Envisioning the Invisible Front

  • 2015-05-07
  • By Will Mawhood

VILNIUS - You wouldn’t expect the KGB to be responsible for the title of a new film about the Lithuanian resistance movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but that’s the way it is: “the invisible front” was what the Soviet security forces operating in Lithuania in the 1940s and 50s called the self-trained fighters they were up against, known, in all three Baltic countries, as “forest brothers”, who would swoop out of the unfamiliar woods and sink back, literally, into the ground, into their forest bunkers.

“The Invisible Front” takes as its protagonist Juozas Luksa, a Lithuanian partisan and a principled fighter against Soviet occupation whose life also included all those necessary factors for box-office success: espionage, betrayal and a passionate love story. Struggling against the Soviets after their supposed “liberation” of the Baltic countries in 1944, Luksa escaped Lithuania twice to raise support abroad, travelling to Sweden, Germany and then Paris. It was in the French capital that he met a fellow Lithuanian in exile, Nijole, who became his lover and then his wife, and who plays a major part in the film. He was parachuted back into occupied Lithuania in 1951 as part of a CIA mission, but fell victim to disillusionment at the extent to which the partisans had been infiltrated by so-called “Smogikai” – partisans who had been turned by the Soviets, in essence, and planned to escape to Sweden to carry on the fight from outside. Finally betrayed by Jonas Kukauskas, a comrade from his Paris days, Luksa was ambushed and killed by Soviet security forces.

The film-makers who have taken on his story are, in many ways, an illustration of how complicated the country’s story has been over the past half-century and more: Vincas Sruoginis, New Jersey-born, a descendant of Lithuanian emigres, forcibly denied “true” Lithuanian status by the Soviet occupation; and Jonas Ohman, Swedish, but a Lithuanian by choice, a permanent resident of Vilnius who first visited the country 25 years ago.

The Invisible Front wavers between drama and documentary status. It blends talking-head interviews with significant figures in Luksa’s story – including not only his widow and former comrades, but also a Communist-sympathising neighbour of Luksa’s, a decorated Russian veteran of the struggle against the partisans, and the Lithuanian co-ordinator of the security officer that finally captured him – with archived footage and re-enactments, featuring monochrome, flickering uniformed figures.

We meet, as I think is appropriate, in Senoji Trobele, a traditional rural Lithuanian tavern dropped down in central Vilnius; a place of wooden stools, ornamental thatching and conviviality; the countryside with the dirt cleaned off. Jonas Ohman is the first of the co-directors to arrive – an immediately striking figure; he served in the Swedish army, and still has the severe haircut, bearing and monotonous, authoritative accent to match. He immediately tells me that he has just come back from Luhansk – the slightly less demonstrative of the two self-declared “people’s republics” disfiguring the map of eastern Ukraine. This is not said as something to remark upon, but with a downwards, unshowy intonation. I express surprise – gabble “Luhansk” in an italicised kind of way – and he says “yeah, been shot at a couple of times.”

What he was doing in Luhansk, I find out, is connected with the general passionate Lithuanian identification with Ukraine – Ohman’s organisation is involved with training those wanting to fight the rebels in the east, as well as sending everything short of weapons: “optics, uniforms, boots, tents, food, radios”. Lithuania remains the only EU member state to have committed to arming Ukraine, and Jonas expresses a degree of frustration with the other two Baltic countries for what he obviously views as their cowardice regarding Ukraine.

Then Vincas Sruoginis turns up, a tall, slightly dishevelled figure in, I think, his early 40s. After sitting down, he gestures to the colourful T-shirt he is wearing under the hoodie and declares that it seemed appropriate for a meeting with The Baltic Times; it certainly is, a handmade creation from 1988 with the Lithuania flag and “laisve” (freedom) centre, flanked by Estonian and Latvian flags with “vabadus” and “briviba” – he tells us that he found it cleaning his parents’ house. In a gentle East Coast US accent, just short of nasal, he tells us that he’s on a kickboxing diet, and he’s worried that such a traditional-looking restaurant will not help him on his way with this. The effusive waiter, who will appear and persuasively force beer, wine and various artery-clogging snacks on us throughout the meal, claiming they are “traditionally Lithuanian”, appears; myself and Vincas order in English; Jonas in Lithuanian.

