They call it the Great Patriotic War, but for the Soviet Union, it was really about territorial conquest—even after Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Just ask the Baltic nationals who were imprisoned in Siberian gulags. Of course, the prisoners had to be guarded by NKVD troops, diverting them from the war against the Axis. Lina Vilkas and her family are among the waves of Lithuanians rounded up and deported during Marius A. Markevicius’ Ashes in the Snow, which releases today on DVD.
Vilkas should have been in art school rather than a work camp. She had talent, but she was Lithuanian. Unfortunately, the NKVD learned her father had supported the underground resistance, thereby landing his entire family in the gulag. Through sheer luck, Vilkas manages to stay with her mother, younger brother, and potential boyfriend during the transit, but they fear the worst for her father. They also worry over her sickly young brother, because he is not likely to survive without medicine and better rations. Her mother reluctantly accepts some handouts from Nikolai Kretzsky, a NKVD guard who is regularly bullied by his comrades, because he is half Ukrainian. However, she makes it clear he will never get what he wants.
As a chronicle of gulag survival, Ashes is a little to too clean and palatable. Markevicius (who previously helmed the terrific documentary The Other Dream Team and produced The Way Back) and screenwriter Ben York Jones certainly wanted to present the truth of the Soviet camps, but it looks like the proper resources were lacking. On the other hand, the film presents a cogently biting commentary on the nature of power through the characters of Kretzsky and the ruthless commandant, Komarov. In fact, it is absolutely chilling to watch Kretzsky slowly but steadily become that which he most despises.
Peter Franzen radiates menace as the cruel and manipulative Komarov, but Martin Wallström is even more chilling as the increasingly soulless Kretzsky. Watching the slow disintegration of his persona vividly illustrates why some people willingly accept oppression and degradation. It is terrific work, but alas, the same cannot be said of Bel Powley’s central performance as Lina Vilkas. The hard truth is Powley is simply flat and lifeless on-screen. Admittedly, that would make sense for Vilkas after the months and years have worn her down, but she is like this right from the start (and during flashbacks).
Time and again, Ashes visually echoes the imagery of holocaust dramas, such as the over-stuffed cattle cars, screaming camp guards, and the spartan, over-crowded barracks. Ultimately, Markevicius is undercut by insufficient resources and a weak lead but he still makes some salient points about the nature of statist regimes. It is smart and insightful, despite feeling small in scope. Recommended for younger, general audiences, Ashes in the Snow releases today (5/14) on DVD.