Note: We’re publishing this to coincide with New York’s Scandinavia House’s important second festival devoted to Baltic cinema.
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The second New York Baltic Film Festival will be held November 7–10, 2019, at Scandinavia House. Baltic films are no longer a punch line any more than were Scandinavian films a few years ago. Technically and aesthetically, they offer as many vibrant looks at Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania as did the filmmakers of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland offer for their countries back when. Moreover, there has been an urgency to the films produced in Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius that only a proximity to Vladimir Putin and his nostalgia for the bad old days of the Soviet Union can threaten. What follows is an article on the history of filmmaking in the three Baltic countries.
The first New York Baltic Film Festival at Scandinavia House last fall (2018) triggered some predictable misconceptions. The first was a confusion on the part of some people who weren’t kidding when they wanted to know whether Bulgaria and Turkey would be represented and if not, why not. Informed that Baltic Europe was not Balkans Europe, you could see they thought less of the old continent for not using more distinct parts of the alphabet for naming its regions. A second misconception was that if they were Baltic films, they were sure to be grainy black-and-white shorts shot in a stable or bleary-color Kodak travelogues offering endless glimpses of the sea from equally endless fields of weeds. There were wondrous smiles when Technicolor lit up the screen, the sets ran the gamut from medieval castles to twenty-first-century coops, and the actors had the same body parts as those in other countries. Oh, really?
Few European states have struggled as strenuously for a national identity as Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Since declaring independence initially after World War I, they have had to combat military invasions, brutalizing civil wars, chaotic interludes with competitive governments claiming legitimate power, and relentless foreign cultural assaults aimed at overwhelming native perspectives. Prior to that, going back centuries, just about every realm fronting on Europe’s northern waterways had seized an opportunity to spell out the street signs of Vilnius, Tallinn, and Riga in an occupying language. And of more recent date, nobody in those capitals has needed a reminder that neighbor Vladimir Putin’s nostalgia for the odious days of the Soviet Union has meant fantasizing about a period when the three countries were not satellite states like Hungary or East Germany, but integrated republics of the USSR. When one of the main tourist draws in Riga is a KGB headquarters once used to torture suspected enemies of the state, the past isn’t so past.
That’s also the reason so many of the films being produced even today in Baltic Europe show scars, at times morbidly but on occasion even comically. At the risk of generalizing foolishly about not one but three film industries, it’s also why so many characters whatever the era being depicted still seem to have sleeps in their eyes as they take in the world being offered to them. They might transact daily business in euros, but the chief currency in all three countries is history. It is hardly paradoxical that the weight of the past has steered so many filmmakers from the north to focus dramas on children. As fictional narrative, animated cartoon, or documentary, drama or comedy or fantasy, children mean (it is hoped) a look forward, not backward. As for what’s around them today, well, that’s where the practicalities get more truculent, so a lot of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian 12-year-olds are portrayed slamming bedroom doors and turning up their music to blare levels, not emerging again from the bedroom din until they’re 18 and leaving the parents characters to argue about whose fault it is, maybe if you had spent more time at home, maybe if you didn’t have so many late meetings, maybe if . . . wait a minute! They’re having this conversation in Lithuanian, too? Mmm. Turns out the Baltic states aren’t Mars.
As in other European areas, the Baltic public’s first exposure to film was through the Lumière and Edison movie clips at the end of the nineteenth century. The production of an actual native picture, however, had to wait another decade or so within bleak economic conditions that did not favor coins being spent on a camera instead of a potato. In Estonia, back then a province of Czarist Russia, one camera was found for a visit to Tallinn in 1908 by Sweden’s King Gustav, the stake for a claim to the first newsreel. But most historians award the First to photographer Johannes Paasuke, who in 1912 recorded the antics of a stunt flyer over Tartu, then put together a silent satire (Karujaht Parnumaal – Bear Hunt in Parnu County) about an election in the city of Parnu for another First in the Narrative category. In too much of a foreshadowing of later years, the 14-minute film was also the first to be shelved in Estonia because authorities found it politically troublesome. Lithuania, a hotbed of anti-Russian feeling from the late nineteenth century, owed its foray into film to Antanas Raciunas, a Lithuanian American who came back to shoot his rural village in 1909. (This wasn’t an isolated moment in diaspora history, either, since the first Lithuanian-language newspapers of appreciable duration were published in New York and Chicago.) Around the same time, Ladislas Starevich (Wladyslaw Starewicz) produced the short subject Prie Nemuno (By the Nieman River), one of many the Polish-Russian animator turned out featuring stop-motion techniques picked up from Albert Smith and other Anglo filmmakers.
