Review: War in Ukraine reflects deceit, division and corruption in black comedy ‘Donbass’

People wearing cold-weather clothes line up in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine in the movie "Donbass."
People line up in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine in the movie “Donbass.”
(Film Movement)

There’s no other antiwar film quite like “Donbass,” Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s brutally matter-of-fact, cynically comic string of vignettes depicting social destabilization in the titular war-ravaged region of eastern Ukraine. And yet, as the world grows ever more calloused toward propaganda-fueled division, official criminality and everyday armed conflict, we may need more films as bracing as “Donbass” to slap us straight about where this is leading us all.

Ukrainian nationalists and Putin-backed separatists have been at it in Donbass since 2014, but Loznitsa — a sometime documentarian (“Maidan”) with a taste for the austere and miserable — doesn’t spell out the conflict for the uninitiated. Instead he creates an aura of mistrust, strangeness and wretchedness throughout his 13 loosely connected episodes, adapted from the real stories of ordinary citizens.

Amidst the bombs and bullets, Loznitsa’s tour of occupied areas — inside government offices, across battle zones, through a cramped bomb shelter and on tension-filled streets, with no central protagonist but a few recurring figures — reveals how many internal hostilities thrive inside a larger external one. Lawlessness fights peace. History cripples progress. Civility wrestles with hatred. And perhaps most disturbingly, lies easily overwhelm truth. Loznitsa’s bracketing scenes lay bare how a sense of shared reality is at stake, as we see citizens prepped like movie extras — complete with makeup trailer and a shouty production assistant — to give scripted “witness” on camera to very real bloodshed.

What drives “Donbass” is the machinery of obfuscation smothering a gray, scarred world. A chatty, smiling crime boss explains away a doctor’s rampant supply theft to a maternity ward’s staff; Russian-speaking soldiers posing as locals treat a German journalist’s questions with laughing contempt; a man trying to reclaim his stolen car is instead convinced by the police it’s a donation to the war effort, which then morphs into an eerily funny, Kafkaesque cash-for-freedom scenario.

Filmed by the great Romanian cinematographer and frequent Loznitsa collaborator Oleg Mutu in long, patient takes that intensify each sequence’s brittle contrasts, “Donbass” coalesces into an unflinching dispatch from a state of embattlement both region-specific and 21st century-pervasive.



In Russian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: Available Nov. 20 on Film Movement Plus subscription service (free trial available)