A naïve teenager comes of age amid the carnage of World War I’s Eastern Front in this propulsive adaptation of Aleksandrs Grins’ 1934 patriotic classic “Blizzard of Souls.” With its muscular direction by former documentarian Dzintars Dreibergs, atmospheric cinematography and careful attention to period detail, this account of a troop of Latvian Riflemen fighting first for the Russian Imperial Army against invading German forces and then for an independent Latvia should appeal to WWI buffs and fans of Sam Mendes’ “1917.” While not quite in the same league as Liviu Ciulei’s “Forest of the Hanged” or Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” Latvia’s Oscar submission — which set box office records in its native country — does contain a strong message about the futility of war.
After German forces kill his mother on the family farm, the not-quite-17-year-old schoolboy Arturs (natural first-time performer Oto Brantevics, who literally grows into the part) and his aging father (Martins Vilsons), a sharp-shooting former sergeant, volunteer for a unit of Latvian Riflemen within the Tsar’s Army. Arturs watches respectfully as his father becomes sergeant major, training recruits and later picking off multitudes of enemy soldiers as a sniper.
At first, Arturs lacks the fighting verve of his father and older brother Edgars (Raimonds Celms), an officer. His first kill takes place in a German trench, where he bayonets a frightened youth of about his own age. As Arturs repeatedly pushes his blade into the boy’s body, the two lock eyes and the image of his bleeding enemy starts to haunt his dreams.
Told repeatedly that “a soldier mustn’t think,” Arturs begins to rely on blind instinct and the commander’s shout of “Forward” and “Get up, you’re Latvians,” as he participates in some of the worst battles of the war, including gas attacks. He loses his father during the 1916 Island of Death blitzkrieg and his brother during the deadly Christmas clashes, part of an icy winter slog alongside reluctant Siberians who fail to support the Latvians after they seize German fortifications.
Helmer Dreibergs carefully centers all the action from Arturs’ perspective. Through his eyes, we see the cramped confines of the muddy trenches, full of rats and moaning men; the foggy forests at night where advancing troops so easily have their cover blown by whizzing enemy mortars; snowy fields through which the soldiers crawl in white camouflage overcoats; and the crowded hospital where Arturs recovers from a neck wound, forced to wear a painful metal brace resembling a torture device. And of course, the too many fallen comrades to count, blown to smithereens by enemy artillery and bloody body parts everywhere.
Angered by their treatment as mere cannon fodder by the Russian commanders, the Latvian soldiers become inspired by revolutions in Russia and Germany. They long to fight for their own national freedom, but the Russian army won’t release them from their loyalty oaths. One of the film’s most heart-rending moments comes when Arturs is forced to serve on a firing squad with its sights on one of his closest comrades, a Latvian nationalist.
The script by Dreibergs and his former professor Boris Frumin encompasses the years 1915-’21 and shows the Latvian soldiers fighting different enemies, leading up to the establishment of the independent republic of Latvia. During that time, half the country’s population was lost to the conflicts. But Latvia’s complex and painful early 20th century history is little known in the West, and American viewers may have trouble understanding certain events without some background reading.
Perhaps one of the film’s most astonishing set pieces shows the 1919 Battle of Cēsis, fought by underage cadets, deserters from the Russian Army and refugees. Here, Arturs gains hero status, calmly walking the front line in the trench and instructing the terrified, inexperienced boys to “aim, shoot, reload.”
The convincing tech package could stand its own against Hollywood productions, while the symphonic score by composer Lolita Ritmanis (an Emmy winner for “Batman Returns”) anchors cinematographer Valdis Celmins’ epic sweep. Period photographs under the end credits prove the filmmakers’ care for historical detail. Aleksandrs Grins, whose novel (banned in the Soviet Union) was adapted, spent years serving as a Latvian Rifleman.