The Natural History of Destruction review – a harrowing account of aerial warfare

Unnatural, in fact. Sergei Loznitsa, the Ukrainian film director whose brilliant 2018 satire Donbass brought home to Cannes what was happening in his country, now brings to the festival an eerie new docu-collation of archive footage meditating on the horrific aerial bombardment inflicted on cities and civilian populations by the British and Germans during the second world war. Nothing could be more brutally relevant given the current destruction of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities by Putin’s Russia, although Russian warfare in the 1940s doesn’t feature here.

The film is inspired by WG Sebald’s essay collection Air War and Literature, which ruminated in detail on the evasiveness and amnesia that follows war and the need to bear witness. Yet there is scope for debate as to whether Loznitsa’s film treatment entirely approximates the subtlety of Sebald’s writing, and I’m inclined to say that this tests the limits of Loznitsa’s approach.

It is avowedly about aerial bombardment during the second world war, a type of warfare that political leaders convinced themselves was somehow more efficient and more detached from the grisly business of land war and hand-to-hand combat. But the film – for reasons never discussed, and there is no overt discussion of any kind – stops short of the most horrifically unnatural part of the second world war’s air-bombardment history: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, contenting itself with ostensible equivalence of the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force. Maybe we are edging close to a new kind of Kino-historikerstreit.

Without voiceover narration, Loznitsa takes long uncut clips of archive footage, mostly black and white but occasionally switching to colour, showing the contented civilian populations (with no notion of what horrors are in store), footage of munitions workers, footage of combat planes taking off and sailing through what appear to be calm skies, dropping bombs and then showing us the stunning destruction, including a heart-wrenching image of a dead baby. A passionate string octet on the soundtrack in the final 10 minutes underlines the despair.

The clips are mostly silent and Loznitsa appears to have added ambient sound effects of engines, voices indistinctly murmuring etc. It is sinister and dreamlike – very different from the usual brisk, dramatic and unreflective documentary approach to the second world war.

We see Field Marshal Montgomery giving a jaunty speech to British factory workers, telling them how good it is to see them, to get to know them. Loznitsa’s irony is clear: it is very important that they don’t get to know the Germans, don’t get to see they are humans as well, because then it will be impossible to bomb them. We see Winston Churchill giving a callous and heartless speech saying that if the German civilian populations don’t want to be bombed they should move to the fields (as if that was as easy as a picnic). Then we see Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris saying that his bombing will be an interesting “experiment”.

Perhaps the chilling British tone is explicable given the Nazis’ swaggering initial threats of totaler Krieg, but it is queasy nonetheless. On the German side, we don’t see the Führer’s rants on this subject, but hear another voice – Goebbels? – icily promising “counter-terror” against the British. Loznitsa has a repeated visual trick of making it unclear which civilian population we are looking at: a crowd of Germans suddenly cheer at the sight of – Winston. So they’re British. Again, the equivalence theme is clear enough.

And what do we conclude? The basic point about the waste and horror of war is entirely valid, and a cold, unsentimental look at the rhetoric of the British ruling class during the second world war is perfectly in order. Yet there is something a little parochial about this subject of the British and the Germans, and I wasn’t sure that enough, and enough of original interest, was being said.

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