Latvian Cinema

The site of the Riga Movie Studio

The site of the Riga Movie Studio

Few days ago two Latvian movies won prizes in the International Berlin Film festival. Mammu, es tevi mīlu! (Mother I love you!) and Eži un lielpilsēta (Hedgehogs and the City) are latest internationally acknowledged works of the Latvian cinema. Latvian cinema has deeps roots right from the end of 19th century. It has changed over the years, adapted to different regimes and trends. During the years of the Soviet occupation, the movie making was a priority for the state and so the Latvian cinematographers received generous funding. Despite often tricky Soviet censorship regulations, many great films were made that are favorited  by many until this day. After the regain of the independence, state support for cinema significantly dropped and full swing entry of the Hollywood films made it difficult for movie makers to start or even finish their works. However, movie industry although now private and smaller than in past continues to make films and animations that often score international recognition. This article will mention few best Latvian films, their directors and artists in 20th century.

After the end of the war of independence in 1920, cinema was becoming popular everywhere. Movie theaters opened everywhere and became fancy way to spend time and money. As the main movie makers in Europe were Germany and UK Latvian movie theaters mostly showed their works. As Latvia has just faced World War I and War of Freedom no wonder that first movie made in the State of Latvia was called I Went to war (Es karā aiziedams) in 1920. The director was famous Latvian theater director Alfrēds Artmanis Briedītis. Movie was about Latvian farmer who became soldier and the officer of the Latvian army. Including aspects of love and betrayal this movie  introduced national melodrama genre that was popular until the occupation.  In 1921, Artmanis Briedītis came with the second film In the whirlwind of times (Laiku Viesulī)  that was again based on the war of independence and featured difficult relations with Latvians and Baltic Germans. However, war was not the only theme in Latvian movies. In 1921, a comedy Fritz in the seaside (Fricītis jūrmalāscored great popularity. More comedies by Roberts Vizbulis in later years.

Scene from Lāčplēsis. The actress Lillita Bērziņa

Scene from Lāčplēsis.
The actress Lillita Bērziņa

Two first Latvian movie studios Latvju Filma and Dzintarfilma went bankrupt one by on the 1924. New attempts followed and great effort was made by director Aleksandrs Rusteiķis. His first work was again war drama For Fatherland in 1928. Film featured a great amount of violence unusual for those times. He then focused on the movie that should become first epic blockbuster the Bear Slayer (Lāčplēsis) that was finished in 1930. Lāčplēsis was the name of the epos written by Andrejs Pumpurs, that was Latvian national symbol. The movie started in the mythological ages were Lāčplēsis   the hero faces the Black Knight to free his beloved Laimdota. As the Black Knight wins in treachery, movie shifts to year 1905, where Lāčplēsis is reborn in young Latvian boy Jānis Vanags. There he meets Laimdota reborn as Mirdza and the Black Knight as the vile German officer. The plot follows them throughout the World War I, war for independence until the final fight were Jānis or Lāčplēsis finally defeats the German officer and frees Latvia from the enemy. Movie features many novel scenes, like the proclamation of the Latvian independence, the Battle for Riga in 11 November 1919 and the orgies of the Bermontd army men. The main hero was played by Voldemārs Dimze, his partner Laimdota was played by legendary Lilita Bērziņa. The main nemesis- one-eyed German officer was played by Osvalds Mednis. Movie was a certainly a breakthrough in Latvian film industry – it had special effects, full-time battle scenes and action. It was still a silent movie with rather annoying soundtrack for our time. Despite the critics and some flaws this movie is certainly a golden archive piece and has been preserved and available on the internet.

The filming of the Fishermans Son 1939

The filming of the Fishermans Son 1939

In 1934, the first full Latvian musical film The Son of the nation (Tautas Dēls) came out. Again featuring war and national theme the movie was widely praised. More patriotic movies were made until in 1939 the legendary Son of the Fisherman (Zvejnieka Dēls) came out. It was a dramatization of the novel of the same name written by popular writer Vilis Lācis. The movie was not about war, but about life of the fishermen in the coast of the Baltic sea, as they fight injustice, bigotry and search for true love. The main protagonist Oskars was played by Pēteris Lūcis who became legend along with his partner Nina Melbārde. Movie had live dialogue and music and it was truly a best Latvian movie at those times.

The occupation of Latvia changed everything. Another movie based on the novel of Vilis Lācis The Water Dam (Aizsprosts) was finished in 1940, but not shown and lost. Vilis Lācis himself became member of the Latvian Communist government responsible for repressions and deportations. During the first year of occupation one  movie was made called Kaugurieši that depicted the peasant revolt in 1802.

After the end of the war Latvia was caught in two realities- one was lack of funds and special equipment the other was the Soviet desire to make great propaganda masterpieces since the great cinema lover Stalin loved such movies. Two Soviet movie studios Mosfilm and Leninfilm were suited for this job. Such epics as the Fall of Berlin in 1949 was example of the Stalinist cinema. In Latvia the job of movie making were entrusted to Riga Movie Studio that became the main maker of movies until the fall of the USSR.

