As Russia-Ukraine tensions rise, dominating international headlines, director Maria Ignatenko talks about the hell of war in her Rotterdam Film Festival title “Achrome.” But her oneiric film, lensed by Anton Gromov, is not exactly a comment on the current situation in Europe. “This particular topic is becoming more and more timely these days, but my film is poetry,” she says.

“It’s more related to the world of art and I would like to keep it that way, so I am not ready to make that connection just yet. However, when we were working, I realized that people might ask me about it. There is a sense of responsibility that comes with making a film like that, so I guess I will be slowly putting myself in the position of being able to answer their questions.”

Born in 1986, Ignatenko debuted with 2020’s “In Deep Sleep,” shown at the Berlinale’s Forum. While still keeping some of “Achrome” dream-like qualities that won over the Rotterdam programmers – with the film celebrating its world premiere in the Tiger Competition – Ignatenko will move closer to reality in her upcoming third feature, “The Animal Trials.” Currently developing the script, she is hoping to shoot in the Altai mountains. “It’s a spectacular place, beautiful and unexplored. I hope it will allow me to achieve that strange combination of materiality and metaphor,” she says.

Focusing on the Nazi occupation of the Baltic states in “Achrome,” as well as two brothers who decide to leave their village and join the Wehrmacht, Ignatenko was loosely inspired by the works of Lithuanian author Rūta Vanagaitė. Her controversial book “Our People: Travels with the Enemy” triggered a national discussion about the Holocaust.

“The main challenge was to figure out how to talk about the past. Find that new language, which the book was trying to do as well,” says Ignatenko, who also turned to other acclaimed writers for help. “One could say that this film is divided into two parts: there is reality, which we all recognize, and then there is what we see when we fall asleep. They intertwine. That’s why I thought of Paul Celan’s poetry.”

Celan’s “Death Fugue,” one of the most anthologized poems about the Holocaust, capturing the horrors of the concentration camps, inspired her to sacrifice action for atmosphere. Instead of battling the enemy, her protagonists are stuck in a monastery, waiting things out alongside resigned locals – kept for company and subject to the soldiers’ violent outbursts.

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Maria Ignatenko Courtesy of Ark Pictures

Kafka’s “The Burrow” about an animal digging an underground shelter to stay safe from various predators was also on her mind, says Ignatenko, and Celan’s “There Was Earth Inside Them,” with scenes of half-buried corpses reflecting his words: “They dug and dug, and so, their day went past, their night. And they did not praise God, who, so they heard, wanted all this, who, so they heard, witnessed all this.”

“Regarding the spirituality or the religiousness of the film, I would say it’s more related to what is happening here on Earth. We are not considering it from the point of view of someone who is ‘up there’ and above it all,” she notes, however, also pointing out that unspeakable acts of violence and spirituality sometimes go hand in hand.

“I believe that human beings are very complex. There are many reasons why we are or why we aren’t learning from our past,” adds Ignatenko, discussing a lengthy scene that brings back memories of Abu Ghraib, with smiling perpetrators “posing” with their lifeless victims and looking right into the camera.

“I wanted to have that image in the film. When it freezes, it turns into a photograph, the kind you could easily find online these days. These faces belong to the killers, but also to my character, who eventually decides to go back. Even though he actually saved somebody, he is still assuming responsibility.”

“Achrome” was produced by Egor Odintsov and co-writer of the script Konstantin Fam for Ark Pictures, which is also handling the sales.