So, how did the film come about? The story of the film, and their meeting, seems to require us to go back at least seventy years: Vincas gives us a little history of how his family came to be in the US in the first place. His grandfather was independent Lithuania’s ambassador to the US in the late 1930s; when outside forces ensured that the little country was snuffed out, he was told not to return, and entered an odd kind of limbo, tasked with representing a country that had disappeared from the map of the world. His daughter, Vincas’s mother, grew up in New York, and eventually married a displaced person from Lithuania – the reason why Vincas, unlike much of the second/third-generation diaspora, speaks fluent Lithuanian, despite never having lived full-time in the country. His grandfather, at the end of his life, following the restoration of independence, became Lithuanian ambassador to the UN. Vincas has combined a career in advertising with aspirations of film-making.

Jonas’s connection to the country is more voluntary, but seemingly just as intense. While studying for a theology degree in Sweden, Jonas became acquainted with a number of Estonians living there, descendants of those who had fled across the Baltic Sea half a century earlier. These contacts gave him an interest in the countries opposite, lands where the lights had been dimmed for many decades. These connections led to his presence in Vilnius around the time of independence, if not for the January events themselves: as he says, “you felt the pressure… the will of the people to be free, to have their own state”. This seems to have had such a profound effect that Jonas decided to learn the language, stay full-time – for the last twenty-five years, he’s combined work as a film-maker, translator and freelance Lithuania-booster. He describes an overriding reason for his interest and seeming identification with Lithuania as deriving in many ways from its improbability, the way it’s defied the odds: as he puts it, this could have been merely an odd province of Poland or Russia. And still, unlike the countries in Western Europe, its future isn’t assured: “it’s not over yet… it’s not consolidated, it’s still in the making.”

Why Juozas Luksa in particular? Jonas mentions his first encounter with Luksa’s memoirs (Forest Brothers, written during his stay in Paris), back in 1996, which he was fascinated by and read in a single night, discovering “the unknown history of a neighbouring country”. While translating the book into Swedish, he met Luksa’s relatives and friends and realised that his story had never been put to film. Vincas places the emphasis more on personal elements – the death of his grandfather and almost a kind of lack of personal authenticity “I’m listening to Fugazi records while watching footage for IBM commercials”; it was then he decided that “I want to make a film about our heritage.” Then in 2006, in one of these satisfying coincidences that make everything happen, Vincas’s sister attended a writing course with Jonas, and a little later they met. Almost ten years later, hindered a little by the fact that neither is a full-time film-maker, The Invisible Front is here. It’s low-budget (it’s striking how often in the credits the same names recur), but visually stunning, with a thoroughly impressive cast – very much a labour of love.

I mention the difficulties I had in trying to get hold of a copy to watch, as it’s currently only commercially available in the US – who were their target audience for it? It seems that initially, as they thought, it would be primarily the Lithuanian emigre community in the US; they say that they had great concerns about showing it in Lithuania itself, due to the fact that neither of the film-makers experienced everyday life under the occupation, as well as the film’s refusal to be a tub-thumping simplification – what Vincas calls a “good guys – hurrah!” kind of film. “To be honest, I thought the Lithuanians were going to throw tomatoes at us if we screened the film here,” says Vincas. “I grew up in America. What the hell do I know? I thought that we would not get the nuances or the understanding.” In fact, as they told me, it went down a lot better with people in Lithuania itself than with Lithuanian Americans who are “more kneejerk patriotic”, and tended to resent the Soviet perspective being shown at all – perhaps due to being able to keep their image of Lithuania perfect, not being forced to acknowledge the imperfections and inconveniences of life in a real country. In the end, it won “best Lithuanian film” at the Kino Pavaris film festival in Vilnius and has been shown to acclaim all over the country. The next step is Western Europe.

