Estonia’s first-ever foreign language Oscar nomination for “Tangerines” earlier this year should intensify the attention paid to the country’s 2015 submission, gritty war epic “1944.” Helmed by Elmo Nuganen, it ranks as Estonia’s top domestic box office success. While “1944” may not have the international arthouse appeal of its predecessor, it certainly offers a revealing look at Estonia’s painful 20th century history.
“1944” competes for the Tridens Estonia for best Estonian film during the Black Nights Film Festival.
In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Estonia, drafting 55,000 men to serve in the Red Army. But in 1941, Germany occupied the tiny Baltic country, forcing 72,000 Estonians to fight on their side. By 1944, compatriots in different uniforms were fighting one another on home turf.
Helmer Nuganen, who is perhaps best-known as the artistic director of Tallinn City Theater and an actor (he was one of the four stars of “Tangerines”), made his feature bow with the patriotic slice of history “Names in Marble” (2003), which, until “1944,” held the Estonian box office record for a domestic film. Why such a long time between films? “The pause was very long because I waited for a big and important topic to emerge. I am a stage director and I have often been asked why I am directing movies,” Nuganen says. “I have usually answered that if there is something that is so important that it concerns the whole society, then I would like to be able to talk to a bigger audience. The main plotline of ‘1944’ touches every Estonian. This is our historic trauma, it was our untold story until now.”
Nuganen, whose military service found him in the Soviet Tank Forces in Belarus from 1983–1985, shows a flare for directing action, including tense scenes of trench warfare. He says, “I think that the language of film and the language of theater are akin to each other, but also very different. However, when it comes to a director’s work with an actor, then I don’t see a whole lot of difference.”
Nuganen also teaches in the Estonian drama school, where professors are responsible for an entire incoming class (approximately 15 people) during their four years of study. He notes, “I have used many of my students in my movies: young actors that have not had a role in a movie so far, or actors who are doing their first ones. Bringing unknown faces to the big screen has always fascinated me. The cast of ‘Names in Marble’ and ‘1944’ consist of performers who are new to the Estonian audience.”