Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 4 
13 Sept
2004

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Kristijonas Vildzhiunas's Nuomos sutartis (The Lease, 2002)LITHUANIA
The will to survive
Lithuanian film surveyed at Karlovy Vary's film festival

Lithuanian film was forged between the conflicting forces of Soviet centralism and national identity. George Clark examines how the country has produced a cinematic tradition that captures the tensions of modern society.


Those attending the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2003 could get a taste of the films produced in the Baltic states since the Second World War in the festival's retrospective strand "Baltic Focus." Of the three countries featured—Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania—it was Lithuania who, to my mind, produced the most cinematic and formally assured films.

This tendency to lean towards the art-house tradition has been blamed for the marginalisation of the native film industry in Lithuania, but has also won the country international acclaim. Of particular interest was the work of Šarūnas Bartas, the most respected contemporary director to be featured in the whole season, whose body of work is unique in contemporary world cinema.

What was immediately apparent in all the Lithuanian films in the festival's programme was the struggle between the Soviet authority (who supported film production in these countries) and national identity. The films show the development of Lithuania's relationship with the Soviet system and of a national cinema struggling to assert its relevance to contemporary society. Most of the films featured are set in the past, a strategy to allow the examination of the contemporary political and social climate in Lithuania without being confronted by the Soviet censors (the tendency to speak in allegory and metaphor for fear of state censorship characterises much of Soviet cinema).

The films discussed below all display different attitudes to the present and take variable approaches to issues of national identity as well as cultural and social history. The post-communist works make a fascinating shift in tone and subject matter in an attempt to represent the ambiguous freedom these countries were thrown into following their liberation.

A brief history of Lithuanian film

Cinema, it is generally agreed, arrived in Lithuania in 1909, the year the American Lithuanian Antanas Raciunas, filmed the sights of his native village for fellow Lithuanian immigrants and Vladislavas Starevicius made the film Prie Nemuno (By the Nieman River). National cinema was slow to develop, the first native newsreel was screened in 1921 and the first feature, Onyte ir Jonelis (Annie and Johnn), directed by Jurgis Linartas and Vladas Stipaitis was completed ten years later, in 1931. In Soviet Lithuania during the 1940s, a newsreel studio was developed, and in 1949 it moved to Vilnius and finally became the Lithuanian Film Studio in 1956.

In the same year Vytautas Žalakevičius ignited the first school of Lithuanian film-makers with his debut Skenduolis (The Drunk) providing a model of writer/director that would inspire the following generation of directors (Almantas Grikevičius, Marijonas Giedrys, Raimundas Vabalas and Arunas Zebriūnas) During the Soviet period around three to four feature films were completed each year in collaboration with other Soviet Studios. Around 40 documentaries (and 30 to 40 newsreels) were also produced during this period, drawing further attention and acclaim abroad (key directors being Robertas Verba, Henrikas Sablevicius and Petras Abukevicius).

In 1987, Šarūnas Bartas founded the first independent Lithuanian Film Studio, "Studio Kinema." With this studio Bartas produced his own work and work by film-makers such as Andrius Stonys, Valdas Navasaitis, Arturas Jevdokimovas and Tomas Donela. This predates the shift from state funding to independent production that was to define the decreased film production in independent Lithuania (with only two features and ten documentaries produced per year). In the more open market place of post-communist central Europe, Lithuanian film has struggled to engage with a mainstream audience (with American films dominating cinemas) but continues to be critically celebrated and to follow its aesthetic trajectory.[1]

40 years of Lithuanian cinema: 1963 onwards

Vytautas Zalakevicius's Vienos dienos kronika (One-Day Chronicle, 1963)The earliest film shown in the selection was Vytautas Žalakevičius's Vienos dienos kronika (One-Day Chronicle, 1963). This film's action takes place on one day as we follow a Lithuanian academic travelling to Leningrad for the funeral of an old friend. Much of the story is told in flashbacks which illustrate the troubled lives of these two friends, from their experiences together during the war, to the protagonist's later rise in status as a Soviet scientist and the final repression of his work. In examining the fate of the scientist and his desertion by his friends, students and wife, Žalakevičius has said his film tackles a moral dilemma: "seemingly innocent indifference."

