World War I from a Latvian teen's point of view

Former documentarian Dzintars Dreibergs' Blizzard of Souls, based on Aleksandrs Grīns' semi-autobiographical 1934 novel, is a heroic tale for Latvians of their difficult role in World War I and their independence struggle. This Latvian entry (though not finalist) in 2021's best foreign Oscar race provides a thrilling, astonishing ride. It's given a certain lightness by all being from the POV of a mere kid. Arturs Vanags (Oto Brantevics) isn't yet seventeen when, pushed by German soldiers' pointless shooting of his mother and the family dog, he joins the Russian army with his father and older brother. He's too young and his father's too old, but his dad's many former citations as a sniper enables him to talk his way into service and give his permission for Arturs to join. Arturs (i.e., Oto) will literally "grow into" this role; indeed the actor is listed on IMDb as now six foot six, and his monumentality helps offset the boyishness. Arturs will fight in four of the worst battles of the War and sustain four serious wounds, and come home with only a tiny limp which, when he's running, isn't noticeable.

The movie of Blizzard of Souls is one of Latvia's most expensive film productions and definitively its greatest box office hit to date. It has a curious lightness - there are moments of fun throughout - for which it has been criticized by some, but it's a damned entertaining war movie whose special significance to Latvians shouldn't bar WWI fans anywhere from finding it a grand watch. The old photographs over the final credits indicate its attention to historical details, the different armies and uniforms Latvians fought in, the white hooded camouflage coveralls they fought in in the fog-shrouded snow, the wire-trap torture-device-like device the young man is made to wear when in hospital recovering from a bullet wound in his neck (the first big injury). It is these kinds of specific, unique details that are the film's most interesting and memorable moments.

Early on as part of a Latvian Rifle unit in the Tsar's Imperial Army, Arthur's dad (Martins Vilsons) trains recruits and attains the rank of sergeant major while priding himself on how many invading Germans he's killing as a sniper. A refrain for soldiers is "Don't think." Arturs is a camera who does not comment but simply observes. This accordingly becomes an Eastern front record of the War's battle horrors and this has led people to link Blizzard of Souls with Elem Klimov’s recently reissued Come and See or even Václav Marnoul's film adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński's fanciful The Painted Bird. But this is a youth not wandering across the wilderness of war but coming of age in its battles. Arturs learns the life of the deep trenches with their rats, dampness, and howling men; crawling prone over a landscape of snow in the white hooded coveralls; stepping toward enemy fire in a line of riflemen; trying to hide a forest criss-crossed (a dazzling scene) by automatic weapon fire; struggling across a field of poison gas; climbing up to a forward line of snipers with his father. In between there are times off at home for recreation and two girlfriends, letters from home, laughs. There's a cast of thousands, and they don't feel wasted whether in the very different kinds of battlefields, the village scenes, or the crowded hospitals depicting their part in a war that depleted Latvia of half its population.

Latvian national politics is never forgotten for a minute, inspired by both German and Russian national movements and spurred by the difficulty Latvians feel fighting for Russia against the Germans. Arturs is a Latvian Riflemen fighting first for the Russian Imperial Army against invading German forces and then for an independent Latvia, and late in the game that leads to accusations of treason and the youth's obligation to desert. More than once his ability to survive defies belief; but then any rifleman's survival is a miracle. Somehow Blizzard of Souls manages to be both a cry of nationalistic fervor and a denunciation of war; Arturs is a neutral receptacle for it all.

He lacks the fighting spirit at first of his sniper-training sergeant father and officer older brother (Raimonds Celms). The turning point comes in an enemy trench when he faces an equally young and frightened German soldier and must stab him repeatedly with his bayonet as they look each other in the eye, a moment both terrorizing and cauterizing. Eventually, he

Arturs loses his father during the 1916 Island of Death blitzkrieg and his brother during the deadly Christmas clashes, the latter part of a messy, icy winter slog alongside uncooperative Siberians who provide no support to the Latvian fighters when they seize German fortifications. Near the end of five years as a soldier (he starts at 16 and ends at 21) and soon to receive a medal back at home, Arturs attains heroic status in the 1919 Battle of Cēsis, when he is now part of the Estonian and Latvian wars of independence. The fighters were underage cadets, deserters from the Russian Army and refugees. Arturs stands in front of them in the trench line leading them to aim-fire-reload, over and over. After this brave performance if not before Arturs has earned the right to recognition.

The flow of this energetic story, which runs from 1915 to 1921 owes much to Dreibergs's own novel adaptation with his former professor Boris Frumin and also to the classic cinematography (eschewing jump cuts, excessive closeups or shaky-cam) of Valdis Celmins and a sweeping cinematic score by Lolita Ritmanis that has been mentioned as an Oscar longshot.

Blizzard of Souls/Dveselu putenis, 123 mins., was released in Latvia and Brazil Nov. 8, 2019; US TV debut Jan. 1, 2021, internet Jan. 8, 2021, available on multiple platforms.