Ranking as Estonia’s biggest domestic box office success, Elmo Nuganen’s gritty war epic “1944” provides a harsh perspective on the country’s painful 20th-century history. As the film illustrates, the titular year was a dangerous one for Estonian men of combat age who wound up fighting compatriots on home turf. Despite its domestic acclaim and a handsome production package, this foreign-language Oscar entry lacks the international arthouse appeal of last year’s Academy Award-nominated “Tangerines,” in which Nuganen appeared in a supporting role. Nevertheless, further fest action is assured.
The text running under the opening credits provides context for those who don’t know the complicated history of this corner of Europe. 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 as part of the Waffen-SS and other military units excepting the Wehrmacht, which was reserved only for those of German birth. By 1944, the bloodiest battles on the Eastern Front were being fought by soldiers from small nations who had only the slimmest hopes of survival, and who had learned the lesson of keeping their mouths shut.
Running from the battle of the Tannenberg Line in July to the occupation of the Sorve peninsula by the Red Army at the end of November, the narrative focuses on two courageous Estonian staff sergeants fighting on opposing sides. Farm boy Karl (Kaspar Velberg) wears the uniform of the SS and is haunted by his inability to prevent his family’s deportation to Siberia by the Soviets. Meanwhile, Juri (Kristjan Ukskula), son of a communist collaborator, was recruited from the Estonian Defense Forces by the Red Army. Not only must he look out for his men, who are all the family he has left, but he must also handle pressure from Capt. Kreml (Peeter Tammearu), an ambitious and manipulative commanding officer who wants him to report any anti-Soviet remarks made by the men in his unit.
Helmer Nuganen, who is perhaps best known as the artistic director of Tallinn City Theater, 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. Here, in his sophomore outing, he shows a flare for directing action with tense scenes of trench warfare. One of the tautest set pieces comes near the end as Juri’s men follow a tank down a muddy road under incoming fire, with minefields on either side.
The script penned by Leo Kunnas, a novelist and former high-ranking Estonian military officer, is rich in historical detail, with many references to the Soviet repression of 1940 and 1941, including the arrests of innocent people, deportations and executions — actions that drove men like Karl to join the German side. The film also astutely observes the madness of the battlefield and the conscription of mere teenagers by either side; one device, involving a letter being hand-delivered by a soldier, gains in poignancy with each repetition.
The fresh-faced Estonian lads look much the same whether in Soviet or German uniform, but appear credible as crawling, firing, drinking soliders. And all are given to singing patriotic Estonian songs whenever they have a chance. Apart from Karl and Juri, few of the characters are rendered in more than simple brushstrokes, with the malicious Kreml appearing as a particularly evil archetype. The only female character is Karl’s pretty older sister, Aino (Maiken Schmidt), whom Juri meets in Tallinn.
The crisp widescreen lensing by Rein Kotov and Mart Taniel leads a convincing tech package.