1944 (Estonian WW2 film) Synopsis and Review

1944 is a 2015 Estonian action war drama film directed by Elmo Nüganen. The film first premiered in February 2015 in Berlin, Germany, before its release in Estonia and other Northern European countries. It was selected as the Estonian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards but it was not nominated.

The film is set in the year 1944, from the Battle of Tannenberg Line (25 July – 10 August 1944) to the Battle of Tehumardi in Sõrve Peninsula (October – November 1944) and is shown through the eyes of Estonian soldiers who had to pick sides and thus fight against their fellow countrymen. Choices had to be made, not only by the soldiers, but also by their loved ones.

The film focuses on the individual in the context of the war rather than war itself, and shows the war from both perspectives – those of the Estonians in the Red Army and in the German Army.

The film was funded by the Estonian Film Institute, Estonian Ministry of Defence, Cultural Endowment of Estonia and private investments.

During the run of the film Estonian, German and Russian are spoken.

Excuse me not using names for the most part but in war films everyone seems reduced to stereotypes and can you honestly say, barring the central characters, you ever remember the names of the entire cast during these – most of whom die shortly after their ‘provide a minimal amount of character development by showing a picture of family which foreshadows they’ll die in the next scene’ moment?

Synopsis

We open on text:

‘In 1939, Soviet Union and Germany sign a Treaty of Non-Aggression. A week later, World War II begins. In 1940, Soviet Union annexes Estonia. 55 000 Estonians are mobilized to the Red Army. In 1941, Germany occupies Estonia. 72 000 Estonians are mobilized to German armed forces. Since German Army, Wehrmacht, accepts only German citizens, Estonians have to fight in Waffen-SS and other military units. Now in 1944, the Red Army is back on Estonian border.’

The subtitles at the start confuse ‘German’ and ‘Germany’ while omitting the definite article. Great start… and they move too fast to read for the last sentence or two. I notice once or twice later the subtitles seem grammatically wrong again and suspect they were done by someone whose not a native speaker or was put under severe enough time constraints they didn’t double check their work though for the most part it’s fine.

In the trenches the fast shakey camera makes effective use of the limited perspective.

OF course it lacks the ‘Hollywood sheen’ but in some ways that works in it’s favour. Also the minimal use of music during the charges of soldiers so as to not glamorise events and give way to moments over the stark depictions of combat.

One or two have camouflage on their clothing which I assume isn’t period accurate but might be. It’s the issue of so little coverage of World War 2 events which are not explicitly form German, American, French resistance or British perspectives. As a western viewer you automatically assume the attackers are Fascists but in fact it’s the Soviet forces or as seems to be the films preferred nom de plume the Red Army.

The quieter moments in the trench barracks feel far more effective as we focus on the actors and this doesn’t require big flashy events. The story of the people involved and their motivations rather than the glorification of war. Stories of how they dealt with the situation they were in and the sense of losing oneself – the loss of personal identity as a pawn in the motivations of others.

After proceeding under cover of darkness the music has a continuous tense cord with a few stark notes. THey join some Danes. This really is a narrative not explored in the West at all.

A fat Russian chokes a man. Few if any Russians would be that fat.

Some soviets surrender and are show from behind by the protagonists.

The German commanders appear. A government man appears and congratulates them and spouts the party line they’ve proved the Estonians belong to the Aryan race. He hands out signed photos of Hitler thinking they would get a wooden or iron cross

The poem ‘soldiers mother’ plays over the radio as they mock Hitler and one returns saying the Dutch have their own toilet paper and gave him pack of cigarettes.

One soldier shows the medal his father gained in World War 1/ its all that’s left of him. An argument breaks out as there are Estonians on the Soviet side. What will they do when they face their countrymen?

Outside propaganda plays over the tannoy and they begin to sing to drown it out as they move through the trenches.

