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Sign Painter (Pilseta Pie Upes)

A Latvian sign painter attempts to remain neutral during WW2 as his country grapples with enemies on both sides, and allegiances become increasingly deceitful - from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


The independence of Latvia is cut short just two decades after the young Baltic nation seceded from Russia in 1918. Their occupiers return in 1940, now in the shape of the Soviet Union. Sign painter Ansis (Davis Suharevskis) quickly adapts. He is commissioned to turn office signs red, to paint a large star on a building facade and to rewrite street names (the biggest road is now called Joseph Stalin). Change is everywhere: a bust of Stalin is brought into town, the Latin alphabet is replaced with Cyrillic. Perhaps mostly significantly, the girl with whom Ansis is infatuated (Zisela, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant), joins the Communist Party and becomes an active Chekist.

These changes don’t last long. The Nazis march in just a year later, further disrupting the nation’s tumultuous history, and confusing locals. The red signs are covered in black. The five-pointed star is replaced with a swastika. Stalin’s bust is promptly buried, while Hitler’s is erected. Cyrillic gives room to Gothic script. Stalin Street becomes Hitler Street. Ansis is now called “Hans”. Once again, the young man quickly adapts. He never challenges his occupiers: “I’m just a sign painter”.

Zisela brands Ansis a “milksop” due to his political apathy. Instead, the introverted and sensitive painter expresses his passion through artistry. In addition to signs, he also paints portraits of his muses and even of the “old Jew” (Zisela’s father). Despite lacking political motivation, he does possess an altruistic drive. He provides shelter and protection to Zisela, who would otherwise end up in a concentration camp. His jealous wife is not pleased about his dangerous gesture of goodwill, and she will eventually take matters into her own hands.

This is a clever and peculiar story with interesting twists. Ansis represents a nation struggling to understand its own predicament. Latvians welcome neither one of their occupiers, yet there’s very little they can do. Their allegiances become ambiguous and volatile. This is a country searching for a soul while stuck between the devil and the deep sea. Sign Painter is the perfect companion piece to Dzintars Dreibergs’s Blizzard of the Souls (also showing right now at the Black Nights Film Festival). Both movies illustrate Latvia simultaneously grappling with Russian/Soviet and German occupation (during WW2 and WW1 respectively).

While the story in itself is interesting, Sign Painter has cinematographic limitations. The photography lacks emotional impact and inventiveness. A dream sequence of Jews attacking Ansis is very awkward. The sex scene is unnatural, and there is no chemistry between Ansis and the two ladies (Zisela and his wife). And a jaunty soundtrack with a pervasive accordion is rather irritating.

There were particular moments that could have been explored in more detail in order to maximise impact. They include Ansis’s ravenous wife drinking milk from a goat, a woman unburying her dead husband in order to say goodbye to him, and the Germans disseminating propaganda about the Jews (the Nazis claimed that the Jews “tortured, killed and boiled people”; the irony speaks for itself). All in all, this is a clever little movie that fails to reach its full potential.

Sign Painter has just premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, as part of the event’s Official Competition.

By Victor Frag - 19-11-2020

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