'Escaping Riga': Riga Review
This Latvian drama-documentary weaves together the life stories of two Riga-born legends, revolutionary filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and influential thinker Isaiah Berlin
An imaginative experiment in historical reconstruction, Escaping Riga is a quasi-documentary drawing on the parallel lives of legendary filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and celebrated philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Paying poetic homage to the silent era with his dialogue-free, flickering monochrome treatment, writer-director Davis Sīmanis has created a left-field cousin of similarly affectionate retro homages like Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, Woody Allen’s Zelig and the sumptuous nostalgic reveries of Guy Maddin.
Screened at the Riga International Film Festival earlier this month, Escaping Riga feels disjointed and underpowered in places, but the playful visual conceit is engaging and the source material rich. Sīmanis roots his two Riga-born protagonists in a broader narrative about exile, intellectual freedom and the turbulent political divisions of the 20th century. Though the commercial potential for this sort of esoteric cineaste project will be limited, Eisenstein and Berlin both have sufficient cultural clout to generate interest from festivals, niche distributors and adventurous TV buyers.
Eisenstein (Gints Grube) and Berlin (Mihails Karasikovs) are both born in Riga to wealthy families around the start of the 20th century. They spend lonely childhoods in Latvia and Leningrad, witnessing the birth of the Soviet Union first hand. But they take radically different paths in the early 1920s, when Berlin’s Jewish family relocates to London, fleeing anti-Semitism and an increasingly oppressive communist regime. During World War II he works at the British Embassy in Washington DC, filing reports on U.S. political life that earn him an invitation to dinner with Winston Churchill. He later becomes an Oxford university professor, champion of liberal values and fierce critic of Soviet Russia.
Meanwhile, Eisenstein embraces Soviet ideology with passionate fervor, moving to Moscow and revolutionizing cinema with groundbreaking propaganda films including Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October. He earns international acclaim, but his avant-garde style later falls out of favor with Stalinist doctrine. He travels to Hollywood, meets Charlie Chaplin and works on a doomed adaptation of Jack London’s novel Sutter’s Gold for Paramount, which falls apart due to his communist connections. An ambitious Mexican feature project also collapses when a suspicious Stalin recalls him to Moscow. Eisenstein only meets Berlin once, at a social gathering in Moscow soon after the end of World War II.
Loosely bound together by a ruminative voiceover in which the Riga-born director tries to gauge his own bittersweet feelings towards his hometown alongside those of his protagonists, Escaping Riga is a frequently fascinating but slightly shapeless collection of historical vignettes. While it was obviously never intended to be a conventional bio-doc, a little more narrative muscle and journalistic rigor might have given the film a more accessible, authoritative tone. At the very least, some context on the ideological differences between Eisenstein and Berlin would have been welcome.
That said, the stylized vintage look is supremely well done. Impressively, only two scenes feature archive footage. Everything else has been artfully faked by Sīmanis and his team. Escaping Riga is a rarefied treat for cinematic historians, a sporadically compelling curiosity for everyone else.
Production company: Mistrus Media
Cast: Gints Grūbe, Mihails Karasikovs, Mārtiņš Počs, Viktors Puglejevs, Gustavs Briedis
Director: Dāvis Sīmanis
Screenwriters: Uldis Tīrons, Dāvis Sīmanis
Producers: Gints Grūbe, Liga Gaisa
Cinematographers: Andrejs Rudzāts, Valdis Celmins, Dāvis Sīmanis
Editors: Andra Dorss, Dāvis Sīmanis
Music: Kārlis Auzāns
Costume designers: Tabita Simane, Kristine Pluksna-Zvagule
Sales company: Taskovski Films
No rating, 70 minutes