One of the interesting – and actually strikingly moving – aspects of the film is its willingness to include voices that contradict the underlying implicit argument the film makes – these include a medal-festooned Soviet veteran, interviewed in Volgograd, who speaks proudly about his attempts to defend the people of the region of northern Lithuania, where he was assigned, from the “bandits” attempting to destabilise the area. Even more extraordinary is the interview with a stocky, no-nonsense Communist-supporting farmer from Luksa’s home village, who is given a fair amount of airtime, and explains powerfully how he decided to avenge his father’s murder by the Forest Brothers, and just for a moment, while sympathising with the general implied pro-independence sentiments of the film, you’re on his side, feeling his sullen fury.

This village, where a number of interviews take place, is one of the most astonishing things about the film, testifying in miniature to how profoundly Lithuanian society was ripped up by the Communist occupation, scattered into active resistance, passive resistance, sheer passivity, and active support for the occupiers. We see how, fifty years on, murderously different ideologies and memories of hatred and bloodshed continue to coexist side by side, but turned inwards and seemingly harmless, frozen into place like ice sculptures.

However, furious attacks have been launched on the film based on its apparent elision of Jewish history. The Holocaust is not mentioned, despite having taken place in Lithuania with particular savagery: 95% of the country’s prewar Jewish population were killed. The central criticism centres around accusation that Luksa was a Nazi collaborator; more specifically, that he was involved in a particularly brutal massacre that took place in Kaunas in 1941. Does that make you uncomfortable, I ask? There are a fairly immediate pair of “no”s. Why not?

Vincas immediately defers to Jonas, who says, enunciating suddenly very precisely and deliberately: “we have a very clear understanding of what actually happened. One of the things is that Luksa was in no way involved in that specific action. He was in prison at that time. It was not part of his character; it was not part of his personality”. He points out that even the KGB were not able to find any links between Luksa and the Nazis, or if they had, showed unusual reticence in not publicising them. Vincas chips in: “Luksa was enemy number one of the Soviet Union. The KGB – they’re masters of connecting even the slightest fragment of something to connect your enemy to something bigger, to really destroy you. If they had had anything at all – the entire of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s… Luksa would have been the biggest name in the Soviet Union. It would have been like “look – here’s your Luksa; here’s your hero.”

I mention the specific allegation, made by both survivors of the Kaunas Ghetto, and repeated frequently as fact, that Luksa was the ringleader of the Lietukis garage pogrom in the city; this is why, for example, the British journalist Peter Jukes was able to write, in a protesting tweet about the film: “Lithuanian partisan movie glorifies Juozas Luksa, who sawed the head of a Rabbi in 1941”. Jonas contends that there are a number of errors with these allegations: aside from the fact that he was apparently in prison at the time, Luksa was, he says, also a student; the witnesses describe seeing a Lithuanian army officer leading the massacre; there are inconsistencies between the accounts: with some describing the sword, others a saw. “It’s a fact and history that Luksa has nothing to do with any of it; that’s separate from the fact that horrible things happened,” Vincas says. Jonas agrees: “Lithuanians were involved.”

Whether or not the allegations are true, does it not show a certain disrespect to the extent of Jewish suffering to omit mention of the Holocaust from the film? I remind Jonas of a statement he made after being officially recognised by President Grybauskaite in 2013 as a “friend of Lithuania”: that Lithuanians must recognise the Jewish history of this land – which is pretty considerable; after all, the city we’re in the middle of was once known as the “Jerusalem of the North”. Wasn’t this film the perfect opportunity to do just that? They tell me that the original version of the film did discuss the Holocaust, but they felt in the end that relegating it to 20 minutes would have been doing it a disservice. Jonas claims that inclusion would have dragged in an endless chain of other essential information – that there was too much else entangled in the question: “If you speak about the Holocaust, you have to talk about the loss of Lithuanian independence in 1940 which is related”, ditto the complex relationship with Poland. Vincas says: “the story of the Holocaust in Lithuania is its own topic, and has to be treated with that respect.”