It’s hardly surprising that Prie Nemuno doesn’t come instantly to mind when compiling a list of influential films from early in the century. Because of World War I and all the postwar turbulence coinciding with independence, surviving in memory let alone in reels has been an achievement. In Latvia, for example, the first five home productions, all from the early 1920s, are known today only from scripts and surrounding materials. Also typically, the first two of them – Es kara aiziedams (As I Went Away to War) and Laiku viesuli (The Times of Turmoil) – are set against a freedom-fighting background. In features such as Mineviku varjud (Shadows of the Past), Estonia also focused on the nation’s fight for independence, but not exclusively. Indeed, three of its first films – Vanaema kingitus (Grandmother’s Gift) in 1923, Onnelik korterikriisi lahendue (Solving the Apartment Crisis) in 1924, and Viersed pruudid (Wrong Brides) in 1929 – were comedies. Viersed pruudid was arguably the first talkie and was co-directed by Konstantin Marska, the most dominating figure in the industry who went from being a cameraman to establishing its first studio to shooting acclaimed ethnographic studies of the nation’s various regions – a David Attenborough specializing in human beings instead of sharks.
In 1930, Estonia led the way in international co-productions, teaming with Germany for the tepidly steamy Kire lained (Waves of Passion). With a touch of the bizarre, it was also involved in two projects where the accent was on music. In 1923, the nation’s celebrated song festival was filmed. Not that much of a big deal except that it was still the silent era and an estimated 12,000 participants were shown not only mouthing lyrics to a projector hum but being heard through a recording. In addition, a few singers were grayed veterans from the very first festival in 1869. Then in 1932 there was Theodor Luts’s Paikese lapsed (Children of the Sun), a pioneer talkie for the country. How pioneer depends on whether you count the fragmented Viersed pruudid and believe historians who have found traces of other long-gone shorts as proof that the 47-minute feature wasn’t quite the first one to the ball. But first, second, or third, Paikese lapsed had other cachets with its release. To begin with, it was the first of what would be numerous co-productions by a Baltic industry with one of Scandinavia, in this case Finland. It was also the first recorded test of whether Baltic viewers would go for films that lacked logic or any other kind of coherence but were distracted by the gloss of “names,” on this occasion from the music world. In both Estonia and Finland, the answer was no, partly because the Estonian names, who included the Miss Estonia of the year, weren’t all that namely in Finland. In addition, Paikese lapsed left considerable melancholy in its wake because there wasn’t to be another Estonian feature of note until 1947 and Miss Estonia 1932 ended up ruling for a Guinness-world-record 56 years because the competition wasn’t to be held again until 1988.
One of the few benefits of the nearby Russian frontier was that it allowed distinguished members of the Moscow Art Theater to cross over for roles in early films. Even during the Czarist regime, sophisticated Russian directors along the lines of Piotr Chardinin worked in Riga. (The trade wasn’t all that even since the Latvian Sergei Eisenstein went the other way.) This practice stopped in the 1930s under Stalin and as the governments in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia realized the cinema’s power for social and political ends and began subsidizing films through culture ministries. Theater owners were not ecstatic with the development because one condition of the subsidies was that a native newsreel had to be shown before every screening, no matter if the main feature for the evening came from Germany, France, or Japan. These so-called “compulsory chronicles” were inspired by shorts in Germany aimed at educating the populace in just about everything they were deemed to need education in. Even at their least oppressive they were hardly fire and excitement – tourist postcards (Tallinn Before and Now, Views of Beautiful Viljandimaa) and prosaic industrials (From Bloom to Beehive). More to the point, they were not why the audiences had come and were barely tolerated as obstacles to the foreign imports that were the headline draw.
