Lāčplēsis day on November 11 is heading close. The Latvian victory over the German-White Russian army of Bermont-Avalov was one of the major military victories of the Latvian people. No wonder why many still held this date and celebrations as sacred. But, they were even more sacred during the first twenty years of independence. Latvia was full of war veterans and large portions of Latvian society remembered the events of 1918-1920 like they were yesterday. So it was no wonder why the Latvian cinema and theater were dedicated to war events. First Latvian movie made on 1920 was called “Me joining the war”. Latvian cinematographers had very little experience to make high quality movies like in US or Germany. Even Soviet Union started to make high class works of art despite their propagandist character.
As the 10 anniversary of the victory in the War for Freedom was heading close, a grand movie was needed to mark these events and show them in nationally patriotic way. And that is where actor Aleksandrs Rusteiķis, cameraman Jānis Sīlis and drill sergeant of the Civil Guard Alfrēds Bērziņš came in. On 1928 they made the first movie For Fatherland on 1928 about the Soviet invasion in Latvia on 1919. Movie was known for explicit scenes of violence and rape, but managed to pass the censorship law that usually rejected such scenes. Mostly because of the Civil Guard support that was very popular paramilitary movement. The movie was poorly received and was technically weak for those times.
Then Rusteiķis started his project for the movie to mark 10 years of independent Latvia. His movie was called “Lāčplēsis” Lāčplēsis translated roughly in English as Bear Slayer was mythical hero who first appeared in Andrejs Pumpurs epic poem of the same name. Lāčplēsis is a strong ancient Latvian hero who fights against the German crusaders and also for his beloved Laimdota. This epic poem was one of the strongest literal works of the New Latvian movement. After Latvian army defeated the mainly German lead army of Bermont the victory seemed almost like the final victory of Lāčplēsis. Since the epic poem ended tragically with both Lāčplēsis and his enemy the Black Knight drowning in the river Daugava. The poem said that they still fight with each other in the deeps of the river and when Lācplēsis finally defeats the Black Knight the Latvian nation shall be free again. It seemed on November 1919 that this day has come and ever since then the November 11 is celebrated as Lāčplēsis day.
The movie was silent, but with musical score that follows the plot and changes according to dramatics. However, for our days it seems rather annoying. Massive battle scenes involving gas and artillery attacks were made. There are many special effects like explosions and falling war planes. However, in same cases like the war plane explosions its clearly seen that a plane is just a model.
So it was logical to name the movie in such way. The main cast for the movie was mostly amateurs. Voldemārs Dimze was a pilot. He played the main hero Lāčplēsis and Jānis Vanags as Lāčplēsis spiritual incarnation. His character is brave, honest and monolith personality not bounded by fear or lust. His character set the traditions for the future Latvian male characters as manly and patriotic. The main female character Laimdota or Marta was played by Lilita Bērziņa. She played beautiful and honest Latvian virgin who is trapped by the evil forces. She also shows signs of courage and self confidence. She can spend a great time alone and defend herself. It was common for post war Latvian society with lot of single women forced to look after themselves. The main villain the Black Knight or later German officer was played by Osvalds Mednis. His character was shown in the best traditions of horror movies of those times. With one eye, bald head and frozen sinister look he resembled Count Dracula. A minor but colorful role by Jēkabs Upelnieks was Kangars. The vile Latvian traitor who assisted the Black Knight. Sinister expressions and moves were played out well.
As we already noticed all three main epic characters – the Lāčplēsis, Laimdota and the Black Knight appear later as people within the historical setting of 1905-1919. That’s because the movie starts in Mythical age within the setting of Andrejs Pumpurs and then all three main characters spiritually reborn within Jānis Vanags, Marta and unnamed German officer. Also Kangars appears by his side as unnamed Latvian traitor. This seems rather mystical for our days, but in those days it was understood perfectly. Also special part in the movie is given to Laimdota brooch, decorated with Latvian folk symbols including swastikas this decorative peace had rather mystical role on the main characters. It was nothing unusual to add such esoteric things as spiritual rebirth or magic brooches since these things were very popular among European society.
