I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.
Many EUFF moviegoers are going to check out Tobias Lindholm’s A War, Denmark’s Oscar finalist for Best Foreign Film, as well they should. But I’m happy to alert you to another very impressive war movie at the fest (and another Oscar submission), Elmo Nüganen’s 1944 (Estonia/Finland, 2015). Elmo Nüganen himself is kind of a noteworthy guy, as he’s primarily a theater director, and the artistic director of Estonia’s Tallinn City Theatre. His first feature film, Names Engraved In Marble (Nimed Marmortahvlil) was made in 2002. This is his second, but you’d never know it – his sense of kinetic order in seeming chaos isn’t too far out of the league of guys like Spielberg or Ridley Scott, and the non-combat scenes are handled with equal confidence.
I’m almost inclined to issue a spoiler alert here, but the opening titles lay out the astonishing facts that underlie every subsequent action after; 1939, the USSR signs a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. World War II starts one week later. In 1940, the Soviets annexed Estonia, and put 55,000 Estonian capables into the Soviet Red Army. In 1941, Nazi Germany takes and occupies Estonia, and they conscript 72,000 Estonians into the Waffen-SS. Which essentially means there’s a third-parties Civil War in Estonia, and its own population is attacking its own population.
The first half of the film follows Karl Tammik (Kaspar Velberg), a staff sergeant serving with the German forces. A loyal and hard-working leader for his squad, he’s doubly motivated by his parents’ deportation to Siberia by the Soviets. Nonetheless, he’s a disciplined, measured and, under the circumstances, a pretty friendly fellow soldier. The second half of the film follows Juri Jegi (Kristjan Ukskula), who holds the same rank for his squad of the Red Army. The German forces have started their withdrawal by now, but nasty battles are still plentiful. To complicate matters, Jegi must contend with the nasty Captain Kreml (Peeter Tammearu), a hardnosed Soviet lifer who won’t tolerate divided loyalty in the waning days of the war. Kreml wants Jegi to snitch on the alleged slackers behind the back of Jegi’s own squad captain.
The transitional sequence between the Tammik and Jegi stories is noteworthy in itself, and strikes a welcome but melancholic tone that levels out what occurs before and after. But, overall, Leo Kunnas’s screenplay is superb, as is Rein Kotov and Mart Taniel’s photography and Kimmo Taavila and Tambet Tasuja’s masterful editing. There’s a lot to see at the EUFF this weekend, but make a point to squeeze Elmo Nüganen’s terrific film in as well.
“1944” will screen on Saturday, March 26th at 6:00 pm and Tuesday the 29th at 8:00 pm.