Movies about World War I are about as old as cinema itself. In fact, two of the first three films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture used it as a backdrop. It’s a conflict that has given us hundreds, if not thousands, of good stories over the years. Hell, just last year was the odds-on favorite to clean up at the Oscars (before got the much-deserved upset), proving that it’s still a rich resource for plot. It especially works well when the stories are grounded in character moments, believable combat choreography, and when warranted, a good deal of heroism.
Such is the case for Latvia’s Oscar entry, Blizzard of Souls. Based on Aleksandrs Grins’ novel, which was in turn based on his own experiences during the war, the film is an epic tale of combat and displaced loyalties while giving the story of the country’s own independence the full-on Hollywood treatment.
After an open call that saw some 1,300 young actors try out, the lead role of Arturs Vanags goes to Oto Brantevics, who had no previous experience before this film. The young man is a charismatic lead, serving as a permanent audience cipher to the glory and trauma of open warfare. After German soldiers murder his mother, Arturs and his father (Martins Vilsons) both enlist in the Latvian Rifleman Battalion of the Russian Imperial Army, despite him being too young (two months from age 17) and his father being too old (a retired Sergeant Major). Arturs’ brother Edgars (Raimonds Celms) becomes an officer due to his education, but before long all three end up on the front lines of trench warfare together.
Arturs makes several friends during training (led by his father), with all the young men believing in the patriotic cause of fighting for their Fatherland. But like a very similar film and novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (which Grins officially translated into Latvian in addition to writing his own works), they all become cannon fodder in a war where casualties numbered in the millions. The film is at its best when it shows this carnage through Arturs’ eyes, from the moment he’s gripped with fear at taking his first life (a German soldier who looks just as young as him), to his comrades being overcome with nightmares, to pointless battles where men drop like flies on blood-soaked snow, to Arturs becoming a hardened veteran having to lead boys even younger than he was. There’s a visceral honesty to his experience that translates through the screen regardless of the native language, and the film’s focus on Arturs growing up quickly in the field while he’s surrounded by death is key to the overall effectiveness of the story.
It also helps that the filmmakers were dedicated to giving this film a high budget sheen, and it really does look like it could have come right out of the Hollywood system. The camera works in tandem with expertly choreographed battle scenes using dozens of extras. The lighting scheme keeps the action vivid without ever feeling dimmed or washed out, even in fog. The costuming and makeup jobs are very well done. The score is sweeping. They even give Arturs something to fight for besides national glory in the form of Marta (Greta Trusina), a nurse who helps him recover from his first major wound. I mean, throw in some “Old Time Religion” and you’ve got a Latvian Sergeant York on your hands.
On a thematic level, I really appreciated the idea of betrayal. It weighs on Arturs from the moment he enlists. From his first girlfriend Mirdza (Ieva Florence) cheating on him, to Siberian soldiers abandoning a mission and leaving the Latvians to die, to Lenin’s revolution which forced his unit to serve in the Red Army and execute his own comrades in arms for perceived disloyalty, to the eventual war for Latvian Independence, every step of Arturs’ journey sees him beset on all sides by betrayers. It’s not because he did anything wrong, or even because those who turn on him are necessarily villains, but really because throughout the film, as a Latvian, he’s seen as expendable, a sacrificial pawn for all involved. It’s the type of dehumanizing effect you’re more likely to see in Vietnam movies like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket than in films about a more “honorable” conflict like WWI.
There’s a bit of naked jingoism to the proceedings, but on the whole, I think it can be forgiven, because the film doesn’t make any protestations that it’s doing anything but playing to the home crowd. And they succeeded in their efforts. Upon its initial domestic release in November 2019, it became the most viewed film in Latvian history, and it practically swept their version of the Oscars, called the Big Christopher Awards.
This is very much meant to be a standard bearer for the idea of patriotic Latvian war films. But the reason it works outside those eastern European borders is because the filmmakers weren’t afraid to show just how devastating war can be, even when those involved are treated as heroes. In doing so, they’ve made a film in the tradition of the genre’s best, making a strong case for their storytelling abilities and production values. It calls for national pride, but also plays like a blockbuster for those looking in from the outside, and that’s to be applauded.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your favorite war films? How long do you think you would last in combat? Let me know!