The look out says its been quiet. When one of the brothers takes over a sniper shoots him in the head and the brother left behind is in shock a moment before beginning to cry. They give him something to drink. Later one reflects that his uncle in Tallinn told him not to go but he had to as there were arrests being made. An older soldier comes to relieve him and asks if being stubborn will bring his family back from Siberia . He knows it wont. They speak of the war and what its for. Whether they’ll gain their countries independence.

A procession of civilians walk along a road as military vehicles pass them. One soldier thinks going to Tallinn would be better as they could escape via a ship to Sweden. They shoot in the air to scare people off. A self defence force leader, clearly a civilian as he’s in an suit but with an armband, asks if they’ve spare ammo. He is gives them the weapons they ceased and the man jokes with out ammo they’re no batter than clubs.

A woman stops the procession and makes a man throw away furniture and take people on his cart. The soldiers joke she is the real furher. ‘men like cow’s udders’ she says as she loads a child into it.

A plane flies overhead. They take cover in the forest. It begins to fire down on everyone. Bombs are dropped. Sainas goes to save a child but ironically is shot dead while the child is fine. Another runs for the child and saves her just in time. The driver of the soldiers truck put sout a d fire and they go to escape as the reds will be there any moment. Main guy says his sister has the same doll as the girl but she is for away now. They decide to load people onto the truck. Injured to hospital refugees to Tallinn. The girl wants her doll to tell main guy something. He holds it to his ear and after he return sit the truck leaves and the soldiers walk away in another direction on foot as a folk song plays. A storm brews as they walk across the countryside.

They see due to the open landscape there’s no way to retreat if they cant hold the location along the road on the edge of the forest. A senior member tries to rouse them with a speech of how if the Russians beat them back they’ll retake it tomorrow. Then they begin to dig the trenches. A passing man offers them food. All quiet along the western front is mentioned. Again the leader tries to rouse them about their flag flying in Tallinn but the main guy is more pessimistic. They laugh and eat. It is a moment of peace in the war.

Sept 20 a motorcyclist goes past them at speed as they’re hidden in the dry grass. A tank and supply trucks procession is heading their way. They snipe the commander and fire rockets at the tanks.A sniper takes out their sniper. Many of the characters we have been following are wiped out.

They realise they’ve been fighting Estonians on the Soviet side. Their worst fears. What will they do now it’s a reality. Both sides stare at each other. Mournful music plays out. This is the reality of fighting a war begun by others and for their agendas. The soldier who killed the poetic guy looks at the documents in his pocket and seizes them before closing the corpses eyes and laying him to rest.

At a camp we follow the Communist side. They realise it was ‘normal Fascists’ they were fighting. The commanding officer berates them then leaves. The secondary commander tells them to bury the dead and stay out of the way of the NKVD officers.

A man asks if they’re burying fascists with their own. ‘its the end of the road for everyone’ someone replies. They pity that this is how things have turned out as they bury the dead and mark them. 31 dead red army soldiers.

The same old couple who served food to the fascists now serves it to the communists. They soldiers have meat and give some to the couple. It is German stuff they had ceased. The bearded soldier pities them as the couple have nowhere to to and will be labels kulaks and sent back if not to the Gulag.

A glasses wearing soldier shows a photo of his family and everyone knows his spiel off by heart and call it before he says it. They pass through the golden fields and reach Tallin in Sept 22.

Masses of Red army soldiers are there and propaganda plays over the radio accompanied by upbeat band music.

Beard tells killer to be happy and dance. The soldiers are fed and enjoy. Else where people pick through the rubble and inhabit dark silent buildings. Killer Juri visits the apartment of the dead poetic fascists woman and gives him the letter which he took from the corpse. She reads it in silence as we hear the dead man narrate his words talking about family.

Juri asks if he can help as she is tearing up. He removes his boots. She asks how he got it. Karl was her brother. She asks if he died in battle. Juri confirms it. How does he know. Juri says he witnessed it. The family were taken to Siberia. It broke Karl who blamed himself for what happened. She asks of him. He was conscripted in 39. She asks why he didn’t fight back. They were to disciplined to disobey or were cowards he admits. His family? The soldier is are his family but there’s less and less of them. She says he and her brother were similar. The innocent feel guilty. The guilty feel nothing.