Thanks to Lithuania, it is a very beautiful film: there are fields of crops swaying under puffy clouds, murmuring, chirping forests, ready to hide secrets, quietly flowing rivers, mist-swathed trees. It looks a deceptively placid land. And out in the country is where many of the interviews take place – in fact, almost all of those with locals happen somewhere out of doors. I comment that it seems almost like a kind of love letter to the Lithuanian countryside in many ways. Vincas mentions his obsession with the World War II drama “The Thin Red Line”: “This is historically significant, but let’s make it beautiful”. Moreover, many of the apparently unremarkable fields and forests we see are places of deep, bitter significance for the interviewees: “it looks like he’s standing in front of a line of birch trees, but right there was his bunker.”

The countryside, I suppose, is particularly important to Lithuanians – the country has long been the most rural of all the Baltics, and the largest cities were, until really relatively recently, primarily the home of Poles and Russians, suspicious if not actively hostile territory for Lithuanians. Perhaps this had something to do with the fierceness and strength of the resistance – early on, around 1 in 20 of the population were involved. Jonas tells me, with clear pride in his adopted country, that when he looked into the CIA archives in Washington, he found that the material relating to the Lithuanian resistance was around 20 times more than that concerned with the partisan movement in Latvia or Estonia. They link, to some extent, Lithuania’s comparative lack of industry or urbanisation with the greater extent of Lithuania’s partisan movement, compared with Latvia or Estonia: “easier to hide in the woods, easier to organise,” says Vincas; that’s in addition to, uniquely among the Baltic States, its short geographical border with a non-Soviet country: Poland, making escapes slightly less unfeasible – and indeed, Luksa did escape to Poland on two occasions.

And yet Luksa expresses in his letters throughout the film, as did many people throughout all three Baltic countries, that the West would not stand by and witness the trampling of their allies’ independence. This is mentioned throughout the film by other Lithuanians as well. And yet, it’s quite striking that the last word on the issue – in the film, at least – goes not to one of them but to Paul Goble, former advisor to the US state department. Goble stresses that the US never gave an explicit guarantee that it would ensure Lithuania’s freedom. We didn’t say that, and even if we had, we couldn’t have kept our word, essentially. Are the US, Britain and Western Europe shamed by their non-intervention? Could they, should they have done something? I’m surprised by Vincas’s immediate negative.

He says “I don’t think so – continuity between the partisans’ battles for freedom, and Lithuania’s eventual recapturing of its independence. The film begins with the January 1991 events in Vilnius, when 14 died and over 100 were injured after a Soviet assault on nationally significant buildings, and ends with shots of the Lithuanian stretch of the Baltic Way, a peaceful flag-waving show of defiance. The resistance movement acted as a kind of means of keeping the flame burning in times of darkness. As former President Valdas Adamkus – himself a returned emigreé – puts it in one of the interviews “it was a hopeless fight, but the fight of an undefeated nation.”

Jonas has to leave to attend a film, and so it’s just me and Vincas and numerous semi-enforced but pleasurable rounds of beer/wine and Lithuanian shots. The interesting thing that came up repeatedly during our increasingly less structured chat was a simmering resentment about the treatment of Lithuania – how it was just filed away somewhere as one of those bad things that have happened, rather than something urgently seeking redress. Vincas remembers its gradual sinking from political prominence given physical expression by the increasingly diminishing significance of the official figures who would attend national commemorations during his childhood – a congressman, then a couple of years later an assistant, then a representative, then someone from the Lithuanian community would read a letter from the congressman. He remembers getting up at school to correct his teacher when, during a geography lesson, she pointed at the sprawling bulk of the Soviet Union, and said simply “Russia.”

Pride in his heritage, and perhaps a certain feeling that events have distanced him from what he should have been, is clearly a motivator for Vincas – he tells me he visited Lithuania eight times last summer – but “at no point did I want to make a nationalistic film, because what pissed me off most about Lithuanian films that I had seen is that they were very one-sided… if you make a propaganda piece, the average viewer is way too smart – they’re like “oh God”, they’ll turn it off. But if you make a compelling story…”

Whatever the rights or wrongs, The Invisible Front is nothing if not a compelling story, sensitively pieced together thanks to a comprehensive cast of participants, one that puts this country’s bravery and suffering in terms the rest of the world will understand.

Restoranas Senoji Trobele
Naugarduko gatve 36

Website: www.senojitrobele.lt

Contact telephone number: +370 609 99002