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Luftkrieg / The Natural History of Destruction

Director: Sergey Loznitsa (Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands). Year of Release: 2022

Idyllic rural scenes of cows walking down country lanes and a man herding ducks. Pastoral music plays as the camera shifts to show mediaeval architecture. We see two men playing clarinets (possibly oboes, not my area of expertise). The scene shifts to Unter den Linden, the bustling main street in Berlin’s city centre, before moving to a tea dance. Men in suits hold women in dresses and white gloves. It takes us a while to notice the swastika flags hanging in the background.

The camera soars upwards and it is now night time. Down below we see the lights coming from people’s houses. Every so often, there is a burst of light. As time passes, the bursts become larger and more frequent. We become aware of bombs falling from our point of reference. The camera returns to street level to show burned out buildings. A fire still blazes inside a chemist’s shop, as debris falls inside. The fire brigade and civilian helpers vainly attempt to stop the city from burning.

Twenty minutes have passed and barely a word has been said. In fact, the whole film is silent apart from some politicians’ speeches and barely heard dialogue of people in the far distance. For most of the time we watch on as working people first try to salvage their destroyed homes and mourn their dead loved one. Later we watch the people who are producing the planes and bombs which caused the destruction. Throughout, the film watches silently and does not try to explain.

For me, the weakest part of the film is the middle section which follows this harrowing opening and lasts the best part of an hour. We see the arms factories, and watch Montgomery giving a speech to the men and women there, thanking them for their work. He was posh that Montgomery, wasn’t he? We also see lots and lots of films of planes, taking off, landing, engaging in dog fights and dropping bombs. To be honest, it all gets a bit boring and repetitive,

Notwithstanding the director’s intentions, the fetishised film of weapon production begins to feel like war pornography. As well as Montgomery, we hear warmongering speeches by Churchill, Bomber Harris and an unidentified German leader. Churchill calls on German civilians to escape the bombs by moving to the countryside, as if that were remotely possible. Amid the scenes of battling the Hun and pretty pictures of planes in formation, some people may find such nonsense plausible.

The final half hour or so returns us to the destruction of the opening scenes. An improvised mortuary is created in a burned out building. The streets are strewn with bodies. Chalk writing appears on the side of buildings remembering the now dead inhabitants. Just as I found that the middle section often came too close to glorifying war, the beginning and the end of the film leave us in no doubt of the human tragedy which inevitably follows.

Lenin allegedly said that a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends. A high explosive bomb is a weapon with one worker on one end and many thousand at the other. WG Sebald, whose book “Luftkrieg und Literatur” inspired the film, estimated that the RAF dropped a million tons of bombs on 131 cities, destroying 3½ million houses and killing 600,000 civilians. By the end of the war, 7½ million people were homeless. This is before we speak of the atrocities in Dresden and elsewhere.

Yes, London was bombed, and Coventry, and many other British cities. But this film finds all attacks on civilians offensive, and does not think that one outrage justifies any others. As Loznitsa said in an interview: “the idea of using methods of technological progress to terrorise a civilian population and to destroy its living environment was grabbed by both the Germans and the Allies. As soon as the technological possibilities were available, people used them for war and destruction. “

The film’s German subtitle and English title is The Natural History of Destruction. Its main message is to show how modern warfare is disproportionately waged against civilians – in a way that was previously impossible. Historical footage showing the destruction wreaked during Word War Two swiftly switches time and location, so we are often unsure whether we are watching British or German victims. For the dead and those bombed out of their home, nationality is secondary.

Luftkrieg has a certain coldness and distance. It does not want to comment, at the same time as it comments in every scene. The distance is not just emotional but also physical. We watch the bombs fall on high, we see their aftermath, both in destroyed buildings and in the pervading sense of death, but it all feels a little impersonal. Maybe this is the point, Maybe it is showing how warfare turns people into emotionless statistics. But I would have preferred a little more anger.

Director Sergei Loznitsa was born in Belorussia, has Ukrainian citizenship and is currently based in Berlin. Although the film was made before the Russian attacks on Ukraine, it conveys a sense of the terror that was experienced by the victims of Russian bombs. Although the film is largely in black and white and in an old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, every so often it bursts into colour, implying that the moral dilemmas of the 1940s are still very much with us.

By concentrating on all civilian victims, the film avoids a trap which it could have hardly anticipated. Spme argue that Putin’s horrific bombing of Ukraine justifies more weapons provided by the people who gleefully promised to bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age, If this does happen, it will inevitably lead to more suffering by those who are least responsible for the actions of the Masters of War. Anyone who watches this film can’t say they weren’t warned.

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