A Blizzard of Souls

There are a ton of films which deal with war. War is a universal subject. Sadly there is not one population or generation which has not had to deal with it. Millions of lives have been affected by it and the aftereffects, so it makes sense that the film world has used it to tell of the human condition.

Few films have gone for or achieved realism. Most just settle for big battles, special effects and plenty of blood. That is the easy way out. What is the tough ask of a war film is allowing the viewer to feel the emotions – the fear, patriotism, horror, hatred required, and sadness.

Based on the novel by Aleksanders Grins, who fought in WWI, and Latvia’s Oscar entry into the Best International Feature Film category, Blizzards of Souls (also known as The Rifleman) attempts to bring the emotions involved in war and throws in a coming of age slant as well. Big ask, but you gotta aim high if you want the big prize.

Living in rural Latvia with his family, 16-year-old Arturs (Oto Brantevics – first film) is living a rather idyllic life until the shadow of war threatens everything and everyone. His happiness is ripped from him on one sunny afternoon when Germans kill his mother (Rezija Kalnina – Modris). With the arrival of the Germans, Latvians are fleeing their homes, so Arturs and his father bury everything of value and kill all the farm animals leaving nothing for the Germans.

Then, along with his older brother, the three enlist in the Russian army as part of the Latvian Riflemen battalions. As he is still pretty much a child, Arturs believes war to be about glory and exacting revenge on the Germans. He finds it is nothing like that. It is all about horror, fear and loss. Experiencing all three, Arturs is quickly left on his own as his brother and father are killed. Still he continues on with hope.

Trench warfare. I can’t even imagine how awful it was. The unknown, the cold, the bodies, the mud, and many other inhumane elements. Tough on anyone nevermind a 16 year old boy on his own. Knowing he has no family left even if he gets through this alive.

The novel was forbidden in the USSR when it was released in 1934. You can understand why as the Russians don’t come off looking great here. The film has been a runaway hit in Latvia, being their biggest box office hit (was released there in 2019) in thirty years.

Despite the fact that this is not a film which benefited from a large budget it beautifully tells its story. Great cinematography by Valdis Celmins – To Be Continued, Liberation Day), a veteran in the documentary world. There is a depth and clarity to his images that you don’t often see. Even in films with tons of money.

Director Dzintars Dreilbergs (The Sixth Player) has ladened the film with atmosphere to burn and his young lead actor, Brantevics, projects the right combo of innocence and burgeoning manhood.

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