QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
The year is 1915 and the Kaiser troops are marching towards Latvia, then an integral part of the Russian Empire. They shoot Arturs’s (Oto Brantevics) dog and mother while the helpless 16-year-old watches it from his window. His house gets burned down, in a war technique widely used in order to cripple the approaching enemy.
Arturs and his father decide to join the Russian Imperial Army in order to fight against the Germans and exact revenge on those who destroyed their once-peaceful existence. At first, they are deemed too young and too old to participate, but their unflinching will to defeat the enemy eventually outweighs their age. However, their lack of experience and physical limitations soon show. A trigger-shy Arturs is barely able to keep up with his regiment as they march through the nation’s inhospitable countryside.
Blizzard of the Souls is the most commercially successful Latvian film since the country gained its independence from the USSR three decades ago. This is a film about the birth of a nation, and a society seeking its national identity. It is based on eponymous novel by Aleksandrs Grīns, who used his own experiences and memories of WW1 while writing the story. The writer was arrested and murdered by the USSR shortly after it occupied the young nation in 1940, and the book was prohibited. It is little wonder that the Latvians have virtually no sympathy for Russians.
In one of the film’s most crucial scenes, Russians order Latvians to shoot their own countrymen, threatening to execute those who fail to obey the command. Arturs refuses to abide, despite knowing that this would almost certainly culminate in his own death.
The young Arturs quickly learns how to fend for himself in a nation choked by enemies on both sides. Interestingly, towards the end of the War, the German enemies become the potential liberators. Now it’s up to both Arturs (and the rest of the country) to leverage this unique yet dangerous opportunity to their benefit, thereby establishing an independent Latvian nation for the first time in History. This came to fruition on November 18th, 1918 (exactly 102 years ago).
Arturs is a surrogate for the Latvian soul: noble and brave yet young and vulnerable. And this is a coming-of-age story for both its protagonist and his homeland.
A budget of €2.5 million may sound little for British standards, but it’s a mammoth amount of money for Latvian cinema, and one of the most expensive films the tiny Baltic nation with a population of just 1.9 million has ever produced. The photography and the makeup are fairly convincing. It depicts gruesome deaths without fetishising or sanitising violence. Arturs receives a bullet to his neck, and we witness the surgical procedure in order to remove it. The battle scenes are fairly vivid, and they will probably remind you of Sam Mendes’s 1917 (2019), also set during WW1. Snow is abundant and the literal blizzard (as opposed to the literal one in the film title) is ferocious.
Another film that might come to mind is Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962). Not just because of the young protagonist taking up arms, but also some of battleground sequences where hapless soldiers march through the marshlands. The bitter cold bites, the dense fog impairs visibility and the boggy terrain diminish their speed, while the sparse vegetation (often just a few burnt trunks) offers no shelter from the bullets of the enemy. The difference is that Blizzard of the Souls is a mainstream endeavour devoid of the lyrical wizardry of the Russian filmmaker.
Many people have hailed Blizzard of the Souls as an anti-war movie, but I beg to differ. The ugliness of the conflict is indeed depicted, but this is not the purpose of the film. Fortunately, it does not glorify war, either. Blizzard of the Souls is first and foremost a nationalistic affair. While not entirely doused in sickly, old-fashioned patriotism, its ultimate goal is to celebrate a small nation’s right to self-determination, and it inevitably slips into romanticised cliches. This includes a half-baked affair with a young woman, a prayer “to our brothers and fathers who died defending our homeland” and fairly jingoistic ending. War is but a necessary device in this nation’s claim for independence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Latvians embraced this movie with passion.
Blizzard of the Souls is showing at the Tallinn Black Nights Film festival as part of the Baltic Competition programme.