However much you think you know about modern Lithuanian history, you’re almost certain to leave wiser after digesting all 248 minutes of “Mr. Landsbergis,” an exhaustively detailed but engrossing documentary study of the Baltic republic’s hard-won battle for independence from 1988 to 1991. That the film is both intricately researched and archivally rich comes as no surprise considering it’s by Sergei Loznitsa, the sharp, scholarly and impossibly prolific Ukrainian filmmaker whose gift for spinning art from raw archival material has been repeatedly proven — most recently in this year’s Cannes selection “Babi Yar. Context.”Perhaps less expected is the fact that a four-hour-long record of political negotiations and standoffs, woven with one extended talking head interview, should pass as quickly as it does.
By no means easily achieved, the film’s balance of monumental historical heft and strong narrative drive secured it the top prize at this year’s edition of IDFA — the first stop in what is sure to be a long festival tour. Beyond that circuit, the project’s prospects are less sure, given a daunting run time that is likely to deter theatrical distributors, though specialist streaming platforms may be more accommodating. In any case, “Mr. Landsbergis”This is a significant achievement in a career that does not allow for slightness of form or subject.
Even though it’s not a biographical documentary, “Mr. Landsbergis” is unusual within Loznitsa’s oeuvre for tethering its sprawling examination to a central figure: Vytautas Landsbergis, a founding member of Lithuania’s pro-independence Sąjūdis party, and the country’s first head of Parliament after its separation from the Soviet Union. The doc was co-written by Vytautas Landsbergis, his son and namesake. A significant presence in the archival footage presented here, he also serves as the film’s guiding voice via an extended present-day interview with an unseen Loznitsa, crisply shot on a balmy day in a verdant garden — a pointed contrast throughout to the chaos and conflict seen unfolding in an embattled Lithuania three decades earlier.
Landsbergis, a humorous and unassuming personality, began his career in music education before moving to politics in the mid-50s. “an ordinary person” if Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika movement of the 1980s hadn’t spurred a band of Lithuanian intellectuals to probe the potential it presented for liberation. Landsbergis described it as “an intense desire to have what Landsbergis has.” “a more truthful life,” Sąjūdis was established in 1988. That’s where the film’s overview also begins, with striking footage of assorted public protests against Lithuania’s Soviet occupation and rallies for victims of Soviet terror.
We segue from these demonstrations of mass sentiment to the less rousing nuts and bolts of political process, as Loznitsa secures filmed observations of early Sąjūdis conferences in Vilnius, moving on to various Moscow-based sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union, where Gorbachev and his supporters are brusquely dismissive of Sąjūdis’ ambitions. Dominated by progressively more heated formal debate and discourse, the film’s first hour is its most challenging, laying the groundwork for what soon escalates into an altogether less civil, more urgent fight for freedom.
The pace and pulse quicken with Lithuania’s declaration of independence in March 1990, a brash move to which Moscow initially responds with haughty denial, ruling the declaration to have “no legal authority.” That swiftly shifts into more aggressive opposition, with the Soviet army taking over Lithuania’s government institutions and the attempted enforcement of an economic blockade.
Pulling from a wealth of sources, Loznitsa and his regular ace editor Danielius Kokanauskis’ evocation of this ugly period in history is astonishingly vivid, climaxing with devastating footage from Vilnius’ “Bloody Sunday”January 1991. Soviet troops encircled the city’s TV tower, firing ammunition and driving tanks directly into civilian crowds, killing 14 people. It’s hard to imagine any reconstruction matching the blood-freezing shock of the panicked, end-of-days footage shown from this tragedy, countered by the moving, barely contained calm of Landsbergis’ direct-to-camera plea to Gorbachev to “look at your hands and look into your heart.”
If Loznitsa isn’t inclined toward dull heroes-and-villains framing, “Mr. Landsbergis”It’s still notable as a cinematic counter to the common view of Gorbachev, an imperfect but noble statesman. It certainly makes for contrasting viewing to a recent pair of Gorbachev-oriented docs, Werner Herzog’s strangely fawning “Meeting Gorbachev” and Vitaly Mansky’s “Gorbachev.Heaven,” which was more circumspect than Herzog’s film but far less damning than Loznitsa’s.
We see Gorbachev in action, and he is often shockingly cruel and bloody-minded in his determination to preserve the USSR. This includes footage of him meeting with Lithuanian citizens who are aggrieved. “I’ve read all your slogans — you can relax,”He speaks to them in a calm voice. He addressed a Lithuanian protester earlier, and he said to them airily. “Mr. Gorbachev”He has “never been and never will be a ‘mister’” — a statement against individualism that “Mr. Landsbergis”Its title is drily and tacitly contested by Loznitsa. Loznitsa’s greatest gift as a document maker is the fact that he finds space for such small, character-revealing details on a huge, rubble-strewn surface. Even though his latest takes four hours to complete, it never feels like an information dump. It is history reassembled in a critical, discerning and scorchingly angry manner.