As in other parts of Europe, the features shot in the Baltic states between the wars laid stress on nationalistic themes viewed through a historical and/or mythical lens. Estonia’s most prominent production was Noored Kotkad (Young Eagles), which followed the tragic plights of a trio of students in the war against the Bolsheviks. Directed by the Theodor Luts of Paikese lapsed, it impressed a few critics enough to be mentioned in the same sentence as Birth of a Nation and Battleship Potemkin, but as with the American and Russian epics, its politics also put off as many people as it won over. Moreover, it marked the end of the Estonian career of Luts, considered the industry’s chief filmmaker but thereafter working from first Finland and then Brazil.
In Latvia, the most significant of the between-wars efforts was Lacplesis (The Bear Slayer), and for more than one reason. In each country at the time, there was a program not only to spread patriotic values but also to “legitimize” the film medium by associating it with successful plays and novels – that is, acceptable culture. Lacplesis, directed by Aleksandra Austeikis, went further by beginning the picture with a scene of the protagonist reading the end of the epic on which it was based and discovering that the final pages recounting the death of the Bear Slayer were missing. At this point the Bear Slayer’s spirit of half-man half-bear enters the protagonist so he can carry on with his own feats in the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the Latvian independence struggle, by so doing transforming the national myth into national history. Though Lacplesis was a silent, its folkloristic appeal in both written and screen forms spurred the government into funding a new music soundtrack in 2015 to celebrate Latvia’s assumption of the presidency of the European Union Council.
In good part because of a concentration on newsreels, Lithuania owed its first screen reputation to a strength in visuals. As early as 1926, it also showed a practical confidence in the medium by establishing film schools for aspirants and studios for doing something useful with the lessons learned in the schools. The industry’s business-first sense was further confirmed by Rupestingas tevas (The Careful Father), a maiden short that was actually a three-minute ad. The rest of Lithuanian production in the period emulated the Estonian and Latvian priorities – heavy on military nationalism (Karelvis lietuvos gynejas – The Solider as Defender) and suggestive myths (Jonukas ir Onute – Annie and Johnny), a fairy tale resplendent with brothers and sisters penetrating dark forests, witches, and magic spells. Another early contributor to the medium was the stained-glass artist Stasys Usinkas with the animated (and primitive) puppetry of Storulio sapnas (Fatty’s Dream). Puppet films were a tradition in Lithuania going back to the work of Wladyslaw Starewicz at the dawn of the century and would have a second wave of popularity in Estonia thanks to Elbert Tuganov after World War II. If there were any intended political ironies in their fashion, they escaped the censors of the moment.
As events moved toward World War II, film became very much of an afterthought in the northern countries. This was markedly so in Latvia after premier Karlis Ulmanis’s bloodless coup introduced authoritarian rule. The exceptions were not particularly exceptional. For instance, Tautas dels (Son of the Nation) might have been noteworthy as Latvia’s first screen musical, but it was another slathering of patriotic propaganda, jibing seamlessly with Ulmanis’s policy stress on Latvia for Latvians and on removing Germans, Jews, Poles, and other foreigners from prominent social positions. What turned out to be the swan song for this kind of material was Zvejnieka dels (The Fisherman’s Son) in 1939, a sentimental parable of fishermen organizing against predatory wholesale buyers. Audiences didn’t have to be told (but were, over and over again) that the fishermen represented the patriotic Latvian spirit and the buyers greedy outsiders who might have been Germans, might have been Russians, but were mostly outsiders.
Ulmanis had his equivalents in Estonia in Konstantin Pats and in Lithuania in Antanas Smetona. If their repressive controls over the film industries as over most other things had a saving grace, it was the very bittersweet one of familiarity with the terrain following the invasion of the territories in 1940 by the Soviet Union. Apprehensions about also having to adapt to Moscow’s socialist realism aesthetic, however, lay moot for five years because of the next invasion by Germany. The only picture completed before the Nazis arrived in 1941 and the return of the Soviets in 1944 was the Latvian Kauguriesi (The People of Kauguri), about an early nineteenth-century revolt based on a Karlis Zaris novel. As was to be something of a running motif in Soviet-supervised films after the war, peasant characters were presented as untrustworthy in comparison to residents of the capitals who had an advantage in being literate enough to heed Kremlin directives.
