsa has produced a living, breathing document here, echoing the style of They Shall Not Grow Old, although that film, directed by Peter Jackson, constructs a narrative with greater human interest.
Loznitsa’s film has a somewhat remote sense of humanity as there are no real focalisers, although the closing 30 minutes draw on courtroom testimony from both victims and assailants. Particularly unnerving is Obergefreiter Hans Isenmann, who calmly declares that he shot 120 people dead –double the amount of America’s very worst mass shooting.
After all, that is was Babi Yar was – an enormous, state-sanctioned mass shooting that killed 33,771 people. This documentary brings ambience and visual clarity to this horrific tragedy, but it doesn’t quite bring context.