First movies after the war were off coarse propagandic Rainis in 1949, told an inaccurate story of the famous Latvian leftist writer and poet Jānis Rainis (Pleikšāns) making him convinced communist although he was more a socialdemocrat.  Returning home with victory (Mājup ar uzvaru) in 1947, was another story by Vilis Lācis, this time praising Red Army. First Latvian color movie was also based on work of Vilis Lācis To the New Shore (Uz jauno krastu) in 1955 not receiving positive reviews from the critics. In 1960, the Storm (tra) was the culmination of the Soviet propaganda showing the events in 1940, in positive way.

After the denunciation of the Stalin’s personality cult in 1955, the Latvian cinema became more free and opened space for drama and Latvian classics. A symbol of these times was the Frost in the Sprigtime (Salna Pavasarī), based on the novel by classic Rūdolfs Blaumanis. No communists, no war, a return to country life before World War I. Despite the presence of  the Soviet realism the movie was brilliant psychological work of art, placing itself as example for other movies.

The scene from the In The Shadow of Death

The scene from the In The Shadow of Death

The works of Rūdolfs Blaumanis became good material for the movie makers. In The Shadow of Death (Nāves Ēnā), The Swamp Slusher (Purva Bridējs) is considered as classics of the Latvian Soviet Cinema. In 1957, Fishermans Son was shot again making the actor Eduards Pāvuls new star and legend later on. More and more movies were made by every year not all of them notable, many of them relayed on the traditions of the Soviet realism.

All works of art in the Soviet Latvia were first checked by the Soviet censorship, the movie scripts were analyzed by the Soviet bureaucrats and state loyal artists. Mostly after some corrections all movies went trough the censorship.  However the director Rolands Kalniņš was unlucky enough to have his three movies banned. I remember everything Richard (Es visu atceros Ričard) dared to depict the men of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion. In no way the movie praised them, instead showing them as a victims of the Nazi regime. Despite that the question of the Latvian legion was so touchy that Latvian local censors banned it at the end, despite the overall good reception of it in Russia. Movie was restored after the regain of independence and was truly a work of art. Kalniņš did not give up and went further to provoke the authorities. His movie Breathe Deeply (Elpojiet Dziļi), was about the life of the young musicians struggling against the censorship commission that dislikes their music. Movie featured many great songs by composer Imants Kalniņš that later became pretty popular. Likely the depiction of the work the censorship commission was the cause for its removal. The third attempt by Kalniņš called The Seaside Climate (Piejūras Klimats) was not even finished, for it also was too modern.

The Sixties and the Seventies brought some great movie hits. 1967 movie When rain and winds bang at the windows (Kad Lietus un Vēji Sitas Logā), was about the Latvian National resistance and the Western Secret Agents. The movie was based on real events when agents from US and UK went to support the Latvian national partisans only to be captured by KGB. The movie tells a story from the KGB side of view. The Times of the Surveyors (Mērnieku Laiki) in 1968 was great adaption of the first Latvian novel of the same name by Kaudzīte brothers. With beautiful music and actor work it was a masterpiece for years to come.  In 1969 director Leonīds Leimanis made first attempt of showing the pre- war independent Latvia. At the Rich Ladys house (Pie bagātās kundzes) was ironical and colorful depiction of the Latvian politics, elections and the society, that was not filled with too much Soviet slandering.

Artūrs Ēķis and Olga Dreģe in the Devils Servants

Artūrs Ēķis and Olga Dreģe in the Devils Servants

In 1970, inspired by the French costume films notably the Three Musketeers, director Andrejs Leimanis made a legendary historic adventure movie The Devils Servants (Vella Kalpi). The plot took place in Riga during the Swedish-Polish War in 17th century. The three central heroes Andris, Pēteris and Ērmanis rises up to defend Riga against the Swedish conquerors and traitorous Riga municipality and the Lutheran church. The movie had great comedy elements, music and the best actors around. The reception was so positive all around the Soviet Union that a sequel The Devils Servants in the Devils Mill (Vella Kalpi Vella Dzirnavās) in 1972 was made and a similar film In the Claws of the Black Lobster (Melnā Vēža Spīlēs) moving from 17th century Riga to Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.

   Rolands Kalniņš did not gave up movie making and in 1972 made an impressive comeback with Ceplis. The movie took place in pre war independent Latvia, showing a story of a business tycoon  Ceplis and his great business scams. With great actor work and rather accurate depiction of the life of the pre war Latvian elite the movie was an instant success.

The 1975 was rise to fame for director Jānis Streičs, he was known before of his children films, but the comedy My friend- a light- weight person (Mans Draugs nenopietns cilvēks) was story of a light hearten man name Arvīds who tries to make a good life despite his foolishness and harsh reality. Film was a satire view on the everyday normal Soviet life. In 1976 The Lake Sonata (Ezera Sonāte) by Gunārs Cilinskis and Varis Bralsa became another classic. The great actor work by Gunārs Cilinskis and Astrīda Kairiša made the Lake Sonata possibly the best love drama ever to be made in Latvia. Jānis Streičs went further in 1978 with his adaption of novel by Somerset Moem the Theater with exceptional main role play by legendary actress Vija Artmane. 

