In 1939, the Soviet Union invaded its tiny neighbor, Estonia. A year later, Nazi Germany invaded Communist Russia and it too invaded Estonia. Over 100000 Estonian me were conscripted by the Nazis and the communists, against their will, to fight against each other in “1944.”
I love World War II films about the little know triumphs and tragedies of that, hopefully, last Great War. Right now, we have the highly publicized “Dunkirk” in theaters, though that historical event is far better known than those in “1944,” by Estonian director Elmo Nuganen.
The film begins on the Nazi side of the battlefield with a squad of Estonians conscripted into the SS – these “conscripts,” since they were not “pure” Aryans, were not allowed into the German army. We get to know the members of the unit and learn a little bit about their lives and why they are there, preparing for the next battle. But, do not get complacent because, during the vagaries of war, these lives we get to know can be snuffed out in an instant.
Just as we are settling in with our Estonian SS guys, the war intervenes, yet again, and the film shifts gears and sides in a fascinating event during the German last stand. Now, we see the war through the eyes of a young Estonian officer conscripted by the Red Army, Juri (Kristjan Ukskula), who knows he is facing his own people fighting in the enemy’s uniform. This second half puts the horrors of war behind as Juri delivers the last letter of an Estonian SS officer, Karl (Kaspar Velberg), whom he killed in the heat of battle, to the man’s sister, Aino (Maiken Schmidt). The loss of life on the battlefield, the film shows, resonates all the way back home.
As “1944” opens with the first of the film’s many battles. I had the impression of “production set” in the almost too careful details of the trench skirmish line. Then, quite literally, things blow apart and my initial impression is replaced by a realism that is impressive in its execution, especially considering the relatively small budget.
There is a lot of emotional texture to the story, by Leo Kunnas, with great attention to the history, during WWII, of the plight of not just the Estonian men conscripted by both sides, but of the country, too. The frantic battle scenes have a believable feel and depict, without pulling a punch, all the horrors of war and its impact on the men who fight it. I give it a B.
"1944," the Estonian submission for the 2016 Foreign Language Film Oscar is being released on DVD by Film Movement. Written by Leo Kunnas and directed by Elmo Nüganen (who acted in Estonia's 2015 nominee "Tangerines"), the film depicts how events of WWII pitted Estonians against each other, some conscripted by the German Army, others by the Soviets.
Nüganen's staging of battle scenes are too antiseptic, looking like something a teenaged Spielberg might have done in his backyard. Instead of becoming immersed in war, I kept seeing storyboards brought to life. Yet as the film progresses, the human toll of brother fighting against brother overcomes this deficiency, involving us more in this little known tragedy of World War II. In one of the film's most emotional scenes, Jüri (Kristjan Üksküla), fighting for the Soviets, visits the sister of a countryman he's killed.
The Film Movement DVD is in Estonian, Russian and German. Oddly the disc defaults to an English dub, but a Setup option includes subtitles. As with all Film Movement DVDs, a short is included. Jeanne Joseph's two and a half minute "The Two Lives of Nate Hill" is a deliciously dark treat. The DVD is a Walmart exclusive.
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