Žalakevičius became an important icon in Lithuanian cinema, representing one of the first native auteurs. In pursuing a personal style and subject matter throughout his career, Žalakevičius set a model for future directors to follow. Vienos dienos kronika is fascinating for its struggle with various types of film language, from the expressionistic and tortured war scenes shot with a wide-angle lens, to the quiet chamber drama where the protagonist meets and confronts other acquaintances of the scientist. In one remarkable scene, the film illustrates the life of the scientist in Moscow using only still photos: the most astonishing section sees the scientist dancing among water fountains, with the still images cut fast enough to create a sense of stilted motion.

The playful approach to form shows a director attempting to forge his own identity and re-examine styles that came before him. It is tempting to see in this film a parallel with other developments in European cinema during the 60s (most obviously the French New Wave) and, similarly, it seems to inaugurate the development of modern cinema in Lithuania. Žalakevičius's work from 1956 up to his death in 1996 provided Lithuania cinema with both continuity and backbone.

The divided life of Lithuania

Algirdas Dausa and Almantas Grikevicius's Jausmai (Feelings, 1968)In the turbulent year of 1968, Jausmai (Feelings, 1968) was made, directed by Algirdas Dausa and Almantas Grikevičius. The film, set at the end of the Second World War, follows the fate of two brothers who live either side of a bay . During this period Lithuania was occupied by Germany, before the Soviets took control. One brother, Kasparas, lives in German-occupied Lithuania, while the Germans have already withdrawn from the other bank where his brother, Andrius, lives. The film opens with a montage showing the conception and birth of Kasparas's twin children, and the death of their mother.

Left with this tragedy and new responsibility, Kasparas decides to move in with his brother and escape German control. Andrius and his wife Egne are involved with the Lithuanian nationalists who have been resisting the German occupation. They are planning on fleeing Lithuania for Sweden. Kasparas struggles to avoid the romantic tension between him and Egne and similarly refuses to accept his brothers' idealism. Finally Kasparas heads home and Andrius heads for Sweden. After nine years, Andrius returns to discover his brother he was captured by the Soviet troops and exiled to Siberia.

As Grazina Arlickaite points out in the catalogue introduction,[2] Jausmai tackles a basic theme of Lithuanian film: the struggle to survive. Kasparas's character became a folk hero in Lithuania for his dedication to his family and feelings above any adherence to political ideology. The themes of Jausmai, especially the all-too-familiar horror of Andrius's imprisonment in Siberia, are easily applicable to all the Baltic states and other central European countries (the film is even based on a story by Latvian novelist Ejonas Lyvas).

Jausmai depicts a chaotic period through the relationship of the two brothers, one dedicated to his family and conscience; the other dedicated to a political ideal. These divided brothers can be read as a representation of a country torn in two, of a history rudely divided. Lithuania has a history of occupation and the struggle to survive is as much personal as it is cultural.

The drama is most powerful in detailing the struggle between culture and politics. The film's black and white wide-screen cinematography lends itself perfectly to this theme, with compositions often unbalanced by having characters pushed towards one side of the screen or the other. The film also shows a distinct sense of landscape, from the opening hillside where the children are conceived to the icy shoreline where the Nationalists set sail for Sweden. After the more cerebral and introverted Vienos dienos kronika, this film shows a more grand and cinematic tendency in Lithuanian cinema.