Pre-war bombast about how Moscow would revolutionize the Baltic industries in production quantity and content fizzled out under the Nazi invasion, the ferocities of the war, and the need by a ravaged USSR to get back on its own feet after the hostilities. Only three films with a Latvian connection reached the public in the postwar Stalin era, and one, Deli (Sons) in 1946, was a Soviet production shot completely in Moscow and with only passing dialogue allusions to Latvia. Majup ar uzvaru (Homeward with Victory, 1947), a ham-handed melodrama about the Latvians rescuing their country from the Nazis due to Soviet guidance, was shot on location but with Soviet technicians calling the shots literally and figuratively. Its chief talking point was that it was to have been directed by Sergei Eisenstein, but then the Latvian expatriate became embroiled in tensions with Stalin over the sequel to Ivan the Terrible and was forced to bow out.
The third film, about Latvian poet Janis Rainis in 1949, was a far more ideological project and made clear Moscow’s long-range political intentions through film where all three countries were concerned. With a Rainis portrayed as a loyal poet of the proletarian revolution, the film sought to persuade the Baltic people of how deeply Marxism-Leninism ran in their blood, that it was not merely imposed by Soviet tanks. Just as important for the period, it wanted to appeal to the tens of thousands of Baltic refugees and exiles who had fled abroad because of the war, asking them to come home and contribute to a socialist republic. Rainis was screened at displaced persons camps throughout Europe; equally in the interests of winning further world attention, it was awarded the Stalin Prize. What was mainly drawing that attention, however, was the mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of Balts to Siberia in one of Stalin’s genocidal manias.
Postwar Estonian films were no more subtle. Following a 15-year hiatus, the industry turned out Elu tsitadellis (Life in the Citadel) in 1947 and Valgus koordis (Light in Koordi) in 1951. Both were the work of Communist hacks from the writers union, both were directed by Austrian emigre Herbert Rappaport living in Russia (where he was known as Gerbert Montsevich), and neither had been worth waiting 15 years for. Valgus koodis’s one note of interest was that it was the country’s first color film. The transition from the Stalin to Nikita Khrushchev eras also coincided with the use by Soviet studios of Estonians in roles as Nazis because of their fair complexions. Casting directors in Moscow were soon also inviting Baltic actors to appear in pictures that, from their viewpoint anyway, required a “Western” feel, this covering everything from big-city private detectives to King Lear. In addition, the variety of architectural and historical structures in Estonia made it a location favorite for Soviet productions, all but reducing the country to a theme park on the screen. It was only a short step from that to employing Tallinn and other cities as period versions of Soviet localities, much as Toronto has stood in for New York for producers working on the cheap.
In Lithuania, facts didn’t get in the way of fiction twice over. The classic example was Maryte (1947), presented as a screen biography of World War II guerrilla Maryte Melnikaite, the only Lithuanian woman proclaimed as a hero of the Soviet Union. But as even the writer of the screenplay was to acknowledge subsequently, he not only fictionalized a detail here and there but just about invented everything because all he knew about the woman was her age and ethnicity. Ignotas grjzo namo (Ignotas Returns Home) was more dreary agitprop, about a blacksmith who comes home after World War I to awaken to the light as projected from the Kremlin.
But more important than the crude propaganda of most pictures labeled Baltic in the 1950s and 1960s was the fact that would-be filmmakers from the region began studying medium techniques in USSR academies and were soon seeding the ground for future generations of technicians, directors, and actors in the three states. One of the earliest graduates was the Lithuanian Vytautas Zalakevicius, who managed to gain favor in both his home country and the Soviet Union for a lengthy career that ran until the early 1990s. In 1965, Niekas nenorejo mirti (Nobody Wanted to Die) was a breakthrough not only for the director and Lithuania but for all three Baltic industries. Its fierce melodrama of sons seeking vengeance for the murder of their father in a farming community had pro-Soviets, anti-Soviets, and Nazi collaborators as characters, laying bare the internal conflicts within the states. More than just breaking box office records in the directly interested areas, the plaudits it received at film festivals underlined how important the world cinema exhibitions could be for exposure.