She says he must be hungry and cooks for him. She watches him as he eats in silence. He takes out a cigarette and she offers him an ash tray. Its her uncles apartment not hers. They fled two weeks ago by boat to Sweden. March 9 the red army flattened the city. Juri says he was told it was Germans. She insists only women children and the elderly were there.

A little girl drew her something at the orphanage and she goes to show it but they’re interrupted by the radio. A moment passes between them and we see them walk in the park together. bird song. Slow piano. ITs not a romance as much as just comfort in kindred souls. She goes to check a door and find sit open. They go inside the church. Their footsteps echo.

She asks if he is staying long. Or will he move on? Where to? To Saaremaa he replies. She smiles to him takes his hand which fluster him and says they’re alone. He puts his arm around her hesitantly. She says she would forgive the one who put their family ane on the list to be deported. A name Jogi was on it. Juri doesn’t react. She recalls how they lived before the war smiling and falling asleep on his shoulder.

In the morning she gestures he write. She asks his family name. ‘Tull’ he lies. He is Jogi. An NKVD man calls him to the comrade captains car. He says that they’ve fought many battle together but bourgeois nationalists are still there. He says he is young and has time for everything including hanging around at night.

The captain asks who the woman was. They had observed him. Juri lies its his sister. The Capt. says he doesn’t remember it from his file. He asks Juri to report any anti-soviet efforts to him. Juri looks unsure.

17 Nov The soldiers move out across the countryside passing a form. One breaks rank and bearded soldier , Prohhor, is ready to shoot but it told to hold. The guy is at his home town so they allow him to call to the other residents. Beard mocks his grandmother said Estonia was small but not this small..

The soldier notes no one is there sadly. After a moment he says that he’ll go find them something to eat.

At night the commanding officer , Juri, staff sergeant calls on a soldier to have the three replacement soldiers come in to speak to him at the lit table he is writing at. He notes from how they stand they fought for the Germans. He tells them to forget their past and kept their mouths shut. Juri tells farm boy to feed them as well ads the others with the potatoes he fried. Farm boy tells them eat as much as they like as there is no point leaving any for the rats.

Juri asks if he heard anything about his folks who had abandoned the farm. All the farms in the area were destroyed, the people deported to Germany. He reflects the war will be over in a year or two and everyone will be back then. ‘My house is whole and I’m alive’ he remarks before leaving.

Juri later details his strategy plan to the leading soldiers.

They all drink some vodka from a bottle before farm boy remarks that Kreml (the Kremlin… Again refer to my view the subtitles were not done by a native English speaker) wanted to see him.

We next see Juri report to the Comrade captain who was cleaning his handgun. Juri hears the gun click as he closes the door but in fact the captain was putting it away before inviting him to sit. He calls on Juri to toast ‘to the victory’. The captain notes Juri got 3 replacements and asks if he checked them, Juri says he did. ‘Juri you are from the right family and have made the right decisions so far. Just like your father in his time. You haven’t applied for the party membership?’ Juri answers no. ‘That’s even better. You’ll be trusted more. You’ll go far. We’ll send you to study, and you’ll get an officer’s rank. You’ll be the company commander soon. We’d make a good team.’ Juri notes the company already has a commander, Captain Viires, as the Comrade Captain walks away. ‘That radish… Red outside, white inside. Those kinds of guys should be kept an eye on. Don’t spoil your life, Juri’

The next day, November 19, the cannons are being loaded as battle ships fire on the soldiers proceeding along the shoreline. Mines are on either side of the road. The tanks runs over a corpse. Shells hit the tanks. Many of the infantry are taken out by the impact. Still they press forward. One soldier breaks rank and runs across a field only to be killed by a landline. The soldiers get pinned down by machinegun fire and rockets shooting the tank. The tank fires on the machine begun wall blowing it up but still the infantry have to charge for cover. The tank knocks out the corner of a hut Fascist soldiers were coming out from. The on foot soldiers split into two groups heading along shallow trenches. One is blown up by a soldier dying holding a grenade and his wrist. They reach the command post and order the people inside to emerge. They then shoot them in cold blood though they surrendered, They were not ordered to shoot. Juri asks the man if he thinks it’ll bring Sarah back. The man doesn’t answer.