The movie starts with Laimdota trapped in crusader castle with her brooch on her chest. Then the vile Black Knight appears and attempts to take her by force. In the event of struggle she looses her brooch and its been taken by Kangars. The brooch seems to defend Laimdota. A bunch of witches and wizards with grotesque expressionist style faces tries to place spell on the brooch to make Laimdota love the Black Knight. After failed attempts the evil spirit appears from nowhere and commands to use the blood of dove. As they prepare to spill the blood of dove on the brooch the Lāčplēsis appears. Lurking in darkness within the castle walls he hears the cry from Laimdota about her lost brooch. He throws the spear at the room where wizards are and stops the dove from being killed.
As Lāčplēsis then rushes to free Laimdota he defeats the German soldiers, who curiously wears more WWI style helmets rather than Medieval helmets. Some even have horns on them showing the way people understood ancient days in those times. Lāčplēsis meets the Black Knight in duel. Kangars tries to stab the Lāčplēsis in the back, but gets killed by the Black Knight’s sword who falls out of the knights hands. By loosing his sword Black Knight retreats and Lāčplēsis considers it as a victory. But, the vile knight grabs the sword and apparently kills Lāčplēsis.
Movie then departs to the revolution of 1905. Lāčplēsis is spiritually reborn in the young Jānis Vanags. Vanags means hawk and hawk was a very popular Latvian patriotic symbol. He has the Laimdota brooch with him proving his connection with Lāčplēsis. He then encounters the Tsarist punishment expedition driving to Saulīšu house. He immediately recognizes the peculiar looking stiff faced Baltic German Tsarist officer with one eye as reincarnation of the Black Knight. Violent Russian officer demands to show the way to Saulīšu house. Jānis ruins the carriage wheel and makes to Saulīšu house before the officers do. There he meets Saulītis and his young daughter Mirdza. Saulītis manages to escape, but the vile German Tsarist officer slain Jānis with a whip and leaves a scar on his left cheek.
Movie then moves to 1914. Germany invades the territory of Latvia. Latvian rifleman comes to defend their homeland. With them the officer Jānis a grownup mature man. He is summoned by Captain Briedis a real life person to send a message to Colonel Francis another real life personality. Colonel Jānis Francis is stationed on the Island of Death a bridgehead encircled by Germans. The Island of Death was one of the most bloodiest war points for the Latvian riflemen. In his way he encounters Mirdza and his father who are trapped in forest after their refugee carriage crashed in the forest. Another – Latvian social trauma the massive Latvian exodus during the first months of WWI. To make things more dramatic the refugee caravans are bombed by German war planes. Luckily Mirdza who lost her conciseness is found and rescued by Jānis. Mirdza recognizes the boy who saved her father and instant love erupts between them. She and her father moves further to Riga, while Jānis continues his military duty. He survives many battles because of Laimdota brooch that stood in the way the bullets as he was always carrying underneath his uniform. After last such event in 1917 Christmas Battles he sends the brooch to Mirdza as sign of his love to her.
A major war scenes are shown: artillery fire and German gas attacks. The Eastern front within Latvia was no stranger to chemical warfare another message for the social memory. Meanwhile in Riga, the Baltic Germans and the ex-Tsarist officer are plotting against the Latvians. Baltic Germans who were on the other side of the front were not united against the Tzarist regime, as there was many German nationals fighting within Russian lines. However, there were certain Baltic German groups who wanted to create the German state in the outcome of the war. Movie shows real footage of Germans entering Riga on 1917 and Kaiser Wilhelm II who made a visit there.
However, then movie departs to November 18, 1918. Around the present day National theater where the proclamation of independence took place, a man in a German spike helmet is hanging around showing that independence was proclaimed during the German military presence. A unique scenes were made as the directors choose to replay the whole proclamation scene with people who took direct part there. Kārlis Ulmanis and Gustavs Zemgals as well other real life people were present at the proclamation scene. Its known that there is only one picture made from this event. On 2008 it was done for the second time in the movie The Only Photograph.
