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Breaking box office records back home, Estonia’s official Academy Awards entry in the Best Foreign Language Film race is a handsome World War II drama with a particularly poignant local angle. Scripted by novelist and former military officer Leo Kunnas, 1944 recalls how citizens of this small Baltic nation were turned against each other by rival imperialist superpowers. Theater director Elmo Nuganen, who co-starred in last year’s Estonian Oscar submission Tangerines, shows a flair for grand-scale spectacle in his polished second feature.
Even so, huge domestic success is unlikely to translate into heavy demand overseas for this Estonian-Finnish co-production, largely because pretty much every other nation on Earth has its own World War II horror stories, which regularly still earn space in the Oscar race. Nuganen’s film is intelligent and generally gripping, but not original enough in form or content to join the extensive canon of essential wartime dramas. Beyond its local region, 1944 seems more likely to interest festivals and historians than mainstream movie fans.
The true national tragedy dramatized in 1944 is the bitter aftermath of five years of invasion and occupation. First seized by Soviet Russia, then by Nazi Germany, Estonia ended up with more than 50,000 men forced to fight for the Red Army and over 70,000 for the German military. The result was effectively a civil war, with former friends and neighbors conscripted into slaughtering each other on the battlefield.
1944 opens in classic war movie style, zooming in on a pro-German band of brothers bedded down in trenches as they engage with Russian tanks and snipers in Estonia’s wooded northeast. The initial dramatic focus is Karl Tannik (Kaspar Velberg), a sensitive young man carrying a heavy burden of guilt over his family’s deportation to Siberia by the brutal Soviet security forces. Following a series of spectacularly staged battles and ambushes, Karl is aghast when he finally comes face to face with his pro-Russian counterparts, all frightened and poorly armed young Estonians just like himself. The two groups are virtually interchangeable, but both have been trained to kill or be killed. Showing empathy means almost certain death.
Around this midway point, Nuganen and Kunnas pull off a smart shift of perspective onto Juri Jogi (Kristjan Ukskula), another thoughtful young narrator, this time wearing a Red Army uniform. The parallels with Karl are clear and deliberate. As the action shifts to Estonia’s war-torn capital Tallinn, Juri struggles to show compassion and decency towards his fellow citizens, and even begins a tentative romance with the film’s sole female character, Aino (Maiken Schmidt). But he is also under constant surveillance from his superior Captain Kreml (Peeter Tammearu), a Stalinist monster who demands total obedience backed up by constant threat: “all your relatives will be sent to the Gulag…”
Nuganen stages battlefield action with an impressively kinetic in-your-face energy, particularly a fraught showdown involving tanks and mines, and a merciless aerial assault on unarmed civilians. But he seems oddly weak on character depth for a theater director, falling back on thinly sketched heroes and one-dimensional villains. The symmetrical plot structure, with the second half echoing the first, is a schematic but effective device which gains more emotional force as the story progresses.
Mostly a serious-minded depiction of moral courage and colonialist brutality, 1944 does feature some moments of levity, including a farcical scene in which Karl and his platoon are rewarded for their latest victory with signed photos of Hitler. A few more of these Catch-22 touches would have been very welcome in a film which impresses technically more than it engages emotionally, feeling a little too much like patriotic folklore and not quite enough like living, breathing, messy human drama.
Production companies: Taska Film, MRP Matila Rohr Productions
Cast: Kaspar Velberg, Maiken Schmidt, Kristjan Ukskula, Peeter Tammearu
Director: Elmo Nuganen
Screenwriter: Leo Kunnas
Cinematographer: Rein Kotov, Mart Taniel
Editors, Tambet Tasuja, Kimmo Taavila
Music: Jaak Jurisson
Producers: Kristian Taska, Maria Avdjushko
Sales company: Eyewell AB, Stockholm
No rating, 100 minutes
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