Baltic Modernist Films Seen In 2021

I’m going in a slightly different direction for the posts about films I’ve seen this year, as The Anthology Film Archives is making a collection of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian films available on Vimeo for the next week and a half. So I’m going to watch it all. So far, it reminds me a lot of the Czech New Wave.

Movie #76/ Estonian Film #1/ Film About Films #2: The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel/ ‘HUKKUNUD ALPINISTI’ HOTELL (Vimeo)
It is trippy, a rare example of Estonian science-fiction, as a detective story in a ski lodge takes a weird turn when suspected criminals start seeing duplicates. It gets into interesting moral questions about the right way to behave in an absurd situation. Can and should you follow the letter of the law when non-human entities are just trying to survive?

Movie #77/ New Movie #54/ Latvian Film #1: Four White Shirts/ ČETRI BALTI KREKLI (Vimeo)
The 1960s Latvian film (not released until 1987) that reminds me a lot of work from the Czech new wave. It’s a story we’ve seen before of an songwriter dealing with precious to change his lyrics, but in Soviet-Era Riga the censors have teeth. My Estonian-born mother was astonished that the film was even made, given the depiction of Soviet bureaucracy. The music was pretty decent, and it’s clever how the first censor is well-meaning, but gets the ball rolling. I might decide it’s 10/10 on a second watch. This was better than I expected any of these movies to be.

Movie #78/ New Movie #55/ Latvian Film #2: Redundant/ LIEKAM BŪT (Vimeo)
This generally feels like a well-made 1950s/ 1960s French crime film, albeit in a setting with different rules. It’s a story we’ve seen before of a middle-aged ex-con looking for a final score. What works is the sense of how trapped he is, and the alternatives available. This is a story where crime is not done out of economic necessity, but more to give a sense of purpose and to live big. We get to see the major relationships in his life: the prettiest Taxi Driver in Riga as his love interest, a sister who wants a normal life, desperate former colleagues, and the police officer who wants to help him find a good life.

Movie #79/ New Movie #56/ Lithuanian Film #1: Ave, Vita (Vimeo)
This was a take on the Holocaust released in the 1960s that feels modern in terms of how it deals with the topic, showing flashbacks to an atrocity while the present focuses on the survivors and the media attention to one man’s ritual. It seems like a bit like Godard. The strange editing choices (sudden cuts, obvious ADR, use of photos over text) work in that context. Unfortunately, scenes removed by censors make the narrative a bit hard to follow at times, and there is the icky compromise of removing Jewish references of key characters, which makes it seem vague why they were targeted. That was likely the only way the film could have been made at all, but it keeps the film from being great.

Movie #80/ New Movie #57/ Lithuanian Film #2: June, the Beginning of Summer (Vimeo)
It’s an interesting example of hyperlink cinema, reminding me of Altman or Rules of the Game, showing the interconnected stories in a small town, some of which are more compelling than others, or at least have better resolutions. It does have some nice touches about the specifics of the setting, like the question of whether the town can survive the addition of a new factory, or an injury caused by shrapnel embedded in a log.

Movie #81/ Estonian Film #2: Madness/ Hullumeelsus (Vimeo)
It was already one of my favorite Estonian movies (which I don’t mean in the sense of a backhanded compliment) and I like it even more this time around. Maybe it’s because I know the story, and that lets me analyze certain things differently. Maybe it’s the quality of the transfer. It’s a good idea for a story executed well, as a German official during the end of World War II searches for a British spy within an asylum. He interviews people with different forms of insanity, many of whom were affected by the war. Jüri Järvet, probably the best-regarded Estonian actor, is excellent as the official, starting out as sneaky but composed, and then getting more reckless and unhinged as the pressure mounts and he’s exposed to all the lunatics.

Movie #82/ New Movie #58/ Estonian Film #3: Ideal Landscape (Vimeo)
This is a weird one to make sense of. It follows a hapless Soviet bureaucrat, who can’t get the people of a small town to follow directions for a harvest. Complicating factors include local knowledge, as they recognize the climate doesn’t allow for a harvest yet. And he’s got a tough time figuring out if they’re telling the truth or lying to him. Sometimes it isn’t clear if they’re acting in good faith. It’s very Estonian, in the sense that it’s meant for an audience who understands the very specific context. Looking at it now, it just doesn’t feel like something set in the 1940s. It feels like what it is; people in the early 80s pretending it’s right after World War II. But it is interesting to see a Graduate-style story of a young man trying to figure out his life, in the very specific context of a CPSU official who just wants things to go well so he can go to college, and he can’t get the people around him to respect him.

Movie #83/ New Movie #59/ Latvian Film #3: Apple In The River (Vimeo)
This one has an almost anthropological take on young love, evident by the narration and one character’s job of working on an archeological dig. There’s a very specific sense of location (the small community in an island near the capitol about to be changed by the advent of a new bridge. It’s pleasant and captures the awkwardness of two young people in love trying to make sense of the world, and each other.

Movie #84/ New Movie #60/ Lithuanian Film #3: The Beauty (Vimeo)
The shortest of the films at barely over an hour. It does capture the world of children pretty well, with a little girl trying to figure out why the new kid doesn’t like her. The theme of inner beauty rings a bit hollow, because a sad speech about how outer appearances don’t matter is given by someone who doesn’t look too bad, but it does give a sense of how a kid sees things, and what she would prioritize and be offended by. It is beautifully shot.

There are some commonalities with the films. Asia and Africa seem quite exotic to people who see images of those countries, but have no hope of ever going there. The Soviet Union has no problem with Nazis being the bad guys, but while Jews are references in some of the films, there are no Jewish characters. There’s a mournfulness to the disappearance of an old way of life, and an understanding that bureaucrats don’t know best, which might be why some of the films weren’t widely distributed in the Soviet Union.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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