Well into the 1960s, while Soviet satellites in other parts of the continent were rebelling against their puppet leaders, Latvia appeared content to turn out Russian opera adaptations. But there was a striking exception – Baltie zvanini (White Bells) in 1961. Considered by some the forerunner of Latvia’s “poetic documentaries,” Baltie zvanini was actually a fictional short that made extensive use of newsreel footage of Riga’s traffic-clogged streets on a work day. In the middle of all the coming and going, an eight-year-old girl in a flimsy white dress goes scampering under feet and across dangerous intersections in pursuit of a florist delivery truck, finally arriving at a market where she cops the white bells of the title. In the concluding sequence, she seems on the verge of losing her prize to a steamroller, but at the last second the driver stops and allow her to recover it and go dancing off into the crowd. If easy symbolism hadn’t existed, Baltie zvanini would have invented it with readings of Latvia’s relationship to Moscow. But thanks to the nonchalance of the narrative and subtly building suspense, the 20-minute short outfoxed Soviet censors.
Baltie zvanini collected film festival honors in San Francisco, Washington, Leipzig, Paris, Krakow, and Jerusalem, confirming the importance of such venues for the northern industries. Writer Herz Frank, who turned director, went on to some 80-odd projects, in the process rejuvenating the documentary from a traditional black-and-white newsreel look to subjects that varied from interviewing political assassins to recording his own heart operation. Increased international attention to the work of Frank and other Baltic filmmakers made Soviet censors earn their pay, to the point that some films remained on the shelf for years while the bureaucrats argued about whether they provided a little too much food for thought.
As restrictive as the Soviets were, they provided the financing and technical means for well-equipped studios in all three countries, and references to “independent” Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian productions during the occupation years sometimes said less than claimed. Beyond argument was that the Baltic filmmakers coming home from their schooling in Moscow and Leningrad returned as professionals at their crafts. In 1976, Lithuania splashed across the screen the dazzlingly colored musical Velnio nuotaka (The Devil’s Bride), a fairy tale of a mill owner trying to renege on a deal for handing over his daughter to the devil. If there were few features produced annually, dozens of documentaries, cartoons, and cross-genre newsreels were entered in festivals, many of them taking home prizes and, within the Warsaw Pact bloc in any case, of a quality preempting any thought that the fix had been in.
Sometimes the doors opened beyond festivals. Juris Podnieks became such a rock star in Latvia through documentaries on topics as varied as the enervating depression eating away at the nation’s youth and his country’s justice system that he was approached by British television for a five-part series on the Soviet republics. Do You Hear Us?, as the series was named, provided close-ups of the social unrest in Uzbekistan in the late 1980s, the survivors of an earthquake in Armenia, and Chernobyl residents returning to their homes after the nuclear disaster. But though the series won multiple awards in the West, not least the prestigious Prix Italy, it was only a warm-up for what cemented Podnieks’s notoriety. While working on a documentary about folk festivals in 1990, he got caught up in an anti-Soviet protest in Riga that sparked indiscriminate firing at the demonstrators by the armed forces. Podnieks was badly beaten, and two of his crew were shot. As one lay dying, he put his camera in the director’s hands, insisting his final seconds be filmed. The death scene was included in Krustcels (Homeland), causing shock and fury at screenings. Podnieks himself was traumatized by the incident and died not too long afterward at the age of 41 while fishing.
It took a while for fiction films to catch up to the abrasiveness of documentaries. Up to and beyond the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, the past in various keys remained the dominant melody. In Estonia, Arvo Kruusement’s Kevade (Spring, 1969), set in a nineteenth-century boarding school, has been repeatedly cited by critics as the best picture ever produced in the country. Also coming in for regular mention have been the 1968 suspense drama Hullumeelsus about the Nazis searching for a suspected British spy in a mental hospital and the 1969 medieval love story Vimne reliikvia (The Last Relic), about a monastery’s wiles to hold on to a sacred object. For something new there was Hukkunud Alpinisti hotell (Hotel of the Dead Mountakneers, 1979), which held a number of characters in an inn to combine a murder mystery and horror fantasy. Grigori Kromanov was the director of both Hukkunud Alpinisti hotell and Vilmne reliikvia, Kaljo Kiisk of Hullumeelsus, going a long way toward establishing them as the most prominent filmmakers in Estonia in the second half of the century. There was also a flirtation at the time with science fiction, most popularly with Soolo (Solo, 1979) and Pulmapilt (Wedding Picture, 1981). But for sheer outlandishness, nothing had the audacity of Peeter Tooming’s Loppematu paev (The Endless Day, 1971), a 30-minute experimental film of this, that, and whatever that other thing was that so infuriated censors that it was not merely banned but ordered destroyed (it wasn’t, finally seeing the light of day 20 years later). What one sympathetic critic called “Godard grazing” was exemplified by one sequence that was to have shown a tank entering an open-air museum and, after the Army turned down that prop request, substituting a child’s plastic toy for the action. Tooming denied he had intended any allusion to the occupying Soviets.
