Image Credit: Royal Air Force Official Photographer / Wikimedia Commons

The screen is pitch black. Lights flash, creating a snowstorm of white—a rich, abstract pattern. Suddenly, a cloud passes between the flashes, illuminated from below, and the screen is transformed into a three-dimensional environment. We are looking down from ten thousand feet at an anonymous German city being firebombed. Every flash is an explosion, so remote that it is barely possible to conceive the ferocity the people far, far below are experiencing.

Sergei Loznitsa’s film, The Natural History of Destruction, which premiered this year at the Cannes Film Festival, is an invigorating, provocative essay on the strategic bombing campaigns prosecuted by the German, British, and American air forces over Europe between 1940 and 1945. Loznitsa is one of the most celebrated contemporary Ukrainian filmmakers. His 2018 film, Donbass, explored the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in eastern Ukraine, while Loznitsa’s own heritage—he was born in Baranavichy, which was then in the USSR and is now part of Belarus—speaks to the way identities have shifted radically in the region during the twentieth century. These issues have only come into stronger focus since Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

The film takes its starting point as W.G. Sebald’s 1999 essay collection, On the Natural History of Destruction, which sought to explore the cultural silence over the 600,000 German civilians killed by the Allied bombing of Germany. Sebald’s strategy of blurring the boundaries of academic writing, memoir, and fiction proved remarkably well-suited to recounting the historic traumas of this century: the Holocaust, the dissolution of identity, and historical memory. You can see why Loznitsa would be drawn to his work. Indeed, his 2016 film, Austerlitz, was inspired by Sebald’s novel of the same name, even if it was not a direct adaptation.

Loznitsa is uninterested in making a conventional documentary, nor in attempting to replicate the vertigo-inducing prose of Sebald. This is a montage film, editing together footage found in ten different European archives. Abandoning voice-over or even identifying subtitles, his fluid cutting is held together by a strong, dissonant sound design created in the studio by Vladimir Golovnitski and a disturbing score by Christiaan Verbeek. Loznitsa switches between Britain and Germany without warning—time and locale are left ambiguous, leaving the viewer to decode what we are seeing from visual clues like architecture and dress.

The silence over the German destruction that Sebald reflected upon has long since been broken in the academy. Jörg Friedrich’s best-selling 2002 book, Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945 (The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945), became a national cause célèbre upon its publication, and there have been renewed historical debates on the legitimacy of RAF Bomber Command campaign. Even Solly Zuckerman, chief scientific advisor to the British government on bombing strategy during the war, castigated Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, as “almost a law unto himself.” In Zuckerman’s memoir, he described a suppressed memorandum that circulated in April 1945 after the bombing of Dresden, which argued that aerial attacks on German cities were now taking place “simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Rarely have filmmakers sought to intervene on the morality of the bombing war or see it as a source for art. Loznitsa is promiscuous in plundering the historical record for his own purposes. The immaculate black and white imagery, supported by a soundscape of background chatter, engine drones, and the crackle of fire, forces us to equate the suffering of British and German civilians. In profoundly disturbing footage, we see corpses pulled from the wreckage of crumbled buildings, human beings stripped to bone and flesh. For a moment, we might think that they are English victims until we see that the survivors who clumsily handle the remains wear swastika armbands. 

The ethical questions Loznitsa’s film raises have not been resolved. Loznitsa is unafraid to be difficult (perhaps it is this quality that quietly aligns the film with Sebald’s pungent meditations). Are the British and Americans equally morally culpable? Does the “why” of war matter, or should all participants be damned? These are questions to ask of all wars, but especially of the Second World War, where “total war” reached an apogee of unprecedented scale. 

Loznitsa is different from previous documentarians who chronicled this war, such as Marcel Ophüls and Claude Lanzmann, who thought that oral testimony was paramount. Eight decades after the fact, these participants and decision makers have largely passed away. It is the raw footage, stripped of its context of creation (propaganda newsreels or governmental recording) which is for Loznitsa the “stuff” of history, recomposed into a new narrative. Part of the film’s thrill is its boldness in posing these ethical questions through sound and imagery. He makes them come alive through his fictionalizing interventions into the archival material, with the extensive foley work and the assemblage of disparate material. It is, dare I say it, entertaining. Destruction is photogenic after all.

Sebald ultimately disavowed a moral equivalence between the Allied and Axis bombing campaigns, writing that “the real pioneering achievements in bomb warfare . . . were the work of the Germans.” Loznitsa is far more ambivalent: does intent matter to the people murdered in Dresden? The unnecessary bombing of civilian areas by Britain and the U.S in 1945 was surely criminal, even if the waging of war against the Nazi regime was wholly necessary. It’s a complex position for Loznitsa to take—he sees all the connections; he is both very close and very far from this history. This coolness means he is able to see that victims can become perpetrators themselves: the British who were relentlessly bombed through 1940–41, would later raze into ash Hamburg, Cologne, Düsseldorf, and many other German cities. 

This cycle of violence is what interests Loznitsa, rather than re-establishing the criminality of the Nazi regime. If it’s futile to try and look for innocents in wartime, then it’s a reminder that retribution is no justification for mechanized killing at ten thousand feet. This is what Loznitsa wants to claim; the defeat of aggressors cannot—should not—justify the deliberate targeting of civilians. By cutting between British and German corpses, Loznitsa makes the hardest version of this argument, without recourse to sentimentality, or selectively choosing his examples. The aerial campaigns against German cities weren’t just wrong because they were ineffective (which they were), but because their intent was to kill civilians. This moral judgment can be made without excusing or minimizing the atrocities of the Nazis.

There are inevitable limits to Loznitsa’s approach: the freedom of manipulation that he grants himself leads to a flattening of the war. There is no chronology, no nuance to the changing tactics of the different air forces as the war progressed. It reduces people to avatars: bomb victim, airman, Nazi, fireman, rescuer, worker—robbing them of their individuality. Only a few times do recognizable figures appear: Churchill and Göring are glimpsed briefly, while Field Marshal Montgomery delivers a speech to munitions workers which is a masterpiece of English euphemism and evasion. The de-emphasis on those who chose to prosecute the aerial war leads to a more general, and perhaps inaccurate, sense of complicity. The same civilians building the aircraft and loading ammunition are the ones being bombed, whose homes are destroyed, their families being burned alive. 

The images of collapsed buildings, civilians being pulled from the rubble, and fires smoking in the early morning irresistibly remind us of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities that were hit by missiles and shells during the open salvoes of the war in 2022. The whine of the air raid sirens that have erupted over the country for months now has transported the world back to the aerial bombing of the 1940s. Yet Russia has not achieved air supremacy, nor has it unleashed high altitude bombers to drop munitions indiscriminately. The technology of warfare has changed, even if the maimed victims have not. The survivors still look to the skies, wondering when the next barrage will fall.How to wage war—how to create destruction—is as pertinent a question in 2022 as it was in 1940. The final minutes of The Natural History of Destruction cut together color and black and white aerial footage of anonymous, skeletal cities—traces of human presence barely visible. Loznitsa knows that his imagery is eloquent beyond language. As we witness another major European land war take place day after day, Loznitsa’s film reminds us that a war fought at any cost is barbarity itself.

Altair Brandon-Salmon is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at Stanford University. His writing has appeared in America, Commonweal, and the Oxford Review of Books.