VILNIUS - Refugees dressed in rags carrying bulky chattels stumble across the frozen Baltic Sea. The trek moves slowly westward, as the desperate and exhausted figures try to escape advancing Soviet troops. Stalin's armies are about to occupy Eastern Europe and the offensive has caused a mass exodus forcing thousands to cross the dangerous ice. When the trek comes under heavy fire, the refugees find places to take cover, while others disappear into the dark sea.
Cut. The actors relax, laugh and grab some hot tea to deal with the bitter cold. The temperatures are far below zero. The crew of the German movie "Flucht und Vertreibung" ("March of Millions") have pitched their tents on the Curonian Spit near Klaipeda.
"March of Millions," which is based on actual biographies, deals with the fate of German families in East Prussia who were forced to leave their homeland at the end of World War II. The film, shot in Lithuania, will be broadcast on television.
"We opted for Lithuania for two reasons," says producer Katrin Goetter. "The country offers reliable snow conditions in winter. And the landscape as well as the architecture is still very similar to East Prussia during [the end of World War II]."
But there was another very important reason. "The Lithuanian Film Studios have proved to be a professional partner with a good deal of experience in cooperating with foreign production companies."
Indeed, co-productions with foreign companies have become a central business for the Lithuanian Film Studios. Ramunas Skikas, managing director of the studios, estimates that about 95 percent of their films are co-productions with foreign companies. "We can provide locations producers from abroad are looking for," says Skikas. "Thanks to our natural and geographical features, we can easily pretend to be in Great Britain or Germany. As Lithuania is still less urbanized, our country is attractive for historical movies, notably those that take place at the beginning of the 20th century."
The studios keep representatives on site in Europe and the U.S.A. to find potential partners. Falk Schweikhardt, the studio's man in Germany, says there is a "vast interest inside the film community" for Lithuania.
"Of course, the expense factor is the main reason for foreign companies to come here," says Schweikhardt, a producer, director and screenwriter. "However, these low prices are paired with substantial know-how [in Lithuania] that does not differ much from studios in Germany."
"When a movie is based on dialogue between a few people, it's not necessary for Westerners to produce in Lithuania," he says. "The [Lithuanian] Film Studios are profitable if projects need many extras or large sets," as was the case in "March of Millions."
"We provided extras, props, wardrobe and the set for 'Flucht und Vertreibung,'" says Skikas, the managing director. The Lithuanian Film Studios also took care of casting, as salaries for actors in Lithuania are far lower than in German. Altogether, "Western European companies can save up to half of their costs when they produce in Lithuania."
The Lithuanian Film Studios produce some Lithuanian movies as well. Their latest home production is Raganos ir Lietus ("Witches and Rain"), a feature based on a novel by Jurga Ivanauskaite.
In Soviet times, domestic movies were an important means to preserve the cultural identity of the Baltic States. The Lithuanian Film Studios in Vilnius maintained the Lithuanian spirit. By now, 130 people work for the studios on a permanent basis, beside the many freelancers that are hired on a project-to-project-basis.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, the Lithuanian Film Studios were privatized and faced the harsh wind of capitalism. The existence in a state-controlled economy had ruled out any form of competition; no one was familiar with terms like "supply and demand" or "poor market conditions."
However, the studio kept calm. Skikas, who was then appointed managing director, had worked in the U.S. film industry and had good contacts.
Skikas is unafraid of competition. "As far as I can assess the situation, no one in Lithuania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe can keep up with us."
Only Bulgaria and Romania, "provide comparable high standards at low levels of cost," says Skikas. "However, as the landscape is rather different in these countries, they basically attract productions that would not pick Lithuania anyway."
Only Ukraine, with its similar landscape, is a possible threat, says Skikas. But "they neither have the professional skills nor the equipment."
Lithuania could soon attract more production companies from abroad. "Hopefully, Parliament will pass a law next year permitting tax incentives for foreign filmmakers," he says.
It's not clear if the law will be passed, but either way the studio, housed in a Soviet-era building, is now looking to expand. "As soon as possible, we are moving into modern studios in another part of town. The construction has already started. Our present home is outdated."
Right now, they are looking at participating in two more historic film productions. "We are waiting for the decision from Italian and German producers to work in Lithuania," Skikas says.
He adds, "In our business, I learned that you can never be too sure."