In the years leading up to Latvia’s re-independence in 1991, the dominant figure behind the camera was Janis Streics, who asserted “Latvian self-exposure on the screen” as his objective with such features as the absurdist comedy centered on a gravedigger Mans draugs – nenopietns cilveks (My Frivolous Friend, 1975); Limuzins janu nakts krasa (Limousine as a Midsummer Night, 1981), about a besieged lottery winner; and Cilveka berns (A Child of Man, 1991), about a six-year-old determined to stop the marriage of a woman on whom he has a crush. Not a particularly striking pronouncement in other nations by other directors, but in Latvia very much so within a cinema history of militantly nationalistic, when not propagandistic, material; that is, implying some fundamental doubts up to that point on the depth of introspection by filmmakers. Cilveka berns was the first Latvian feature submitted for Academy Award consideration. It was also Latvia that dramatized most graphically the practical effects for the industry of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Projects rarely got off drawing boards without state financing, with the nadir coming between 1994 and 1996, when only three features got as far as theaters, what production energy there was spent on shorts and newsreels. As though more pressure were needed, re-independence and more accessible markets made it much easier for American and Western European pictures to swamp movie houses, not an incentive for private backers to invest in a project unless envisioning a low-budget Baltic version of Fast and Furious.
The situation improved only marginally through the first years of the new century. Those trying to launch a production had either to gamble personal savings by developing the idiosyncratic or resort to two familiar avenues – adapting a popular novel or brushing dust off folkloristic and historical themes. No shock, the inevitable result for many years were such features as Vecas pagastmajas misterija (The Misery of the Old Parish House, 2000), about a man who can’t get over having killed a German 50 years earlier in the war; Balga vasara (Dangerous Summer, 2000), about the Soviet occupation in 1940; Vieniga fotografija (The Only Photograph, 2008), laid against the 1918 independence struggle; and Dancis pa trim (A Dance for Three, 2011), a love triangle involving a woman with a Latvian resistance fighter and a German soldier. Even the most notable production in the first decade, Rigas sargi (Defenders of Riga, 2007), about the chaos visited on Latvia in the civil war between the so-called White Russians and Bolsheviks, trod familiar thematic territory.
While in the throes of similar economic and production woes, Estonia tackled them in an Estonian way. Tallinn had always been less coy about admiring Western subjects, even sponsoring its own version of a star system with performers such as Elle Kull, Lembit Ulfsak, and Eve Kivi, so it found it not quite as hard to work out co-productions with other countries; before the new millennium had advanced very far, it had sealed deals with (among others) Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, even China and the United States. It usually went it alone when reflecting the nation’s abiding interest in music, for instance in biographies of composers or recordings of punk concerts. When it was mysteries or political thrillers, however, foreign investors were at the door. One conspicuous venture was Tallinn pimeduses (Tallinn Unplugged, 1992), a caper plot of Russian mobsters trying to grab a billion dollars in gold bullion that the Soviets had stashed in Paris during the occupation and that was subsequently shipped back to Estonia. Very much in the big robbery vein of France’s Rififi and The Sicilian Clan, Tallinn pimeduses also sprinkled in enough satirical elements to merit comparison with Italy’s Big Deal on Madonna Street and was received favorably at numerous festivals, especially at Sundance and Toronto. The comic tone wasn’t unusual, recalling how several of the country’s earliest films in the 1920s had gone for laughs more than for tears or gasps.
More so than with productions from the other Baltic countries, those from Lithuania could be about the films themselves as much as about the stories they were recounting; that is, meta-pictures. With such turn-of-the-century directors as Valdas Navasaitis and Sarunas Bartas, the gloom still weighed but was presented without reverence for traditional narration or even coherent characters. Navasaitis threw down his gauntlet with his debut film of Kiemas (Courtyard, 1999), as clinical a vision of community apathy as anyone might or might not have the energy to look into. By then the far more prolific Bartas had established himself as his industry’s, if not Europe’s, premier abstract minimalist. His Tys Dienos (Three Days, 1991) just about started and ended with two couples engaging in cheerless sex. Koridorius (The Corridor, 1995) dispensed with dialogue altogether in making the title space the symbol of the country’s division between past and present.