While the rule of the Soviet government in Riga from 1918 to spring of 1919 its not directly mentioned, the next part begins in winter time Riga where Mirdza is struggling to survive by selling her valuables. A reference to poverty made by Bolshevik terror. She is then approached by the vile German alias Black Knight who she does not recognize. He seduces her by buying some valuables and asks if there is more. She says “Yes in apartment”. German follows her to her apartment and notices the brooch. He wants to buy it as well, when Mirdza rejects he tries to take it by force. He is only interrupted by Mirdza father who recognizes him. After the German leaves the father angrily asks: “You did not know what is person did in 1905?”. German returns again to steal the brooch and assaults Mirdza. In the event of struggle she runs away, but the German assistant the reborn Kangars finds the brooch and gives it to vile German. After, Germans demands to give herself in return for brooch she leaves Riga and sends letter to her imprisoned father to tell Jānis to find the villain.
Jānis meanwhile is in Estonia and takes part in the organization of the Northern Latvia brigade that together with Estonians defeated Germans at Cēsis at June 22. A scenes show the Latvian army marching in the streets of Riga Jānis returns to Riga and finds that Mirdza had left for country side. Vile German and his traitor is leaving his office, but forgets the brooches. Jānis finds it takes it back. However, the German is far from giving up. He plots with Bermont-Avalov who stereotypically chews his cigar and shows eccentric dull behavior. The Bermont army is showed in German and Tzarist uniforms and are marching to Riga. The German finds out where Mirdza is. As she tries to hide he asks: “Why you are so inhospitable to the victors?”, she replays: “I am not won yet!”, “Then soon you shall be!” German smears.
The Battle of Riga is shown in grandiose way. The allied help from British and French navy was not forgotten, instead their ships play exact role as they really did. A scene of Bermont war plane being shot down and exploding on ground was rather unsuccessful since its clearly seen its just a prop. Then there is a interesting special effect: on the left side of River Daugava that was taken by Bermont a vile German face appears and changes to Black Knight, and on the right side of Riga the opposite happens – Jānis face changes to Lāčplēsis. It was a symbol of eternal struggle between Latvians and Germans. The Germans were clearly shown as enemies and many people who lived those times really saw Germans as the main enemies of the Latvian nation. And the Black Knight was the symbol of the German reactionary forces.
In grand battle scenes Latvians chase away Bermnot, another special effect the spirit of Lāčplēsis clears the front line with his sword. As the battle ends a map shows up showing Latvian forces marked as Swastikas chasing away the Germans shown up as crosses. On 1930 swastika was still mainly seen as Latvian national folk symbol and as we see this movie had very anti-German character. The Bolsheviks were never directly mentioned in this movie.
Vivid scenes are shown after Germans are forced to retreat to Jelgava. The officers of the Bermont army is enjoying wild party with dancers and alcohol. Such travesty actually took place not to mention the damage the Bermnont made to Jelgava before finally leaving it.
The movie ends with Jānis confronting the German. He unhands his pistol and orders to defend himself with his sword. Kangars again sneaks to shoot Jānis from behind and gets killed by the German sword. Again the vile German tries to grab his pistol, but the father of Mirdza shows up and fires from behind. German is shot twice and falls down the stairs. As the father is looking if her daughter is fine, he sees her kissing with Jānis. He silently closes the door and in relief lights up his smoking pipe.
The movie was praised by viewers and the press. Few criticized for being oriented slightly towards the Kārlis Ulmanis party the Green Farmers Union, since it was funded by Civil Guards who were openly supportive of Ulmanis. Jānis Čakste and Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was not present at the movie. Some technical flaws made this movie not as good as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. In Hollywood first full audio movies were already present. But, what it makes this movie so special it was first major Latvian movie, with special effects, major historical background and artistic quality. On 1939 the Fishermans Son was first full audio Latvian movie a classic a adaptation of Vilis Lācis novel. But, without Lāčpēsis the Latvian cinema would be different.
On 2007 similar Latvian movie The Guards of Riga was produced. Also resolved around the Battle of Riga on 1919 sadly it was more historically biased then 193o Lāčplēsis. While Lāčplēsis showed that Latvians had enough forces at the beginning of the battle, the Guards of Riga was showing that Latvians had to build army from the scratch. The role of the Northern Latvia brigade and the allied warships were completely diminished by the Guards of Riga, while Lāčplēsis took large detail on this. The whole historical context of the battle events were completely misinterpreted in the Guards of Riga while they mostly close to history in Lāčplēsis. This shows, how the national memory about the War for Freedom gets deformed by the years. On 1930 the movie producers who witnessed the war themselves despite lack of technical advances made a movie that by all right is included in the Latvian national canon.