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5 Films to Help You Better Understand Lithuania

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Photo: What comes to mind when you think of Lithuania? If you ask those who remember Lithuania under Soviet occupation, their answer will be unequivocal: "Cinema!", Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko
Photo: What comes to mind when you think of Lithuania? If you ask those who remember Lithuania under Soviet occupation, their answer will be unequivocal: "Cinema!", Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko

What comes to mind when you think of Lithuania? Some might recall the pier stretching far into the sea and the old villas of the Palanga resort, others might think of the incredible music and paintings of Mikalojus Čiurlionis, or the famous "wileńskie palmy" made from dried flowers and grasses sold on the streets of Vilnius during the traditional Kaziuko mugė fair.

But if you ask those who remember Lithuania under Soviet occupation, their answer will be unequivocal: "Cinema!" At that time, people might not have known the name of the Lithuanian dissident Romas Kalanta (whom the Soviet authorities did their best to silence), but everyone knew the names of actors Donatas Banionis, Regimantas Adomaitis, and Juozas Budraitis. Just as almost everyone in Ukraine today knows the name of Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius, who was shot in Mariupol by Russian occupiers.

"Nobody Wanted to Die" ("Niekas nenorėjo mirti"), directed by Vytautas Žalakevičius, 1965


Source: Wiki

One of the greatest Lithuanian films of all time, a Baltic existentialist western that became a hit in Soviet cinemas and even received official awards during the late Khrushchev Thaw. It is believed that Vytautas Žalakevičius initiated the "Baltic New Wave" with his flawless drama "Adam Wants to Be a Man" six years before "Nobody Wanted to Die." Some critics call this film "a kind of version of Jean Vigo's 'L'Atalante'." However, in 1959, Žalakevičius managed to shield himself from party censorship by initially declaring "social criticism of pre-war bourgeois Lithuania," whereas in his film addressing the explosive topic of the "forest brothers" (an unofficial term for armed nationalist liberation formations in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia fighting for the restoration of their countries' independence), he had to be much more cautious in setting ideological accents to avoid a complete ban on the film. Although at first glance it is indeed a western (a small group of brave men challenges a gang terrorizing the villagers), it is a western more stylistically akin to Ingmar Bergman than John Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven." The film's main character is the tragic figure of Donatas Banionis, caught "in the crossfire" from both sides, embodying the eternal conflict between personal and social, individual and communal.

"Feelings" ("Jausmai"), directed by Almantas Grikevičius and Algirdas Dausa, 1968


Source: Wiki

For this film, which won the jury prize at the 1975 San Remo Film Festival and was later recognized as the best Lithuanian film of all time, the screenplay was written by the same Žalakevičius, continuing his exploration of the "Lithuanian mentality" begun in "Nobody Wanted to Die." "Jausmai" tells the story of brothers Kasparas and Andrius: in 1944, the Soviet army had already captured one shore of the Curonian Lagoon, but the other shore was still controlled by the Germans. Fisherman Kasparas' wife dies in childbirth, and the young widower, with twin infants in his arms, decides to cross the lagoon to the "Soviet" side to his brother Andrius, who lives with Agne, Kasparas' former girlfriend. The feelings of the characters intertwine in a bizarre tangle: Agne persuades her husband and his brother to flee across the sea to Sweden, hoping that far from the war, she will be able to regain Kasparas' love. But Kasparas has no intention of fleeing - he did not fight against the Germans, nor did he collaborate with them, and so he hopes that the "new authorities" will leave him and his children alone. "Jausmai" was banned from showing throughout the Soviet Union, except in Lithuania, where it had limited distribution. And Regimantas Adomaitis and Juozas Budraitis, who played the main roles in "Jausmai," were forced to "rehabilitate" themselves by starring in the film "Men's Summer" ("Vyrų vasara") two years later, where the ideological accents were set without any shades and in full accordance with the policies of the CPSU.

