Only war can make a twenty-year-old this emotionally deadened and world-weary. That is what happens to Arturs Vanags. During a four year-period, he technically switches sides several times, first fighting against the Germans for the Russians, then against the Soviets, and finally against both. Yet, he always fights for Latvia. Viewers will see WWI turn into the Latvian War for Independence through the eyes of a young recruit in Dzintars Dreibergs’ Blizzard of Souls, Latvia’s official International Oscar submission and its all-time domestically-produced box office champ, which opens virtually this Friday.
After Germans casually kill his mother, Vanags and his father reluctantly flee their farm to Riga, where they enlist in the Latvian army. Technically, Vanags is too young, but his father gives his permission. Technically, the stern veteran is too old, but his sterling war record makes him valuable as a sergeant major (or the rough equivalent). Much to Vanags’s surprise, his father is probably harder on him than the other recruits, but veterans will well understand why.
During the first act, Blizzard follows the traditional arc of WWI movies, with the green enlisted men dealing with the horrible routine of trench warfare. However, the war will take a series of unusual turns for Vanags and his colleagues, because of the fateful position of the Baltics. Although they initially march to war wearing Latvian uniforms, they are clearly considered subservient to the Russian army (they aren’t even allowed to sing their national anthem). After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks first talk peace, but then start waging war again. Most of the Latvian Riflemen Corps are absorbed into the Latvian SSR, which again functions as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Soviets. Inevitably, the call for genuine independence and the Soviets’ brutal purges drove experienced soldiers like Vanags into the Independence Brigades.
Screenwriter Boris Frumin makes all this complex military history quite clear, while maintaining the focus on Vanags’ grunt-level survival story. Oto Brantevics could not possibly look more milquetoast is his early scenes as young Vanags, but he undergoes a harrowing transformation, even more dramatic than George MacKay’s in 1917. MacKay provides far and away the most memorable performance in Mendes’ Oscar nominee, but Martins Vilsons is just as strong, or even stronger as crusty Old Man Vanags. It is a quiet but colorful and ultimately deeply humanistic portrayal.
Blizzard a grittier, muddier, bloodier kind of war film. There is absolutely nothing glamorous or even remotely heroic about the way Dreibergs presents the war, except perhaps the prospect of surviving with some semblance of a soul.
It is about equally matched with Greyhound as the two best war films of the year. Yet, it is also unusually honest in its depiction of Communist brutality and refreshingly lucid in the way it conveys far-ranging historical developments. Very highly recommended, Blizzard of Souls opens virtually this Friday (1/8). Academy members in particular should make a point of seeing (and maybe even consider Vilsons as a Best Supporting dark horse).