Thursday, April 03, 2014

Panorama Europe ’14: Dream Team 1935

Evidently, they come pretty tall and well coordinated in the Baltics, considering their success in the European Basketball Championship (now known as EuroBasket). Lithuania won twice in the 1930’s and took gold again in 2003, but the very first champion was Latvia. Profoundly unheralded, the scrappy long-shots shocked the continent in 1935. It was a great Latvian triumph on the eve of great tragedy for many nations, Latvia included. With Russia once again menacing its neighbors, it is a fitting time to revisit one of the greatest moments of Latvian sporting history in Aigars Grauba’s Dream Team 1935 (trailer here), which screens during Panorama Europe at the Museum of the Moving Image.

It was a different game in 1930’s Europe. A jump ball followed every successful bucket and free throws were shot granny-style, but it was still handy to have an enforcer on the team. Vlademars Baumanis understands this only too well. Initially, the player-coach loses the Latvian championship because of some thuggish play. However, the victorious coach declines to take his team to the European championship, because the corrupt national sports committee has already squandered the ear-marked funds. While protesting to anyone who will listen, Baumanis accepts an instantly regretted dare to cobble together his own national team, trading in his uniform for a suit and tie.

Bitter rivals from both the Army and University Clubs will come together to represent Latvia, but it will take time to congeal as a true team. At least they will be in the best shape of the careers, thanks to relentless conditioning coach Rihards Deksenieks. Baumanis is a master strategist (at least by 1930’s standards) and the Latvia team has considerable skills, but just getting to Geneva will be an adventure thanks to the obstructionist sports committee.

Dream Team is a reliably entertaining underdogs-triumphant sport story, with some nicely rendered period details and a peppy big band soundtrack. Many basketball fanatics will probably be amused by the decidedly less glamorous style of play. Yet, Dream Team features one of the most devastating series of what-happened-to post-scripts of nearly any film. It turns out nearly every coach and player met a tragic end either as Soviet or National Socialist conscripts (sometimes both) during the war or in Soviet gulags afterward. (Nearly eighty years later, history threatens to repeat itself, as Russia once again casts a covetous eye on the Baltic Republics.)

Janis Amanis is a bit stiff as Baumanis, but he certainly looks earnest. In contrast, Vilis Daudzins plays Deksenieks with hardnosed charisma, while Marcis Manjakovs convincingly portrays the maturation of Latvia’s star player, Rudolfs Jurcins. Unfortunately, there is not much for Inga Alsina to do as Baumanis’s wife Elvira, except sitting around, having faith in him.

As a sports film, Dream Team is more successful than most. Despite the end never being in doubt, it moves along briskly and captures the tenor of the game as it was then played. It also suddenly feels uncomfortably topical given the ultimate fate of most of the team. It would make a good narrative companion to Marius Markevicius’s uplifting documentary, The Other Dream Team, chronicling the 1992 Olympic run of newly independent Lithuania’s men’s basketball team. Recommended for basketball fans and those who closely follow political and cultural developments in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Dream Team 1935 screens this Sunday (4/6) at MoMI as part of Panorama Europe.