The cycle of life

Algimants Puipa's Moteris ir keturi jos vyrai (Woman and Her Four Men, 1983)Algimants Puipa's Moteris ir keturi jos vyrai (Woman and Her Four Men, 1983) is an epic tale set at the turn of the 20th century in a struggling fishermen's settlement (based on a short story by the Danish writer Holger Drakman). The film follows the fate of a single woman who begins the film mourning the death of her husband. A local fisherman courts the woman and they marry; she is a welcome addition to a family of men (the husband, his father and his younger brother). The household comes alive with the birth of the couple's child.

The father is deeply in debt to various members of the local community and unable pay back what he owes. To free his father from these obligations, the eldest son takes on his debts and is unable to resist taking on another loan himself. Almost inevitably, he is followed and attacked for his money, as if he were doomed from the outset. After a dual, the two men collapse defeated onto the ground, their bodies mysteriously disappear into the sand dunes and are only discovered weeks later.

The family is stricken by grief and the father is taken to prison as a result of his son's unpaid debts. But before he leaves for prison he marries the younger son to the widow. The couple live happily together and have two children. In order to support the family the younger brother is forced to take a dangerous job at sea and dies there. The film ends with the father's release from prison, following the noble death of his son. The conclusion sees the woman and her four men (her father-in-law and her three children) celebrating on the dunes to the defiant beat of a stick against wood.

Moteris ir keturi jos vyrai incorporates elements of folk tale into its novelistic structure. It is a tale of a culture surviving against all odds. The perseverance of family and traditional values is reminiscent of the struggle of Kasparas in Jausmai. The woman is both a saviour and a curse, bringing life (in the form of her children), and death to the family.

But the film is primarily concerned with the struggles of rural life in the face of a growing industrial capitalist system. Its depiction of the hardships suffered by fishing communities is also similar to Gunars Piesis's Latvian masterpiece Naves ena (In the Shadow of Death, 1971), about the fate of a group of men caught on a drifting piece of ice. The existential drama of the Latvian film is here replaced by a panoramic vision of the cycle of life by the sea in Puipa's work. Moteris ir keturi jos vyrai is concerned with the relationships of people to their land and natural resources, as reflected in the exquisite colour cinematography. It was the most nostalgic film of the festival programme, but at the same time it argues for the perseverance of a unique Lithuanian way of life that is at risk from the movement away from rural existences to urban lifestyles.

Rude awakenings

Andrius Slusa's Ir jis pasake jums sudie (And He Bid You Farewell, 1993)Marius (Arunas Sakalauskas), the protagonist of Andrius Šluša's Ir jis pasake jums sudie (And He Bid You Farewell, 1993) awakes from a four-year coma, and is unable to relate to his current surroundings, his "wife" or "friends." He attempts to leave the mansion in which he woke only to discover he is stranded upon an island. As he attempts to figure out the facts of his life, Marius begins to regain his memory and realises that he is in fact an inmate at a sanatorium. Dr Gaule helps Marius recover his memory and tells him about the car crash that caused it. The doctor has also contacted Marius's real wife (who brought him here in the first place) who is on her way with her new husband. The burden of Marius's former life starts to resurface and he begins to remember why he tried to escape it in the first place.

Šluša's elegant and disorientating film, based on the novel Notes of Maurise Bred, by the Belgium-based (native Lithuanian) writer Eduardas Cinz, operates on various levels. One can easily see the film as a metaphor for the current state of post-communist Lithuania. The film's complex time structure eschews periods and regions (one of the film's first images is of a woman in a Kimono); the island where the film is set is somewhat out of time, its period is indefinite.

At one point Marius finds a vintage American car playing jazz tunes on its radio, a wry comment on the American colonisation of culture, or a nod to Marius's own failed attempt to flee in an automobile. The film is surreal but allegorical, commenting on the cultural confusion of this time, and the disorientation of people's lives. Like Jausmai it describes a divided culture and disrupted family history.

But the film is more concerned with the role of the individual within society (be it communist or capitalist) and operates on a deeply personal level. The film's conclusion says it all. Marius is waiting by the seashore (where we first saw him falling down at the film's beginning) for the arrival of his wife and his connection with the past having now fully regained his memory. But Marius is trapped. His unable to resume his dysfunctional past life and abridge the lost years as he is ambivalent about resurrecting his previous personae.