Later Juri sits alone outside smoking. Beard is hunched over at the table. He asks if Juri cant sleep. Juri says her cant forget the guy whose letter he delivered to his siste.r Did he tell him? He couldn’t.. But he fell in love mocks beard. ‘You didn’t kill him, the war did’. ‘MAybe God will forgive. Or not.’

Nov 22 they’re on the move again as an overseer captain says one last push and Estonia is theirs. The company Captain tells Juri the political office is interested in him. The captain says its as if they’re eating shit everyday. He had hoped to bring the men home but asks where did he bring them? He gestures for the company to stop its advance, checks and then they move on. They notice movement Fascists in the river crossing. The Fascists shout don’t shoot as their Estonian. The company captain calls for no one to shoot and those in the river to come up. Immediately the overseer/political captain runs up and interrogates them. They were not volunteers and are 16 years old. The Germans wanted to take them but they wanted to go home. The political captain tells Juri to take them and ‘shoot these traitors’. Juri says they’re children. The captain looks back at the cowering boys and announces ‘Soviet citizens who have defected to the enemy must be shot. Staff Sergeant Jogi take your men and obey the order. They were forcefully mobilised. Juri, obey the order.

Juri says he will not shoot them.

The political captain draws his handgun and immediately shoots Juri through the heart. All the men draw their rifles and aim at him.

‘Shoot. Shoot and all your relatives will be sent to the Gulag. [The company Captain faulters and slightly lowers his aim]. Are you scared? That’s right. One must be scared of Soviet Power. Captain Viires. Obey the order.’

The political captain slowly begins to raise his handgun but a shot rings out as he is shot dead through the chest.

It was the bearded soldier.

Viires orders the company to move forward and the boys to go home. Get rid of their uniforms and go home.

Beard stops a moment and kneels at Juri’s side removing his hat. Everyone stops. Beard removes a slip of paper from Juri’s jacket. He crosses himself and everyone stand over the bodies.

We then have a narration of the letter as beard delivers it as Juri had delivered the woman’s brothers letter earlier. An old woman and a girl live with her now. From the orphanage no doubt. Juri wonders, if not for the war, had they met after the war, maybe in the church, if he could face her and tell her the whole honest truth. ‘We need to start from a blank page. This is from Juri Jori, the Red Army soldier who killed your brother in a battle. I couldn’t tell you eye to eye. You are the only one left to me. Please forgive me if you can.

Then a black screen with white writing:

‘To all who fought and suffered in the name of freedom.’

Review

I think the first thing to be said is that the title is so basic you are likely to never look at this film if you see it on the shelves in a shop or a list on-line. If it had a more distinct title, even ‘ Battle of Tannenburg’, ‘Tannenburg Line’ , ‘Battle of Tehumardi’ or anything as generic, but still distinct, as those I think it would have gotten more recognition as ‘1944’ alone makes it sound like this was one of the laziest by the numbers productions possible when in fact it has a good message, told without demonising bias towards any one party, and provides incite into a perspective on the Second World War not often given a voice in the west. It hasn’t got the gloss of American financed films but the core concept of showing the divide of a nation during occupation by both Fascist and Soviet forces is interesting as there are no definitive ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys barring those who are self interested and seek political power. Everyone is swept up in the course of a war between foreign powers and has to face the reality they will be killing their won countrymen at some point.

If I have one issue with the film it is perhaps that the conflict scenes are bland. I wish perhaps it pushed those to the side as much as could be reasonably expected of a film set in this period involving soldiers and focused more on the characters. The death of the protagonists certainly comes as a shock to a first time viewer but it provides an important lesson I feel is often missing from war films – people have lives and things they are doing which come to an abrupt end because of events. OFten this is given the ‘here’s a photo of my family’ omen of minor characters who you know from that point on are going to be the sacrificial lamb of the films narrative so we see the results of war but the protagonists remain able to carry out their story to completion.