Silence also governed Bartas’s A Casa (The House, 1997), the first of several co- productions with France and Portugal, this one focused on a decaying mansion with somnambulant residents doing thrilling things like walking here and there and opening and closing doors. The second partnership with Paris and Lisbon was for Laisve (Freedom, 2000), which delved deeper into the void with a trio of smugglers abandoned in the Moroccan desert who, having run out of snappish remarks after a botched deal, waited around to starve to death. Bartas’s distinction was in the vitality presenting such scenarios, not as drying paint on the wall so much as suggesting that the wall was about to reject the paint – a vision that has brought regular screenings at the Cannes Film Festival. (But the director hasn’t fared as originally off-camera, with two actresses accusing him of sexual harassment. The police closed one case with the fatuous charge of “hooliganism.”)
Most of the other Lithuanian productions from the early century pursued obsessively familiar pathways. Vienui vieni (Utterly Alone, 2004) traced the tragic life of an anti-Soviet partisan after World War II. Dievu miskas (Forest of the Gods, 2005) was based on the memoirs of a survivor of both Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags. More than merely morose about the past was Gyris Lukacs’s Duburys (Vortex, 2009), with its look at the destructive effects on colonizers as much as on the colonized in Baltic relations.
For good and not so good reasons, the preoccupations of a film such as Duburys gained a coating of provincialism as the twenty-first century moved on. As everywhere on the continent, the Baltic film industries became vulnerable to market pressures and a cultural amorphousness nestling within the opportunities promoted by the European Community. The more generic a film project, the more likely to fetch euros in foreign hands, but with attendant submission to characters being Anyone doing Anything Anywhere. Notable too was the greater attention to cities such as Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius as logical backgrounds for the millennium’s ascending business classes, gamblers, and media hustlers. This implicitly renounced the decades of Baltic films set in rural areas that incubated the national myths, generational struggles, and even superstitions that tended to define localities. Inevitably, cosmopolitan market priorities also led the industries to start shooting films in English, as in the case of the Latvian Nameja gredzenhs (The Pagan King, 2018), in which the lead actors were a Lithuanian, an Englishman, and a Swede.
Not that the baby has simply been given away. In recent years, all three film industries have been able to avail themselves of government subsidies and tax rebates. As Dita Rietuma, director of Latvia’s National Film Centre, voices it: “Just about every country took time to recognize film as a basic cultural asset. But because of our volatile history maybe we have taken longer than most.” The tax rebates haven’t gone unnoticed among foreign companies open to co-production investments: Estonia and Lithuania made the list of a recent Hollywood Reporter’s Top Five places for Americans to shoot abroad with a relative minimum of financial outlay. Nobody has been waiting around for the dollars to come flying in from the United States, however. Production partnerships over the last several years have taken in not just such obvious candidates as the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Poland, and France, but also Georgia, Croatia, Serbia, and various other industries even more fledgling than those in the Baltic region. If a map of Europe has become more nuanced in the twenty-first century, so has that of its film world.
These often-contradictory pulls have produced what contradictory pulls often produce – a startling creativity amid run-of-the-mill jaunts as forgettable from Riga and Vilnius as from Hollywood and London. The Latvian production that made the biggest splash in recent years was arguably Janis Nords’s Mammu, es tevi milu (Mother, I Love You, 2013), an exquisite drama about a preteen overwhelmed by a small lie leading to one complication after another. It took a jury prize in Berlin, feature honors at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and awards in Israel and the Czech Republic. In 2014, Estonia’s Mandarlinid (Tangerines), a co-production with Georgia about the war in Abkhazia, netted a Golden Globe nomination, followed in 2017 when Vehkleja (The Fencer), a co-production with Finland and Germany about a fugitive fencer, was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. In the meantime, all three countries have not only continued to be prominent in festivals but have themselves organized annual exhibitions of various genres that have attracted world attention. When there is one festival exclusively devoted to horror pictures, maybe there is legitimate hope that the horrors in the region will be strictly of a cinematic kind.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films’ videos.