Various other films have used the metaphor of the insane asylum to comment on repressive societies, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (dir Miloš Forman, USA, 1975) to Andrei Konchalovsky's Dom durakov (House of Fools, Russia/France, 2002), but Marius's dilemma is an existential paradox. The film ends with Marius reverting to his amnesiac self, defying the doctor and his wife. His final impenetrable expression is a powerful symbol for the alienated individual, trapped, or freed, within his own mind.

Requiem for a time in passing

Sarunas Bartas's Koridorius (The Corridor, 1995)The most recent film featured in the season was Šarūnas Bartas's Koridorius (The Corridor, 1995), the last film he made in Lithuania. After this film he began a collaboration with the Portuguese producer Paulo Branco, with whom he has completed three features and is now finishing a forth. He has said that Koridorius is "about the extreme consequences of exhaustion born of solitude, aggression and love."[3]

Koridorius is an attempt to envisage the contemporary state of Lithuania in post-communist depression. It is an intense experience, voyaging into the interior worlds of Bartas, (who appears throughout the film), his friends and people on the streets of the capital Vilnius. The film is intensely personal and moves enigmatically through time in an attempt to crystallise the present.

It's action fluctuates between two possible time periods: the present as seen in the decrepit apartment and the people on the streets of Vilnius; and the past as seen through the experiences of a young boy, who can be seen as representing Bartas as a child. The interrelation of personal and national history and the poetic time structure is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky's Zerkalo (The Mirror, USSR, 1975), but this film attempts to lay the past to rest in order to capture the moment of transition.

The film takes place within a central corridor that links the inhabitants of the apartment. These scenes are integrated with images of the transition to independence: documentary footage of the desolate squares of Vilnius filled with lost people, a march across a bridge below the flag of Lithuania and a funeral in a huge hall. The people in the house are lethargic and silent; the characters wander and mingle, although they do not speak. We know that we are not in a real apartment, but rather in a place where people's lives and memories intersect.

Koridorius is full of echoes of characters and scenes, which coalesce and enable the director to explore various parental relationships and gender models. The cramped corridor is finally breached after the claustrophobic beginning as the young boy breaks out into the open air. Here he drinks some wine and falls asleep in a meadow. Later he burns white sheets hanging up to dry (a visual echo of the flag seen earlier) and is repeatedly knocked over into a puddle, an act that is both punishment for burning the sheets and a show of superiority by older youths.

The film explores formative sexual events through its portrayal of the young boy and a young girl who echoes him. We see the pubescent young girl looking at her naked chest in a mirror, entranced by it's development. This scene is at once the girl's formative experience and the boy's voyeuristic memory.

Bartas creates relationships between characters, both children and adults, linking them together with actions or glances, and weaves a complex picture of an abandoned culture. In a central party scene the film draws the children and adults together in a long celebration that shifts in tone from joyous to melancholic, from sensual to grotesque and defeated. Bartas wanders through the corridor; his impassive elegant face directs our focus and allows other fragments of memory to be introduced. While the characters drink, dance and flirt the film's structure loosens, the formality and austerity alleviated in this wake for a time in passing.

The structure is highly enigmatic and symbolic, but the tenderness present in the luminous black-and-white cinematography and the intimate rapport between the camera and subject make the film wholly enchanting. The desperation and despair of the characters is shrouded in affection, sympathy and compassion.

Koridorius can be seen as an act of mourning for what has been lost in Lithuanian society. The film moves from the early morning though the long day, witnessing events unfold out of the window of the apartment—the funeral and gatherings outside at night and the celebration inside—concluding with the aftermath and the beginning of a new day. One could tease out the details of its complex structure over many pages, but the innate beauty and mystery would not be diminished.

