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The 19th Chicago European Union Film Festival 2016 – 1944 (2015)

March 29, 2016

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written by: Leo Kunnas
produced by: Maria Avdjushko, Ilkka Matila, Kristjan Rahu & Kristian Taska
directed by: Elmo Nüganen
rated: unrated
runtime: 100 min.
release date: February 8, 2015 (Berlin International Film Festival), February 20, 2015 (Estonia) and November 4, 2015 (USA/limited)

 

The best war movies are ones that offer a personal perspective to the battlefield, rather than a chronological overview of events – at least that’s what I prefer. “1944” is such a film. Last year, it was Estonia’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars, but did not make the shortlist.  Ironically, the director of this film, Elmo Nüganen, starred in the Estonian-Georgian film “Tangerines” from 2013 that received an Oscar nomination in that category in 2014. 

The film starts in July/August 1944, in the trenches of the Battle of Tannenberg Line – as Estonian soldiers in the Red Army and the German Army fight each other – ending during the Sõrve Peninsula Battle of Tehumardi in October/November 1944, as seen through the point of view of two Estonian staff sergeants who were forced to fight their fellow countrymen. “1944” also provides opening context for the film’s setting…

In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Estonia, drafting 55,000 men to serve in the Red Army. But in 1941, Germany occupied the tiny Baltic country, forcing 72,000 Estonians to fight as part of the Waffen-SS and other military units excepting the Wehrmacht, which was reserved only for those of German birth. Then, by 1944, the bloodiest battles on the Eastern Front were being fought by soldiers from small nations who had only the slimmest hopes of survival.

 

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The two staff sergeants we follow are indeed fighting on opposing sides, which is how we get a perspective from both sides of the battle. There’s Karl (Kaspar Velberg) a farm boy who wears the SS uniform and is haunted by his inability to prevent his family’s deportation to Siberia by the Soviets. There’s also Juri (Kristjan Ukskula), the son of a communist collaborator, who was recruited from the Estonian Defense Forces by the Red Army. Juri has to look out for his men and he must also handle pressure from Capt. Kreml (Peeter Tammearu), an overbearing and manipulative commanding officer who wants him to report any anti-Soviet sentiments among the men in his unit.

The screenplay written by novelist Leo Kunnas (a former high-ranking Estonian military officer) is immersed in historical detail (that is, at times, a challenge to keep up with), most notably  the arrests of innocent people, deportations and executions, which spurred young men to join the German side.  Like Kubrick’s “Path of Glory”, Kunnas’ script touches on the madness of war and the depiction of teens fighting alongside and at each other.

Granted, it’s hard to keep track of all the baby-faced boys in Soviet and/or German uniforms, but they plight is nevertheless quite impacting. The characterization here is mostly broad, especially the primarily antagoinist, Capt. Kreml and outside of all the men (to be expected in a story predominately placed on the battlefield), we are given one sole female character in Karl’s older sister, Aino (Maiken Schmidt), whom Juri meets in Tallinn.

Director Nüganen effectively compares the epic scale of battlefield combat with the personal anguish of fractured loyalties throughout “1944”, providing a look at a WWII battle that the world hardly knew.

“1944” made huge box office in Estonia in 2015, yet only saw a short window of distribution in the States. Hopefully that can be remedied soon.  In the meantime, it can be seen tonight (8pm) at the Gene Siskel Film Center, during the theater’s final week of the Chicago European Union Film Festival.

 

RATING: ***

 

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