History through the looking glass

  • 2000-03-23
  • By Philip Birzulis
RIGA – While the March 16 demonstration is a reminder that Latvians are still struggling with the events of half a century ago, artists are also pulling skeletons out of the national closet. A controversial new film has drawn packed houses for its unsettling depiction of the 1940 Soviet invasion that sucked the Baltics into World War II.

Baiga Vasara (The Terrible Summer) is a love story set during the nerve-racking days preceding June 17, 1940, when Soviet tanks rolled into Latvia. Its heroes, young radio journalist Roberts and society girl Izolde, find each other by chance, but their happiness is shattered by other events beyond their control.

But if ordinary people are shown as victims of circumstance, some Latvian critics have bashed the film for showing Latvia's leaders of that time as accomplices in the invasion. Its nastiest character is Vilhelms Munters, the foreign minister, depicted as a corrupt opportunist in the pay of the Soviets. Likewise, Latvia's pre-war dictator Karlis Ulmanis is portrayed as a pathetic figure who refused to make the epic decisions required of him. Urged by his military advisers to set up an alternative government abroad and to let the army offer at least token resistance, he put this off until it was too late. After the occupation, the communists force him to make a radio speech welcoming them in, and he ordered his subjects to do nothing.

"I'm staying where I am, you stay where you are," are his – historically accurate – words whose implications haunt Latvians to this day.

However, Matthew Cott, a historian at the Occupation Museum of Latvia in Riga, said the film contains many glaring inaccuracies. For example, he said that orders for an alternative government to be set up at the Latvian Embassy in London had actually gone out a month before the invasion. Cott claimed there is little proof that Munters was a crook, while he finds it hard to believe that Ulmanis, one of the fathers of independent Latvia and a stern authoritarian leader, could have been so weak. He thinks the film could send the wrong message about Latvia if it was distributed abroad.

"Its only for our homegrown audience. The love story is silly, and there's not enough historical context shown for foreign audiences to understand things," he said.

However, Andrejs Ekis, the film's co-director and producer, said the film was a work of fiction not a documentary. But while the situations in the film are made up, he said the big events around which it is based were all too real. The characters watch as Paris falls to the Nazis, Poland is partitioned, and little Latvia realizes that it has no hope of escape.

Ekis said he hopes the film will educate young people about their history, and that the youthful Roberts and Izolde help them relate to long-ago events. More somberly, he also hopes the film warns people about the characters of their contemporary politicians.

"It's not a history film, but while the situations are invented you can find parallels [with real events]. The film is meant to be about what would have happened today. It was made so sharply so that we don't have many Munters' running around in our own time," he said.

In any case, the film is proving to be extremely popular. According to Ekis, it grossed 41,000 lats ($65,190) in its first three weeks, huge by Latvian standards, and foreign distributors have expressed interest in screening it overseas.

Baiga Vasara is screening in Riga at the Kino 52 cinema, Lacplesa iela 52/54, until mid-April.