Overcoming the present

The films in Karlovy Vary's programme illustrate the history and legacy of the Soviet period in Lithuanian history. They show the ambiguous relationship between the past and the present, and depict a country divided in two. With Šluša's and Barta's films, we get an idea of Lithuanian culture regaining independence and autonomy as well as the difficulty of healing such large wounds in a nation's cultural history. Bartas shows the desperation and loneliness of an abandoned culture unable to reconnect with its ancestry. But the tumultuous nineties are over and Lithuania is gaining confidence and economic stability.

Kristijonas Vildzhiunas's Nuomos sutartis (The Lease, 2002)One of the great treats of this season was to exit these older films and seek to discover contemporary counterpoints to them. Any retrospective runs the risk of appearing like an obituary or autopsy for a "once" great tradition rather than a starting point for further exploration. So it is a pleasure to be able to conclude with Kristijonas Vildzhiunas's Nuomos sutartis (The Lease, 2002)[4], which was shown in the "East of West" strand of the main festival. This film appears to shed the burden of history and tells a tale of contemporary Lithuania without appearing false (unlike the various euro-pudding films spread across the festival.)

Vildzhiunas's tight film revolves around a businesswoman's move to central Vilnius. We slowly learn about her anxieties, her loneliness and past. She decorates her flat, attempting to hide its peeling paint, and takes a young lover, but isn't satisfied by the disparity between his sensual words and his indelicate touch. Her job is anonymous and urban, her life similarly so.

The film's style is equally pristine, with tightly composed shots, often resembling still lives, but with an unexpected symbolic power. Beneath the strange silences and unseen exchanges the film hints at a hidden menace that weighs down the protagonist. Perhaps it is her former partner or the strange voyeur who let her the flat. The sense of menace is too much for the protagonist, who appears to be deeply alienated from her surroundings: in a crucial scene she is forced to pull off the road to avoid a builder's trucks that she fears is following her.

The film successfully creates a tense atmosphere of instability. And it is exactly this tension that the film uses to reflect upon the current state of Lithuania and its not-too-distant past. Nuomos sutartis is a depiction of the instability and lack of security of independent Lithuania, the underlying trauma behind its clean facade.

Kristijonas Vildzhiunas's Nuomos sutartis (The Lease, 2002)The film's greatest strength lies in its attempts to move ahead while maintaining an awareness of the weight of history that will hinder its efforts. The film is on the one hand a critique of modern Lithuanian society and on the other a celebration of the modern empowerment of its people. The unexpected climax confirms this ambiguous position. At what appears to us to be the depth of the woman's depression, she defies her insecurity by engineering an attack on a voyeur from her flat. We quickly come to understand the protagonist and her friend and are able to see the perseverance and passion that they possess.

In a truly progressive move, the consistent theme of Lithuanian film is reconfigured for the tensions of modern society. This cinema is a hybrid of modern and traditional and points to the unexpected connection between past and present and the possibility to transgress them both.

George Clark

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Footnotes

1. This historical overview is informed by various sources. For a more in-depth survey see "Data Concerning the History of Lithuanian Cinema" (Lithuanian Theatre, Music and Cinema Museum) and Litauische Bilderwelten [The World of Lithuanian Images], catalogue concept Živilé Pipinyté, edited by Myriam Beger, Lolita Jablonskiené, Biruté Pankunaité and Ruta Pileckaité, (Contemporary Art Information Centre of the Lithuanian Art Museum, 2002).return to text

2. Dr Grazina Arlickaite, "Lithuanian Cinema Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow", catalogue for the 38th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (2003), pp 285-86.return to text

3. Bartas made this statement at the screening of his film at the Berlin Film Festival in 1995. Quoted in David Stratton, "The Corridor (KORIDORIUS)", Variety, 11 December 1995.return to text

4. Incidentally this film was produced by Šarūnas Bartas, who has often assisted other productions in various ways.return to text

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