"Devil's Bride" ("Velnio nuotaka"), directed by Arūnas Žebriūnas, 1974


Source: Wiki

Critics refer to this film as the "first rock opera in the USSR," though comparing it to global classics like "Tommy" by Pete Townshend or "Jesus Christ Superstar" by Andrew Lloyd Webber might not be appropriate. It is more of a musical extravaganza based on a gem of Lithuanian literary classics, "Baltaragio malūnas" ("The Mill of Baltaragis") by Kazys Boruta. The music for the film was composed by the famous Lithuanian-Israeli jazz musician Vyacheslav Ganelin (whose trio would later receive the National Prize for creating the national school of Lithuanian jazz), and Žebriūnas took a bold cinematic experiment, creating a work in a completely new format, for which there was not even a name in the USSR. As a result, "Devil's Bride" became one of the box office record-holders in Lithuania, and the "all-Union" audience, who for the first time encountered Lithuanian folklore, rushed to Kaunas to visit the Žmuidzinavičius Museum (also known as the Devil Museum), which houses over a thousand sculptural images of devils. The devil is the "narrative designer" of this rock opera: according to the plot, the miller Baltaragis, in love with the beautiful Marcelė, makes a pact with the devil Pinčiukas, not realizing that in the future, he will have to give his daughter to this "fallen angel" as a bride. The confrontation between the forces of light and dark (the dark forces, in appearance, resemble the burlesque Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli from the film "Cabaret") is filmed so amusingly that today the filmmakers might be accused of "offending believers' feelings."


"Flight Over the Atlantic" ("Skrydis per Atlantą"), directed by Raimondas Vabalas, 1983


Source: Wiki

One of the most popular Lithuanian films in Lithuania itself remains Raimondas Vabalas' picture, which recreates the legendary non-stop flight of Lithuanian pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas across the Atlantic Ocean in the single-engine airplane "Lituanica" in 1933. Having intended to set a distance flight record but finding no support at home, Lithuanian military pilot Steponas Darius goes to America. But even across the ocean, all attempts to raise funds to buy a plane fail - the modest financial help from Lithuanian emigrants is not enough (the Great Depression has just begun in the USA), and aviation companies are afraid to sponsor such an adventure. Only when the former aviation mechanic Stasys Girėnas, a friend of Steponas who also dreams of the record, manages to sell a small plane he built himself from spare parts, do the Lithuanian pilots finally acquire and refine the Bellanca CH-300, capable not only of crossing the ocean but of reaching from New York to Kaunas. They named the plane "Lituanica." For Vabalas' film, aviation designers first created a working mock-up of the plane and then built a functional model (capable of taking off with people), which was used for filming. The tragic end of the "Lituanica" pilots is presented in the film from the Soviet ideological perspective - according to it, the Lithuanian plane, flying over a secret German facility, was identified as a hostile reconnaissance object and shot down by "Nazi militarists." What really happened to "Lituanica" remains unclear to this day.


"In the Dusk" ("Sutemose"), directed by Šarūnas Bartas, 2019


Source: Wiki

Šarūnas Bartas began his "cinematic" journey in the early 1990s, creating a series of existential-experimental films and founding the first independent film studio in Lithuania. Film critics have always praised his directorial skill and unique style. A fragment from Bartas' film "The Corridor," which won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Vienna Film Festival, was even quoted by Jean-Luc Godard in his film "Histoire(s) du cinéma." A few years ago, the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris held a retrospective of Bartas' films and photographs. "In the Dusk" is Bartas' first historical drama, transporting viewers to the same tragic period in Lithuania's national history that Vytautas Žalakevičius dedicated his main film to. According to Bartas, he had been nurturing the idea for this film for over fifteen years.

So, Lithuania, 1948. The Second World War has ended, but the anti-Soviet Lithuanian resistance is still fighting in the forests, even though everyone understands that the struggle for independence has been lost for several years now. Bartas' "forest brothers" resemble either deathly tired, long-haired Merovingian kings staring hopelessly into the campfire or disillusioned biblical apostles unable to spot a Judas among them. But the main characters of the film are the peasant Jurgis and his young adopted son Untė. Jurgis, torn between the desire to help the "brothers" and the fear of perishing in Siberia, sinks deeper into memories of his own wasted life. Soon, he will choke on his blood in an NKVD basement, and Untė will have to continue the journey into the heart of darkness on his own.


"Fear of Russia," said Šarūnas Bartas in a recent interview, "is a constant in Lithuanian self-awareness. Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union seized Lithuania and other Baltic countries not because they needed new lands, but because they occupy a strategic position on the Baltic, facing the West. No one knows what will happen in the future. Just a few days before the start of Russia's war against Ukraine, no one could have imagined that such a thing could happen."

Partly due to this historical trauma and fear of potential aggression from Russia amidst its constant threats to the Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia take a radically pro-Ukrainian stance on maximizing military aid, lifting all restrictions on the use of Western weapons, and ending the genocidal war waged by the war criminal Vladimir Putin against democratic Ukraine and its people.

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