Watching the powerful historical testament to the horrors of war and the depths of human cruelty in “The Kiev Trial” at the Venice Film Festival, it can seem that little has changed.
The out-of-competition documentary by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa uses archival footage of a now-forgotten war crimes trial of 15 Germans held in Kyiv in 1946.
But the atrocities that witnesses recount in the black-and-white film has echoes of war crimes that Ukraine accuses Russia of having committed on its soil in recent months.
The International Criminal Court is currently investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Ukraine.
“History repeats itself when we do not learn from history. When we don’t study and don’t want to know,” warned Loznitsa, speaking to journalists Sunday.
This year, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, “we all realized we were (back) 80 years ago,” he said.
“We just started to repeat the same things. And it means we did not learn after the war.”
The trial was held in January 1946, just as the Allies’ groundbreaking Nuremberg Trials against Nazi war criminals were beginning
Stalin sought to use the trials in Kyiv for his own propaganda purposes, Loznitsa said.
The Ukranian director relied on about three hours of footage shot by the Soviets to document the trial, including the arraignment, witness testimony, defense statements and verdict — and finally, the public hanging of the 15 defendants.
The atrocities occurred on different dates and in different places throughout Ukraine, including Babyn Yar, where nearly 34,000 Jews were shot to death in massive pits.
Babyn Yar was the subject of a documentary by Loznitsa last year that played at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
In “The Kiev Trial,” witnesses describe the countless horrors inflicted on the local population by the Germans — children shot in their mothers’ arms, the elderly ordered to lie down in pits and shot by drunken firing squads, old men set upon by dogs, people thrown down a mine shaft, patients in a psychiatric hospital shot, and more.
The prosecutor asks one defendant why he felt it necessary to shoot the children in a town that his troops were razing to the ground.
“Because they were all running around the village,” he replies.
A woman testifies how she played dead after the mass shooting at Babyn Yar. After being buried alive in a pit with the dead and wounded, she managed to crawl out and escaped.
All 15 defendants are found guilty and given a sentence of death by hanging.
Gallows are set up in a huge square and a massive crowd assembles to watch the public execution — including the film’s viewers, spectators to the footage.
“It’s very, very tough but it’s important to watch it,” Loznitsa said.
Loznitsa said one of the reasons that Russian forces were committing war crimes against Ukrainians today was because Russia itself was never held accountable for its past actions through the Soviet era, as Germany was.
“Because this kind of trial did not happen, like the Nuremberg Trial, you have this country in such circumstances, how it is now,” he said.
Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, a Russian director who is one of the producers of the film, agreed.
“It’s happening because nothing has changed in Russia, in fact,” said Khrzhanovskiy, who is artistic director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.
“The head of the country is a KGB guy. Can you imagine that after the Second World War the head of Germany is somebody from the Gestapo?”