Latvia’s official entry for the Best Foreign Feature Oscar is Blizzard of Souls from director Dzintars Dreiberg. The film is based on a book by Aleksandrs Grins, which was banned in the Soviet Union. The film has been the most watched film in the history Latvian cinema.
The story follows Arturs (Oto Brantevics), a young Latvian farm boy, from the beginning of World War I. Latvia, at that time, was a part of the greater Russian empire. When Germany invaded Russia, the patriotic fervor swept all the men into the army—into a Latvian battalion. Arturs was too young to sign up (a few months shy of seventeen), but his father (who was too old, but well experienced in an earlier war) give his permission and the both, along with Arturs’ brother all enlist. Training camp seems like a big game, with most of the younger men not taking it seriously. But soon they are at the front and the reality of war is overwhelming.
We follow Arturs through injuries, the death of those close to him, the Communist Revolution (which enlisted the army for support), eventually disillusionment with the Revolution, and enlisting in a new Latvia force to gain the country’s independence, which it held during the period between the wars.
The film is a Latvian version of All Quiet on the Western Front, in that it shows the dark side of the First World War with its trench warfare and the use of gas. The dream of fame and glory of those going off to war quickly becomes a matter of survival as all those around you die. The film is a realistic depiction of the brutality and horrors of war. It also shows the brutality of the Communist rule in the early days of the Soviet Union. (Which accounts for Grins being shot and the book banned.)
But unlike the Erich Maria Remarque book, this film ends with a celebration of Latvian nationalism. This film is clearly a film that speak to the Latvian people. Some of the history seen here would need no explanation to Latvians. North American audiences may feel that the transition from Russia to USSR to Latvian independence is missing a few steps along the way.
Blizzard of Souls is available through virtual cinema at local arthouses.
Photos courtesy of Film Movement.