Wednesday, December 02, 2015

AFI’s EU Showcase ’15: 1944

Estonian 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.

Like 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.

When 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 commander.

Nüganen 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.

As 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.