The eighties begun with epic TV-series The Long way in to the capes (Ilgais Ceļš Kāpās). It was a historical drama showing pre war, World War II and postwar times. It was rise to fame for Lilita Ozoliņa. Together with music by Raimonds Pauls it was the first successful Latvian TV series.  In the same year Jānis Streičs made another satire look on realities of the Soviet life with movie The Car in the Color of the Night of the Summer Solstice (Limuzīns Jāņu Nakts Krāsā). The plot was about old lady who wins a VAZ car in the lottery, but cannot drive it. Pretty soon she discovers that she has many friendly relatives who desires her car. In those times cars were not for everyone and people had to made great efforts to get their own private car. Film had plenty of comedy elements, the feature of the Jāņi celebrations or the Summer solstice was also a successes. As such this movie has become golden hit of the Latvian cinema.

After the start of the reforms of peresetroika, in Soviet Unions, the history shown in movies became more freer. The Zītars Family (Zītaru Dzimtain 1989 was based for the last time on the work of the Vilis Lācis novel. But, contrary to other such movies based on his work, the movie showed more realistic depiction of the history than ever before. In 1991 Jānis Streičs made his most remarkably film The Son of Man (Cilvēka Bērns). It was based on the works by Jānis Klīdzējs, and centered around young Bonifācijs who lives in religious Latgallian family. The entire movie dialogues were  in Latgalian national dialect that also played great role in Latgalian national awakening.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence the Latvian movie industry faced great changes. The funding from Moscow vanished, and the Riga Movie Studio was privatized and slowly fell apart in next two decades. Cinema was now made by private companies. First notable films after 1991 was The Spider (Zirneklis) a psychological thriller and similar Cage (Būris). Also in 1993 the movie The Christmas Brawl (Ziemassvēktu Jampadracis) started popular children movie genre that is very successful in modern day Latvia.

The movie poster of The Horrible Summer

The movie poster of The Horrible Summer

Jānis Streicš continued to make movies like The Mills of Fate (Likteņdzirnas), The Mystery of The Old Parish House (Vecā Pagastmājas Mistērija) and The Will of Rudolf (Rūdolfa Mantojums). An ex musician member of the rock band Jumprava Aigards Grauba has made attempts on making epic films on Latvian history. The Horrible Summer (Baiga Vasara), was about the events in 1940, The Guards of Riga (Rīgas Sargi) about Battle for Riga in 1919 and The Dream Team 1935 (Sapņu Komanda 1935) about Latvian basketball team that became first European Champions. The historical accuracy in these movies are questionable to say at least.

While some Latvian directors made movies that only critics could understand like Laila Pakalniņa with her Shoe (Kurpe),  others made great movies for children like Waterbomb for the fat cat (Ūdensbumba resnajam runcim) and The Dog man and Tille (Šuņuvīrs un Tille)Children movies and animation has become trademark of the Latvian cinema. While adult drama is certainly lacking, as it’s too depressive like Kolka Kool or too pornographic like The Hunt (Medības). Some drama movies like The Dark Deers (Tumšie Brieži), The Monotony (Monotonija) and Vogelfrei has received good reception. A great achievement was film Amaya that was made in collaboration with Japan and featured the famous Kaori Momoi in the main role. Interesting piece of work is a In the Golf Stream under the Iceberg (Golfa Straumē zem Leduskalna) by director Yevgeny Paskevich who made this film for twenty years.

The movie poster for Latvian - Japanese film Amaya

The movie poster for Latvian – Japanese film Amaya

Latvian movies have their own national prize the Great Kristaps Prize that takes place every too years. In 2012 the Yevgeny Paskvich long desired work won the prize. Latvian cinema had many prizes in the foreign festivals, the Oscar prize is a certainly a cherish dream, but Latvian cinematographers must keep on making works of art that will lighten up the viewers and critics. Since last year because  of the rise of the nationalist party in the Ministry of Culture, a movement has started to make more positive and patriotic movies. In so the promises to make film about 12th century Ancient Latvian leader Namejs has been given, others rush to adapt epic work by Aleksandrs Grīns The Blizzard of Souls and more talks about semi historic films about the Crusades has started. However it was again the children themed movie Mother I Love You that reached the international sympathy. The cinema is not only an art its a major collective intellectual effort that needs a lot of money and support. Latvian movie makers lack enough funding to fulfill all their dreams, therefore not all their works are worthwhile. However, it’s not worth to force state to give more money as the prime importance is not how much money you receive, but how you use it to make a great product. And not always the state funding brings the greatest results, not in Soviet times and not before. The State funding should be viewed as a generosity that must be used properly. And it’s not right for politicians to affect the movie production, for cinema is a a free art and every most ignorant intrusion in the cinema industry can hurt the most badly.

The recent success has shown the Latvian cinema industry still has potential and despite the difficulties and bickering we hope to see more great Latvian films.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Latvian Cinema

  1. Very interesting information.

  2. Congratulation for latest prizes. I am also content because a romanian film (Child’s Pose) won Golden Bear this year.