Friday, January 18, 2008

Defenders of Riga

Defenders of Riga. Rīgas sargi. Everyone in Latvia knows what it is. Hardly anyone outside does.

It's a movie that has been breaking all records. In 5 weeks, it became the most watched Latvian movie since 1991. In 8 weeks, it bypassed Titanic by the number of viewers and became the most popular movie ever in Latvia. I went to watch it a few weeks ago and the movie theatre was still full. I was lucky that there was someone whose plans had changed and who was sellling her ticket in front of the theatre. Otherwise, I'd have to wait for a few hours, because the ticket office was sold out.

Historical background. The movie takes place in 1919 when the newly independent Latvia is less than a year old and is fighting its War of Independence against two enemies at once. One is Soviets, the other is the Landeswehr, a remnant of the army of German Empire. It should have surrendered when the Germany capitulated in the World War I but it didn't. Rather, it started waging its own war towards turning Baltics into a "United Baltic Duchy", a satellite state of Germany, ruled by the local Germans.

In 1919, they were joined by Bermondt-Avalov, a former Russian Tsarist general. Together, they managed to assemble an army of 20,000-50,000 soldiers and attempted to overthrow the Latvian government and establish their government instead. They entered parts of Riga but were eventually defeated by the Latvian army.

The movie shows the battle for Riga between Bermondt-Avalov's forces and the Latvian Army. Just like Latvia, its army is less than a year old. Some units have officers who don't have any soldiers to command. It's not clear at all if they can prevail over Bermondt-Avalov.

The movie. The battle for Riga is shown from a perspective of Mārtiņš, a Latvian rifleman who left home 4 years ago, to fight in World War I. He fought for Tsarist Russia first and for Soviets after that. Then, he hears that Latvia is independent and decides to come back home. At home, he has his fiancee Elsa waiting for him. But Mārtiņš does not realize that the decisive battle - both for Latvia (against Bermondt-Avalov) and for Elsa's heart (she has started to lost her feelings for him) - is still ahead.

Overall, it's a feel-good patriotic movie. There is a clear line between the good (almost everyone on the Latvian side) and the evil (everyone on Bermondt-Avalov's side). The portrayal of the doubts and squabbles on Latvian side is, however, quite realistic. Latvians keep arguing up to the decisive battle and, less than 24 hours before the battle, someone introduces a no-confidence motion against the prime minister. Then, somehow, magically, Latvians pull themselves together and win the battle. In my opinion, that was a good depiction of Latvian character (both squabbles and the ability to pull together when the crunch time comes).

And watching a war movie in which bombs were falling on the familiar streets on which I've walked thousands of time, just a few hundred meters from the movie theater... was so much more intense emotionally.

The movie has come under fire for a lot of minor historical innacuraccies. Soldier Mārtiņš ends up talking a lot (and giving advice to!) prime minister Kārlis Ulmanis. Surely, that's not what happened in the real life! But I understand that the moviemakers wanted to show both the perspective of an ordinary soldier (Mārtiņš) and Commander-in-Chief (Ulmanis) and showing the entire chain-of-command in between the two would have made it too complicated... I think the most important thing was showing the moods and emotions of those days and the movie succeeded in that.

So, overall, I liked the movie. And so did most of the people who went to it. (A few of my friends complained it was too Hollywoodish but they were in minority.)


Pierre said...

I would love to see that movie. I don't suppose it will come to the Americas any time soon, unlike "The Singing Revolution". I guess I will have to wait for the DVD to come out.

Paldies for your review, it is much appreciated.

Eric said...

Will this movie ever come to Adelaide,Australia or is it out on dvd.It would be very interesting to watch

Anonymous said...

I wish they would make a movie about WWII. In Australia everyone sees the war as black and white, but I know it wasn't for part of my family which came from Latvia (which is particularly annoying on ANZAC day when it feels like the crowds at the marches are expecting me to disown that part of my family or something, even thouh they don't know my family history in particular), and I know they weren't monsters as people assume.

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Andre Bayer said...

Hello Latvian Abroad, I have just received a copy of the movie Rigas Sargi in Latvian, without English subtitles. Can you guide me on where I can get English subtitles from ? Please drop me an email on Many thanks.

Andre Bayer