fought Estonian, but it was not a civil war. Fifty-five thousand men from the
small Baltic nation were shanghaied into service with the Red Army during the
first Soviet occupation. When fortunes on the Eastern Front temporarily tilted
Germany’s way, another 72,000 Estonians were drafted, primarily by the
Waffen-SS, because the Wehrmacht maintained a strict German national identity.
The Estonian wartime experience becomes the stuff of high dramatic tragedy in
Elmo Nüganen’s 1944 (trailer here), Estonia’s
official foreign language Oscar submission, which screens as part of the AFI’s 2015 EU Film Showcase.
most of his Estonian comrades, Karl Tammik has little hope of living through
the war. Although he has no love for the National Socialists, he is resigned to
his service in their army, in part because he holds such a grudge against the
Soviets. Tammik also bitterly blames himself for not moving quicker to prevent his
family’s exile to Siberia. He is particularly haunted by the memory of his baby
sister. Under his leadership, the ragtag Estonian unit will temporarily help
hold the Tannenberg Line.
momentum swings back to the Soviets, Nüganen and screenwriter Leo Kunnas shift
their focus to an Estonian Red Army platoon. In a twist of fate worthy of
Sophocles, Tammik will face Jüri Jõgi in the heat of battle. It was Jõgi’s
collaborator father who denounced Tammik’s family to the Communists. However, the
son has none of his father’s ideological zeal, at least not anymore. Yet, since
he has the right sort of family background, the ruthless political officer is
determined to recruit him as an informer against his unusually competent
stages some of the best trench warfare scenes ever filmed. He also convincingly
portrays the confusion and arbitrariness of warfighting without letting the
film descend into random bedlam. Basically, viewers can tell exactly how doomed
the characters are, in ferociously realistic terms. Yet, there is also a
sweeping irony that somehow seems to flow naturally out of the fundamental
absurdity of the Estonians’ situation. Kunnas structures the film with almost
perfect symmetry, escalating the grief and sorrow with each reprise.
Tammik, Kaspar Velberg broods like a man possessed, despite his natural Baltic
reserve. Likewise, Kristjan Üksküla’s Jõgi quietly wears his angst and guilt on
his sleeve like badge of dishonor, until he finally explodes (by Baltic
standards). Peeter Tammearu is also profoundly loathsome as Kreml the political
officer. Not surprisingly, there are not many roles for women in 1944, but Maken Schmidt makes the most
of her screen time as Tammik’s sister Aino. It is a heartbreaking but complex performance
that will knock the wind out of you.
Nüganen’s battle scenes can hang with anything
Hollywood has produced in recent years, but it is the massive micro and macro
ironies that make 1944 such a
powerhouse. Based on its graphic depictions of the Red Army’s brutal tactics, the
Russians are sure to have Nüganen and Kunnas’s names on a list if they ever
invade Estonia again—and if you find that scenario highly unlikely then you
really need to see 1944. Very highly
recommended, 1944 screens this
Saturday (12/5) as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase.
Labels: AFI EU Showcase '15, Communism, Estonian cinema, WWII Cinema