As I have said already I feel the translations for the subtitles on the DVD needed to be proof read as there were a few moments were the grammar went out the window. I have to assume either the translator, and the subtitler, were not native English speakers or there was a severely tight schedule and mistakes were made which leaves it to be criticised at leisure by consumers. Hopefully the company is more carefully in later releases as this is the sort of thing that will put people off buying their products. The DVD also was very bare bones but really I have come to expect that with many Foreign films now that are not released by Criterion, Curzon Artificial Eye or other long established Foreign film DVD makers who offer extensive extras.

The only truly antagonistic figures in the film are the political officers – those who have thrown in their lot completely with either the fascist or Communist forces to have power even if it means betraying their countrymen. Everyone else, for better or worse, only looks forward to when the war is over and they can return to their normal lives. The hardship undergone by civilians is represented by the procession of refugees fleeing their home in the country encountered by the Fascist soldiers.

On a sidenote I personally found the woman suddenly forcing a man to throw away his possessions so it could carry people, when said people had clearly already been on this procession for a long-time alongside the cart, a bit of a double standard. It is symbolically putting people before possessions, which is a good in the moment message, but could represent a willingness to abandon their own culture, represented by the objects that are discarded, in order to survive which seems at odds with the rest of the film’s philosophy of maintaining Estonia as a unique entity after the war’s end. Objects can be replaced of course but this moment in the film felt a bit to forced in and not cohesive with the rest of it.

The sense of Estonian national communal unity is represented by the old couple who serve food to both the Fascist and Red Army groups seeing only fellow countrymen not political sides.

The sense of the nation’s division is symbolised by the brothers from the farm being on seperate sides though on a first vieiwng this might go unnoticed as the brother on the Fascist side only mentions it in passing he is from the farm while we see the brother on the Red Army side return to the homestead. Contrasting this are the two borthers who are both on the Facist side and one witnesses firsthand the death of the other via a sniper.

If anything the bereft sister, who sees both her brother and potential love interest die, seems the anomaly as she seems to live a comfortable life even in the middle of a war torn country when everyone else has either been forced to choose a side or flee their homes. I suppose she offers the contrast to the farm boy soldier who has a home but no one to be there with while she has the orphanage ( or at least the little girl and old woman) in the end thus having a community but nowhere to call her own as she is living in her uncle’s apartment.

Would I watch this again? That is the big question and the answer is… Yes but it isn’t a film I would recommend if you didn’t have an interest in North European/Baltic cinema nor World War 2. In fact I don’t care for the seemingly endless number of films based on World War 2 but this gave a unique perspective similar to War Horse, due to the shifting perspectives of each side being represented, but without the near fairytale tone nor the convenience of it being due to a horse. Both sides are represented equally unsentimentally as external forces having a negative effect on Estonia.

In the end the concept far outweighs the execution sadly. I think with a bigger budget or more unique cinematography it might have been a world cinema classic rather than just a successful film in Estonia which you find cheap in your local supermarket with a bland, non-descript, cover as they hope people will blindly buy anything World War 2 related. Time will tell how it is received in the long run but I feel it was even-handed noting the strengths and failings of each side without leaving the audience with any prejudice save that Estonians were forced to take a side or evacuate which was sadly a truth of the era they lived in and if anything they delivered this message possibly too gently in regards to what happened to citizens. A good message, fair depiction but not a film you will remember long after watching it. The unique Estonian perspective however lends it at least a novelty value for anyone interested in not seeing yet another retread of the ‘America saved the world’ slew of Hollywood depictions nor the more blindly patriotic films of somewhere like Russia.

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mrhearne

Poetry, theatre, literature, films, reviews and various other matters. Primarily Russian and Welsh subjects.

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